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Common Cause launches campaign donation database

Posted By Andrew Nemethy On March 1, 2012 @ 10:03 pm In Campaign Finance | No Comments

Campaign finance reports were due to on Friday. Photo by Kevin Rawlings [1]

Campaign finance reports were due to on Friday. Photo by Kevin Rawlings

Money and politics are familiar bedfellows, but in Vermont it’s been hard to peer into the bedchamber – until now.

Common Cause Vermont Thursday announced that it’s given residents of the Green Mountain State a searchable campaign contribution database for the 2010 election – and chided the state for not doing more to open the door on who spends what for whom.

Common Cause Executive Director Wally Roberts said the effort required nearly 1,500 hours of database mining and compilation to render the information into an easily readable form. The link to the extensive figures, which include all statewide races and selected House and Senate races, are at www.commoncause.org/vt/2010contributions [2].

Roberts said “more cash was spent in the 2010 election than ever before, especially in the race for governor” – $4.78 million, a jump of 147 percent from 10 years ago. And in predicting that upward trend will continue, he said it was essential the state move to take campaign finance filings and information out of the technical dark ages and put it all online.

“Our campaign laws are among the weakest in the nation and our state government ranks near the bottom in several recent studies of transparency,” he said. Common Cause’s effort, he said, is not just a public service but a model for how the state can improve its reporting system.

According to Roberts, information from candidates is now scanned from hard copies and put on PDF format files at the secretary of state’s website, but they are not easily searched and sorted. More than 1,000 documents are involved, each of which is at least three pages long, according to Roberts, and there are around 9,250 contributors who donated in 2010.

The failure to make information easily available, he said, “restricts the public’s right to know how campaigns are financed and how big donors influence public policy.”

“Vermont needs to have an election database like we created,” Roberts said.

He praised Secretary of State James Condos for helping with the project to transform the contributions into a searchable database, and lawmakers such as Rep. Jason Lorber, D-Burlington, and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, for their efforts to increase transparency on campaign financing.
Lorber has introduced a bill in the House (H.741) which calls for the state to set up a election financing database and another (H.740) that calls for revisions in the state’s campaign finance law.

In calling for a statewide electronic campaign finance disclosure system as soon as possible, he also disputed an estimate by former secretary of state Deb Markowitz that it would cost $600,000 to $1 million.

“We think it can be done cheaper,” he said.

Roberts made it clear he did not want to imply that there is any impropriety or direct link between contributors and the votes that Vermont office holders make. But he said transparency is key in letting voters know who is financing whom and letting them draw their own conclusions.

With Vermont’s move to create a system of universal health care and a proposed takeover over Green Mountain Power by Gaz Metro, Roberts said he expected those hot issues to fuel a boost in campaign donations from outside organizations and political action committees in the 2012 and 2014 elections.

“That’s something to watch out for, I think,” he said.

Looking at the campaign finance numbers

What’s in the Vermont Common Cause 2010 campaign finance numbers?

Some interesting eyebrow raisers, such as the fact that a lot of business contributors hedge their bets and contribute to both parties or candidates.

Or not. Myers Container Service in Winooski went the other way, donating $5,000 only to GOP candidates Chris Roy, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie and the Vermont Republican Party.

Did you know national corporations such as Reynolds American Tobacco Products, Comcast Cable and CVS Caremark care enough to spend thousands of campaign dollars on Vermont candidates? They do. First Wind Energy contributed $4,400 to eight Vermont candidates in 2010, including $1,000 each to Gov. Peter Shumlin, GOP candidate Brian Dubie and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

Whether you’re a political wonk, open government advocate or just curious, the database provided by Common Cause is interesting reading, in a numbers sort of way, and a people sort of way too. You may recognize the names of your senator or representative – and that’s what it’s for: What does a beer manufacturer from St. Louis, Mo., have to offer GOP Sens. Kevin Mullen, Vincent Illuzzi and Democratic Sen. Dick Sears? Either $200 or $300 each.

