As Connecticut’s 2018 gubernatorial election approaches, candidates are raising money in the hopes of qualifying for public financing.

The Citizens’ Election Program, signed into law in 2005, provides public financing for candidates running for the General Assembly and other statewide offices, including governor. In order to qualify for the program, gubernatorial candidates must raise $250,000 in donations no larger than $100 apiece. Candidates who make it onto the primary ballot are eligible for a state grant of $1.25 million, and candidates who advance to the general election can receive grants of up to $6.5 million. Proponents of the Citizens’ Election Program, which over 75 percent of candidates use, argue that it levels the playing field for candidates for statewide office by limiting expenditures and mandating disclosures of campaign finances.

“It gives a level playing field for folks who don’t have personal wealth or connections,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause in Connecticut.

Quickmire said the Citizens’ Election Program is essential for decreasing corruption in politics and stressed the importance of requiring the disclosure of campaign finances.

Though many gubernatorial candidates participate in the Citizens’ Election Program, some choose to forgo public financing or are ineligible for it. Dan Drew, the mayor of Middletown and a former Democratic candidate, withdrew from the race after failing to qualify for public financing. Drew’s campaign was plagued by a number of issues, including a negative balance and a scandal in which he was caught soliciting Middletown municipal employees for campaign donations.

He failed to raise enough money to qualify for the Citizens’ Election Program in large part because he chose not to carry over funds from his exploratory committee to his campaign, according to Tom Swan, the executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Guy Smith said that he has chosen not to use public financing in his own campaign.

“I think that the state of Connecticut, given the economic problems it’s having, doesn’t need to be giving me money to run for office,” he said, though he emphasized that he has “no problem” with anyone who chooses to participate in the program.

Republican candidates David Stemerman and Bob Stefanowski are also choosing not to participate. And Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim, a Democrat, is ineligible to participate in the program due to a prior felony conviction for corruption.

Jacey Wyatt, a Democratic candidate for governor, described the Citizens’ Election Program as an outdated, “caveman-type system.” Wyatt is participating in the Citizens’ Election Program, but she called it a “hurdle” that limits the pool of potential gubernatorial candidates with its excessive rules and regulations.

“It’s supposed to level the playing field, but it absolutely does not,” she said.

Advocates for the Citizens’ Election Program, including Quickmire and Swan, expressed concern about recent changes made to the program in the budget passed by the General Assembly in October.

The changes include raising the individual qualifying contribution limits from $100 to $250 per donation for candidates for state senator or representative. Candidates running for other statewide offices, including governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are still limited to the $100 maximum individual contributions for the 2018 elections, though the maximum will increase to $250 after this election cycle.

Other changes to the program include a grant reduction schedule so that the later in the race a campaign submits an application for a grant, the smaller the grant that campaign can receives, and a provision that changes the way in which the State Elections Enforcement Committee handles complaints. The provision states that the committee has one year to issue a decision on any complaint filed after Jan. 1 this year. If the commission does not issue a decision within one year, it must dismiss the complaint.

Advocates for the Citizens’ Election Program view the changes as an attack on the program. For Swan, the changes “really only serve to benefit incumbents and people with wealthy friends.” He added that the delay to apply the changes to the gubernatorial race was included to account for the fact that many candidates for governor had already begun fundraising under the old system.

Quickmire said the changes, such as the grant reduction schedule, will mainly benefit incumbents, for whom it is easier to raise the qualifying threshold.

“It’s not an easy thing to qualify for public financing when you’re running for governor,” she said.

Both the Republican and Democratic primaries for the gubernatorial race will take place in August.

Talia Soglin | talia.soglin@yale.edu