Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Campaign Finance Reform

Governor Rell and the Democrats in the General Assembly are at odds over a key part of Rell's reform package: the public funding of political campaigns.

Rell's plan, which has been described as "modest", does more to limit current private spending than to bring the state into campaign finance:

The proposals would include a ban on all campaign contributions from lobbyists and their political committees, and from contractors doing business with the state, and would offer individuals a small tax reduction –– about $5 –– on contributions to political candidates who abide by voluntary spending limits. (Mann)

Democrats think this isn't nearly enough.

...Many Democrats say the only practical approach is a public financing law that would provide significant money to candidates who agree to spending limits.(Pazniokas)

Maine and Arizona already have such laws on the books. Massachusetts tried something similar with its Clean Elections Law, which was passed by referendum in 1998 but dropped by the legislature in 2003 due to a lack of funds.

Both options are problematic. Governor Rell's ideas, while noteworthy, is a little vague on its definition of "lobbyist". Who is a lobbyist? Is, say, a PAC funded by Pfizer a lobbyist PAC? The incentive is also minimal; will politicians really opt in to a system that denies them PAC money in exchange for giving their supporters 5% of their money back in tax reductions?

Public campaign financing is not trouble-free, either. It seems to work in Maine and Arizona, but the problem is the cost. How will we pay for it?

Under the bill raised last year, an election season like the gubernatorial year of 1994 would cost the state between $22 million and $28 million, [Rep. Lawrence] Cafero [R-Norwalk] said. If the voluntary funding schemes proposed in the past –– including a checkoff on the state income tax or revenue from special license plates –– did not cover such a cost, he asked, where could the money come from but the state's general fund?
“When those kinds of questions were asked,” Cafero said, “there were no answers.”

I seriously doubt Rell will allow a tax increase to pay for it.

This will be the major bone of contention between Rell and the General Assembly this year, I believe. Democrats in the Senate can override her veto, but the House is a few votes short. Nothing at all may be accomplished. However, there is some hope:

Still, in the early weeks of the 2005 legislative session, most players in the reform debate are careful to emphasize the shared desire for tightening ethics rules and making campaigns less susceptible to special interest money.

"The gulf between the parties is much less than it's ever been before," said Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, which has been seeking campaign reform for decades. "There appears to be agreement on how important it is to cap campaign spending."

If the good feeling lasts, an equitable compromise may yet be reached.

Sources:
Mann, Ted. "Campaign Financing Stymies Ethics Reformers". The New London Day 28 January 2005.
Pazniokas, Mark. "Work On Reforms Just Starting". Hartford Courant 31 January 2005.