A system of public financing of political campaigns will bring dramatic change to many state House and Senate races in 2008. While the full impact will not be felt until 2010 when races for Governor and statewide offices will occur, the law’s intent is to begin to restrict the corrosive influence of money in politics that reached its nadir during the Rowland years.

Without John Rowland’s violations of the public trust coming to light, the land of steady habits might still be stuck with a government increasingly influenced by excessive political money and corporate-funded special interests.

It is worth noting (with no small amount of irony) that in 2000 Connecticut’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly approved a Clean Elections law modeled after Maine’s law that was adopted by referendum in 1996. Governor Rowland, unbowed by the imprisonment of his State Treasurer, Paul Silvester, for graft in the handling of state pension funds, vetoed a Connecticut clean election law. Had it been adopted the reform might have spared Rowland himself from jail time.

“It is an exciting time for democracy in Connecticut,” says State Rep. Tim O’Brien (D-24) who served on the GAE Committee that helped craft legislation designed to diminish the influence of lobbyist money and that includes an outright contribution ban on contractors who do business with the state.

“For generations, we have dreamed of an open election system in which people’s voices matter more than special interest money. Now, it is a reality,” declares O’Brien in launching his 2008 campaign for the state House that will rely on grassroots contributions. To voluntarily opt in to the “Citizen’s Election Program” state House candidates will be required to obtain individual contributions in their communities. A state representative must obtain 150 donations in his or her community; a state senator must obtain 300 donations, most of which will be small-scale contributions of no more than $100. Candidates who opt not to participate will be required to file and disclose campaign finance information.

The state Elections Enforcement Commission, which is administering the Citizen’s Election Program, has set forth basic goals:
(1) to allow candidates to compete without reliance on special interest money; (2) to curtail excessive spending and create a more level playing field among candidates; (3) to give candidates without access to sources of wealth a meaningful opportunity to seek elective office, and;(4) to provide the public with meaningful and timely disclosure of campaign finances.

Connecticut’s Citizens’ Election program, adopted in the wake of the Rowland scandals, is modeled after Maine’s Clean Elections law. The Maine law now involves 80% of legislative candidates from all political persuasions. It has won praise for reducing excessive spending and, according to a recent study by the Maine ethics commission, allowed candidates to devote more time talking issues and getting feedback from voters.

The high stakes test for Connecticut’s citizen-funded election program won’t come until gubernatorial and statewide races in 2010. There may also be a need to adjust the law to empower Town Committees and encourage grassroots financing in the new system. And no one should assume that the Clean Elections Program is all that will be needed to enforce strong ethics in government. What is clear, however, is that Connecticut lawmakers, pushed by reformers such as Rep. O’Brien, had to strike a blow against corruption in the wake of John Rowland’s exit and indiscretions.

Opponents of public financing had always used the argument that taxpayer money should not finance political campaigns. But that argument finally fell to the side when the question was asked: how much more will taxpayers pay for abuses of the public trust made possible by campaigns funded entirely by private interests?

“This is an important moment in history, and I would like to ask you to be a part of reclaiming our democracy,” says Rep. O’Brien in making his campaign part of a citizen-based election system.

In the long term, proponents of the law such as O’Brien and New Britain’s Democratic lawmakers view the new campaign system as a catalyst to enacting major reforms. Progress on key consumer issues such as a more equitable tax system, universal health care and controlling energy and utility costs have long been thwarted by powerful corporate lobbyists whose influence have now been diminished in the 2008 election cycle.

Thanks John Rowland. We could not have done it without you.