November 10, 2015: This story has been corrected.
The walls of First and Last Tavern, a popular Italian restaurant in Hartford’s South End, are crowded with photos of Connecticut powerbrokers and politicians, including the former Republican governor who was forced to resign in 2004 in a spectacular corruption scandal.
Gov. John Rowland accepted vacations, home improvements and, infamously, a hot tub, in exchange for state contracts. Shortly after he went to federal prison in 2005, the legislature approved an elections reform program built on public financing of campaigns. If elected officials were free from the need to raise ever-higher sums to run for office, lawmakers reasoned, they wouldn’t be vulnerable to contractors and other special interests. The rigorous Citizens’ Election Program quickly became a gold standard.
But Connecticut’s elections watchdog agency and the state’s dominant Democratic Party are now battling over what was supposedly eliminated a decade ago — contributions from special interests. In 2014, the two major party candidates for governor each received $6.5 million in public funds. But they also benefited from more than $19 million from Super PACs and other outside interests—including state contractors, whom Democrats encouraged to contribute to a specific account outside the jurisdiction of state laws.
The fight over public financing is just one sign of what good-government advocates and oversight groups say is a series of recent setbacks in the state’s efforts to finally shed its well-earned nickname, “Corrupticut.”
Those setbacks contributed to Connecticut’s mediocre score of 71, a C-, in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Although the state ranked third in the country, its grade has declined from a solid B in 2012, the first time the project was carried out. And while the two scores are not directly comparable, due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, the decline, many advocates say, is indisputable.