In the wake of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Connecticut legislature worked this year to overhaul its election finance law. The goal was to comply with Citizens United’s mandates, which relaxed corporate restrictions on contributions, and added new state election law accountability.

But now more than a dozen organizations have asked Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to veto the 55-page bill. Businesses, represented by the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, oppose the bill as unworkably cumbersome for big corporations. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut opposes a provision that requires disclosure of the names of people who donate money to groups that advocate on behalf of candidates, a measure that the ACLU says would have a chilling effect on issue-oriented organziations.

And newspaper publishers fear it will make it impossible to continue its traditional role of hosting televised debates between candidates.

The Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association, which represents the state’s 17 dailies, doesn’t like that Public Act 12-117 has broadened the definition or reportable “independent expenditures.” These expenditures previously included

advertising on behalf of candidates, but now have been broadened to include any “communication,” a label that appears to include debate sponsorship. This change, said CDNA Executive Director Christopher VanDeHoef,

would require organizations to obtain formal approval from their governing boards, post vote tallies and minutes on the organization’s web site, and publish minutes within 48 hours of voting before hosting a debate.

That could mean an end to CDNA-hosted debates, depriving voters of a chance to hear candidates openly discuss issues, disclosing where they stand and how they think. The new law, “inadvertently seeks to stymie such debate and places a chilling effect on First Amendment activity of the press,” VanDeHoef wrote in CDNA’s letter to the governor. He recently discussed the matter with

Senior Writer Thomas B. Scheffey.

LAW TRIBUNE: What aspects of this bill have prompted you to call for a veto?

CHRISTOPHER VanDeHOEF: The offending portion for us changes the definition of an [organization’s] independent expenditure, replacing the term “advertisements” with “communication.” By doing so, you would then make a debate, which is clearly a communication, an independent expenditure — [triggering detailed reporting rquirements].

The Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association has been sponsoring debates since 1904. In the advent of television, it has been partnering up with a local TV studio to broadcast the debates. So now, if CDNA sponsors a debate with Fox Connecticut, the Fox airtime is an independent expenditure.

LAW TRIBUNE: Are there unanswered questions here?

VanDeHOEF:

Yes. If ads run in the newspapers of the state, are they an independent expenditure? Is the time spent setting up the debate, say, at UConn Law School, an independent expenditure? All that has value, but is it an independent expenditure as far as the campaigns are concerned?

LAW TRIBUNE: If it is an independent expenditure, can you explain who’s burdened, and how?

VanDeHOEF: Yes. The burden is very onerous. In order to arrange a debate, the newspaper association would have to convene a face-to-face board meeting, hold a vote to sponsor the debate, and within 48 hours publish the actual votes by boardmembers, along with “pertinent information” on the CDNA web site, and also file that with the

State Election Enforcement Commission within 48 hours.

That’s an onerous task for the CDNA to do, but not impossible.

But say we’re teaming up with Fox Connecticut to air the debates. The Tribune Company, in Chicago, owns Fox. Its corporate board would have to convene, face to face, and follow the same exact guidelines that CDNA would have to follow in Connecticut.

They would have to publish the board meeting on the Tribune web site within 48 hours, along with how the board members vote, and file it with the [election enforcement commission] within 48 hours.

It is our opinion that this is too burdensome and too onerous for something that is clearly in the public’s benefit.

LAW TRIBUNE: Are other organizations calling for a veto?

VanDeHOEF: I don’t know the list of them, but the governor has received upwards of a dozen letters requesting a veto.

Two interesting bedfellows are the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the ACLU, which are working together requesting a veto on the bill as well.

The CBIA represents corporations, and a large corporation simply cannot convene a board meeting over an expense of, say, $4,000, to host a debate.

LAW TRIBUNE: Would a veto cause difficulties in other areas?

VanDeHOEF: That’s not evident.

Our concern is, going into the future, if we were going to host a debate between Gov. Malloy and his challenger, it is our opinion now that if this bill were signed into law, that CDNA would withdraw from hosting debates.

Some of our friends over on the TV side would also have concerns about hosting debates as well.

 

LAW TRIBUNE: Do you feel that if these debates dwindled, that more of the election discourse would be in the form of anonymous SuperPac ads?

VanDeHOEF: Millions of dollars are spent on advertising, but I think it is absolutely paramount for any voter, before they go vote, to understand who stands on which side of the issue. Campaign advertising is very creative, but the best way to get to the crux of where a candidate stands is watching an open debate.

If this bill were to become law, it would become extremely onerous to sponsor those open debates.

If you can’t air the debate on TV, I don’t think the voters of Connecticut can pack into an auditorium to watch.