Tensions continue between CT lawmakers, election watchdog

In a legislative session dominated by issues including tolls, minimum wage and marijuana, a little-noticed battle continued between lawmakers and the agency charged with ensuring clean elections.

A bill that would have massively changed the state’s election watchdog died without action in the House, but the legislation easily passed the state Senate with little discussion on the next-to-last day of the session.

State regulators and voter-rights watchdogs breathed easier but criticized the attempt.

“This was in the dead of the night, with no discussion and no transparency in the process,” said Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the election watchdog Common Cause in Connecticut. “It’s absolutely unacceptable. People don’t know what’s going on when leadership drops a 48-page bill at 11 p.m. in the last 24 hours of the General Assembly. That is really worrisome.”

It was a rare year, when lawmakers did not somehow limit the powers of the State Elections Enforcement Commission, reduce its funding, or decrease its staff.

But eight pieces of legislation promoted by the SEEC, including efforts aimed at providing accountability and transparency in the realm of so-called dark money, which has flooded into the state by the millions through political action committees in recent campaigns for governor, also failed.

While providing a steady, reliable public-funding mechanism for General Assembly and top-of-the-ticket races for governor, lieutenant governor and others through the Citizens’ Election Program, the SEEC has also created obstacles for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Candidates and their treasurers - often friends of politicians who don’t know the details needed to run a political campaigns - call the SEEC nitpickers, who can delay the release of campaign funds for weeks at crucial times in the election cycle.

A national corruption scandal

Republican candidates for governor, including Tim Herbst of Trumbull, Steve Obsitnik of Westport and Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, who won the party endorsement at its convention last year, lost weeks of potential TV ads and other campaign tactics because of prolonged scrutiny of their contributions by the SEEC. They all lost the five-way primary to self-funding candidate Bob Stefanowski, who bypassed the convention and public-funding system entirely.

“The frustrating part for me is the audits,” said Speaker of the House Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “I’m consistently told they are randomly selected, but there’s my campaign, every cycle.” Aresimowicz said that other concerns include an SEEC staff that isn’t always available to help candidates. “We have to make it as user-friendly as possible.”

“Overall, after operating for five election cycles, certain problems have become evident,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, stressing that there was a lot of issues that had bipartisan support in the bill that died on the House calendar. “The way the SEEC handles things doesn’t respond to the reality and the timetable of campaigns. Some people are adept at getting contributions in early, yet they don’t get the grant for weeks and weeks. There’s no reason why they couldn’t be pre-approved, and that was in the bill.”

“There’re nuances that I don’t think people understand unless you are a candidate,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk. “Sometimes it seems like the SEEC is more worried about obscure, minuscule details rather than the larger more-relevant issues.”

The Citizens’ Election Program was the centerpiece of a bipartisan bill in 2005, in the wake of scandals that sent a state treasurer and John Rowland, the disgraced former governor, to prison, Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed legislation creating a mechanism for the public financing of legislative and top-of-the-ticket races including governor. The independent State Elections Enforcement Commission, the state’s first watchdog agency dating to 1974, had 13 employees at the time, and was in charge of civil enforcement of election law through full investigative powers.

Public financing became available for the 2008 General Assembly races and governor in 2010. It’s supported by escheats, including abandoned property in the State Treasurer’s office and unredeemed nickel deposits on can and bottles. The SEEC staff increased to 53 employees.

Funding cuts and staff reductions

In 2010, Dannel P. Malloy became the first CEP participant to win the governor’s race, defeating self-funded businessman Tom Foley of Greenwich. In 2011, the SEEC became one of nine divisions within the new Office of Government Accountability, an attempt to cut costs. Its budget was reduced by nearly 40 percent and the staff was cut to 34, including five management and two supervisory positions.

Currently the staff totals 32, including Executive Director and General Counsel Michael Brandi, whose job would have been threatened in the bill that failed in the House before the midnight June 5 adjournment. Aresimowicz said that the bill would have sparked a late-session multi-hour debate that the House could not afford, so it was never called.

The voluntary CEP, which provides grants for literally hundreds of General Assembly and top-of-the-ticket candidates, was supposed to receive state funding of $18.5 million a year under a 2007 law. But the program has been regularly raided by state lawmakers, who have now reduced it to $11 million a year. Since 2006 ,lawmakers have diverted more than $70 million from the CEP to the General Fund.

Michael Brandi, executive director and chief counsel for the SEEC, said Friday that the public is better served by more transparency.

“There should be public hearings,” Brandi said. “Any time there are changes proposed to the CEP, the public deserves a right to speak and everybody deserves to read the language of legislation before the House and Senate vote on it. He noted that the long battle in passing a state budget in 2017 spilled over into the election season and compressed the 2018 election calendar. He said SEEC staffed worked seven days a week to process 335 grants for top-of-the-ticket and General Assembly candidates, plus 17 statewide primaries.

“The volume was simply enormous,” Brandi said. “We were under significant time constraints. But the rules are also important.” About 130,000 contribution cards were reviewed for accuracy. “It’s a clean election program. It’s not an ATM,” he said. “We have to make sure the contributions are accurate. We are giving out public money.”

Quickmire, the government watchdog, suggested that legislative leaders schedule important high-profile public hearings, either before or during the 2020 legislation session.

“If you want to talk about things that are wrong with the program, or the executive director should go about job differently, there’s a whole public hearing process set up for that kind of discussion,” she said. “A stealth campaign to defund the program, to eviscerate provisions of the enforcement, to take away the teeth of the enforcement aspect of elections enforcement, is not acceptable.”