By Heath W. Fahle and Sean Parnell
This article ran in the New Haven Register on Tuesday, June 16, 2009 and in the Connecticut Post on May 29, 2009
As Connecticut’s state legislators struggle to confront an enormous budget deficit — a sea of red ink $8 billion deep — a consensus is emerging that the public has no stomach for more tax increases and state government will have to tighten its collective belt to cover the gap.
In recent weeks, some lawmakers have identified the Citizens’ Election Program as a luxury that could be eliminated, saving perhaps as much as $60 million. The CEP, which recently concluded its first year of implementation in 2008, allows political candidates to receive public dollars to fund their campaigns. Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the program into law in December 2005.
CEP supporters cite the law as a key good government reform — noting that it “levels the playing field” between incumbents and challengers. They loudly make the case that publicly funding political campaigns removes the corrosive influence of lobbyists, political action committees and state contractors.
These supporters have reacted with vitriol at suggestions the program should be axed, often accusing critics of inviting corruption back into the political dialogue.
But in light of the breathtaking scope of the deficit, can we really afford to hand out government dollars to political campaigns instead of building new schools, addressing Connecticut’s transportation problems or dealing with high energy costs?
The 2008 results, the first set of elections run under the Citizens’ Election Program, suggest that legislators are not likely to bite the hand that feeds them.
Of the 36 members of the state Senate, 32 used more than $2.6 million in public money. Of those 32 incumbents who took state funds for their campaigns, 31 of them won re-election. Among the 28 challengers who participated in CEP, only one was elected to the Senate.
For a “level playing field,” it seems awfully slanted, doesn’t it?
High rates of incumbency protection are typical of schemes to shovel public money into the campaign coffers of politicians. New York City, which has a similar program, saw 43 of 44 incumbents win re-election in their most recent city council races, with the only loser being a scandal-ridden incumbent who lost to a former city council member.
The argument that public financing eliminates corruptive influences on the political process rings particularly hollow in the last month as the State Elections Enforcement Commission has recently handed down two of the largest fines in history against state Sen. Thomas Gaffey of Meriden and state Sen. Joseph J. Crisco Jr. of Woodbridge.
Gaffey double-billed the state and his political action committee for numerous expenses while Crisco forged signatures on his sworn contribution documents.
In addition to the record-setting $6,000 fine, Gaffey will liquidate his political action committee and forfeit his right to organize another one for at least one year. Crisco was fined $4,000 for his transgressions and was forbidden from receiving public funds in 2008.
Gaffey, of course, accepted public dollars for his 2008 campaign.
The state’s public financing system has become something of a shibboleth amongst some groups in Connecticut, and critics often risk harsh rebuke for standing up against it. The facts reveal the program to be little more than a state-funded incumbent retention system, in which change is stifled.
Advocates claim that legislators will vote differently once they are on the dole and no longer beholden to so-called “special interests.” But the research shows this is simply not the case — legislators vote based on what they believe is the best interest of their constituents, otherwise they will quickly find themselves voted out of office.
Raising campaign money the old-fashioned way — by doing so good a job as a legislator that people feel compelled to share a bit of their personal treasure with you — well, that’s hard work. We shouldn’t be surprised when the people in charge of the state’s coffers decide to take their cut off the top. But we should put a stop to it.
Heath W. Fahle is policy director of the Yankee Institute, a think tank that advocates free-market solutions to public policy issues. Readers may write him at 133 Allen Place, P.O. Box 2600660, Hartford 06126-0660, e-mail: email@example.com. Sean Parnell is the president of the Center for Competitive Politics, 124 West St. S., Suite 201, Alexandria, Va. 22314. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.