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Election Reform Advocates Blast Proposal To Halt Program

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Election reform advocates warn a budget-cutting proposal from Democratic lawmakers to suspend Connecticut's public campaign financing system for the 2016 legislative elections is short-sighted and could roll back a decade of efforts to eliminate special interest money in elections.

The bipartisan State Elections Enforcement Commission on Tuesday issued an unusual joint resolution that opposes the proposed changes. It warned such a suspension would set the Citizens Election Fund "on course for permanent underfunding" and lead candidates to once again rely on campaign contributions from special interests.

The program provides publicly funded grants to state candidates who raise qualifying funds in small contributions and agree to spending and fundraising limitations. It was created in 2005 following the corruption scandal that ultimately sent then-Gov. John G. Rowland to prison.

"It was done because everyone at that time realized that corruption is far more expensive than the cost of a clean election program. That has not changed," read the commission's joint resolution. "This budget is detrimental to the Citizens' Election Program, and will result in the justified erosion of public confidence in campaign finance in Connecticut."

Participation in the program is optional, although most state candidates participate. Seventy-four percent of candidates participated during the 2014 elections, according to Connecticut Common Cause and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group that called on Democrats to retract the proposal.

Democratic and Republican legislative leaders and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have been trading ideas for covering a deficit in this year's $20 billion budget. Lawmakers estimate the shortfall at $350 million to $370 million. Suspending the campaign grants for the 2016 election would save $11.7 million.

"Although there are no easy solutions, this proposal is a balanced approach that respects our priorities while recognizing our current fiscal realities," said House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.

It's unclear whether the idea will ultimately be included in a final package, which lawmakers predict could be up for a vote sometime next month in a special legislative session. Additional negotiations are expected later this week or next.

Rep. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, noted his opposition to suspending the program for 2016 on Twitter. He criticized the proposal for giving "corporations a massive tax cut," referring to some tax changes included in the Democratic plan.

The Citizens Election Fund has been put to the test in recent years. Despite the limitations placed on participating candidates, the amount of outside money spent on Connecticut elections has ballooned since the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling that allows various groups to independently spend unlimited amounts to influence campaigns.

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