Seven years ago, the Connecticut General Assembly adopted the Citizens Election Program. As a result of that monumental action,Connecticut put in place a campaign finance system that would ensure our citizens enjoyed the fairest, cleanest and most honest campaigns in the nation.
With a national election and campaign finance system spiraling out of control and increasingly under the control of special interests,Connecticut actually stood up and took an action that would serve as the national model for what can and should be done to promote true democracy.
And yet, over the past year Connecticut’s Democratic elected officials have done more damage to this extraordinary law than the Republicans have been able to do over the past seven years.
What we have witnessed is nothing short of a dishonest effort to destroy Connecticut’s best-in-the-nation public financing program and to do it in a way that our state’s Democratic leaders could attempt to defend themselves by saying don’t blame me, I’m not the one who put the knife through the program’s heart.
Think the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C.
While only one well-placed stab would have done the job, by including many in the attack it would allow the participants to deny that it was their knife that served as the deadly blow. So upon entering the Senate, the 60 conspirators surrounded Caesar, his trusted friend Brutus among them. Out came the swords and with at least twenty-three stab wounds, Caesar fell dead, leaving behind those famous words and that today reflect that notion of ultimate betrayal. “Et tu, Brute?”
In Connecticut, the destruction of the state’s campaign finance system succumbed to not one but two assassination attempts. Long live the notion that if you don’t at first succeed, try, try again.
The first assault was straight on. Despite Governor Malloy’s original proposal to merge the State Election Enforcement Commission and the Public Finance Program into a new Office of Government Accountability, the state budget that came out of the Appropriations Committee in April of last year simply eliminated the Elections Enforcement Commission.
A portion of the Citizens’ Election Program would have moved to the Secretary of the State’s Office, the audit and investigations operation to monitor the tens of millions of public grants would have been housed in the Office of State Auditors and the professionally-trained staff that has been brought together to administer this nationally renowned program would be eliminated
Each legislator associated with this portion of the state budget not only denied writing the language aimed at destroying Connecticut’s campaign finance law, they said they had never even seen it.
The Senate Chairperson of the Government Administration and Elections Committee, Gayle Slossberg, called the language “a disaster,” adding “It makes no sense. I do not support it…This came out of the blue, from behind closed doors.”
The House Chair of the same committee, Russell Morin said he was “shocked” by the language.
A similar response came from the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee, Toni Walker, who when asked where the language came from said bluntly “That was not mine.”
Truth-be-told, there are many who know exactly where the language “came from” and if they were put under oath and actually told the truth we’d learn that Senate President Don Williams’ staff, furious at the State Elections Enforcement Commission for doing their job and catching two Democratic State Senators engaged in illegal campaign activities, wrote and inserted the language that would destroy the program.
But the budget was not yet completed and so action was put off on voting for a new state budget and the underlying language concerning Connecticut’s campaign finance law.
A month later, at the end of May 2011, Governor Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders announced that a budget agreement was in place. When it came to the future of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, the assault shifted from a frontal attack to a less obvious, but equally effective tactic.
The State Election Enforcement Commission wasn’t eliminated but it was folded into the new state agency symbolically and ironically called the Office of Governmental Accountability.
And then, with no public hearing, no opportunity for public input, no information provided to the media or advocates or citizens to find out what was happening, the General Assembly hit the Elections Enforcement and Campaign Finance operation with the deepest cuts of any state agency in the budget.
Forty percent of the elections enforcement staff have been laid off and as vacancies have occurred the Governor’s budget office has dragged their feet or has simply refused to allow critical positions to be filled. Today the number of campaign finance auditors has dropped from 10 to 4, while virtually the entire management team is gone. The sad truth is that there is absolutely no way that an operation that has been decimated as much as this one has can fulfill its legal and moral responsibilities.
The Legislature also added language preventing the Elections Commission from auditing more than half the legislative races each year. Tens of millions of public dollars are being handed to legislators and other candidates who are seeking public office and there is now a new law that actually prevents the people responsible for ensuring honesty in the program from looking at all the campaigns.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the legislature took the incredible and unprecedented step of shortening the length of time citizens may serve on the Elections Enforcement Commission. By shortening the length of time a citizen commissioner can serve from five years to three and adding an unheard of prohibition on allowing commissioners to be re-appointed, the legislature can now be assured that no commissioner will be around long enough to provide any historical context to the Commission’s actions and decisions.
This type of change wasn’t made to any of the other citizen oversight commissions found throughout state government. Only the commission that is responsible for making sure legislators and their challengers are using state public finance grants appropriately were hit with legislative changes so obviously designed to undermine the integrity of the election process.
Legislators were given the choice. Vote for the budget with the devastating language or vote against the budget and plunge Connecticut into fiscal chaos.
Legislative leadership worked to create the impression that the changes to the Campaign Finance Program were not only limited, but overwhelmingly positive.
The House Chair of the Government and Elections Committee called it a “good compromise.” While Speaker of the House Chris Donovan applauded the effort to limit commissioners’ terms by claiming that it would bring “new blood” to the process (leaving aside the fact that they chose not to make similar changes to any other commission in state government).
The Governor Malloy’s Office also attempted to rationalize the “un-rationalizable” when the governor’s chief advisor, Roy Occhiogrosso claimed that the changes will make government “more efficient and cost effective.”
Since Connecticut first acted to protect our citizens and our government from the effects of the undue influence of money in politics, Democrats have been holding the state’s program as one of their greatest accomplishments.
In each subsequent campaign, Democratic candidates, especially Democratic leaders, have been asking the voters for their support based on their claim that Democrats had the courage to return Connecticut government and elections back to the people by pushing special interest money out of campaigns. Then, literally in the dark of night, these same people joined together, like Caesar’s assassins, to destroy Connecticut’s vital Public Finance System, believing they were doing it in a way that not one of them would be blamed for the destruction they have caused.
Ask them even now and they will say they stand by their strong support of what was Connecticut’s best-in-the-nation public campaign finance system.
Governor Malloy, who as a candidate, commented on a poll that 79-percent of Connecticut voters supported public financing and the Citizens’ Elections Program that it was “proof of just how strongly Connecticut voters feel about campaign finance reform, and as a warning for those candidates who think they can brush aside the Citizens’ Election Program…”
Or the Democratic Speaker of the House, Chris Donovan, now a candidate for Congress in Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District who once said “…the founding fathers took a huge risk when they signed the Declaration of Independence and set the wheels in motion for the world’s greatest democracy. Today, this historic campaign finance reform legislation reaffirms that this is a government for the people, not special interests. This campaign finance reform bill is our declaration of independence…”
Or Democratic State Senate President Pro Tempore, Don Williams, whose official biography still reads that “Senator Williams has been a leading advocate for cleaning up government. He authored legislation to reform the State Ethics Commission and supported sweeping changes to the campaign finance system and the state contracting process. With the creation of a publicly funded campaign finance system in 2005, Connecticut now has the strongest reform laws in the nation.”
And meanwhile there is virtual silence from all the other Democratic legislators who praised this program time and time again.
The 2012 Session of the Connecticut General Assembly will convene next Wednesday. Should they wish to save Connecticut’s Campaign Finance System they will need to act immediately.
But don’t hold your breath. As the landmark program lies dying on the ground, there are so many who plunged their knives in that they will continue to believe that not one of them will be held accountable for their actions.