Campaign finance limits will not change in the 2014 election cycle, according to a legal opinion from Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell.
Sorrell issued the opinion in response to a question from the Secretary of State about a glitch in the state’s new campaign finance law, Act 90. The Legislature passed new campaign donation limits for parties and candidates on the first few days of the session, and Gov. Peter Shumlin promptly enacted it into law on Jan. 23.
But a drafting error repealed the existing donation limits before the new law went into effect. H.640, a technical correction bill that fixed the mistake, passed in the House and was taken up by Senate Government Operations, but died in the Senate Finance Committee.
Sorrell’s opinion makes it clear that even though the Legislature didn’t address the error, lawmakers intended for the current law to remain in place through 2014 until Act 90 goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015.
“This is some guidance going forward with the Legislature gone now and with the election season starting up in earnest,” Sorrell said.
That means for this year, no Vermont candidate can accept more than $1,000 from a single source or more than $3,000 from a political committee for any election, and no political action committee can accept contributions of more than $2,000 from a single source, political committee or political party over the two-year general election cycle, according to Sorrell.
After Jan. 1, 2015, candidates for statewide office will be able to accept campaign donations of up to $4,000 from a single source or political committee over the two-year election cycle. Political parties, under the new law, can take donations of up to $10,000 from a single source or political committee, and $60,000 from a political party (a national outfit, such as the Democratic Governors Association or the Republican Governors Association).
The new law puts a lid of $1,000 for donations to House candidates, and Senate candidates can receive no more than $1,500.
Contribution limits will be adjusted for inflation.
New campaign finance reporting dates went into effect immediately. The dates are March 15, July 15, Aug. 15, Sept. 1, Oct. 1, Oct. 15, Nov. 1, Nov. 18 and Dec. 15.
A provision in Act 90 that would have limited aggregate donations from a single source to $40,000 to Vermont candidates or political committees was contingent on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission. The court struck down aggregate limits to congressional candidates in its decision on April 2. The federal decision is widely believed to be a signal that state limits also will not hold.
The Legislature carefully crafted the new campaign law and made a conscious effort to avoid running afoul of the Supreme Court. In a 2006 decision, the court ruled in Randall v. Sorrell that Vermont’s limits on campaign funding and expenditures violated candidates’ right to free speech under the First Amendment.
Since then, the court has consistently struck down laws that would place limits on campaign fundraising. In 2010, the court said groups could spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures for advertising made on behalf of candidates. The groups, however, may not coordinate their efforts with candidates. Last year, Sorrell successfully sued the Republican Governors Association and former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie for sharing polling results in the 2010 election.