In The Loop – June 27, 2024

Now that the Governor has finalized the review of the bills enacted by the 2024 legislature, a quiet convening of the required Veto session has occurred, and the special session has concluded, all eyes are on the upcoming fall elections. This week marked the kickoff debate of the rematch between President Biden and former President Trump on CNN, but the 2024 legislative races in Connecticut are also drawing significant attention. As I mentioned in previous articles, Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election Program (CEP) is a national model for campaign finance reform that provides thousands of dollars to qualifying candidates running for state office.

Established in 2005 during former Governor M. Jodi Rell’s term, the CEP was designed to reduce the influence of private money in politics, level the playing field for all candidates, especially newcomers, and restore public trust in the electoral process. With 18 years and nine campaign cycles behind us, it’s worth examining the program’s impact and what it means for Connecticut’s political landscape.

The Rules of the Road are kind of simple – well maybe. Grants awarded from the CEP program to candidates for state office who agree to adhere to strict fundraising and spending limits are clearly defined and well-known now. To qualify for public funding, candidates must 1) collect a specified number of small-dollar contributions from residents within their district or state. For example, a candidate for state representative must raise at least $5,300 from at least 150 individuals residing in the district; 2) accept limited contributions from lobbyists, state contractors, or political action committees (PACs). Contributions from individuals are capped between $5 to $250 per donor – lobbyists are limited to $100 per election cycle per candidate or caucus/leadership PAC); 3) abide by strict spending limits once they qualify for CEP funding. For instance, gubernatorial candidates can spend up to $6 million in the general election, including the public grant and 4) maintain comprehensive records and file regular campaign finance reports with the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC), ensuring transparency and accountability.

The impacts are many on CT’s election process. Public funding has allowed candidates without access to wealthy donors to run competitive campaigns. According to the SEEC, over 75% of candidates for state office now participate in the program. This has led to more diverse candidates, increased primaries, and broadened representation. Governor Ned Lamont remarked, “Engaging voters directly is crucial for a healthy democracy. It ensures that our leaders are truly representative of the people’s will.”

Candidates are incentivized to engage with a larger number of small donors, creating greater grassroots involvement. Former State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield noted, “Public financing has made campaigns more about people and less about money.” Lieutenant Governor Susan Bysiewicz added, “Candidates now spend more time engaging with voters and less time chasing big checks.”

By limiting large private donations, many believe that the reforms have reduced the influence of special interest groups, and provided a more diversity of thinking in the legislature. Candidates can focus more on policy and less on fundraising from special interest groups. Despite limitations, lobbyists still maintain influence through established relationships based on their expertise and knowledge of the legislative process and history of the internal politics of state government.

With strict spending limits and the need to gather small donations, campaign strategies have shifted. Candidates rely more on volunteer efforts, social media, and grassroots campaigning. Former businessman and gubernatorial candidate Oz Griebel stated, “The paperwork and compliance can be daunting, but it is essential to protect the process and ensure CT remains a leader in clean campaigns.”

While the CEP has achieved many of its goals, some challenges remain. Critics argue that: 1) the thresholds are too high, particularly for first-time candidates or those in less affluent districts. This can create barriers to entry for underrepresented groups; 2) despite the program’s intentions, incumbents still benefit from name recognition, mailing privileges, and existing political networks; and 3) the increased number of participants and funding requests for primary campaigns have raised concerns about the overall cost of elections.

The state’s public financing program has met many of its initial goals and has become a cornerstone of Connecticut’s electoral process. While there are areas for improvement, the overall sentiment among legislators is to continue the program. As they say, “the juice is worth the squeeze.” READ THE FULL IN THE LOOP HERE

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