Vermont Attorney General: Old campaign finance law in place for 2014 election

Campaign finance limits will not change in the 2014 election cycle, according to a legal opinion from Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

Sorrell issued the opinion in response to a question from the Secretary of State about a glitch in the state’s new campaign finance law, Act 90. The Legislature passed new campaign donation limits for parties and candidates on the first few days of the session, and Gov. Peter Shumlin promptly enacted it into law on Jan. 23.

But a drafting error repealed the existing donation limits before the new law went into effect. H.640, a technical correction bill that fixed the mistake, passed in the House and was taken up by Senate Government Operations, but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Sorrell’s opinion makes it clear that even though the Legislature didn’t address the error, lawmakers intended for the current law to remain in place through 2014 until Act 90 goes into effect Jan. 1, 2015.

“This is some guidance going forward with the Legislature gone now and with the election season starting up in earnest,” Sorrell said.

That means for this year, no Vermont candidate can accept more than $1,000 from a single source or more than $3,000 from a political committee for any election, and no political action committee can accept contributions of more than $2,000 from a single source, political committee or political party over the two-year general election cycle, according to Sorrell.

After Jan. 1, 2015, candidates for statewide office will be able to accept campaign donations of up to $4,000 from a single source or political committee over the two-year election cycle. Political parties, under the new law, can take donations of up to $10,000 from a single source or political committee, and $60,000 from a political party (a national outfit, such as the Democratic Governors Association or the Republican Governors Association).

The new law puts a lid of $1,000 for donations to House candidates, and Senate candidates can receive no more than $1,500.

Contribution limits will be adjusted for inflation.

New campaign finance reporting dates went into effect immediately. The dates are March 15, July 15, Aug. 15, Sept. 1, Oct. 1, Oct. 15, Nov. 1, Nov. 18 and Dec. 15.

A provision in Act 90 that would have limited aggregate donations from a single source to $40,000 to Vermont candidates or political committees was contingent on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission. The court struck down aggregate limits to congressional candidates in its decision on April 2. The federal decision is widely believed to be a signal that state limits also will not hold.

The Legislature carefully crafted the new campaign law and made a conscious effort to avoid running afoul of the Supreme Court. In a 2006 decision, the court ruled in Randall v. Sorrell that Vermont’s limits on campaign funding and expenditures violated candidates’ right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Since then, the court has consistently struck down laws that would place limits on campaign fundraising. In 2010, the court said groups could spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures for advertising made on behalf of candidates. The groups, however, may not coordinate their efforts with candidates. Last year, Sorrell successfully sued the Republican Governors Association and former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie for sharing polling results in the 2010 election.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Townsend Peters

    This opinion seems weak because it relies primarily on statements of legislative intent that occurred _after_ the passage of S.82, the bill that repeals the old limits well before the new limits go into effect.

    The courts usually give short shrift to after-the-fact statements of legislative, since they were not part of the lawmakers’ debate that led to the new law and they easily can be self-serving or driven by an agenda.

    Yet the AG’s opinion makes only a general reference to the “recorded deliberations” of S.82’s conference committee as supporting its version of that bill’s intent. If a specific statement existed showing that intent, it is almost a sure bet the AG’s opinion would highlight it.

    Instead, the only specific statements and actions that the AG discusses have to do with a later bill, H.640, that attempted and failed to correct the error.

    These statements do not show the legislature’s intent in passing S.82. If H.640 had passed, they would show the legislature’s intent in passing H.640.

    Curiously, in an apparent attempt to salvage the value of the H.640 history to show the intent of S.82, the AG’s opinion cites the principle that legislative inaction does not demonstrate legislative intent.

    This attempt turns the “inaction” principle on its head. If H.640 does not demonstrate legislative intent because the bill failed, then the statements made and actions taken during the course of H.640’s consideration also do not show legislative intent.

  • Senator Peter Galbraith

    Townsend Peters is exactly right. The legislature considered legislation to have limits on campaign contributions in 2014 and chose not to enact it. The bill to reinstate the limits passed the House and the Senate Government operations Committee but did not come out of the Senate Finance Committee. This was an intentional decision by leadership and had nothing to do with lack of time (the bill got to the Finance Committee in February).

    Leadership knew that the Finance Committee would certainly limit the amount that persons could contribute to political parties to $2000 for future elections and restrict the amount that parties could contribute to candidates. (The conferees on S.82 had gone beyond the limits in either the House or Senate bill to permit contributions of S10,000 to political parties and unlimited contributions from political parties to candidates. The Conference report could not be amended despite widespread opposition in the senate to the new levels). Leadership was also concerned, rightly, that the Finance Committee would ban cheating (where wealthy individuals evade the contribution limits by contributing the maximum personally to candidates and then from corporate entities which they wholly own) and possibly ban direct corporate contributions.

    Under these circumstances, leadership decided it preferred no limits to a bill with meaningful limits. The AG cannot now interpret leadership’s preference for no limits on contributions as meaning the repealed limits remain in place.