Today, more than 20 of your peers have traveled to Hartford to help make history in the halls of government. With a former governor behind bars and a state senator newly resigned on charges of corruption, Connecticut lawmakers are at last poised to pass meaningful campaign finance reform: voluntary public financing of our elections for public office. The occasion — a special legislative session of the Connecticut General Assembly devoted to campaign finance reform — is many years overdue.
Voluntary public financing of elections would revolutionize politics as we know it in the state of Connecticut. Today, with private ownership of our public elections, just a small fraction of one percent of Connecticut citizens provide the lion’s share of campaign funds. These donors are not your average citizen; they are lobbyists, special interests, contractors and wealthy individuals with a vested economic interest in government. Their contributions serve principally to gain access and influence in government.
Public financing of state elections would free politicians from the grueling money chase and enable the honest and independent formation of public policy. By making the public the source of campaign funds — at an annual cost of only $3 per Connecticut citizen — public financing would ensure that no voice is given preferential access in politics and that money does not crowd out integrity and ideas in the race for public office. Finally, it would level the electoral playing field so that any serious candidate could credibly compete for state office.
After five years of political maneuvering and broken promises from leaders on all sides, the specter this year of a former governor convicted on bribery and corruption charges changed the climate. Beginning last January, the Government Administration and Elections Committee began holding hearings on comprehensive campaign finance reform. Throughout the legislative session, Yale students worked with a statewide coalition of reformers to move the legislation along and to ensure it included a special provision authorizing Connecticut municipalities, led by New Haven, to implement meaningful reform at home.
In May, Gov. M. Jodi Rell upped the ante by saying she would only support full public financing of all state elections and urging the legislature to put a bill on her desk. The House and the Senate passed their own versions but were unable to present a consensus bill to the governor. This legislative session ended with worry that a unique opportunity to pass the reform — the erstwhile Gov. Rowland will only be in jail until February — had passed us by.
Fortunately, consistent pressure caused the Governor to call for the creation of a bipartisan Campaign Finance Working Group. After holding hearings throughout the summer, the working group recently announced they had come to a consensus on all but a few minor details, and the governor called for a special session.
So here we are.
This legislation is a big deal. The recommendations of the Campaign Finance Working Group include a complete ban on contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. To qualify for public financing, candidates for the House would need to raise $5,000 at no more than $100 per contributor, $15,000 for the Senate, $75,000 for statewide office and $250,000 for governor. Agreeing to raise or spend no additional funds would qualify candidates for a grant from the state of $33,000, $200,000, $1.075 million or $4.25 million respectively, all significantly above current average expenditure levels.
The legislation would have major implications for the financing of local campaigns as well. As a result of lobbying by Students for Clean Elections and its partners on the New Haven Board of Alderman and in the office of Mayor John DeStefano Jr., the bill includes authorization for municipal public financing.
In New Haven in 2001 the two candidates for the Democratic mayoral nomination spent a combined $1.2 million, all for a turnout of less than 20,000 votes, with the great majority of the money coming from people who don’t even live in the city. The statewide bill would allow passage of a system of partial public financing, the New Haven Democracy Fund, that would put a two-to-one match on donations of $25 and would cap individual donations at $300. This reform would greatly reduce the cost of elections in New Haven, increase the city’s dismal voter participation, and encourage a more open and lively debate.
Whether or not the bill passes, Students for Clean Elections and the New Haven Democracy Fund PAC will begin a grass roots campaign to pass the Democracy Fund ordinance in New Haven. With support on the Board of Aldermen and in City Hall, the odds are in favor of making New Haven the first city in New England and one of a handful in the country to pass municipal public financing, adding one more issue to those, such as clean energy, where New Haven is already a pioneer.
Public financing of elections at all levels of government is about one thing: making our democracy more democratic. Elected officials are accountable to those responsible for electing them. Sadly today, that is not the voters, but rather those few individuals and organizations with the resources to fund electoral campaigns. By instituting public financing, Connecticut today has a historic opportunity to reclaim our public elections for the people. We hope our leaders are up to the challenge.
Ted Fertik is a junior in Trumbull College and president of Students for Clean Elections.