The Albany Times-Union
Current CT Secretary of State Denise Merrill and former CT Secretary of State Miles Rapoport
April 22, 2013
As New York policymakers, led by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, consider a comprehensive package of campaign finance reform, they should look at Connecticut to see just how much a strong small-donor public financing program can improve the legislative process and relieve lawmakers of the burdens of high-donor, special-interest fundraising.
As former and present Connecticut secretaries of state, we are very proud of our Citizens’ Election Fund, which began providing voluntary public financing for our legislative and statewide campaigns in 2008. As former legislators, we understand intimately the fundraising aspects of standing for election, and how frustrating special interest influences can be to the legislative process.
Just as a comprehensive campaign finance program in New York could do, the Connecticut model requires participating candidates to raise funds from a minimum number of small donors in their districts, making everyday constituents the focus of a candidate’s time and energy. Even after only three election cycles, the evidence is clear that the program is beginning to change the state capital for the better.
Connecticut’s legislators are able to spend more time focused on the merits of proposals and on the needs of constituents, and less time attending special interest fundraisers, from which the larger donations flow. This is beginning to shift the culture of policymaking in the state and creating a more representative and responsive legislature.
The program is also incredibly popular with both parties. The 2012 election cycle saw a record number of candidates participate in the program: 77 percent of elected legislators used the voluntary program and all statewide offices are currently held by public financing participants.
When we were running for office, we spent numerous hours of each day on the telephone and at events asking people for large donations. Today, legislators are spending more time with their constituents and hearing from a more diverse set of voices, and it’s resulting in public policies more in line with the priorities of Connecticut’s voters.
But you don’t have to take just our words for it. A newly released Demos report compiles the public financing experiences of current and former Connecticut legislators, and the results are compelling.
Consider Democratic Sen. Martin Looney, who has personally observed the lessening influence of lobbyists. He explained, “There is no longer the pressure to attend events because there is no longer a need for the financial connection. In the past, some lobbyists were more effective than others and now… everyone has to compete based on the merits of their proposals.”
Republican state Rep. Al Aldinolfi noted the increasing bipartisanship in lawmaking — particularly on big issue votes — and credits a new and deeper concentration on the issues.
He also extolled the value of putting small-donors at the center of a campaign’s plan, noting how before public financing “you’d spend half of your time in the election cycle calling up people, raising money instead of going out and knocking on doors. Now, you’re getting it from the people and hearing what they want and not from special interests.”
While every state is unique, New York has the opportunity to enact similar change. A comprehensive campaign finance reform package that includes a small-donor matching system, strong enforcement, and lower contribution limits promises to improve the legislative process for policymakers and for their constituents.
Public campaign financing is working in Connecticut and it will work in New York.
Denise Merrill is the Connecticut secretary of the state. Miles Rapoport is president of Demos and served as Connecticut secretary of the state from 1995-1999. He is also co-author of “Fresh Start: The Impact of Public Campaign Financing in Connecticut,” a report by the Demos think tank.