State Integrity 2012

Published — May 11, 2012 Updated — November 1, 2015 at 2:31 pm ET

Commentary: Campaign finance reform in Vermont

Introduction

For the fourth year in a row, an attempt to reform Vermont’s campaign finance law failed, as political maneuvering, this time under the guise of observing the niceties of parliamentary procedures, killed the bill in the final days of the session.

The bill, including an amendment which would have banned contributions from corporations, was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee on the motion of its chair, Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, because, he said, the bill “raise(s) constitutional issues.’ Sears acknowledged that the bill had no chance of emerging from his committee in the seven days left in the session.

An assistant attorney general had testified earlier in the year that her office saw no constitutional problems with the original bill. The amendment banning corporate contributions, sponsored by former U.S. Ambassador Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) was modeled on the federal Tillman Act of 1907, the constitutionality of which has been repeatedly upheld.

So what was going on? One possible cause is that in the 2010 election, Sears received more than 80 percent of his contributions from corporations and PACs, a higher percentage than any other state official, according to a database maintained by Common Cause of Vermont.

Sending the bill to the Judiciary Committee was just the finale of a saga which began a year ago when the Senate Government Operations Committee was considering the bill and Senator Galbraith let it be known he wanted to amend the bill to ban corporate contributions.

A day or so later, the Senate Majority leader appeared in the committee room to announce that the leadership did not want the amendment approved. A few weeks later, the committee voted 2-3 against the amendment and approved the bill 4-0.

Then the bill disappeared at the end of the session last May. The committee chair, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, whose bill it was, told later me she had forwarded to the office of the Secretary of the Senate, but they had no record of it. I checked with the President Pro Tem of the Senate, John Campbell, D-Windsor, who said it was still in committee.

Oh, did I mention that Senator Campbell received 71 percent of his contributions from corporations and PACs in the last election — the second-highest percentage after Sears — and that committee chairs are appointed by the pro tem?

At the beginning of the adjourned session in January, Sen. Galbraith and I both pursued the issue of the location of the bill. Then Senator White said she had ‘lost’ the bill but had found it and would send to the Secretary of the Senate, but it still did not appear on the Senate calendar for debate.

Like an unbaptized child, the bill might have languished in limbo forever, so I pointedly suggested to a reporter he might want to look more closely at our database to see how dependent Senator Campbell had become on corporate and PAC donations.

The story, which ran April 11, got results. A few days later the bill and the amendment appeared not only on, but at the top of, the Senate calendar. Still Senator Campbell, who, as pro tem, calls the shots on which bills on the calendar are to be debated each day no matter what order they are listed on the calendar, again let it languish for two weeks until Senator Galbraith, who is not a shy person, told the pro tem that he would call for a vote to invoke the Senate rule requiring that bills be taken up in order,

That broke the logjam and on May 1 the bill was debated for 90 minutes before the 19-9 vote sent it the Judiciary graveyard.

After Vermont’s very progressive campaign finance law of 1997 was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, the legislature twice passed a revised, i.e. more lenient, law which was vetoed both times by a Republican governor. A third attempt failed when the House failed to take up a Senate-passed bill.

This year’s machinations were a lot of huffing and puffing over what seem like small potatoes. Senator Campbell needed only $9,800 in contributions to fund his election (though he’s raised more than twice that in previous elections and so may have had the benefit of a balance carried forward), and Senator Sears not much more, $12,400.

Could it be that these two senators and the nine others who received more than 40 percent of their contributions from corporations and PACs, simply find it convenient sit back and let the mostly unsolicited checks from these special interests arrive in the mail? It’s a lot less work than going out and asking real people for two-and-three hundred dollar checks.

No one in Vermont believes that corporate and PAC money buys votes. State government has seen almost no corruption like that in its history. But corporate and PAC money does buy access, and what’s even more important is that in this age of Citizens United and Occupy Wall Street, corporate and PAC money automatically imply the appearance, even the presumption of corruption.

And that widespread presumption is corrosive and it eats away at the belief that government can truly protect the public interest.

If we are going to save our democracy, we are going to have to pass a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision and craft laws and regulations that limit the influence of PACs and other Big Money interests.

It’s that season: Go out and confront the candidates and demand they support efforts to get Big Money out of politics. Or ask them to support public financing of elections. If we do that right, it eliminates the problem.

To find out more about issues of accountability and transparency in Vermont, visit the Common Cause of Vermont website.

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