Americans deserve a government that looks like us and works for all of us, not just special interests, which is why Connecticut must maintain its Citizens’ Election Program.
In place for five elections cycles, the program provides campaign funding that gives more people the ability to run for office and results in the election of officeholders who are more reflective of the community. This allows candidates to spend more time listening to their constituents, and leads to policies more responsive to public needs and less skewed by wealthy interests.
That is why Common Cause is extremely disappointed that the Citizens’ Election Program is threatened with elimination in this year’s budget. The Republican budget proposal, which was passed in the dark of night on Sept. 16, cut out the Citizens’ Election Program. Fortunately, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed that budget, but we are concerned that renewed negotiations will give shortsighted and self-interested legislators — and the big-money interests behind them — an opening for another try at shutting the program down.
A national model for small donor financing of elections, the Citizens’ Election Program was created to address rampant corruption in the state and to give everyday people a bigger voice in politics and policymaking.
It took a huge pay-to-play scandal, with a Republican governor who went to jail, to push Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and a Democratically led House and Senate to give us the Citizens’ Election Program in 2005.
The program is a remarkably successful alternative to the corrupt system that earned our state the unfortunate moniker “Corrupticut” in 2004. It allows candidates and officeholders to look out for the interests of all their constituents rather than being consumed with the needs of their major campaign contributors. It gives talented, motivated citizens who’ve never had the money or the connections traditionally required for success in politics a chance to seek and win public office with neither big money nor connections.
Now, nearly 80 percent of all candidates for legislative and state offices use the program. It has become a guide for citizens in other states who believe that democracy is out of balance, with elected officials often putting the wants of wealthy special interest donors ahead of everyday voters.
Those who would end the Citizens’ Election Program, however, have gotten further than ever this time, passing the Republican budget that zeroed-out the program in the name of fiscal discipline. It’s a sham because the program has saved money over time. We have seen the legislature more willing to eliminate programs that provide benefits to special interests and big corporations. In addition, the cost of the program represents roughly $20 million of the $40.7 billion biennial state budget. The cut would be meaningless in budgetary terms.
But it would be devastating to state government. The program has been hugely successful, delivering value to taxpayers that far exceeds its cost. And it allows policies previously blocked because of the power of special interest lobbyists to pass.
Without a doubt, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United and the Arizona Free Enterprise rulings have created challenges for our public financing program. But it is important to remember that in the Arizona Free Enterprise ruling, the court reaffirmed in its decision that public financing is constitutional, “governments may engage in public financing of election campaigns and … doing so can further significant governmental interests, such as the state interest in preventing corruption.”
There are difficult choices that must be made regarding the state budget this year, but failing to safeguard the integrity of our state’s elections is not one of them. Defunding this program just 11 months before the next election will give wealthy interests more influence in Connecticut elections and make it harder for regular people to be heard.
With increasing voter anger about the power of big money in politics and corruption scandals erupting in Washington, D.C., the last thing state lawmakers should do is to take us back to the bad old days of a system that opens the doors to a Wild West of special-interest dominance and unlimited spending.
Karen Hobert Flynn of Middletown is president of Common Cause, based in Washington, D.C.