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Don't mix public financing, corporate cash

Published March 27. 2012 4:00AM

It is discouraging to see Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the first Connecticut governor elected using public financing, propose a change in the law that would undermine the very purpose of having public financing of campaigns - keeping them free of the corruptive influence of big, special-interest money.

Currently candidates accepting public financing of their campaigns must forswear accepting any outside contributions, aside from those needed to qualify for the financing. A candidate for governor must raise $250,000 in small contributions, from $5 to $100, to demonstrate he or she is a serious contender. That qualifies the gubernatorial candidate to receive $6.25 million in public financing.

Using that system Gov. Malloy in 2010 defeated wealthy opponents, who did not participate in public financing, in both the primary and general elections.

Yet Gov. Malloy now wants the ability for a public-financed gubernatorial candidate who faces an opponent spending more than the $6.25 million to undertake unlimited fundraising by accepting cash from corporations, unions and other special-interest groups.

The upshot is that after investing $6.25 million in public money, voters could still end up with a candidate beholden to powerful interests. That would make a mockery of the Citizens' Election Program.

Gov. Malloy contends without such a safety valve it will be difficult for any gubernatorial candidate to participate in the restrictive program. A well-financed opponent will know the public-financed candidate has a spending lid and will gain a huge advantage, Gov. Malloy said.

We disagree - $6.25 million is plenty of money to run a strong campaign in a state the size of Connecticut. And the candidate using the program can take the moral high road, noting to voters they are not being bought by special interests.

And given recent court rulings, such a change in the law is also likely unconstitutional.

"This measure is a bad idea," said Michael J. Brandi, executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission in testimony to the legislature's Government Administration and Elections Committee. "Opening this floodgate will significantly undermine a program that, since its inception, has been the gold standard for public financing programs in the country."

Another bad idea in the bill would allow candidates that have public campaign funds left over to use the money to pay campaign volunteers up to $1,000 bonuses. Currently candidates must return all unspent money to the Citizens' Election Fund, with $2 million returned in the last two elections.

"This proposal smacks of old-school patronage and implies that once the election is over, candidates are handing out gifts of public money to supporters, paying them for their support," Mr. Brandi testified.

Other provisions would allow the Democratic and Republican state central committees to pour more money into the campaigns of public-financed candidates, allowing a form of back-door influence peddling.

All of these measures - with perhaps the exception of the bonuses - appear to be in response to fears of the unlimited amounts of money that independent, special-interest groups can spend to influence elections as a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. But Connecticut must be careful not to overreact to a bad court decision by undermining a good public campaign finance law.

With the exception of some minor adjustments, the state public campaign finance law should remain in place as is. The kind of overhaul the legislature is considering could end up killing the law in a misguided attempt to improve it.

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