Connecticut has a unique voluntary public financing program for state elected offices. The Citizens’ Election Program is designed to encourage a broader range of people to seek public office. It is also designed to help increase competition and decrease the influence of “big money” donors. Importantly, those who qualify for public financing also agree to limit their campaign expenditures to stated levels.
The existence of Connecticut’s voluntary Citizen’s Election Program is one reason that I and other non-wealthy individuals have decided to run for state elected office in the past. It is likely to continue to motivate prospective candidates in the future.
Connecticut now faces a serious current budget and longer-term fiscal sustainability challenge. As a result, some are calling for elimination of the state’s voluntary public campaign financing system. In my view, doing so would be inappropriate. At the same time, there are several reforms that should be considered that are both consistent with the purpose of the program and can save money.
First and foremost, candidates for state office who are unopposed should not receive ANY grant funds. While they currently receive a lesser grant, any amount seems to be inappropriate. One of the primary purposes of the program is to encourage people to run for public office and to help provide a more level playing field in connection with campaign finances. Unopposed candidates do not meet either of these basic criteria. In addition, if an unopposed candidate is an incumbent, they already have the ability to use their franking privileges to communicate with their constituents. In addition, all candidates have the ability to engage in public forums and interact with the media to help get their messages out.
The second needed reform involves the office of lieutenant governor (LG). Under Connecticut’s Constitution, the office of lieutenant governor is a separate office. While LG candidates currently run independently from the gubernatorial candidates in primaries, the primary winners in these offices must run as a ticket in the general election – even if they would rather not do so.
Importantly, LG candidates are eligible for their own primary election grant if they raise the required $75,000 in eligible contributions. Alternatively, LG candidates can decide to voluntarily merge their campaign funding activities with a gubernatorial candidate of the same party in order to meet the $250,000 threshold in eligible contributions for governor and agree on an appropriate allocation of the gubernatorial primary grant. The amount of the gubernatorial and LG primary grants in 2014 were $1,354,250 and $406,275 per qualifying candidate, respectively. The general election grant for the combined governor/LG ticket in 2014 was $6,500,400. These amounts are set to increase for the 2018 election cycle.
Given the above, each gubernatorial candidate should be required to identify an LG running mate and they should run and fund-raise as a team. Employing this approach would serve to save the taxpayers money, promote more effective gubernatorial and LG teams, and avoid intra-party conflicts for the LG race.
There may be other election funding reforms worthy of consideration, including reconsidering the total amount of eligible contributions needed to receive a grant, the dollar limit for individual contributions, the treatment of state contractors and individuals who have residences in Connecticut and other states, and the treatment of non-major party candidates.
Connecticut faces serious financial and competitiveness challenges. It has gone from a leading state in many categories 30 years ago to a laggard state in too many today. At the same time, Connecticut has an innovative voluntary public financing program that the state needs to reform rather than scrap. In addition, if gubernatorial and LG candidates are required to run as a team in the general election, they should run as a team in any related primary.
After all, our state faces so many serious challenges, we need “all hands on deck” and an effective team at the top of the Executive Branch.
David M. Walker of Bridgeport is a former U.S. Comptroller General.