Conn. Lawmakers Crack Down on Campaign Finance

Connecticut lawmakers passed some of the nation's toughest campaign finance laws early Thursday, placing strict limits on contributions and creating a publicly funded election system for all statewide races.

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell pledged to sign the measure into law.

It was the first time a legislature passed a campaign finance bill that applies to all statewide races. Other states have systems created by ballot initiatives, or systems that only apply to only a handful of races.

Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a national organization that supports public financing and campaign reform, called it "the strongest piece of reform legislation in the country."

"For the first time, a legislature has gone ahead and done this, not just for other seats but also done it for themselves," he said.

The bill passed after separate seven-hour debates in the House and Senate. The Senate voted 27-8 in favor of the legislation Wednesday; the House followed with a 82-65 vote Thursday morning.

It comes in the wake of a corruption scandal last year that sent former Gov. John G. Rowland to prison and led his former co-chief of staff and a major state contractor to plead guilty in federal court. Rell, who pushed lawmakers for months to pass reforms, was lieutenant governor during Rowland's tenure.

The bill, which would take effect on Dec. 31, 2006, allots about $17 million each year in public funds for political campaigns. To reduce the influence of special interests, it bans political contributions from lobbyists and state contractors.

The fund comes from unclaimed property, such as forgotten pay checks and bank accounts that currently flow into the state's general fund. Some lawmakers disagreed with the use of the funds.

"I think our forefathers would turn in their graves if they knew public funds were used this way," said Republican Rep. Julia Wasserman.

Candidates must raise a certain amount to qualify for public funds and agree to campaign spending limits. Candidates who opt out of the plan are still barred from collecting money from lobbyists and contractors.

But the bill's passage does not mean the debate is over. Several lawmakers raised concerns about it, saying it stifled free speech rights of lobbyists and could be ripe for a court challenge. Others said the money could be doled out with few restrictions.

After much discussion of loopholes, lawmakers promised to return during the regular session in February to make changes.

"Frankly, the stars are aligned with this legislation," said Democratic Rep. Christopher Caruso, co-chairman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. "It's our opportunity to take advantage of this moment, to pass this legislation, to build a foundation and then make changes."

Other state legislatures have created public financing for just a few elected offices, such as the governor and lieutenant governor in Vermont, top judges in North Carolina and a regulatory commission in New Mexico that oversees corporations.

Maine and Arizona have public financing systems created by ballot initiatives. New Jersey recently passed a trial public financing program that affected two legislative seats this year and will apply to four in 2007.