Common Cause caught faking benefits of ‘clean elections’ in Connecticut

June 9, 2011   •  By Sean Parnell
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Self-styled ‘reform’ group Common Cause today is excitedly pushing the story that because Connecticut adopted a system of tax-financed political campaigns, legislation they favor was able to pass the Connecticut General Assembly. From their release:

Lobbyists lose to Connecticut ‘Clean Elections’

As noted in the New York Times: “In a year when conservative politics have dominated even traditionally Democratic states like New Jersey and New York, Connecticut is closing out its most activist, liberal legislative session in memory…”

  • Connecticut has passed a sweeping energy bill that modernizes the state’s energy regulatory structure, and will lower electricity rates for consumers, and help expand the Clean Energy fund and provide rebates that encourage energy efficiency, solar energy and electric vehicles.
  • In addition, CT is the first state to mandate paid sick leave for businesses with more than 50 workers

Though the New York Times article suggests these bills have passed because of democratic majorities in the House and Senate and a democratically-elected governor, Rep. Robert Godfrey said, “If there was ever an illustration of the loss of influence of lobbyists, this is it.”

Credit the Citizens’ Election Commission. Gov. Dan Malloy and  100 percent of other statewide officeholders ran under Connecticut’s public financing program. And 74 percent of the General Assembly – Democrats and Republicans – ran clean. For those of us who lobby at the Capitol, it is clear that legislators are not worrying about campaign money they need to raise from business lobbyists who represent clients that do not like these reforms. And at Common Cause, we are proud of helping to enact, protect and defend this landmark good government reform.

So apparently it wasn’t “lobbyists” that lost, only lobbyists for interests that Rep. Robert Godfrey and the folks at Common Cause don’t agree with.

But looking at the actual votes cast, it’s clear that the ‘clean elections’ program in Connecticut, known as the Citizens Election Program (CEP), was irrelevant to how and why legislators voted.

Take the first bill mentioned, the energy bill. According to the web site of the Connecticut General Assembly, the bill in question is SB 1243, which passed the Senate unanimously and the House on a 139 to 8 vote.

Pretty impressive! Only eight votes total against the bill, all in the House. So surely those eight recalcitrant legislators are drawn primarily if not exclusively from those knuckle-draggers who, as Common Cause puts it, “are… worrying about campaign money they need to raise from business lobbyists who represent clients that do not like these reforms,” right?

Umm, no. Checking the eight legislators who voted against the bill against the list of legislators who took taxpayer money for their campaigns (available here, in this laughable ‘report’ from the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission), we see that seven of the eight participated in the CEP.

The same ‘report’ (and when I have the time to write it up, I’ll explain fully why I’m using that term in quote marks and calling it laughable) also provides information on how many legislators total were elected with taxpayer money. The basic numbers are as follows:

Total legislators (House and Senate) in Connecticut: 187

Total legislators participating in CEP: 146

Total legislators elected with traditional financing: 41

I won’t reproduce all the math here (the blog format doesn’t exactly lend itself to this), but the bottom line is that when you look at the list of state legislators who voted for or against the bill and compare it with those that ran using taxpayer dollars, you find that 95.1 percent of legislators participating in the CEP voted for SB 1243, less than the 97.6 percent of those funded with private, voluntary contributions who also voted for the bill.

In other words, not taking taxpayer money and instead relying on “business lobbyists” and other allegedly unsavory sorts had a higher correlation with voting for the bill than taking taxpayer money for campaigns. Exactly the opposite of what you’d expect to see if ‘clean elections’ had played any role in helping SB 1243 to pass.

