Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Board eyes campaign funding reforms

By Elizabeth Benton
Register Staff
— The Democracy Fund Board continued combing through the city’s campaign finance ordinance Monday night, recommending a lower spending limit for mayoral candidates.
Candidates are now allowed to spend up to $300,000 per race, boiling down to roughly $5.45 per registered voter, far higher than other cities with similar programs. Portland, Ore., allows candidates only 81 cents per voter, for instance. Boulder, Colo., is significantly thriftier at only 18 cents.
New Haven is the first city statewide to institute publicly funded municipal elections, and the 2007 mayoral election was the program’s trial run.
After a shaky start that election, the Democracy Fund Board has spent this past year poring over the city ordinance, and has begun recommending improvements, which will ultimately require Board of Aldermen, state General Assembly or state political party adoption to move forward. The board Monday unanimously approved three recommendations. First, a “substantial reduction” in the spending limit “so that it is comparable to the per person dollar amounts of other jurisdictions with similar programs.” Second, if a non-participating candidate were to reach the spending limit, the board recommended all qualified candidates be given the choice between a $25,000 grant and raising the expenditure ceiling. Currently, that choice is given only to candidates when they reach the spending limit. Finally, the board recommended aldermen address independent expenditures (not affiliated with a candidate, yet supporting or attacking a campaign), by using grants.
The Democracy Fund Board did not adopt a more defined recommendation to aldermen regarding independent expenditures, but appeared in agreement Monday that they wanted to see independent expenditures discouraged through use of quickly dispersed grants to impacted candidates.
“People want to see money in the hands of candidates who are disadvantaged,” said board Chairman Caleb Kleppner.
The board also has previously recommended easing access to the fund by lowering the value of contributions needed to qualify from $25 to $10, lowering the number of signatures needed to appear on a primary ballot from 5 percent of the registered party voters to 3 percent, and has asked that primary petitions be available more than 45 days before the deadline, compared to 20 days.
The board also has recommended equalizing contribution limits for non-participating and participating candidates. While all candidates in the last mayoral election signed on to the program, agreeing not to accept contributions from businesses and political action committees, few public dollars ultimately were spent, and nothing was given during the general election. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. received a $15,000 grant for the primary, but was asked to return the money when his challenger, James Newton, did not make it onto the ballot. While Newton qualified for around $10,000 in matching funds for the primary, his campaign never finished paperwork to receive the money. DeStefano was allowed to keep $11,850 in matching funds, but that was the only money given, as his campaign fell short in collecting 200 donors needed to qualify for additional funds in the general election.
Neither of DeStefano’s general election opponents, Republican Richter Elser or Green Party candidate Ralph Ferrucci, raised enough to qualify for public funding, or to consider the election contested by the Fund. Candidates must raise at least $5,000 for the election to be contested.
Elizabeth Benton can be reached at 789-5714 or

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