Drafting error opens campaign finance bill up for changes

Gov. Peter Shumlin quietly signed the controversial campaign finance bill, S.82, into law on Jan. 23 (it was the first bill of the session that he has enacted), but it turns out lawmakers will get another bite at the apple.

There was a drafting error — the effective dates were incorrect — and so House Government Operations must address the problem with Act 90 in H.640, a technical corrections bill that will be up for action in the coming days. The bill, however, has not yet been voted out of committee.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, wants to use this opportunity to propose an amendment that would reinstate lower donation and contribution limits in line with the original bills passed by the House and Senate.

S.82 significantly increases the limits for donations to candidates and parties and sets a new, higher cap on aggregate limits for single source donations to candidates and political action committees. Under current law, the maximum donation from a single source to a candidate is $2,000; under S.82, it would be $4,000 for statewide candidates in a two-year election cycle. The cap for parties is $2,000 now; it would be $10,000 under the new law.

Political parties will be able to receive as much as $60,000 in an election cycle from a national party, and $10,000 from a single source or a PAC. The current limit is $2,000.

The aggregate limit for single source donations is set at $40,000.

The bill reduces the amount House and Senate candidates can raise.

Her amendment would increase the maximum amounts candidates could receive from parties ($5,000 for reps; $8,000 for senators; and $90,000 for statewide candidates) and lowers the amounts parties could accept to $4,000 from a single source. Parties could receive $40,000 from national parties.

In an email, Browning says the Democratic leadership may try to find another way to fix the effective date error so that she doesn’t have an opportunity to offer her proposal.

If it is brought to the floor, Browning expects her amendment to be ruled non-germane, but she said in an email, “I would like the Legislature to take one more look at what they did, after the blowback following final passage.”

Shumlin says he signed S.82 because he says “Vermont desperately needs a campaign finance law.”

In an interview at a press conference on Monday, the governor said he was concerned that the state’s old law was vulnerable to a court challenge. Vermont’s campaign finance law reverted to 1981 limits, he said, because of a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling a 1997 state statute unconstitutional.

“So my question well, is what do you do, it seems to me you pass a smart campaign finance law that doesn’t take us back to the Supreme Court where we lose again and cost taxpayers millions of dollars, but instead has reasonable limits that can be upheld by the Supreme Court, so that’s what this bill does,” Shumlin said.

When asked if he thought raising the limits for parties to $10,000 and $60,000 respectively was necessary, the governor replied: “I think that overall it’s a good bill. Let’s remember, when we reverted to the old bill it was 1981 levels and a lot has changed since 1981. The Legislature actually reduced what they can take for campaign limits.”

He said the limits for statewide races were “raised slightly.” Shumlin didn’t remark on the party contributions.

Commenters on VTDigger have asked whether the Shumlin administration attempted to influence the conference committee that was charged with striking a balance between the House and Senate proposals because the bill that ultimately emerged did not strike a compromise for party limits, it instead doubled or tripled the amounts. Conference committee members flatly deny the administration tried to influence the legislation.

House Government Operations committee members say the idea for raising the limits for parties emerged during negotiations with Senate Government Operations members last fall when they discussed the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case with legislative counsel. A Republican donor in Alabama sued the state over aggregate limits on donations. Arguments were filed in the case Oct. 8, 2013.

Courts have also struck down laws that would limit independent expenditures for advertising made on behalf of candidates.

Conference committee members say this was another reason they boosted party limits. They fear that wealthy individuals or corporations could buy an election by pumping advertising dollars into a race through independent expenditures.
Through the Super PAC Vermonters First, Lenore Broughton spent $1 million on mass media buys for Republican candidates in Vermont. Not one of the statewide candidates she supported won a seat.

Editor’s note: Laura Krantz contributed to this report. This story was updated at 11:34 a.m. Feb. 6 with new information about Browning’s bill.

Anne Galloway

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  • Cynthia Browning

    In addition to putting in lower contributionlimits my amendment also requires that when someone makes a contribution larger than $100 not only the name but the occupation and employer must be reported.

    I consider this important transparency and accountability for Vermonters so that they know if executives of large corporations are making large donations to parties and candidates along with the corporations for which they work.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

  • Doug Spaulding

    Excellent amendment Cynthia!

  • Hilton Dier

    The campaign and party donation limit should be a day’s wages at the state minimum wage. Donations to any organization that makes independent expenditures should be limited to that as well. Ok, I’m dreaming, but political clout shouldn’t be dependent on wealth. Bill Gates and the guy who mows Bill’s lawn should be equal in political power. That’s the theory, anyway.

    Aside from that, non-Vermonters should not be allowed to meddle in our politics by donating to our political parties or candidates. That donor from Alabama isn’t allowed to vote here; why should he be allowed to influence an election here in any way? Why should we be allowed to influence an election in Alabama? It’s the monetary equivalent of voter fraud.

  • Ralph Colin

    This event would seem to confirm my long-standing supposition that very few, if any, legislators bother to read the bills on which they vote and that even the man who signs the bills has no clear understanding of what’s in them. It’s one hell of a way to run a railroad, isn’t it?

  • Jonathan Willson

    Browning for Governor 2014

  • Brenda Pepin

    Ralph Colin for Governor 2016

  • Cynthia Browning

    On Friday one of powerful corporate lobbyists in the state house asked me if I thought my Campaign Finance Reform amendment had much chance. I told him honestly that I expected that Legislative leadership would ensure that representatives never have a chance to vote on my amendment by declaring it non-germane or finding another way to do the correction of Act 90. He must have already known this.

    But isn’t it interesting that he talked to me about this at all? Do you think he is now telling leadership how much his corporate clients don’t want the lower limits in my amendment? Just to make sure?

    Stay tuned.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

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