Group seeks campaign finance reform

A group of 20 Yale students traveled to the state capitol in Hartford on Tuesday to lobby representatives and senators at a special session on campaign finance reform.

Representatives from Yale Students for Clean Elections and the Yale College Democrats joined state wide advocacy groups and state legislators to rally for a comprehensive campaign finance reform bill after Gov. M. Jodi Rell called yesterday’s special legislative session of the General Assembly in an effort to reach a compromise on the bill.

Although the legislature did not pass the bill Tuesday, advocates for the reform, including YSCE and the Dems, said a lot of progress had been made on the bill.

The new bill would ban contributions to political campaigns from contractors and lobbyists, limit candidates to a single Political Action Committee each and allow municipalities to enact their own public financing laws, a measure currently not permitted.

One of the most debated parts of the bill involves public financing of elections, said Andy Sauer, executive director of the advocacy group Connecticut Common Cause. This provision would allow candidates to receive public money through the government to fund their campaigns once they have demonstrated that they have a level of general support. This public financing donation is only an option, not a requirement, due to a 1976 Supreme Court ruling saying that money is speech and is therefore protected under the First Amendment.

Supporters of this provision said it keeps special interest money from polluting politics. But some critics have said the measure is too expensive and could violate individual constitutional rights.

“It’s not so much the public financing as the other restrictions placed on everyone on how and when you can donate,” said Richard Kearney ’07, president of the Yale College Republicans. “Any time you’re limiting individual speech, it’s a problem.”

Maine and Arizona have already passed public financing measures through referenda. But if the Connecticut bill survives, Connecticut will become the first state to pass such a bill through legislative action. YSCE president Ted Fertik ’08 said the legislative route is more difficult.

“It’s a difficult reform to pass as an elected official because it, in a very real sense, could limit your ability to fund raise,” he said. “That’s not anything sinister or evil, candidates need money to win elections.”

Sauer said Connecticut, given the name “Corrupticut” by The New York Times following a series of scandals involving elected officials who reportedly received improper contributions, needs the reform sooner rather than later. In the most high-profile corruption scandal, former Gov. John G. Rowland was forced to resign from his position in July 2004 and is now serving a year-long prison sentence.

Sauer said the corruption scandals have a “corrosive” effect on public trust in the government but could be stopped with the reform bill.

“All [the scandals] seem to have their roots on the campaign trail,” he said.

Following the rally, students split into pairs to lobby representatives and senators.

“The logistics of the day were tricky and we weren’t sure before we got there where legislators would be,” Fertik said.

Participants said their lobbying efforts were well received, but held different views on the effectiveness of the day.

“They were very open and willing to speak with us,” said Dan Weeks ’06, founder of YSCE and director of Democracy Fund PAC. “[But] it was difficult to gauge at times whether they will really work for reform.”

Jennifer James ’08, YSCE political director and membership coordinator for the Dems, said she thinks the lobbying was a success.

“We definitely talked with more people who supported it than [who were] against it,” she said.

Tuesday’s lobbying was only the latest step in a long list of efforts by the two groups to advocate for comprehensive campaign finance reform. Fertik said YSCE had another lobbying day in Feb. 2005, when the group met with 20 legislators.

Under Connecticut election law, Weeks said municipalities like New Haven cannot pass electoral reform without state approval, which makes passing the state bill very important.

Ward 1 Alderwoman Rebecca Livengood ’07 said during a College Democrats meeting on Monday that public financing in New Haven would cost only $100,000 out of a $350 million budget.

“It’s widely supported, at least on the Board of Aldermen,” she said.

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