Campaign finance-reforms appeal to be heard Wednesday
HARTFORD -- Connecticut campaign-finance reforms will be in the hands of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New York on Wednesday, as state officials attempt to overturn a lower court's ruling that said it's unfair to minor-party candidates who want public funding.
At stake is the entire realm of reform and infrastructure created in 2005 after the scandals of the Rowland administration led to the resignation and imprisonment of the former governor, a top member of his staff and a contractor.
Two attorneys from the office of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will argue that the law does give minor party candidates a fair chance at obtaining state funding.
Also, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut will argue that last year's ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Stefan R. Underhill in Bridgeport was wrong in upholding bans on contributions from lobbyists and contractors.
If the Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejects the state's request, it could throw into doubt the funding mechanisms for this year's statewide political races, including for governor and the 187 General Assembly seats.
"I think there is a very legally powerful and compelling case that these reforms addressed corruption, such as the Rowland scandal involving wrongdoing, state contracting and campaign contributions," Blumenthal said in a Tuesday interview.
He said that contrary to Underhill's decision, minor-party and third-party candidates have access to the ballot and public funding. "The proof is, it has been done," he said.
This year is the first time that the fund would be available to statewide candidates, including gubernatorial hopefuls, who, to gain millions of dollars in state money, have to gather $250,000 in contributions from state residents totaling $100 or less.
"The main point is that the court adopted the wrong standard by applying strict scrutiny when it should have asked the question whether there was a compelling interest or need for measures to stop corruption and wrongdoing in Connecticut," Blumenthal said.
Andrew Schneider, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said Tuesday that he hopes the panel upholds the part of Underhill's ruling on third-party candidates, whom he believes are being denied fair access to the polls.
Schneider, in a phone interview, said that lobbyists, contractors and their families are being denied first-amendment rights by being banned from participating in political campaigns. He said that with the limits now set at a nominal $100 limit per candidate, lobbyists and contractors should be allowed to give equal amounts.
"There is an enormous number of people -- 10,000 is a conservative estimate -- who are banned from engaging in the political process, whether contributing to a candidate or encouraging others to give," Schneider said. "That's a pretty serious hole that the state has created in the first amendment. The state can establish reasonable limits and that's what the law should do."
Slossberg said the worst thing the appeals court could do is throw out Connecticut laws, sending the election season into uncertainty and reverting the law back to the previous rules, allowing lobbyists and contractors to participate with thousands of dollars per campaign.
"Under those circumstances the General Assembly would have a chance to fix the law," Slossberg said in an interview. "If the entire law were overturned, the electronic filing, the State Elections Enforcement Commission and other oversight procedures could disappear." She said that in recent weeks, major progress has been made between the House and Senate on rewriting the law and increasing access to funding and the ballot. She declined to discuss specifics because there is currently no agreement.
"I think we're very close to having a proposal," she said, adding that if the court doesn't rule immediately on the case there should be time to hold a public hearing and schedule a special session before the budget-adjustment session begins on Feb. 3.
"We believe that the system as stands is the best statement that can be devised and is defensible," Slossberg said. "Having said that, we need to know the rules of the game before the election season gets any further."
"I am very optimistic we are going to save the Citizens Election Fund, either by the courts or the legislative fix," said Beth Rotman, director of the election fund within the State Elections Enforcement Commission. "I believe that one way or the other we will be strong in 2010 and beyond." The $40 million fund, created through the transfer of unclaimed property, has sustained about $38 million reductions from both the governor and lawmakers over the last year as they have scrambled for budget savings, but Rotman believes there is enough money to finance this year's elections if the Second Circuit allows the program to proceed.