Thursday, November 22, 2007

Public Campaign Financing in Connecticut

We've all heard bits and pieces about this program, which provides public funding for candidates for state office. The official name of the program is "The Citizens' Election Program", and I decided to learn more about it.

On Tuesday I attended one of the (free and open to the public) Citizen’s Election Program public training seminars at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The seminar is one of many that are being scheduled to teach citizens about how public funding for state elections works. It was run by the SEEC (State Election Enforcement Commission) and hosted by SEEC Executive Director Jeff Garfield.

Approximately 80 people attended the seminar, including quite a few legislators who will be using the funding for their reelection campaigns. But the main purpose of the training is to educate regular citizens about the program and to encourage them to run for office. Helpful hint: if it's held in an LOB hearing room, get there early enough to secure a seat at the center hearing tables, rather than in the gallery areas. Those chairs are really comfortable!

Public funding boils down to this: any citizen who declares their intent to run for state office can qualify for state funding by raising a minimum dollar amount and number of small-dollar donations from their district.

For example, if you want to run for the State Representative, you need to collect a minimum of 150 contributors of amounts between $5 and $100 from your district, along with a total of $5000 in maximum $100 donations from citizen donors anywhere, even if they live outside your district. The donations are limited to citizens only, no PACs or lobbyists allowed. If you meet this criteria by the specified date and you have all your paperwork submitted, you'll then receive $25,000 in state election funds.

The minimums for State Senator are 300 small-dollar contributors and $15,000 total, which would then make you eligible for $85,000 in funding.

Here’s the cool part – if your opponent opts out of public funding and relies only on his own fundraising for his money, once he exceeds the amount you received from the state you’ll be eligible for additional matching funds. This has an effect of “leveling the playing field” as far as money goes, and helps keep well-funded candidates from out-spending their opponent.

Of course, keep in mind that this is a very simplified description of the program, and there are many little regulations and details that must be addressed, so don't think that this is an exhaustive outline of the program by any means! Primaries, special elections, minor party and petitioning candidates all have varying funding opportunities. Click on the links included here to get detailed info.

The program is financed by the Citizen's Election Fund, which receives funds from the sale of abandoned property in the state's custody, along with private donations. So there's no additional tax burden for this program. I think they said that presently the fund is around $15 million.

Before the seminar I met briefly with Tom Swan, Ned Lamont's 2006 campaign manager and director of CT Citizen Action Group (CCAG), and he gave me a very informative brochure put out by Common Cause Connecticut. The brochure spells out the basics of the program in a few pages, and is available online as an Adobe pdf file HERE.

I've heard that there's a lawsuit that was brought against this program, most likely by special interest groups and incumbents who think it unfairly challenges their seats. Especially those seats that were paid for by special interest contributors and PACs.

But I can't help but believe that this will only help ensure cleaner elections and encourage citizen participation in state government. This is a good thing. Be sure to let your legislators know that you support the Citizen's Election Program, and that you expect them to fight for it!

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