It might be good conversation starter with your senator over a cool one this spring.

CCVT sorted the contributions into five categories—individuals, businesses, PACs, candidate and family, and party committees. (Editor’s note: The formatting may not work perfectly on all computers; some information was cut off viewing the figures using a Mac and Firefox browser).

Common Cause of Vermont has created a fully searchable database of campaign contributions for the 2010 election and an accompanying analysis, which shows more than one-third of the Senate received between 40 percent and 80 percent of their contributions from businesses and PACs, compared to the average (17.8 percent) for all members of that body.

More cash was spent in the 2010 election than ever before, especially in the race for governor. The winner, Democrat Peter Shumlin, raised almost $1.5 million in contributions which was 12 percent more than Jim Douglas’ top year of 2008. Brian Dubie raised almost $1.8 million.

Both candidates also had the help of independent expenditures by PACs. The Democratic Governors Association and Green Mountain Future spent $1.1 million on Shumlin’s behalf, and the Republican Governors Association spent $756,000 on behalf of Dubie.

In total, the top two candidates spent $4.78 million, a 147 percent jump from 10 years ago. The expenditures by four other Democrats in the 2010 primary bring the total expenditures for the 2010 gubernatorial campaign to $6.1 million, more than four times the amount spent in 2008.

The most important contributions in the governor’s race were the $285,421 that Shumlin donated to his own campaign, along with the $35,618 donated by his relatives for a total of $321,039. These two donations comprise 21.5 percent of all donations to Shumlin’s campaign and dwarf the candidate and candidate’s family donations to Republican Brian Dubie’s campaign of $4,250, which was 0.3 percent of his total.

Dubie received almost four times as much from businesses as did Shumlin, $211,018 vs. $58,690, which represent 13.4 percent and 4 percent of the candidates’ total contributions respectively. Dubie also received more from PACs, nonprofits and trade associations than did Shumlin, though by a much smaller margin $76,798 vs. $50,593 respectively. Various party and candidate committees gave $306,439 to Dubie and $215,304 to Shumlin.

CCVT also analyzed for the overall top contributors. David Blittersdorf, founder of NRG and All Earth Renewables, was the largest single individual contributor, with contributions to candidates for various state offices totaling $19,213. In addition, NRG donated $4,000 to the Shumlin campaign. Other top individual contributors include Bruce Lisman of Shelburne, a retired finance executive and founder of Campaign for Vermont, $17,650, and Bill and Jane Stetson of Norwich for a combined total of $24,950. Bill Stetson is a filmmaker and board member of Vermont Public Radio, and Jane Stetson is finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

The top business contributors were AT&T, $16,900; Medco Health Solutions, a pharmaceutical management company, $15,650; and Kimbell, Sherman & Ellis, a Montpelier lobbying firm, $15,600. (Since then, Steve Kimbell, one of the principals of that firm, was named by Shumlin last year to be commissioner of the Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities, and Health Care Administration which regulates those industries. The firm changed its name to KSE Partners.)

The top contributors among the PACs and nonprofits were the Teamsters Union, $18,025; the Vermont Fund for Families, a gay and lesbian rights advocacy group, $12,600, and the Vermont Troopers Association and the Vermont League of Conservation Voters, each with $9,250.

The top trade association contributors were the Vermont Fuel Dealers, $13,950, and the Vermont Realtors Association at $13,400, and the top party committee was the Jim Douglas for Governor Committee, which gave $11,000 to various Republican candidates. Altogether, the top contributors gave $570,685 to all candidates, which is 8.2 percent of all donations.

All of these databases were written in Excel 2007 and can be sorted using its ‘Data’>>’Sort’ function. There is a Master Contributions database and six secondary databases for different races and categories of contributors, plus a spreadsheet showing historical trends.


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[1] Image: http://vtdigger.org/vtdNewsMachine/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/20110715_moneySlider.jpg

[2] www.commoncause.org/vt/2010contributions: http://www.commoncause.org/vt/2010contributions

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