Rell issues call to fix campaign finance law
Hartford - Besides attempting to close Connecticut's budget gap, Gov. M. Jodi Rell wants state legislators to return to the Capitol in December to fix a campaign finance reform law that's poised to help fund 2010 state campaigns.
The Republican said her proposed changes could help satisfy a federal judge, who recently struck down the law as unconstitutional, and provide certainty to the legislative and gubernatorial candidates who are already campaigning and raising matching funds to participate in the public funding system.
"We must fix the law now and keep it workable and fair to anyone who aspires to public office," Rell said on Wednesday.
While her comments were welcomed by campaign reform advocates, it's questionable whether the General Assembly, controlled by Democrats, will take up Rell's proposed fixes on Dec. 15, the date she called for a special legislative session. There's still no agreement on what steps, if any, lawmakers should take.
Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex, co-chairman of the committee examining the issue, said he questions whether the legislature needs to make radical changes to the law at this time. Instead, he suggests only repealing the language that could essentially scrap the entire Citizens Election Fund program, as well as the bans on lobbyist and contractor contributions to campaigns, if the judge's ruling is upheld by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, the other co-chairman, said she believes more needs to be done, but lawmakers are still discussing the best approach and will likely need more than two weeks to decide on the right fix for a complex problem.
"Where we all agree is that we're going to have to make some sort of changes," she said. "How extensive those are remains to be seen. The most important thing is we inject some stability and predictability into this system, which is now sort of dangling out there on a precipice."
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that Connecticut's public campaign finance law, seen by some as a possible national model, is unconstitutional because, among other reasons, it discriminates against minor party political candidates.
Underhill ruled that a part of the law that provides a voluntary public financing scheme for candidates for statewide offices and state lawmakers puts an unconstitutional burden on minor party candidates' First Amendment right to political opportunity.
His ruling has been put on hold, allowing the public financing program to continue as the state makes its appeal.
The Green and Libertarian parties and others sued the state, arguing the law makes it difficult for minor party candidates to meet the criteria for getting public funds for their campaigns.
Rell's proposal, the details of which have not yet been released, would eliminate additional qualifying requirements for minor-party and petitioning candidates; provide the same amount of grant money to all candidates; reduce the size of the grants; and repeal the section of the law that could lead to the entire program being scrapped.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose office is challenging Underhill's 138-page ruling and is scheduled to make arguments on Jan. 13, said the matter is more complicated than a few quick fixes. For example, there remain questions about whether Connecticut can constitutionally ban political contributions from lobbyists and state contractors - something Rell did not address.
Also, it's not certain that court challenges of the law would end after the General Assembly tries to amend it to satisfy the judge, still leaving candidates in limbo.
"Even if her proposal dealt with all the issues, there might still be parties who are saying any kind of public financing is wrong," said Blumenthal, adding how those groups could continue the court challenges.
Blumenthal said it's also unclear whether the appeals court would recognize the changes that the legislature made in the midst of an appeal. He has maintained that the original law is constitutional and will defend it in court, fix or no fix.
"We are determined to fight to uphold Connecticut law as it exists now, without changes. We're not advising the legislature to avoid changing the law. If it chooses to do so, we will defend that new law," he said. "But we believe that Connecticut's present law is fully consistent with all of the relevant constitutional requirements."
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