Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Campaign Finance Reform Flip… Flop… Flip…

Someone – no one is certain who did it – dismembered the non-partisan State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC), and the heart and liver of the thing ended up in the Secretary of State’s office.

The elections commission is supposed to prevent the kind of hanky panky that is the life and blood of machine party politics. The need for such a committee was felt after former Governor John Rowland, now a respected radio commentator and member of the fourth estate, was packed off to jail for having “deprived the state of honest services.”

Governor Dannel Malloy, the titular head of the dominant Democratic Party machine in Connecticut, has combined some agencies, supposedly as a cost saving measure, and that is how the body parts of the SEEC came to be parceled out to various agencies. This dismemberment, the leftist watchdog group Common Cause says, has considerably emasculated the hound of fair elections heaven.

The relevant watchdog agencies during the late mid-term elections nodded assent to a measure adopted by the Democratic controlled General Assembly that dumped millions of dollars into the campaign coffers of then gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy – and just in time too, because the Democratic hopeful was in danger of being outspent by his Republican opponent, Tom Foley. So, when the high court ruled unconstitutional that portion of the nation’s complex campaign finance law that automatically would have would have supplied Mr. Malloy with tax generated funds to equalize money prospectively “spent” by Mr. Foley, Democrats in Connecticut’s General Assembly wrote a bill awarding to Mr. Malloy additional tax funds to redress the imbalance, thus depriving the state of the honest services of Mr. Foley, who lost to Mr. Malloy by the slenderest of margins. Money, as we had been told countless times by fair election folk, mattered.

It’s all very complicated. Legislation that attempts to square circles generally becomes so Byzantine that only seasoned politicians can understand it, the better to manipulate complex laws to their advantage. As laws and political processes become increasingly complicated, the violations of those laws, now subject to nuanced interpretation, tend to disappear in the maze of complexity. This is what has happened to national campaign finance regulation and its derivative permutations in the states. Confusingly complex laws, adrenaline to lawyers, are the enemy both of the good and the perfect.

In any case, the non-partisan superintending state agency commissioned to enforce campaign finance laws – portions of which some jurists have declared unconstitutional -- had been dismembered, a casualty of the pinched times in which we live. Under Mr. Malloy’s cost savings hatchet, the Freedom of Information Commission has met a similar fate.

Over on the left, an alarm was raised by Common Cause. The Malloy reforms of watchdog agencies, the left breathlessly warned, had seemingly removed the fox from the henhouse; but, in practice, Mr. Malloy’s economies, made necessary by shrinking resources, had put the hens directly in the mouths of the foxes. The Secretary of State office was to superintend the SEEC.

Late on Sunday, one of the wiser heads in the Democratic caucus may have asked: How can a partisan political office, the Secretary of State, be expected to rule in a non-partisan manner on questions involving campaign finance getting and spending? Called upon to decide a question of campaign funding that would either enrich or impoverish Democrats, how would the question have been decided by former Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz, an intensely partisan politician now running for Sen. Joe Lieberman’s seat in the U.S. Congress? Can the fox really be trusted not to close his mouth on the hen that reform has fortuitously put in his teeth?

Reason struck like lighting late on Sunday and, at the last minute, Democrats in the legislature and Mr. Malloy decided to leave well enough alone and retain the independence of the SEEC. It will remain a self standing, independent agency.

As an amusing sidebar to this issue, it may be noted that when longtime reporter Mark Pazniokas set out toward the Capitol, lance in hand, determined to find out who wrote the silly pro-fox bill, he returned empty handed to CTMirror after having tilted with all the relevant windmills, his lance shattered: For some inexplicable reason, no one he interviewed in the Malloy administration or in the Democratic dominated legislature could tell him who wrote that portion of the bill that placed hen in the fox’s teeth.

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