New Vermont Super PAC founders say there’s nothing super about unlimited campaign spending

Bob Stannard. VTD/Josh Larkin

Bob Stannard. VTD/Josh Larkin

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

That’s the logic Priorities PAC is applying. The new group made its way onto the Vermont political scene today as the first Super PAC in the state’s history, a landmark the group’s founders are not happy with at all.

Their mission: Get Super PACs out of Vermont.

Priorities PAC is an offshoot of Vermont Priorities, a 501(c)4 group advocating for liberal agenda items like universal health care, clean energy and a progressive tax system that will pay for more government programs.

Vermont Priorities launched what they hope will be the Super PAC to end all Super PACs after a recent court decision opened the door, they say, for the groups.

Bob Stannard, chairman of Vermont Priorities and the treasurer of the new PAC, said the group can accept unlimited donations and making unlimited expenditures on political advertisements supporting or opposing candidates as long as they do not coordinate with or donate to the candidates. In January, Stannard started Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Today, a national Super PAC inspired by Stephen Colbert.

Stannard said the only way to rid the state of Super PACs, which he says will be detrimental to the state’s progress on a variety of issues over the last 40 years, is to beat them at their own game.

“If you don’t participate in the process, you don’t get a chance to change it,” he said.

An Independent Expenditure Campaign PAC or Super PAC is, a Political Action Committee that does not donate to or coordinate with any political candidate, but may accept unlimited donations and dedicate unlimited spending in support of or opposition to political candidates. Independent Expenditure Campaign PACs have been prominent in national politics since 2010, when the Federal Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. ruled in v. Federal Election Commission that individual contributions to PACs could not be limited.

Super PACs have not been a part of Vermont politics up to now because of the state’s stringent campaign finance rules, but Priorities PAC says that changed last month after Sessions’ ruling in the Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell case, which stated that the court “reiterates that the State has not offered a persuasive basis on which to limit contributions to PACs that only make independent expenditures.”

However, Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s office is reviewing the group’s submission in the context of current Vermont law to see if Super PACs are legal.

“We’re going to be meeting internally tomorrow,” he said, “we’re already doing research on these issues and we will come up with our opinions on what the current state of Vermont law is and what our actions are going to be. My guess is that we’ll have come to closure on that … with a public opinion probably sometime next week. We’re going to expedite it. We’re in campaign season so we’re not going to just let this drag on.”

Secretary of State Jim Condos said his office was working with the Attorney General on the filing.

“We just received it,” Condos said. “We’re going to review it to see how it fits within state laws, and when we’re done that review, we’re going to make a statement of some kind.”

If the Attorney General decides the group is operating within the context of state law, they will be able to start taking donations and could work toward the election of their choice candidates this year, though Stannard said the board is still deciding on how to work within the 2012 elections.

Persuading Vermonters who are against Super PACs to donate is going to be no easy task, Stannard said, but he thinks Vermont faces a do or die moment when it comes to the groups.

“Of course it’s going to be hard,” Stannard said. “There are people who I find myself intellectually and ideologically in sync with in Vermont [who oppose Super PACs], but when push comes to shove, it’s the new game, it’s the new paradigm, and you either participate in it or you wish you participated in it.”

Because the ruling that Priorities PAC says opened the door for Super PACs is so recent, Vermont doesn’t even have a system in place for Super PACs to register with the state said Todd Bailey, a consultant for the group. Instead, Bailey said, they filed with the Secretary of State’s office using the guidelines set forth by the Federal Election Commission.

Whether it works or not, Stannard says he’d rather get a Super PAC working against Super PACs before others with “a different frame of mind” start operating in the state.

“I’ve done a lot of strange things in my life,” Stannard said, “and this is one of the oddest things I’ve ever done.”

Taylor Dobbs

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