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Campaign finance reform takes a hit

Published June 12. 2013 4:00AM

The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision continues to undermine efforts to reduce the power of money in politics, this time providing Connecticut's Democratic controlled legislature and its governor an excuse for weakening the state's pioneering campaign finance law.

In 2005 the Connecticut General Assembly passed a state law to provide for public financing of candidates for state office. The vast majority of candidates for state office now use the program, qualifying for state financing and no longer beholden to special interest groups to fund their campaigns in an effort to buy influence. In 2010 Gov. Dannel P. Malloy became the first Connecticut governor elected using public financing.

In the recently completed session, however, the governor and Democratic majority took one step forward, but a couple of steps back in approving a campaign finance bill, largely along party lines.

The step forward is a new rule requiring greater disclosure of where the money comes from to finance the special interest groups that fill airwaves and mailboxes with campaign propaganda, much of it attack advertising. That spending has exploded since Citizens United struck down federal rules that limited the ability of these outside groups to influence campaigns, particularly in the closing weeks before an election.

In its 5-4 Citizens' ruling, the Supreme Court found that such limitations violated free speech rights. The ruling has given corporations, labor organizations and other powerful groups the ability to funnel vast amounts of money into trying to influence elections. It was a terrible ruling, but it remains the law.

The court, however, did state that lawmakers could require greater disclosure about where the money is coming from, providing voters more information on who is trying to buy their votes and why. We welcome the attempts at providing greater disclosure in Connecticut.

In the same bill, however, the Democratic majority invited more money into the electoral process. The new law doubles, from $5,000 to $10,000, the amount that a donor can send to state party committees, and ups the limit for donations to town committees from $1,000 to $2,000. Candidates accepting government financing will still not be able to solicit or accept large outside contributions, but the larger amounts of cash that will be funneled directly to the parties undermines the effort to reduce the corruptive influence of money in politics.

The rationalization is that the Citizens United decision changed the equation and that state political parties need the ability to try to match the large amounts of money outside groups can spend trying to influence elections. But setting off a campaign spending arms race is not the way to deal with that reality. The legislature's better choice would have been to pass tough disclosure rules, but otherwise leave the state's campaign finance laws in place.

The 2005 law adopting public financing of Connecticut campaigns was a bipartisan marvel. Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell - who as lieutenant governor became governor when Gov. John G. Rowland was driven from office by scandal - worked with a Democratic majority to pass a series of reforms, including public financing of campaigns.

In a letter published today by The Day, Gov. Rell writes, "How sad that the Democrat governor, Democrat legislators and the Democrat Party are so greedy for campaign cash that they would so willingly destroy what we so proudly enacted just a few short years ago."

While we disagree with Gov. Rell's semantics - it's the Democratic Party, governor - we agree with her primary message. It is sad that Connecticut, once "a role model for the nation" on campaign finance reform, is slipping back.

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