Money & politics, a downward spiral

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's fund-raising trip to California last month seems to have been as legal as similar trips by presidents and other high office holders and that includes the state paying for the governor's security.

But the trip also called attention to the new campaign financing rules, made when the governor and his party eliminated the stringent campaign finance reform measures that had been the law in Connecticut since the Rowland scandals. The reforms, passed by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell and a Democratic General Assembly, limited campaign contribution amounts and restricted giving by those doing business with the state.

All that ended in June with one of those middle of the night, end of the session votes for which the Malloy administration has become justly infamous. The new law doubles the amount of money individuals can give to state parties and removes the limits on how much parties can give to their candidates for state offices, even those using public financing. It thereby makes a mockery of public financing as well.

The flap over whether the governor met with a contractor who does business with the state at one of his fund-raising galas on the west coast also reflects a radical change in the law. You will recall Gov. Malloy said he may have met the contractor but he didn't ask him for money. Thanks to the new financing laws, he didn't have to.

Here's how the law works now, according to state Democratic Party spokesman James Hallinan:

"The Connecticut Democratic Party raises money into two committees. The first is the state committee, which could be used to directly support the gubernatorial candidate for the Democratic Party as well as other state candidates. That committee cannot and does not accept contributions from state contractors. Neither the governor nor anyone else has or will solicit such contributions.

"The federal committee is governed by federal law. Since the committee is a federal committee, there is no restriction on contributions by state contractors."

The spokesman did add that "the way these funds can be used to benefit state candidates are limited," which means, for example, they can't buy commercials for state candidates but they can free up ad money by paying for other things like getting out the vote.

The campaign for governor hasn't really begun, but so far, the Democrats have raised more than $1.5 million for these separate state and federal accounts, while the Republicans have received just $529,445. For the Democrats, these donations have included maximum, $10,000 checks from "top executives from the state's largest utility, the company that manages the state athletic venues, a major state landlord, a provider of state parking services and developers of a major real estate project supported by state assistance," The Connecticut Mirror reported last week.

And so, should Mr. Malloy have run into one of these contractors who happened to be in California, he could have shaken his hand and maybe even told him he couldn't contribute to one of two Democratic committees but he might want to check out the other one.

Since the Republicans appear not to have received any of those $10,000 contributions yet, they claim to be shocked that pay to play is back. Pay to play is another way of saying donors give money to candidates or parties because - would you believe it - they want something in return.

Pay to play or not, Democrats are getting these big checks from people and groups looking for something in return because they're in power. Republicans will enjoy the same source of wealth when and if they should regain power.

And therein lies the problem. When he signed the anti-reform measures, Gov. Malloy said he was only doing so in reaction to the abuses already evident in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allows for unlimited contributions by wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions - though he didn't mention unions at the time.

Now, with both parties using the law "in self defense," those who want something from state government will be playing harder and paying more than ever. And unless the public gets as angry as it should, it's not about to change until Connecticut falls victim to another scandal of Rowland era proportions.

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