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Connecticut lawmakers urged to shine sunlight on local campaign finances

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(The Center Square) — Political contributions to municipal elected officials in Connecticut would be more accessible to the public under a proposal being considered by state lawmakers.

The legislation, which is pending before the Legislature’s Committee on Government Administration and Elections, would require candidates running for local elected office to file their required campaign disclosures with the state’s Electronic Campaign Reporting Information System, known as eCRIS, which supporters say will increase transparency in local elections.

Michael Brandi, executive director and general counsel for the state Elections Enforcement Commission, said candidates running at the local level and political committees spending at the local level currently file with their local town clerks. He said local campaign finance filings are “stored in 169 filing cabinets and are electronically inaccessible to the public.”

“Effectively, spending in local elections is currently buried,” Brandi said. “This would bring it into the light.”

He said the changes, if approved, would have “real-word benefits” to those who “want to know who is spending what at the local level on matters that affect them directly, from referenda on buildings and budgets to school board elections.”

Connecticut spent more than $1 million to develop and implement eCRIS, the state’s electronic filing system, which Brandi says “works seamlessly for party committees, general assembly and statewide candidates, and political committees spending on those offices.”

“Disclosure is instantaneous and available from any computer or phone,” he told the panel. “The benefits of this system can be extended to municipalities with little additional cost to the State and would then provide the public with far greater transparency for campaign finance information in local elections and referenda.”

The plan is also backed by cash-strapped town election clerks, some of whom say they would welcome not having to process campaign finance paperwork in addition to counting votes.

“Town clerks have other responsibilities that continue to happen during election time,” Stamford Town Clerk Lyda Ruijter said in testimony supporting the bill. “We do not cease the operation of recording, land, record, documents, issuing marriage and birth certificates, working with funeral directors to issue death certificates, dog and fish and game licenses.”

Ruijter said the legislation would help lessen the load during elections and “create a more efficient and transparent way for the public to easily view these records in one logical filing location.”

Erica Byrne, a campaign finance expert, told lawmakers that the process of filing campaign paperwork with local election clerks is “tedious” and lacks transparency.

“There is a lack of transparency that is concerning, especially since spending is virtually unlimited in the majority of municipal races,” she told the panel.

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