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How Does Public Financing Work When You’re Running For Governor?

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The wide-open race for governor means lots of campaigns will need cash if they want to compete in November. In Connecticut, one way to do that is through public financing -- a program called the Citizens’ Election Program. But how, exactly, does the program work?

With more than two dozen people campaigning to be governor, the race right now is a bit of a horse race. So candidates are looking to stand out, which includes bragging in emails about qualifying for the Citizens’ Election Program, or CEP.

Take, for instance, this one from Republican Peter Lumaj, with the subject line “Lumaj Qualifies for CEP.”

But has he? Has anyone?

“Well, no,” said Michael Brandi, head of Connecticut’s State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Brandi said the dozen-or-so candidates vying for CEP money have a lot of hoops to jump through before they get grants of $1.25 million for a primary and $6 million for the general election.

First, there’s the fundraising gruntwork.

Candidates must raise $250,000 in small-dollar, mostly in-state contributions between $5 and $100. Candidates like Lumaj, Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, and Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti all said they’ve have done that.

Recent filings show Democrats Jonathan Harris and Susan Bysiewicz along with Republicans Mike Handler, Dave Walker, Prasad Srinivasan, Steve Obsitnik, and Tim Herbst are also all reporting more than $250,000 in total contributions. But raising the money is only the first step.

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“Meeting the required contribution threshold is only one factor in a grant application process and that alone is not sufficient to receive a grant,” Brandi said. “First of all, the campaign has to also qualify for the ballot.”

To do that, candidates must get a party nomination, or the support of 15 percent of delegates at the upcoming conventions. Candidates can also collect thousands of signatures to get on the ballot.

In other words, Brandi said, no one gets CEP money unless they raise qualifying cash, get on the ballot, and obey spending rules.

One thing to keep in mind -- not every candidate is working to qualify for public campaign financing.  

Some, like Republican David Stemerman have dumped their own money into the campaign.

Republican Robert Stefanowski and Democrat Ned Lamont are forgoing the program entirely and raising money in the traditional way.

“So the total number of grants given to statewide and gubernatorial candidates will certainly be less that the total number of candidates that are out there right now,” Brandi said.

And the field is already winnowing. This week Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who was working toward CEP funding, announced he’s dropping out of the gubernatorial race.

In his latest filing, Bronin reported a balance on hand of around $113,500. According to a spokesperson at the State Elections Enforcement Commission, Bronin’s exploratory committee now has 15 days to disburse that money through a menu of options.

That menu includes giving the money back to donors, to the CEP, to a party committee, or a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

The money can also be disbursed to any political committee organized for ongoing political activities, as long as they don’t directly benefit the candidate.

In other words, candidates can’t warehouse their campaign contributions in another committee to tap into for a later race.

Update 4/23/18: Where applicable, exploratory committee receipts are also included, as reported by campaign officials and SEEC committee termination reports.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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