Campaign finance bill to languish yet another year

Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears, chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary. VTD/Alan Panebaker

An effort to make the state’s campaign finance system more transparent won’t see the light of day this year.

The legislation, S.20, would have set new campaign contribution limits for lawmakers and candidates for statewide office and created new disclosure standards for political contributors.

A controversial amendment that would have banned politicians from taking money directly from corporations, however, was the radioactive element in the mix that led lawmakers to send the underlying bill back into legislative dry cask storage -- that is back to committee.

The Vermont Senate voted 19-9 to turn the matter over to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which means it will be at least another year before the Legislature takes up the issue again.

Though S.20 passed out of committee a year ago, it didn’t emerge from the Senate Government Operations Committee until this month. It was taken up on the floor on Tuesday with a few days before the session’s predicted end.

It’s the fourth time the Senate has taken up campaign finance reform since 2007. Two previous attempts were vetoed by Republican Gov. Jim Douglas; a third bill was never taken up by the House.

The proposal that died on Tuesday would have clarified state law in the wake of a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Vermont’s 1997 Vermont campaign finance law.

Sen. Jeannette White, chair of the Government Operations Committee, said she thought S.20 is defensible because it puts campaign spending and contribution limits on a par with other states.

Proponents of reforms in the Senate said the existing system is an incumbent insurance policy and too much money is spent on elections; opponents said Vermont has clean elections already and no change to the system is necessary.

In 2010, about $6.1 million was spent on Vermont's gubernatorial race, including campaign expenditures in the general election, the five-way Democratic primary and by outside organizations.

The reform legislation would have raised campaign donation limits over the two-year general election cycle from a single source to candidates for the House from $200 to $500; for state senators from $300 to $1,000; for statewide offices from $400 to $2,000. It capped aggregated donations from a political party or political committee at $20,000, and direct political donations from political parties at $30,000. Campaign limits would have been adjusted for inflation.

The bill would have also required the listing of the first names of immediate family members who contribute to campaigns and clearer media disclosure statements regarding the source of an advertisement.

Both of these sets of changes were in response to recommendations by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was the amendment, proposed by Sen. Peter Galbraith, that was most eschewed by members of the Senate. The provision would have forbidden any union or corporation from making a direct contribution to politicians. All direct donations would have to be made by natural persons, and contributions from corporations and unions would be held by “segregated funds” that may donate to candidates. The amendment was sponsored by Sens. Galbraith, Philip Baruth, Tim Ashe and Anthony Pollina.

Galbraith said federal law forbids corporate and union donations. His proposal, he said, was an attempt to make Vermont law conform with the federal rules, which he said have been in place since 1907.

The Windham senator said corporate money has an influence on the Senate. He pointed to contributions from Casella Waste and a recent debate on expansion of the bottle bill as an example.

“In the state of Vermont, we pride ourselves on clean government, but we allow a practice the federal government outlawed 105 years ago,” Galbraith intoned. “I think it’s time that we tell the citizens of our state that corporations and union money is not playing a role in our government process.”

At this juncture, Sen. Dick Sears, chair of Judiciary, interjected. Lawmakers, he said, needed more time to consider the constitutionality of the bill and its accompanying amendment; his committee hadn’t had a chance to take testimony.

“I didn’t expect this bill to come up so soon, and I say that with a straight face, recognizing it took a journey to get here,” Sears said.

He moved that the bill be sent to his committee for testimony and review.

Galbraith, in an interview, attributed the delay and ultimate demise of the legislation to his amendment. “It’s obvious it was a motion to kill the bill,” Galbraith said. “The Senate didn’t want to have to vote on the issue of corporate contributions. In reality, they just did.”

Supporters of the reform effort described that journey as “torturous.”

Baruth, a proponent of the bill, recalled his own difficulty raising money to campaign against incumbents in Chittenden County and argued the bill should have been brought to an up or down vote a year ago so that the changes would have been in place for the current election cycle. According to Common Cause of Vermont, Baruth spent $36,584 on his campaign in 2010.

“This bill has a tortuous history that doesn’t do justice this chamber,” Baruth said. “It took over a year to reach the floor when we should have brought it here last year with alacrity. Instead, it took very long time to get here and would not go into effect this election season. ... We shouldn’t put off questions about how we are elected as incumbents.”

If the bill had passed it would not have gone into effect until 2013, according to White.

Others argued that without large donations from unions and corporations, there is no way they could have been elected. In 2010, the winning candidates for Senate seats spent $383,392, according to data from Common Cause of Vermont.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said without a contribution from a union, she would not have survived in 2000. As a middle-class Vermonter, she said she’s worried about ordinary citizens’ ability to run for office.

“We don’t have a major problem with donations,” Cummings said. “I’m also concerned about giving an advantage to people who have their own money. If you can come up with $10,000 or $20,000 and you have a trust fund or a corporate dividend as a retiree with golden handshake you can come in here and run.”

Sen. Richie Westman, a first term senator from Lamoille County, said he had to raise every cent of the nearly $40,000 he spent on his campaign in 2010 because he doesn’t have personal wealth.

Galbraith self-funded his campaign and spent $55,859 to win his senate seat, according to Common Cause of Vermont. “I could tell you that makes me beholden to no one,” he said.

Sears and Sen. Hinda Miller, D-Chittenden, said they were wary of potential constitutional pitfalls at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court views campaign spending limits as an abrogation of free speech and has ruled in favor of changes to campaign finance law that favor corporations, most notably in the recent Citizens United decision.
Sears said he believes Vermont’s failed defense of its campaign finance law led to the Citizens United ruling.

Cummings said it’s important that the Legislature take the time to develop a bill that follows the court’s guidelines, particularly in light of the millions of taxpayer dollars that have been spent over the last five years on federal cases regarding new legislation.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington, was the advocate for VPIRG who pushed for what was then considered to be one of the most stringent campaign finance laws in the country because it set very low limits on campaign contributions and spending and created a public financing mechanism.

He said he appreciated the courage and foresight of Sens. Cummings and Sears who were in the chamber at the time. “I understand how hard it is to craft campaign finance laws that pass constitutional muster,” Pollina said.

“What we’re talk about here is people are losing faith in electoral system, in part because the way it’s funded,” Pollina said. “Corruption doesn’t have to mean an entity gives you money and you do something in exchange. Corruption of the system is when when people don’t believe in it anymore.”

Proponents of the prohibition on direct corporate contributions pointed out the irony that the same Senate passed a resolution asking Congress to overturn the Citizens United ruling.

“There was a huge upswell of support for the overturn of Citizens United,” Baruth said. “But people, honest to God, don’t know corporations can contribute directly to politicians in Vermont. Our politics isn’t broken here, but the point is you have to do routine maintenance. You don’t wait until something is wrong with the system, you fix it before it gets broken and I think Citizens United has the potential to break the system.”

Editor's note: This story was updated between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m.

Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor-at-large of VTDigger. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2.8 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 32. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

Email: anne.galloway.vermont@gmail.com

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