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Clean election program is a glass half full

For the second straight election, the major-party candidates for governor in Connecticut will not be utilizing the state’s Citizens’ Election Program, which encourages clean campaigns free of large-donor influence by providing state grants to qualified candidates.

This is not surprising given that the 2022 election is a repeat of 2018, with Republican Bob Stefanowski this time trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Ned Lamont. The two wealthy businessmen have again opted to largely self-finance their campaigns.

We prefer this not become a permanent trend. Not since 2014, when then governor Dannel P. Malloy defeated his Republican challenger Tom Foley, have both candidates participated in the CEP. The potential field of gubernatorial candidates should be broader than the extremely wealthy or those dependent on deep-pocketed or corporate donors. CEP makes that possible.

Since its creation in 2005, the public campaign financing program has been overwhelmingly utilized by those running for statewide office, except for governor, as well as by candidates seeking seats in the state Senate and House of Representatives.

In the 2020 Senate races, with candidates competing for 36 seats, the program provided 59 general-election grants. In the House, which features races for 151 seats, the CEP awarded 241 grants.

To access grants, a candidate must demonstrate broad grassroots support by collecting a large number of small donations, as small as $5 and no larger than $290. For example, a Senate candidate must raise $17,300 in this manner to qualify for a CEP grant, a House candidate $5,800. The intent, and we think it is a good one, is to send candidates to Hartford to do the people’s business and not to reward big donors who helped elect them.

Once a candidate agrees to use the state program, he or she cannot solicit other outside donations. Candidates can only use the grant money for campaign-related expenses. Funding for the program is comprised of money from the sale of abandoned or unclaimed property in the state’s possession.

A qualifying candidate for Senate can receive up to a $112,795 grant to run his or her campaign, a House candidate up to $33,175. One could argue these grants are too large, yet they need to be big enough to discourage candidates from opting for the old system of soliciting donations from special interests and others seeking favors.

So the program for public-financed campaigns has proved to be a success. The ability to fund a campaign by collecting small donations, along with the modest pay raises the legislature recently approved for senators and House members starting in 2023 — from $28,000 to $40,000 (the first such raise in 20 years) — should attract a broader spectrum of candidates.

For governor, however, candidates have usually decided the challenge of raising qualifying funds is too great and the payoff too small. A candidate for governor must collect $288,800 in small donations to qualify for a grant up to $7.7 million. Stefanowski has pledged to spend up to $10 million of his own money and we suspect Lamont will use his own riches to keep pace. They are also free to seek other sources of funding. Lamont does not accept a salary as governor.

The program is not perfect at preventing the influence of big money. Funding to promote campaigns and attack candidates with negative advertisements can still be channeled through the political parties and by way of political action committees. Past Supreme Court rulings limit the state’s ability to control outside influences on its elections.

Yet, we choose to look at this glass as half full. Unlike the Congress in Washington, the CEP has helped elect a state legislature that is less beholden to special interests.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

Editor's Note: This editorial has been edited to correct the frequency that statewide office candidates use the program.

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