May 4, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING And ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writers
In a dramatic finish to a disjointed day, the General Assembly Wednesday passed critical improvements to the state's campaign finance reform law only minutes before the midnight adjournment deadline.
The Senate voted unanimously about 11 minutes before midnight, while House members voted 122-23 just three minutes before the constitutionally mandated end to the regular legislative session.
Struggling to reach agreement on several unresolved issues, jubilant legislators had announced Wednesday afternoon that at least one major initiative - the bipartisan strengthening of the state's campaign finance laws - would be accomplished before the session ended.
Within hours, the deal was in tatters, and the bill was mired down in backroom negotiations.
It was that kind of day.
While key measures like eminent domain, the "zone pricing" of gasoline, and reducing electricity prices sat on the calendar with no action, lawmakers were tied up with other matters.
The Senate spent at least two hours Wednesday toasting two outgoing lawmakers: Lt. Gov. Kevin Sullivan, the former Senate president pro tem, and Sen. Cathy Cook, R-Groton.
The House took up - again - the "give the kid the money" amendment, a measure calling for payment of a $5.22 million lottery prize to Clarence D. Jackson of Hamden, who turned in a winning ticket three days after the one-year claim deadline in 1995. The matter has come up repeatedly since 1997, sometimes passing the House but never the Senate.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think this kid" - Jackson is now 33 - "deserves the money," said Rep. Sean Williams, a Watertown Republican. The House passed it 97-50 and sent it to the Senate, where it died without a vote. The impasse over the campaign finance bill began when Rell's staff realized that proposed ethics rules had been removed from the bill. Republican legislators also complained that Democrats had larded the bill with unrelated provisions they found objectionable. The measure appeared dead, and some legislators were already talking about a special session for another shot at fixing the law. But after a day of back-and-forth, the Senate brought the reforms up as an amendment to another bill. It was adopted and immediately sent downstairs at the state Capitol to the House, where Rep. Timothy O'Brien, D-New Britain, introduced the measure.
House Republican leader Robert Ward, who stood up at two minutes to midnight, was clearly frustrated by the bizarre process that brought one of the year's most important bills to the legislature on a moment's notice.
"I think it's a fair compromise but I must say, this process is absurd," Ward said, to scattered applause, adding that he will vote for the bill because, "I think it's right. I pray it's right."
Ward, who is retiring from the legislature, lashed out at Rep. Christopher Caruso, one of the key Democratic negotiators who clashed with Republicans on the House floor on Wednesday night. Caruso blamed Republicans for the delays and problems throughout the day; Republicans accused Caruso of loading the bill up with unrelated items and reneging on a deal he made with the governor's office.
"I think [Caruso] is an irresponsible legislator who acts as a bully and things that could usually be resolved are not resolved because of it," Ward said. "If you don't agree with him, he accuses you of being corrupt. It reminds me of McCarthy."
Caruso was still defensive after the session ended.
"It's great that we got it done, but frankly it was with no help from the Republicans," Caruso said. "If we waited for the Republicans to act it never would have gotten out."
The near-death of the campaign finance bill occurred despite the fact that everyone seemed to agree it was necessary to fix several loopholes that could undermine the law that was passed last year to much fanfare. The law bans contributions from lobbyists and state contractors and creates a voluntary system of publicly financing campaigns for state office, beginning with the 2008 legislative races. But a clause buried in the law would permanently invalidate the statute if a legal challenge is brought and a judge issues a temporary injunction that freezes the public financing system for as little as three days.
Lawmakers who included the clause in the bill said it was intended to protect candidates from legal action that could dry up their main funding source in the middle of a campaign. In the event that happens, the candidate would need the ban on fundraising from lobbyists and contractors lifted.
Since the Green Party has already intimated it will mount a legal challenge over rules that make it harder for minor parties to obtain public financing, it seems likely that the loophole could have a dire impact on the campaign finance law, lawmakers and advocates agreed.
The fix approved Wednesday would allow public financing for campaigns to be frozen only if the campaign finance law is challenged and a temporary injunction of a week or more is issued by a judge after April 15. Further, the public financing system would be frozen only until Dec. 1 of the same year.
Lawmakers also strengthened a portion of the law that deals with campaign contributions from political action committees. Legislative leaders, state political parties and town committees all funnel money to candidates through these committees, known as PACs.
