Senate bill criticized for opening the flood gates to campaign cash

Some of Vermont’s most well-known advocates for campaign finance reform took issue today with a proposed bill in the state Senate that would dramatically increase the amount of money in Vermont’s political campaigns.

The Senate Government Operations Committee has been working all year on legislation – S.82 – that would require increased reporting from political action committees (PACs), candidates and others while lowering limits on political contributions. But two weeks ago, the committee changed course without warning and decided to allow much larger contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs and political parties.

The theory is that by allowing corporations and very wealthy individuals to give bigger checks directly to candidates, those candidates will be better able to match the political spending of Super PACs.

“It’s like saying that I object to the amount of pollution that a large factory is discharging into the river, and my solution is to allow every other factory to increase its pollution in order to achieve parity,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

“This arms race mentality only increases the problem of money in politics, it doesn’t solve it.”

VPIRG was joined in its opposition to the new, higher contribution limits by the League of Women Voters – Vermont, and Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s and longtime activist against the corrupting influence of money in politics.

“Vermont is a place of small government, where many people know their state legislators and even the governor personally,” said Cohen.  “By preserving commonsense limits on campaign contributions, we’re ensuring that all citizens continue to be heard and not just the interests of the wealthy few.”

Instead of keeping the limit on political contributions to candidates for statewide office at $2,000 earlier drafts of the bill had done, the new draft of S.82 would allow contributions to jump to $5,000 from individuals and corporations, while PACs could give $7,000 and political parties could give a whopping $85,000.

“The League supports the provisions of S.82 that improve the timeliness of reporting and would give more transparency to campaign finance,” said Sonja Schuyler, LWVVT board member.  “We are concerned about the increasing influence of money in election campaigns, however.  If too much money in campaigns is the problem, how can more money be the solution?” she asked.

The Government Operations committee is also proposing to more than double the amount of money that single sources can legally give to political parties and political action committees that coordinate activities with candidates (from $2,000 to $5,000).  Members of the legislative committee have also given their initial approval to a proposed $80,000 aggregate cap on what a single source, such as an individual or corporation, can give to candidates, political action committees and political parties combined over a two year cycle.  The limit proposed in earlier drafts was half that amount.

Following the appearance of the first Super PACs in Vermont last fall, interest in passing some sort of campaign reform bill was as high as it’s been in years at the start of this session. Most of the conversation has been around greater disclosure, including more timely disclosure from Super PACs.  Prior to the election, VPIRG proposed several reforms concerning Super PACs including:

  • Requiring Super PACs to disclose all contributions within 24 hours of their receipt in the weeks leading up to a primary or general election.
  • Requiring Super PACs to prominently list their top contributors in all mass media communications.
  • In cases where one contributor is responsible for more than half of the funds raised by a Super PAC, requiring the Super PAC to have that individual appear in all electronic advertisements, claiming responsibility for the ad.

There has been considerable tri-partisan support expressed for more disclosure requirements generally.  Some have expressed reservations about requiring Super PAC donors to appear in their own ads, however.

Since 2006 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s campaign finance law (passed in 1997), the Legislature has taken up the issue five separate times. Twice, Gov. Jim Douglas vetoed bills that would have reestablished commonsense limits on political contributions to candidates, PACs and parties. In 2009 the Senate passed a similar bill, but the House chose not to take it up. Last session the campaign finance bill became mired in political debate and never made it out of the Senate. This year’s effort marks the fifth time the issue has been taken up since 2006.

“At the beginning of the session it looked like the fifth time was going to be the charm,” said Burns.  “And it still may turn out that way if we can convince legislators that the problem we face in Vermont is not that there’s too little money and influence in politics, it’s that there’s too much.  As it stands now though, VPIRG must oppose this bill as it would do more harm than good.”