The vote for the paid sick leave bill, SB 913, is also not as Common Cause represents it. There was in fact a massive lobbying effort supporting the bill, as the Joint Favorable Report shows. Among the groups lobbying in support of the bill:

Connecticut AFL-CIO

League of Women Voters

American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees Council 4

NARAL-Pro Choice Connecticut

Service Employees International Union

Planned Parenthood of Southern New England

These and other groups have a significant lobbying force to push their agenda, most if not all of which were undoubtedly involved in advocating on behalf of SB 913. So again, we see that wasn’t “lobbyists” that lost, just those lobbyists the Common Cause believes were on the wrong side (their own two lobbyists in Connecticut presumably don’t feel like they lost).

Looking at the actual votes cast tells a tale similar to that of SB 1243 – there’s no connection between whether a legislator voted for or against the bill and whether they took taxpayer money for their campaigns or relied on private funding. The vote here was pretty close, 18-17 in the Senate and 76-65 in the House.

I’m just going to focus on the Senate vote, because there’s only 36 Senators to analyze (one of whom did not vote on the bill) and I’ve probably already wasted too much of my time debunking Common Cause’s most recent unfounded and false claim.

Of the 18 ‘yes’ votes on SB 913, 15 came from candidates who participated in the CEP and three came from traditionally funded candidates. Of the 17 ‘no’ votes, most of them came as well from candidates who took taxpayer dollars for their campaigns, 12 in all. The remaining five ‘no’ votes came from traditionally funded candidates.

The numbers show that CEP Senators tilted modestly towards supporting SB 913, but the fact is that two out of five Senators elected with taxpayer money voted ‘no’ on SB 913 despite the fact that they didn’t need to worry, again to quote Common Cause, “about campaign money they need to raise from business lobbyists.”

So-called ‘reformers’ have been pushing these fake stories for a long time, pointing to some popular (at least with them) piece of legislation that has passed and claiming without any evidence whatsoever that it was the tax-funding of political campaigns that allowed the bill to pass, while ignoring considerable evidence that the legislation passed without any real connection to the ‘clean elections’ program.

Former Maine Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree made similarly wild and inaccurate claims about that state’s ‘clean elections’ program testifying to Congress in 2009 concerning a bill having to do with chemicals. I explained the deception to the Maine legislature in testimony earlier this year:

In order to overcome the fact that research and analysis of Maine’s “clean elections” program generally shows negligible benefits, advocates often resort to anecdotal stories claiming that were it not for this program, some particularly important or popular bill would not have passed because legislators, beholden to their campaign contributors, would have prevented the bill from advancing.

One example of this is the testimony of Hannah Pingree, former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, to a Congressional committee in July 2009 considering tax financing of Congressional campaigns. In her testimony, Speaker Pingree claimed that a bill regulating chemicals was able to pass with bipartisan support because the state’s “clean elections” program meant legislators could ignore a “fierce lobbying effort” by the chemical and consumer products industries.

But a closer look at this bill, LD-2048, tells a much different tale.

 In 2008, when the bill was voted on, six of 35 Maine State Senators had been elected relying on private contributions, three Republicans and three Democrats. All six voted for LD-2048, which passed unanimously.

In the House, 23 state legislators ran their campaigns on private contributions, 18 Republicans and five Democrats. All five Democrats voted for LD-2048, as did 14 of 18 Republicans who had not participated in the “clean elections” program. LD-2048 passed with 129 votes for and nine votes against, with five of the nine ‘no’ votes coming from Republicans who had participated in the “clean elections” program.

So, of the 29 Senators and Representatives supposedly inclined to favor donor interests over the public interest, 25 voted the way Speaker Pingree presumably feels is the “right,” non-corrupt way. Plus, the bill was signed into law by Governor John Baldacci, who also rejected “clean elections” funding for both of his gubernatorial campaigns.

Clearly, whatever impulses and motivations were behind decisions to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on LD-2048, the role of campaign contributions and whether or not a legislator had been elected as a “clean” candidate played little if any role.

The time has long past that ‘reformers’ could simply say whatever they want and believe that gullible elected officials,  media, and the public would simply accept their claims at face value. It doesn’t appear that they’ve learned this lesson, however.

Sean Parnell