Under the new agreement, candidates in primary races would not be allowed to accept in-kind contributions from PACs. The agreement also sets a $10,000 per-PAC limit in Senate races and a $3,500 limit in House races. The new rules also make it easier for minor-party candidates to obtain public financing, but do not completely level the field, lawmakers said.
The bill also includes two important ethics measures that lawmakers sought. First, it prevents the spouse of any governor from receiving an honorarium. That measure was prompted by then-first lady Patricia Rowland's acceptance of an honorarium after making a speech in Florida when her husband was serving as governor. Second, the bill prevents any former governor from seeking to lobby any agency of the state government, such as the University of Connecticut, for a year after leaving office. This provision was written after John G. Rowland sought to intervene on behalf of a Norwich contractor in a billing dispute with UConn. Rowland met with his former deputy budget director, Lorraine Aronson, who now works for UConn.
Gasoline Zone Pricing
The House avoided voting on a Senate plan to ban the practice of "zone pricing" that allows major oil companies to charge different prices to retailers at different stations. The proponents said that banning the practice - for the first time in the nation - would make gasoline prices drop. But the opponents countered that gas prices could still increase if crude oil prices continue to skyrocket.
"It will decrease competition and increase prices," said Rep. Demetrios S. Giannaros, a Farmington Democrat who teaches economics at the University of Hartford. "We're trying to educate" the proponents.
Amann said in an interview in mid-afternoon that the House would not have time for a long debate on such a controversial issue.
"There's a split in our caucus right down the middle," said Amann, who personally supported the bill.
Amann said the House Democrats also could not reach any consensus on how to help reduce prices for consumers. A key issue was whether to allow the electric companies - Connecticut Light & Power and United Illuminating - to get back into the electric generating business. Those utilities are now essentially electric delivery companies, and they buy electricity from larger generators before passing along the costs to consumers.
The problem, Amann said, was that there were so many competing interests among utilities, electric generators and consumers that there was no way to reach a compromise.
"It's a huge octopus in the room, and every tentacle had their own agenda," Amann said Wednesday.
Rep. Stephen Fontana, the co-chairman of the legislature's energy committee, said he agreed with Rep. Vickie Nardello, one of the legislature's leading authorities on electric issues, that the energy bill was one of the most heavily lobbied issues of the past decade.
Besides the large utilities and electric suppliers, the bill was lobbied by groups such as Clean Water Action and the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group.
As Connecticut uses more electricity from the increasing use of computers and all kinds of electrical gadgets, legislators say that the state needs more megawatts of "peaking generation" - which would provide electricity when the demand is greatest on the hottest days of the summer in July and August and even in the winter.
The various interest groups, however, could not agree on precisely how to provide the increased generation.
Overall, 25 environmental and consumer groups opposed allowing the Millstone nuclear power plant to produce more electricity than its original design and opposed the construction of any new coal plants in Connecticut.
Fontana noted that solving the state's energy needs is a long-term process requiring long-term solutions.
"We didn't get into this problem overnight," Fontana said. "We're not going to get out of it overnight."
Despite widespread agreement that the state's eminent domain laws need to be changed, legislators were unable to reach an agreement on how. Eminent domain became a huge issue last year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London was permitted to seize middle-class homes in order to allow a private developer to rebuild the Fort Trumbull neighborhood with a hotel and conference center, offices, and upscale housing.
Reporters' Shield Law
A bill that would protect journalists from having to reveal confidential sources received final approval from the legislature Wednesday, and Rell indicated she intends to sign the bill into law.
The law would compel prosecutors and lawyers in criminal and civil cases to "present clear and convincing evidence" to the court that a reporter's sources or notes are needed to prosecute or try a case. This is the second-highest standard in Connecticut law, the highest being proving something "beyond a reasonable doubt."
"We set the standard very high," said Rep. James Spallone, D-Essex. "Compelling reporters to reveal their sources has tremendous First Amendment implications."
Nationwide, 31 states already have shield laws, and 15 of those states have absolute shields for confidential sources, he said.
The bill approved Wednesday would cover employees of newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations, and electronic media.
Although the Senate considered an amendment to the bill that would have excluded Internet blogs, it was ultimately rejected.
A judge would determine who is covered by the law, Spallone said, which means bloggers could potentially be covered.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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