Legislature Passes Reform Package

*Bill overhauls campaign laws

By Mark Pazniokas and Christopher Keating, Courant Staff Writers

The General Assembly approved the nation's most sweeping campaign finance reforms early today, transforming Connecticut into a political laboratory.

The House voted 82-65 to give final approval at 2:44 a.m. and sent the bill to Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who set aside minor reservations about the Democratic measure and promised to sign it into law.

"This legislation makes Connecticut a national leader on campaign finance reform," said Rell, who called for limits on so-called special interest money in January. "It can't happen soon enough."

The legislation bans contributions by lobbyists, their spouses, and state contractors, limits political action committees, closes a loophole that permits corporate donations and creates a voluntary system of public financing.

By overhauling campaign laws crafted 30 years ago after the Watergate scandal, the bill upends long-established relationships between power and money, though few would predict precisely what might rise in their place.

"It's an exciting experiment, and we'll learn as we go," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn. "What's most important, we're bringing the process back to the grass roots. And we're freeing elected officials from the pursuit of special interest money."

SEN. DONALD DEFRONZO, D-New Britain, is congratulated by Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and other colleagues after the campaign finance reform bill he sponsored was passed after about seven hours of debate in a special session.
SEN. DONALD DEFRONZO, D-New Britain, is congratulated by Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and other colleagues after the campaign finance reform bill he sponsored was passed after about seven hours of debate in a special session.

The Senate approved the bill Wednesday night, 27-8, after spending nearly seven hours debating the final version of a 119-page bill that was not delivered to lawmakers until Wednesday morning.

A substantially complete working draft was available Tuesday, but Republicans in both chambers said they resented Democrats' forcing a quick vote.

Rell and her staff, however, tried to line up Republican votes in the House.

The governor ignored a slap directed at her deep in the bill: a provision banning elected officials from state-funded public service ads a year before an election, which would take ads featuring Rell off the air. Legislators would still be allowed to continue their state-funded mailings.

"It's the ultimate in hypocrisy," said Rep. Robert Farr, R-West Hartford.

Among the Senate's 24 Democrats, only Joan Hartley of Waterbury voted against the bill. The Democratic majority was joined in passing the bill by four Republicans: John A. Kissel of Enfield, Thomas J. Herlihy of Simsbury, Leonard A. Fasano of North Haven and Anthony Guglielmo of Stafford.

Only four House Republicans voted for the measure, despite Rell's support: Al Adinolfi of Cheshire, Antonietta Boucher of Wilton, Raymond C. Kalinowski of Durham and Diana S. Urban of North Stonington.

House Speaker James A. Amann, D-Milford, belittled Rell's efforts on behalf of the bill.

"She delivered four votes today," he said. "It's unfortunate we didn't get more Republican support."

The bill takes effect Dec. 31, 2006, after the end of the current election cycle and apply for the first time to the 2008 state legislative campaigns. Under most circumstances, qualifying candidates would be given $25,000 for House and $85,000 for Senate races.

In 2010, gubernatorial candidates would be eligible for $1.25 million to wage primaries and $3 million for general-election campaigns.

Qualifying candidates whose opponents exceed the spending limits could obtain further state grants to match their opponent, up to double the original grant.

To qualify for the public financing, candidates would have to earn a place on the ballot and further show their viability by raising seed money.

A gubernatorial candidate, for example, would have to raise $250,000 in contributions of no more than $100 each, with 90 percent of the money raised within the state. House and Senate candidates would need $5,000 and $15,000, respectively.

Legislative analysts estimate the new Citizens' Election Fund would cost $16 million annually. The money for the public financing would come from unclaimed property, such as long-forgotten bank accounts, that is collected each year and turned over to the state's general fund.

With its passage early this morning, the Connecticut General Assembly became the first legislature in the nation to pass a far-reaching public financing bill. Arizona and Maine adopted public financing through binding referendums.

Tom Swan of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group said national reform groups have closely followed the Connecticut debate.

"They view this as a significant solution to the culture of corruption in Washington," Swan said.

Watching the debate was Sidney Garvais, who founded Common Cause of Connecticut in 1971, when reformers clamored for the legislature to open its meetings to the public, then moved on to campaign finance issues after Watergate.

"I've been waiting for 31 years for this," Garvais said outside the Senate Chamber.

"I'm so glad you saw it," said Jeffrey B. Garfield, the executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

"It was worth the wait," Garvais said.

Not everyone celebrated.

Critics said the new system would have loopholes that allow party committees to pick up significant expenses for candidates. Republicans said the new rules should apply to the 2006 campaigns for the General Assembly and governor.

Rell has announced she will not accept lobbyist and contractor dollars.

"Gov. Rell is leading by example. I think we would do well to lead by example," said Sen. Andrew Roraback, R-Goshen. Roraback said he could have voted for the public financing bill had it taken effect immediately.

Democrats said changing the rules in the middle of an election cycle would be chaotic.

By banning contributions by lobbyists and contractors, the legislators set aside warnings by constitutional experts that a total ban might infringe on free-speech rights. Several senators, including some supporters, predicted a court challenge.

"I've heard people say, 'Oh, Andrew, just vote for it. Let the courts figure it out,' " said Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the judiciary committee.

McDonald complained that he was rebuffed when he suggested limiting total contributions by any one lobbyist to $2,500 in any election cycle.

"That would be clearly constitutional, and it would also clearly diminish any undue influence by lobbyists," McDonald said.

But Rell and leaders of the Democratic legislative majority, who spent much of the year jockeying to take ownership of the issue, evidently wanted the clarity and simplicity of a total ban.

Opponents and supporters acknowledged that the complex bill would have unintended consequences -- one of which arose during the debate when Sen. David Cappiello, R-Danbury, rose to ask a question: Would the legislation prohibit him from making donations? His wife is a lobbyist for Anthem Blue Cross, and the lobbyist ban applies to spouses.

Sen. Donald DeFronzo, D-New Britain, a leading proponent of the bill, replied, "The answer is yes." "It seems a little ridiculous that a sitting state senator can't partake in certain political activities," Cappiello said.

Under the bill, qualifying candidates who agree to spending limits can obtain grants to finance primary and general election campaigns.

The general election grants range from $25,000 for a House race to $3 million for governor. Primary grants generally would range from $10,000 in a House district to $1.25 million for governor. In districts dominated by one party, when the primary is the decisive election, candidates could receive larger grants. Candidates unopposed by a major party candidate in November would see their general-election grant reduced by 70 percent.

Petitioning and third-party candidates face significant, if not impossible hurdles to qualifying for a full grant. The bill requires them to collect signatures from 20 percent of all voters.

House Minority Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford, said Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who was elected governor as a third-party candidate, would have needed 200,000 signatures to obtain public financing.

"If you are afraid the Green Party will beat you, vote for the bill," Ward said during the House debate.

Others complained Wednesday that the legislation provides public money for campaigns without placing any restrictions on how it can be used, raising the prospect that Connecticut will be treated in the near future to publicly financed negative ads.

Williams said negative ads are impossible to define in law.

"One person's negative ad is another person's expose of someone's voting record, which is completely fair game," Williams said.

The bill does attempt to discourage negative ads by requiring that all mailings and ads be strongly linked to the candidate by including the candidate's name and photograph. Broadcast ads must include his voice. Automated phone calls, which campaigns often use to persuade voters with criticism of opponents, must include the sponsoring candidate's name and voice.

Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

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