Once upon a time (like just a few years ago), Connecticut's public campaign finance system had the look of a bright knight on a white horse guarding a goddess of political purity who held aloft a torch to light the way for other states.
We'd done away with most of that filthy special-interest money; rid ourselves of scuzzy influence peddling and candidates kowtowing for cash. We were willing to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to keep our elections clean.
Well, the torch seems to have been snuffed out. The dude's horse is gone and so is that shining armor. He's looking these days like a drooling, slack-jawed cash addict shuffling along, searching for his next fix. The goddess has lost her virgin smile and seems ready to lift her skirts for the next big money mark to come along.
"We're going back to the days of 'Corrupticut,'" is the sad comment of Cheryl Dunson, president of this state's League of Women Voters. "They're doing almost everything that can be done to dismantle the trust in government and politics."
The "they" Dunson is talking about includes the U.S. Supreme Court, who unleashed torrents of unlimited special-interest cash on our national political system with its Citizens United ruling. Closer to home, you can thank a bunch of frightened Connecticut Democrats for the damage being done to the campaign finance system.
Normally, when crap like this done, you can't simply blame one party or another. This time it's different.
It was the General Assembly's dominant Democratic majority that just approved a bill that will allow tons of easy money from contractors and corporations and unions and millionaires to flow into Connecticut campaigns again. While they were at it, the Democrats also decided to eliminate prison penalties for any bastards who decided to play fast and loose with our state election laws.
The legislative "fix" was passed in the closing days of the 2013 session without a single Republican vote in favor.
"It was wrong," says state House GOP Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., who insists what the Democrats have done (with the support of Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy) will only make the whole money-in-politics scam worse.
Mike DeRosa is co-chairman of Connecticut's Green Party and he almost never agrees with any major party leader on any issue. This time, DeRosa is right beside Cafero in his disgust with the changes made in what he always believed was a less-than-perfect system to begin with.
"I think it's a big mistake," DeRosa says. "We now have the worst campaign-finance system in the world."
Fear was the trigger for this wholesale retreat from Connecticut's efforts to combat the plague of money in politics.
In the last legislative elections, conservative outside groups decided to take advantage of the Citizen United scam and dumped a cool $500,000 into several Connecticut races in an attempt to derail several Democrats. It all happened near the end of the 2012 campaign and it scared the pants off the Dems.
Keep in mind that all that money failed to defeat those targeted Democratic candidates. Just like the big money spent by millionaires in recent Connecticut statewide campaigns (think Linda McMahon spending nearly $100 million of her WWE fortune on two failed U.S. Senate attempts), that outside cash was a loser.
As DeRosa points out, "There's no real proof that spending lots of money gets you elected."
Except that the 2012 situation turned the Democrats' bowels to jelly.
Under the system approved in 2005, a candidate who wanted to take part in Connecticut's campaign finance system had to agree to campaign spending limits. They could get public money to run their campaigns, as long as they didn't take any of that dirty outside money.
So a state Senate candidate who qualified, for example, could only spend a bit more than $91,000 (the taxpayer money he or she received) on the general election campaign. (Someone running for governor and taking public cash under the system could spend no more than $6.25 million of the public's dollars.)
Under the old system, state parties' contributions to individual candidates were chained down to a max of $3,500 for a House race and no more than $10,000 on a state Senate contest. And the top contribution the parties could take from someone was $5,000.
And there was no provision for giving additional public money to candidates who had agreed to spending limits to help them respond to floods of outside cash being used against them. (A federal court struck down an attempt to do that.)
The state Senate's top Democrat, Donald Williams, insisted during the debate that changes had to happen or that horrible money from outsider groups would ruin Connecticut. The changes Democrats wanted, he said, are "the least we can do to fight for our democracy against a tidal wave of special interest money."
The Democrats' solution was to let state parties raise unlimited amounts of money and then spend as much as they wanted on any state race. And those party money gurus will now be able to take those contributions in bigger chunks.
One of those deep-pocket types, like someone with a sweet bank account who might figure it would be good business to have some friends in politics, can now give a total of $10,000 to a state party. Of course, that same person could probably give more money to some other political action committee, which might for some reason feel compelled to make another contribution to that same state party fund.
Dunson also fears the money "will be harder to track." Her reading of the bill is that only people who donate more than $5,000 to one of these party funds would have to be identified. Which means you could chip in $4,999 and stay anonymous.
One of the Democrats' most inspired revisions, according to Dunson, is the removal of prison penalties for scumbags who engage in serious violations of campaign finance laws.
The new legislation, she points out, calls for a maximum penalty of $25,000 for violation of the law. And that's pocket change in these days when billionaires and corporations and unions and special interest groups are allowed to spend millions on their political influence operations.
DeRosa and other minor party folks have always been critical of Connecticut's public financing system because they argue it favors major party incumbents over all challengers. Now, he warns, things will be even worse, with outside groups throwing money in and state parties trying to respond with more money.
"If you're going to have matching [campaign spending] warfare, you're going to price these campaigns into the stratosphere," according to DeRosa. "It's like they want unlimited amounts of money to be spent on campaigns to lock out all competition."
Cafero has a similar opinion. "We went from an incumbent protection system [under the old public-financing rules] to almost an incumbent guaranty," he says.
Democrat Roy Occhiogrosso has a different take. He was Malloy's top campaign guy in the 2010 race for governor, and served as Malloy's chief political advisor for the first years of his administration.
"I don't think the system is collapsing," Occhiogrosso says. "The system is responding to things outside its control... trying to maintain something like a level playing field."
"Consider the influence outside money is having on the process… Folks had to do something," he adds.
While he admits Malloy won in 2010 even though he was outspent, and that McMahon's obscenely huge self-funded campaigns were flops, Occhiogrosso warns that big outside money can turn elections upside-down.
"You can't ignore the reality of Citizens United," he insists. "It's let loose an enormous sum of outside money that can easily have an impact on the outcome of elections… The changes made this year are a reflection of that reality."
Occhiogrosso says he fully expects Malloy to seek a second term next year, and that it's likely there will be "outside groups on both sides" spending money for and against candidates in that election.
Those sorts of Democratic assurances don't do much for Dunson and the League of Women Voters. "In a nutshell, we're appalled," she says. "It's incomprehensible that the legislature would move in this direction."
The League is trying to generate a groundswell of support for trying to change Malloy's mind and getting him to veto the bill that he's already come out to support. Their chances appear thin — real thin.
Which leads to the question of whether it's still worth it for Connecticut taxpayers to keep on spending tens of millions of dollars on a system that appears to be back in deep corruption mode.
"The League is asking itself that same question," says Dunson, "and the answer is still out."