Conn. Enacts Tough Campaign Finance Laws

Connecticut is still smarting from the corruption scandal that brought down Gov. John Rowland. In response to the scandal, the state's legislature on Wednesday passed sweeping new campaign finance laws — believed to be among the toughest in the nation. Av Harris of member station WNPR in Hartford, Conn., reports.

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Connecticut is now the first state in the nation to establish publicly financed political campaigns. But some are calling the law, quote, "the nation's most restrictive campaign finance reform." They don't like it. The changes come partly in response to recent corruption scandals in Connecticut. From member station WNPR in Hartford, Av Harris reports.

AV HARRIS reporting:

In the last two years, Connecticut has seen several top officials convicted on federal corruption charges, much of it having to do with campaign donations. Former Republican Governor John Rowland is now serving a year in prison after pleading guilty to taking thousands of dollars in illegal gifts from businesses who had received state contracts. The contractors were also major Rowland campaign donors. Rowland's successor and former running mate, Governor Jodi Rell, says campaign finance reform is necessary to restore public confidence in government.

Governor JODI RELL (Republican, Connecticut): Whether it's most recently the congressman from California, whether it's Tom DeLay, who was indicted certainly right here in Connecticut, there is a sense that in politics, and especially in how we raise money for candidates, there is an influence of special interest money, and that somehow, someway, we have to do our part to get that money out of politics.

HARRIS: Even though it was a Republican governor who went to prison for corruption, the current campaign finance system in Connecticut tends to benefit Democrats, who hold large majorities in the House and Senate. Under current rules, lawmakers can raise unlimited sums of money through a plethora of political action committees that move cash around with impunity. Much of these campaign funds come from lobbyists and state contractors, both of whom have a direct financial stake in all types of legislation. Democratic state Senator Donald DeFronzo told his colleagues in yesterday's debate that under the new system, that will no longer be permitted.

State Senator DONALD DEFRONZO (Democrat, Connecticut): A ban on state contractor contributions is implemented for all statewide and legislative candidates. Importantly, a comprehensive ban on lobbyists' contributions affecting all statewide and legislative candidates, party committees, legislative caucus and leadership committees is also implemented. And so, Mr. President, if this bill is signed into law, it will represent the most comprehensive reform measure implemented by a state legislature in the United States.

HARRIS: These restrictions go into effect in a year. In their place, taxpayer dollars will be available to the candidates for statewide and legislative races. Candidates will then have a choice of raising money on their own with the new restrictions or using public money. Funds will be doled out at different levels to participating candidates, from $25,000 for a House seat to up to $3 million to gubernatorial candidates.

Many Republicans say even though the new system sounds clean, Democrats have snuck in a giant loophole to protect their incumbents. Connecticut House Republican Leader Bob Ward says the new law permits political action committees to spend an unlimited amount of dollars on so-called in-kind contributions.

State Representative BOB WARD (Republican, Connecticut): You're going to tell everybody in a statehouse race, you get $25,000 if you're a participating candidate and that's all you'll spend. Less, of course, the leader wants to spend $30,000 on mail and polling in your district, but you'll actually get to say, `That wasn't campaigning,' 'cause that's what the law will say, and we just called that reform. That's not reform; that's fraud!

HARRIS: Before the new campaign finance reform can take effect in Connecticut, it may have to pass a legal challenge. The state ACLU chapter says banning lobbyists from making political donations violates their First Amendment right to free speech. For NPR News, I'm Av Harris in Hartford.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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