Federal appeals court throws out part of Connecticut’s public campaign financing law

By Susan Haigh, AP
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Court tosses part of Conn. campaign funding law

HARTFORD, Conn. — A federal appeals court ruling on Tuesday threw out part of Connecticut’s public campaign financing law and further handicapped the concept of giving extra money to publicly funded candidates who are outspent by well-financed opponents.

The complex ruling could affect the state’s current election season, where the Aug. 10 primary is looming and many statewide and legislative candidates already have received public financing under the voluntary Citizens Election Program.

“We’ll proceed on all fronts as quickly as possible and do everything we can to protect the program,” said Beth Rotman, the program’s executive director.

In two decisions released Tuesday, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld higher thresholds for third-party candidates who attempt to qualify for public funds and a ban on political contributions from state contractors.

But it struck down bans on campaign contributions from lobbyists and their families and agreed with the lower court that candidates who participate in the program should not automatically receive extra public funds once their opponent spends or raises more than what the publicly funded candidate is allowed to spend.

Tuesday’s ruling against the supplemental funds comes a little more than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court derailed the part of Arizona’s campaign finance system that provided additional money to publicly funded candidates who are outspent by privately funded opponents or targeted by independent groups.

The high court said it would prevent Arizona from using its matching system at least until the justices decide whether they will rule on whether the payments are constitutional.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has asked the trial judge in the Arizona case to permit her and other publicly funded candidates to collect private contributions to replace the public matching money they won’t get. Advocacy groups and a privately funded rival candidate oppose Brewer’s request.

“The First Amendment requires matching funds to be struck down,” said Nick Dranias of the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute and the lead attorney in the lawsuit against Arizona’s matching funds provision. “Political speech by one candidate cannot be silenced by the threat of government campaign subsidies to the opposing candidate.”

Jeff Patch, communications director for the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics, which opposes public financing of campaigns, said Tuesday’s ruling was “incredibly important.” It comes as similar laws are being challenged in Wisconsin and Florida, where an opponent’s campaign spending and fundraising can automatically trigger extra funds for a publicly funded candidate, he said.

“There’s litigation going on in at least two states on it and other programs are sure to be challenged based on this decision,” Patch said. He believes the Connecticut ruling means the U.S. Supreme Court is more likely to take up the issue.

In 2008, the high court overturned the so-called millionaire’s amendment in the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which raised the limits on contributions to congressional candidates if their opponent spent more than $350,000 of personal funds on their campaign.

Some advocates of public financing said they believe Connecticut and other states should now come up with alternatives to the automatic supplemental funds.

“The handwriting was on the wall with the trigger provisions” when the Supreme Court made its ruling, said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president for state operations at Common Cause and a Connecticut resident. “They signaled that they don’t like trigger provisions and they’re on their way out.”

Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign, a Washington-based public financing advocacy group, said there are other ways to help publicly financed candidates who face wealthy opponents.

He suggested Connecticut legislators, who are being urged to immediately reconvene a special legislative session and fix the law in the wake of Tuesday’s decision, allow participating candidates to continue collecting small contributions after they’ve raised enough to qualify for public financing. Those additional contributions would then be matched.

Tuesday’s federal court decision fell on the same day that a state judge struck down a request from Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley for a temporary injunction, seeking to stop one of his two primary opponents, Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, from receiving more than $2.1 million in public campaign financing.

Foley is appealing that ruling to the state’s Supreme Court. Given the federal court decision, he said Fedele should not spend the $937,500 his campaign has received in supplemental grants.

“The program’s been called unconstitutional, so if he wants to spend taxpayer money that’s based on a law that’s unconstitutional, I think that would be very difficult for him to do,” said Justin Clark, Foley’s campaign manager.

Fedele said he plans to spend the money, pointing to how the endorsed Democratic candidate for governor, former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, already has received $1 million in supplemental funds based on how much his primary opponent, wealthy Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont, has raised or spent.

“My attorneys are reviewing everything. It is my understanding that it is a green light for us,” Fedele said. “While Tom Foley spends his time with his attorneys, I will be spending time with the citizens of the state, getting my message out there and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

Associated Press writers Everton Bailey in Hartford and Paul Davenport in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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