PrecedentSetting Cap On Campaign Funding

Vote on Connecticut law expected this week

LAWMAKERS in Hartford, Conn., this week are expected to pass the most sweeping campaign-finance reform bill in the nation.

The measure would cap candidate fund-raising at $100,000 and give each qualified contender $1.5 million in public funds. In 1994, the two gubernatorial candidates spent $10 million in the race -- a state record.

Connecticut's move mirrors a growing trend by states to rein in campaign spending. Lawmakers in at least seven states, from Maine to California, are considering new caps or strictures on what candidates can raise and spend. Many Republicans, however, oppose such limits, as well as the public financing of campaigns, which they feel is a waste of taxpayer money. Thus, Connecticut's bill, if passed, will be watched across the country.

What makes the reform so sweeping is the extent of the limits. Contributions could be no larger than $250 -- down from the current limit of $5,000 -- and three-quarters of them would have to come from in-state. After raising an initial $100,000, candidates would have to halt fund-raising to qualify for public funds.

''This proposal could set a standard and become a model ... up and down the political spectrum,'' says Ellen Miller, director of the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

But critics, such as Herbert Alexander, director of the Los Angeles-based Citizens' Research Foundation, charge that Connecticut lawmakers are ''living in a pipe dream'' if they think the proposed bill will work.

The largest controversy swirls around one feature of the bill: the exclusive use of voluntary contributions to finance campaigns.

Rather than a ''check-off'' -- a box on an income tax-return form instructing the state to redirect tax money toward public financing -- Connecticut would offer an ''add-on.'' Taxpayers could mark it if they wanted money from their tax refund to pay for candidate races. It is the voluntary aspect of the proposal that cinched bipartisan support.

Now backed by the state's Democratic Party, three former candidates for governor, and an influential Republican state senator, the bill was first rejected by Republicans who made it clear they wouldn't agree to fund candidates with state money.

''Clearly there's been some resistance,'' says Connecticut's Secretary of the State Miles Rapoport, a Democrat and the legislation's sponsor. ''But this bill does not use tax dollars. If people don't want to pay for politicians, they won't contribute.''

But the voluntary nature of the bill may be its downfall. ''Based on the operation of the add-on in other states,'' Mr. Alexander says, ''it's unrealistic to believe Connecticut can raise sufficient funds to manage this program.''

Alexander bases his prediction on a Maryland campaign-reform law, which failed in the '70s. Candidates there waited 20 years for the state's campaign fund to grow large enough to provide money to underwrite just one candidate. And nationwide, the number of taxpayers who choose to add to political-funding accounts have dropped to a mere 1 percent.

But Mr. Rapoport responds that if the public understands how the money is being spent, they will give. And he notes the first race eligible for new restrictions would be 2002 -- allowing six years to build the account.

But legislators from the Republican Senate majority leader to the Senate's second-ranking Democrat oppose the measure for more than its potential to fail. Critics say people should be allowed to give as much money as they want in campaigns. They also don't like taxpayer money being used for politicking.

In Washington last week, a similar debate took place over presidential-public financing. Republicans in Congress tried to end the ''check-off'' system on tax forms that help underwrite presidential campaigns.

But the GOP backed down when Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts gained bipartisan support to retain presidential-public financing by arguing that campaign spending would explode without the limits that public financing provides.

Rapoport presses on with his crusade to curtail spending. ''We desperately need a system where money counts for less and people and ideas count for more.''

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