House Passes Campaign Finance Bill, Fate Uncertain
Though he stopped short of using the word “veto,” the governor’s chief legal counsel said he had serious concerns about the constitutionality of the campaign finance reform bill the House passed Tuesday afternoon.
The goal of the bill is to increase transparency in the election process by requiring corporations to disclose their campaign activity.
Government Administration and Elections Co-Chair Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, said the legislation provides necessary reforms.
“It’s about making sure the candidate backed by the voters wins the election, not the candidate backed by the most corporate dollars,” Morin said.
The bill passed the chamber in a 94-54 vote, but outside the hall more than one group was grumbling about the bill’s potential impact.
The bill includes a provision to allow military members to fax or email their ballots to town clerks if they waive their constitutional right to privacy. Andrew McDonald, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s top lawyer, said that’s a first.
“The governor’s office sought changes to the bill but those issues with which we were concerned have not been modified,” McDonald said as House members debated the bill.
“[Malloy] has significant concerns with it and he has not made any commitment about what he would do if it reached his desk in its current form,” McDonald said.
Under the bill, nonprofits would be prevented from communicating with lawmakers running for re-election within 90 days of the primary or general election.
The bill was conceived as a state response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations, unions, and special interest groups to funnel unlimited funds into political campaigns.
Malloy proposed the original language which, among other things, would have allowed publicly financed candidates to accept unlimited contributions from private sources if they were outspent by a privately funded opponent. Currently, candidates receiving public funds are limited to raising just enough money to qualify for a state grant.
However, the bill was revised by the Government Administration and Elections Committee, which removed the provision and replaced it with more modest increases in the funds a publicly funded gubernatorial candidate would receive. Those increases were eventually stripped from the bill as well. On Saturday, attempts to the debate the bill were thwarted when rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about increasing funding for a gubernatorial campaign while staring down a budget deficit.
McDonald said the Citizens United ruling created problems for the state’s clean elections program, but the bill doesn’t solve them.
“The Citizens United case was, in my opinion, wrongly decided. Passing flawed legislation in response to a bad court decision doesn’t make a bad situation better, it just makes it more complicated,” McDonald said.
The governor’s administration wasn’t the only group to have problems with the bill. Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said she was concerned with the provision allowing a vote to be cast by fax or email.
“We’re opposed to Internet voting because we don’t believe it’s secure,” Merrill said. And if a voter wants to email or fax in their ballot, the bill requires people to waive their right to a private ballot.
Both of those issues are a concern for Merrill, who said there also wasn’t enough time to vet the proposal.
Sen. Gayle Slossberg, co-chair of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, defended the bill, saying the provision allowing soldiers to email or fax their ballots to registrars is a secure process because they waive their right to privacy, allowing their identities to be verified, she said.
“Our soldiers have said repeatedly they want that choice. We should be giving them the opportunity to vote if they’re comfortable with waiving their right to privacy. We shouldn’t be disenfranchising them because we’re not comfortable with it,” she said.
Slossberg said 19 other states have been using a similar process for years without incident.
Betty Gallo, lobbyist for the Connecticut ACLU, said some of the groups’ concerns with the original bill have been addressed. However, the bill still puts restrictions on advocacy and the ability to petition the government, she said.
“Our concern was that the way the bill was written, and to some extent the way the bill is still written, is it actually puts new burdens on your ability to lobby or advocate before the government,” she said.
For 90 days around an election, any time a group communicates and urges someone to contact a lawmaker to oppose or support a bill, they trigger reporting requirements, she said. Under the bill, that group would have to disclose their donors, she said.
“ACLU has for a long time been opposed to the requirement that you expose your donors in order to advocate before the government,” Gallo said.
Slossberg said a 2010 law already requires disclosure of independent expenditures within 90 days of an election if the expenditure clearly identifies someone running for office.
“If you’re a business or entity and you’re going to participate in political speech or influence the electorate, you need to own your speech,” she said.
Eric George of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association said the bill represents unprecedented infringement in corporate activity by requiring the votes of individual board members to be posted on the organization’s website if they vote to spend more than $4,000 on a campaign-related expenditure.
“It’s egregious,” George said. “I would say the chilling effect that this would send to the business community is very, very significant.”
However, Slossberg said that before the Citizen’s United case, corporations weren’t even allowed to participate the way they can now. She said it’s appropriate for people who invest in a company to know how their money is being spent. Lawmakers, for instance, could invest in a corporation without realizing the group was actually spending money on campaign ads against them, she said.
Slossberg said Iowa has a similar law that is triggered if a group spends $750 dollars, which is much lower than Connecticut’s requirements.
“This is simply about owning your speech. What is everyone trying to hide?” she asked.
The bill will still need to be passed by the Senate before the legislative session ends tomorrow at midnight.