The head of the agency in charge of Connecticut’s clean-elections program predicted that a record 300 candidates — from the governor’s race on down to legislative contests — could participate this year.
Michael Brandi, executive director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC), said agency staff have been working nights and weekends to handle the deluge of applications.
“These are the most applications we’ve received in the history of the program,” Brandi said. “We’re getting absolutely bombarded.”
Here are some things to know about the Citizens’ Election Program:
How much will public campaign financing cost the state this year?
Brandi predicted the cost for all candidates could reach $33 million, not including overtime for agency staff.
At this time in 2014, there were zero applications filed. There were three for the same period in 2016. This year, there are already 30.
The agency expects to surpass its overtime expenditure for 2014 — the last governor’s race — of $23,275. Agency staffers also accrued 284 comp time hours in 2014.
The price tag would have been even higher, but the two top Democratic contenders for governor aren’t participating in the program, election officials say.
The party’s endorsed candidate, Ned Lamont, is mostly self-funding his campaign, while the previously imprisoned Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim is not eligible for public funds because of his felony conviction for corruption. The savings is $1.2 million per candidate for the primary and $6 million to the party’s eventual nominee for the general election.
What’s the urgency to get the money? The November election is months away.
Republicans and Democrats will hold their primaries for myriad state offices Aug. 14, which gives candidates 10 weeks to wage a campaign geared toward each party’s base.
It takes auditors at least a week to sift through the filings of gubernatorial candidates, according to SEEC, which has received applications from Mark Boughton, Tim Herbst and Steve Obsitnik so far. All three qualified for the GOP primary during the party’s convention last month, where Boughton won the endorsement.
Obsitnik’s application was the first to come up for a potential vote by the commission Thursday, but was delayed for at least another week until the Westport tech entrepreneur meets all of the program requirements.
“We always say we’re not an ATM,” Brandi said. “We’re a clean-elections program.”
Election officials declined to discuss what specifically delayed Obsitnik’s application from being approved, but his campaign said the commission wants more information about contributors.
If someone checks off that they are self-employed, the campaign said, the commission wants to know the name of the business. Ben Proto, a senior political adviser to Obsitnik, said he’s confident it’ll get reconciled and the application will be approved.
“They’re becoming even more strict than they have been in the past,” Proto said. “I suspect everyone is gonna have the same issue. [The commission] got way more candidates than they ever expected.”
Why is there public financing in Connecticut?
A scourge of public corruption cases — the most notable being the 2004 resignation and imprisonment of Gov. John Rowland — led to the nickname of “Corrupticut” and spawned the Citizens’ Election Program. Its intent was to root out special interest money in state elections and free candidates from the fundraising grind. Candidates are prohibited from accepting contributions from state contractors.
Who is eligible for public funds?
Candidates for governor must raise $250,000 from at least 2,500 contributors. All but $25,000 must come from within the state. There are different thresholds for other constitutional offices such as attorney general and for the legislature.
There’s another caveat — candidates cannot apply for a grant until they’re on the ballot. So in the case of longtime Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti, who is seeking to petition his way onto the Republican primary ballot for governor, it could be late June at the earliest that he could apply.
“Until he has that, he can’t apply for a grant,” Brandi said. “There’s no real fast-tracking [But] we are cognizant of people who are in primary contests.”
Where does the money come from?
The decade-old program has sustained itself with proceeds from the sale of abandoned property and unclaimed bottle deposits. Budget hawks have argued that the state, mired in chronic deficits, would be better served spending the money on something else.
What else is different about the program this year?
To prevent last-minute qualifiers from going on a spending spree, grant amounts will be reduced by at least 25 percent and as much as 60 percent this year.
“Nobody wants to receive less money,” said Brandi, who attributed the early surge in applications to the provision.