Inside the Golden Bubble: Campaign finance, one more time

Editor’s note: Inside the Golden Bubble is an occasional column about politics.

Politics can be the theater of the absurd, and never more so than when one member of the House of Representatives takes on the whole body over a controversial issue that no one wants to talk about.

Such was the case on Thursday afternoon when Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, attempted twice, and finally succeeded the third time, in forcing a discussion on the floor about the new campaign finance law.

Act 90 doubles contribution limits to statewide candidates and sets campaign contributions to parties at $10,000. The law also allows parties to give unlimited amounts to candidates. The higher caps were controversial, in large part because they did not reflect the limits in the original legislation passed by the House and Senate. And because they were offered for approval in a conference committee report no amendments could be made to the proposal. Fiery debates in the House and Senate ensued. Democrats and Republicans argued that unlimited party money would give candidates a fair shot at competitors who benefit from Super PAC money.

Act 90 was the first law enacted this year; the House and Senate conference committee came to an agreement on the first day of session, both bodies passed it and Gov. Peter Shumlin signed it into law last month.

But there was a technical problem. The effective dates were wrong, and so, lawmakers had to include a provision in a House Government Operations housekeeping bill — H.640 — and face the prospect of yet another impassioned debate over campaign contribution limits on the floor.

On Thursday, everything appeared to go according to plan. The bill was introduced, Browning’s amendment was brought up by House Speaker Shap Smith, a point of order was called, the respective parties marched to the Speaker’s podium, a brief discussion was held and the amendment was ruled nongermane because it pertained to the substance of Act 90, not the effective date correction. Her second amendment got the same treatment.

The third try was the charm. Browning asked to be recognized by the Speaker and introduced a third amendment that had not been reviewed by House Government Operations, it was passed out to the members and a recess was called. Browning and the committee members trooped up to the committee room and embarked on an esoteric discussion of effective dates.

Browning proposed moving the effective date to January 2019; the new law goes into effect in January 2015.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to amend the conference committee report and some of us don’t like the ideas incorporated in that bill,” Browning said. “Once parties and PACs have unlimited contributions, I don’t think were going to come back to that and take that away. Those are the things I’m concerned about.”

Browning said she believed the Legislature ought to take a “timeout” and think again about whether Act 90 is real reform.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, chair of Government Operations, begged to differ. The legislation is the General Assembly’s fourth attempt at campaign finance reform in 19 years, she said.

“It’s important that we do have a law,” Sweaney said. “I understand your concern when it comes to independent expenditures and PACs … and what the Supreme Court got us into, but I felt it was very important to at least try to hold the parties together.”

Changing the language at all would create a “touchy situation” with the Senate, according to Rep. Ron Hubert. There are some “loose cannons” over there, he said, and “if we play with it at all it’s going to be a disaster.”

The committee unanimously voted Browning’s amendment down and declared it unfriendly. Minutes later, Browning’s proposal went down in flames on the House floor.

Anne Galloway

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