Tense for years, the General Assembly’s relationship with the State Elections Enforcement Commission is now so toxic that clean-election advocates speak wistfully about staging an intervention, finding some way to break a cycle of recrimination they say undermines campaign-finance reforms Connecticut adopted in 2005 to national acclaim.
When it comes to rewriting laws dictating the financing of their own campaigns, the Connecticut Senate in particular has long moved like a cat burglar, preferring to work at night and rarely leaving fingerprints. Campaign laws are about transparency, but the Senate reminded Connecticut once again this year that the process by which they are created is opaque.
At 11:24 p.m. on June 4, the second-to-last night of the 2019 session, a handshake deal by Democratic and Republican leaders sped an elections bill through the Senate in little more than a minute. Their rank-and-file members mutely voted for a 48-page amendment kept out of the legislature’s public tracking system until after 10 p.m.
But unlike other years and other efforts to curb the agency, this one had identifiable co-sponsors: Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven.
“They clearly had a plan, the two of them, to smack SEEC and to keep everyone in the dark,” said Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of Common Cause in Connecticut.
The lawmakers asked no questions, nor offered a single syllable of debate about legislation that contained a calculated slap at the SEEC, as the elections commission is commonly known. It would have set term limits on the agency’s director, treating elections enforcement differently than the state’s other watchdogs, such as the Office of State Ethics.
“It was presented as a bipartisan fix late on the second-to-last night of the session, when the volume of business is high and legislative leaders largely get free rein,” said Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, a freshman. “Besides, elections enforcement and its auditors are not the most popular figures at the Capitol.”
Another freshman registered a mild protest: Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, walked out before the unanimous vote in the Senate, then returned for the next bill.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, the co-chair of the legislative committee that oversees elections law, pointedly refused to present the bill to the Senate, as is custom. But she voted for it. Flexer said the measure contained some needed changes in elections law, even if she would have preferred a different version and a more transparent approach.
“If you have an idea, it should be defended in the light of day,” Flexer said.
Advocates from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and the Connecticut Citizen Action Group concurred, saying the flaws in the process overshadowed anything good in the bill.
“There clearly needs to be changes at SEEC,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group. “Having embittered legislative leaders force it at the point of a gun will not result in the best policy. That’s why we’d like to see some sort of an independent process to make some recommendations for tinkering with the system.”
SEEC and the Senate: A history of antagonism
The Senate measure marked the fifth time since 2011 that the legislature has at least attempted to curb the powers of the State Elections Enforcement Commission or loosen campaign finance rules, reflecting a longstanding antipathy towards the agency that not only enforce the laws, but bankrolls campaigns.
Some of those measures were anonymously inserted into omnibus budget bills. In 2017, budget language imposed a one-year limit on elections investigations. In 2013, someone added language to the budget that would have neutered SEEC, scattered its staff and transferred control of campaign financing to an elected official, the secretary of the state. It was stripped before passage, but the SEEC eventually lost 40 percent of its staff.
No one ever admitted to writing the language, prompting a frustrated Karen Hobert Flynn of Common Cause to exclaim: “Somebody had to write the goddamned thing.”
SEEC administers the Citizens’ Elections Program, which provides the public financing of campaigns for state office who abide by limits on fundraising and spending.
In 2018, SEEC awarded nearly $27 million in public grants to the campaigns of candidates for state office, including $12.8 million for those running for the General Assembly.
The Citizens’ Election Program is a voluntary system created in 2005, a year after a bid-rigging scandal forced the resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland. The law barred contributions by state contractors and restricted the role of lobbyists in funding campaigns.
To qualify, legislative candidates must raise qualifying contributions of between $5 and $250, mostly in their districts. The qualifying thresholds are $5,100 for House candidates and $15,300 for the Senate. The maximum public grants are $28,150 for the House and $95,710 for the Senate.
SEEC checks every qualifying contribution, which must be accompanied by a signed card on which the donor attests they are not a state contractor.
The Senate legislation would have limited the commission’s ability to audit campaigns, investigate certain campaign contributions or confirm the existence of an investigation. And apparently, though the language was open to interpretation, the measure would have set aside fines SEEC imposed on a former senator and his successor.
Quickmire, who has helped run campaigns, said a certain degree of resentment is inevitable toward the watchdogs who qualify candidates for public financing, conduct audits of their campaigns and investigate complaints.
But she and others say legislators need to acknowledge they are a regulated community with a unique power: They get to write the rules and limit the powers and resources of the regulators.
“Getting to anything in a dispassionate way when people are as angry as they are is a challenge,” Quickmire said. “I am very much interested in trying to step back and take a look at the entire [public financing] program, maybe a hearing where people can come and talk about things that concern them about the program, and things that are working well.”
Swan, Quickmire and Carol Reimers, the president of the League of Women Voters, denounced the Senate action the day after its passage. “It is disturbing that the bill allows legislators to interfere in the State Election Commission’s independent authority over pending cases,” they said in a joint statement. “This legislation is outrageous and irresponsible. It must be rejected.”
It was, if only by neglect.
On the final day, the House of Representatives refused to call the bill for debate, even though its two sponsors, Looney and Fasano, said they had a deal with all four caucuses for the measure to pass.
‘Go after the bad guys’
Looney and Fasano defended the failed measure as offering necessary remedies for a commission they deem both too bureaucratic and too picky at times. The commission, they said, should spend more time on significant breaches of elections and campaign finance laws.
“If you want to make the system really work, go after the bad guys. We need to cut down on the superfluous stuff,” Fasano said.
“I think there is an excessive bureaucratic aspect to what they do,” Looney said. “They just need to improve their practices.”
They acknowledged that every element of the legislation reflected someone’s frustration with the commission. “These are not things that were taken out of the air,” Fasano said.
On the Senate floor, Looney told his colleagues the system “generally worked well, but there have been some relatively minor glitches.”
He offered no specifics. Neither did Fasano. The GOP leader made a joke of how the parties had come together on the elections bill on the same day they fought each other adopting a state budget along party lines.
“This is the power of bipartisanship right here that might not have been there before, but it’s here now,” Fasano said, smiling.
Elections officials said the two leaders mischaracterized their amendment.
“There’s nothing minor about it,” said Michael Brandi, the executive director and general counsel of SEEC. “These were massive, wholesale changes to the Citizens’ Elections Program, to our audit process, to the agency itself, to attacks on my position. You name it, they tried to slide this through and make changes to how we operate as an independent watchdog.”
One of the provisions would have barred SEEC from investigating or taking any other enforcement action on a contribution offered as a qualifying contribution, but deemed to be ineligible. Another would have required the return of contributions deemed ineligible to the original donors. Current law allows them to be returned or used for public grants.
Yet another change would have codified in state law a pre-qualification process in which SEEC can conduct an early review of a candidate’s qualifying contributions. (No grant can be formally approved until a candidate qualifies for a primary or general-election ballot.) By design or inattention, the provision would have short-circuited the current level of review.
“The way they put it in the bill is extremely damaging,” said Shannon Kief, a top lawyer at the commission. Shannon, who said SEEC officials would have gladly worked on the bill, noted the commission published guidelines in 2018 for pre-application reviews.
“Nobody in the Senate chose to use it,” she said.