Sorrell greenlights Super PACs in Vermont

Vermont AG William Sorrell. VTD/Josh Larkin
Vermont AG William Sorrell. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell is throwing out the greenbooks on certain Political Action Committees this election cycle, effectively opening the door for “Super PACs” in Vermont.

Sorrell made the announcement on Wednesday in response to a letter from Vermont Priorities, a liberal PAC set up by several Vermont lobbyists to test campaign finance limits. Representatives from the PAC sent a letter to the Secretary of State’s office last week stating their intention to take unlimited individual donations and make unlimited expenditures independent of candidates’ campaigns.

In a statement, Sorrell said he will follow U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions’ recent opinion in Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell regarding contribution limits for independent expenditure PACs. Sorrell said the Attorney General’s Office will not enforce the state’s $2,000 contribution limit for PACs that demonstrate they make only independent expenditures.

Under state law no PAC may accept more than $2,000 from a single donor source, including individuals, companies, unions or other organizations. The problem, Sorrell said, is the law makes no distinction between PACs that coordinate their expenditures with political candidates and PACs that spend money independently of a candidate’s campaign.

At the federal level, cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock – widely known as the Montana case – have given corporations the same political contribution rights as people.

In Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell, Sessions said “the state has not offered a persuasive basis on which to limit contributions to PACs that only make independent expenditures.”

In light of that decision, Sorrell said, enforcing the Vermont law as written would be too risky.

“If we try to treat all kinds of PACs the same as far as holding them to a maximum contribution limit, there will be a very real risk that a lawsuit against the state would be successful,” he said.

Sorrell said he spoke to House Speaker Shap Smith, Senate Pro Tem John Campbell and Secretary of State Jim Condos about the decision and all agreed that allowing independent expenditure PACs unlimited contributions was the “prudent path.”

In January, Sorrell said he plans to ask lawmakers to differentiate between independent expenditure PACs and others.

“I will be surprised if the Legislature doesn’t amend the statute, but that’s their right,” he said.

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Taylor Dobbs

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