Margolis: Campaign finance problem is not the money, it's find the information

Margolis: Campaign finance problem is not the money, it’s finding the data

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

Oh, the doing and undoing, the sighing and the suing, the charges and counter-charges, the threats and warnings, the moaning and groaning.

Followed, needless to say, by the gnashing of teeth when it all came to naught.

Such was the process and fate (so far) of S.82, An Act Relating to Campaign Finance Law, as it made its painful and intricate way through the process of not quite becoming law in the recently concluded 2013 session of the Vermont State Legislature.

The bill is not dead, said Sen. Jeanette White, the Putney Democrat who was its chief sponsor. White said she hoped to begin work on the bill when the Legislature reconvenes in January, though the lower contribution limits in the measure “wouldn’t apply to this (2014) campaign cycle.”

Campaign finance is important. Considering its complexity and the passions it sometimes arouses, no one should be surprised at a certain amount of moaning, groaning, and even gnashing of teeth.

We are talking here, after all, about how much money people are allowed to give to candidates, whether corporations ought to be allowed to give any at all, and what to do about political action committees, especially those infernal “Super PACs,” which began showing up in Vermont last year.

But maybe we should be talking about something else.

Not that contribution limits and Super PACs are irrelevant. But what has been absent from the discussion is the possibility that they are not primarily what ails Vermont’s campaign finance system.

For openers, consider that the only Vermont Super PAC one need take seriously – Vermonters First – has so far been a flop.

Then look at political corruption in Vermont. Or at the candidates who won elections because they outspent their opponents.

Keep looking.

Having found either none or very, very little of either, think about just how important it is – or isn’t – to lower the amount citizens or committees can contribute to candidates, or to ban corporate contributions.

“Not very,” would seem to be the sensible answer.

It isn’t just that there is no evidence of corruption. It’s that there’s no plausible case to be made that a single piece of legislation passed or was defeated because lawmakers or Gov. Peter Shumlin were doing the bidding of big contributors.

Under present law, no contributor can be all that big. The richest person in the state (or the world) can give a candidate $2,000 every two years (a grand each for the primary and the general). That’s more than most people can afford to give. But it’s roughly one fifth of one percent of what each of the last four candidates for governor raised, hardly enough to give any one donor all that much sway over the winner.

There is a case to be made for lowering the limits, as S.32 would do. Paul Burns of VPIRG, the longtime champion of campaign finance change, makes the case, pointing out that “with individual contributions, there’s as stronger likelihood that a person who knows … likes … and believes in (a candidate)” will finance a campaign, rather than “a PAC or a corporation,” and if the limit is lower, more of those local supporters could afford to contribute.

But then, there’s a case for raising the limits. That would make it easier for legislative candidates, for instance, to finance their campaign from a few constituents – local folks who know and like the candidate – reducing the clout of PACs and corporations.

But who says too much money in campaigns is the problem? There will be private money in campaigns until campaigns are publicly financed, which will happen either never or a long, long time from now. Until then, who decides how much is too much and on what basis?

But when a Senate committee contemplated higher limits back in March, VPIRG and its supporters went ballistic. Its newsletter quoted Sonja Schuyler, a board member of the League of Women Voters — Vermont, saying, “If too much money in campaigns is the problem, how can more money be the solution?”

But who says too much money in campaigns is the problem? There will be private money in campaigns until campaigns are publicly financed, which will happen either never or a long, long time from now. Until then, who decides how much is too much and on what basis?

“Too much money” certainly does not seem to be the problem in Vermont, where only candidates for governor spend a lot of money, because only in the governor’s race is there much television advertising, which is what makes modern campaigns so expensive.

Nor does the candidate who spends most always win. Shumlin was slightly outspent by Brian Dubie in 2010, and though the governor raised far more than Randy Brock last year, he ended up spending less. Republican Vince Illuzzi spent almost twice as much as Doug Hoffer, but lost the auditor’s race.

As to “buying” office, in the way that, say, Michael Bloomberg (legally) “bought” the mayor’s office in New York City … well, one might say that Rich Tarrant tried to buy a U.S. Senate seat in 2006 and Rodolphe “Skip” Vallee a state Senate seat in 2000. Neither came close.

When it comes to the Legislature, money matters much less. Even in a competitive district, a candidate can win a House seat for not much more than $5,000 and a Senate race for $15,000 or so. Any candidate who doesn’t have enough local support to raise that kind of money, mostly from right in his or her district, probably couldn’t get elected with all the corporate/PAC special interest funding in the world.

So everything is just peachy keen with Vermont’s campaign finance system?

No. But the real problem has little to do with limits and Super PACs. It has to do with the state’s obsolete system for finding out who has given how much to whom.

For instance, anyone can go to the Secretary of State’s website and find that last September 19 Anheuser-Busch companies gave Shumlin $1,000, each making a total contribution to him for the two years the $2,000 maximum.

Want to find out how much the beer-maker might have given to other Vermont candidates? Or how much the beverage industry as a whole, or the corporate sector as a whole, gave to Shumlin? Or anyone else?

Possible, but difficult. The technology exists for a system in which a user could tap in any company’s name and find all its Vermont contributions almost instantly, or to find out how much different industries gave to candidates.

The technology exists, but Vermont does not have it. The state lacks “the kind of computer system you need to have robust database, where information can be uploaded, accessed and can be queried,” said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU in Vermont.

White was more blunt. Vermont now has a “stupid system,” of campaign finance reporting and access, which is “a pain in the butt,” she said.

Fixing the system is also part of S.82, and it is “not controversial at all,” White said, which helps explain why the Legislature separately appropriated $50,000 for what Secretary of State Jim Condos called a “down payment” to begin the process of finding the right system. Condos said he could report back to the Legislature in January, and he added that thanks to improvements in the technology, the cost of installing the system could be lower than the $600,000 to $1 million estimated a few years ago.

Unfortunately, what did prove to be controversial was a provision in the Senate bill that would have required campaigns to ask (though not require) donors to identify their employers.

Most states include this requirement, as does federal law. But White said some House members worried it would be “too intrusive” for Vermonters.

This comes under “the Department of ‘Huh?’” Donors already give their names and addresses, more personal information than their place of work. Besides, one violation to look out for is employer coercion, where the boss “suggests” the employees support a candidate. By providing at least prima facie evidence of such a practice, urging donors to reveal their employers might prevent it.

However they resolve that issue, it would seem sensible if someone in the Legislature suggested just passing the part of the bill that brings the reporting-retrieval system into the 21st century, and leaving the stuff about Super PACs and corporate contributions to another day. They’re not the problem.

Jon Margolis

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