Vermonters First, the state’s best-known conservative Super PAC, criticized a handful of House legislators last week in direct mailings to their constituents, accusing these Democrats of embarking on a “massive taxing spree.”
The mailings detail the lawmakers’ voting records, as backing a hike to the state’s gas and property taxes, and also voting for an overall tax package which included taxes on soda, meals, clothing and income.
But it puts its own spin on these votes, urging readers in one case, with bold red letters, to: “Tell Michelle Fay she should not make Vermont less affordable!” On another page, next to an image of a shopping cart, a mailing reads: “State Representative Michelle Fay just voted to go on a massive taxing spree!”
Fay is a Democrat from St. Johnsbury.
Tayt Brooks, who founded and operates Vermonters First, told VTDigger in a statement that the mailings are part of its strategy to “bring balance to the debate over critical issues facing the state.”
Vermonters First achieves this goal, in part, Brooks wrote, by highlighting votes taken in the Legislature.
“The recent mailing mentioned state representatives who voted to increase the property tax (H.265), increase the gas tax (H.510), and increase the tax on clothing, meals and income (H.528),” said Brooks in the statement. “Hopefully voters will respond by engaging their elected officials in constructive conversations about the lack of affordability in the state of Vermont.”
Brooks said the mailing was “delivered throughout the state.” He didn’t elaborate on how many representatives were targeted, nor did he explain how he selected which legislators to target.
Fay criticizes the Vermonters First approach as a “one-size-fits-all approach” that doesn’t work and spreads “untruths.” The property tax rate in St. Johnsbury, she said, is actually lower than last year’s, partly because the school board exercised fiscal discipline, but also because of change from Montpelier related to base spending amounts.
On her personal website, Fay adopts stronger language. She calls the mailing “shock-and-awe propaganda” and “sensational.” She then takes pains to explain each of her votes in detail, setting them against a policy background.
“The budget picture in Vermont is bleak,” Fay told VTDigger. One-time money is disappearing, while vulnerable Vermonters are still in need of services. She says such taxes in this context “painful but necessary.”
Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans, another legislator targeted by Vermonters First, has a more upbeat response. He said he “welcomes the dialogue” which the mailings have prompted among his constituents, and thinks that having his name out there actually helps his re-election next year.
“I think that the negative style turns people off to their message,” said McCarthy. “I don’t think it was very effective for them.”
People who’ve approached him about the mailing give him the sense that the community thinks this is politically “way over the top,” said McCarthy, who found out about the mailing from a friend a day after they were delivered.
He defends his votes as tough but necessary, adding that the tax package from House Ways and Means was a “compromise,” which left out many potential taxes, like a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
“These aren’t crazy tax increases,” said McCarthy of the taxes mentioned by Vermonters First. “There are no new taxes here. … We’re getting rid of some exemptions.”
The tax hikes were not “massive,” McCarthy maintains, questioning the PAC’s language, and also didn’t happen in a “spree.”
“Really deliberate choices were made. Some were not perfect. But there were compromises, hard fought and thought out,” he said. “The word ‘spree’ implies that they were capricious. That’s not the case.”
It’s unclear exactly how many people received the mailings. If Vermonters First targeted every doorstep in St. Johnsbury, that’d be about 3,000 addresses, said Fay. McCarthy estimates that it reached at least a few hundred in both St. Albans Town and St. Albans City.
McCarthy said Rep. Dave Potter, D-Clarendon, and Rep. Herb Russell, D-Rutland, both told him they were targeted with similar mailings last week. All three sit on the House Transportation Committee, which crafted the original gas tax hike proposal.
Vermonters First targeted at least seven Democratic representatives, including Reps. Linda Waite-Simpson, Tess Taylor (Assistant Majority Leader of the House) and John Malcolm, out of the 96 members of the House who passed the gas tax.
Both McCarthy and Fay suspect they were targeted because they’d just won their first terms to office, in seats perceived as vulnerable. “My district mate has been here for more than 20 years, and I think they see my seat, the junior seat, as one that would be easy to pick up in 2014,” said McCarthy, who noted he won his race by just 16 votes.
“I’m a new member, I’m a Democrat, in a traditionally Republican area,” said Fay. “I unseated an incumbent Republican.”
It’s also unclear how much Vermonters First spent on the mailings. Answers may not be forthcoming soon.
Since the group spent about $7,800 on television ads in late February, it’s had to register as a lobbyist with the Secretary of State.
While the next release of lobbyist disclosures will be out later this week, information about expenditures made after March 31, is not available until July 25, according to Secretary of State elections chief Will Senning.
Brooks wouldn’t respond to questions about how much Vermonters First had spent on the mailings.
Senning said legislators mentioned in these sorts of political communications don’t have to be notified or made aware of what’s been said. Both McCarthy and Fay first found about the mailings secondhand, though very shortly after they first appeared.
In contrast, Senning said, political candidates mentioned in a mass media mailing 30 days before an election must be notified that they’ve been named or targeted. There’s been some initial talk of tightening the state’s oversight of lobbying expenditures, from House Health Care Chair Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, but no political action so far.