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January 06, 2014

Legislature Poised to Raise Campaign Contribution Limits for Candidates, Parties and PACs

One of the Vermont legislature's first acts upon reconvening this week may be to vastly increase the amount of money in state politics. 

After failing to reach compromise last spring over competing campaign finance bills, House and Senate negotiators narrowed their differences during the legislative off-season and are scheduled to sign off on a final bill Tuesday morning. Both houses could pass the new version by the end of the week and send it to Gov. Peter Shumlin.

But despite being referred to as "campaign finance reform," the working compromise would actually increase the amount of money that statewide candidates, political parties and political action committees could raise from individuals and corporations. That has Vermont Public Interest Research Group executive director Paul Burns questioning whether the bill is any better than current law.

"It's a hard case to make to say this is going to offer any significant improvements in the area of money and politics in Vermont," he says. "And coming up on the anniversary of Citizens United, it's certainly a big disappointment to see a state like Vermont not taking more aggressive action in this area."

At present, candidates for statewide office can raise $2000 per two-year election cycle from any individual or corporation. That would double to $4000 if the current draft is passed. 

Political action committees that donate directly to candidates would be able to raise up to $4000 from any individual or corporation, up from $2000. And political parties would be able to raise $10,000 from such entities, also up from $2000.

Though a previous Senate draft sought to limit how much political parties could contribute to candidates, the working draft scraps that language. As a result, any donor seeking to circumvent the new $4000 statewide candidate contribution limit could easily donate another $10,000 to a party, which presumably could then transfer it to a candidate or spend it on a specific campaign.

The new $10,000 party limit is actually far higher than either of the two versions passed last spring by the House and Senate. The House had proposed limiting contributions to parties to $5000, while the Senate had proposed $3000.

Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who chairs the Senate Committee on Government Operations and serves on the six-member conference committee, acknowledges that the working draft doesn't do much to limit the role of money in politics. 

"[The proposed contribution limits] are higher than I would have done it. But the reality is that there's a lot of money in politics," she says. "And I'm sorry about that and I would like to see us limit the amount of money that's in politics, but I don't think that's a reality. I think that we're going to see more and more money in politics."

Given the presence of self-funding candidates and the advent of independent expenditure-only PACs (commonly referred to as Super PACs), which can raise and spend as much as they'd like, White says everyone else should have the chance to catch up.

"We can't limit the amount that's spent and we can't limit the amount people can put in their own campaigns or their immediate families can put in their campaigns," she says. "So given that, if [candidates] can't get money from other people, we're going to end up with only really wealthy people with access to wealth being able to run."

Burns disagrees with that philosophy, saying, "I don't think the arms race mentality is really the best response."

Not all contribution limits would be increased if the current draft is signed into law. House and Senate candidates can currently raise $2000 from individuals and corporations. Those limits would drop to $1000 for House candidates and $1500 for Senate candidates.

Also, PACs that donate directly to candidates (in others words, those that do not qualify as independent expenditure-only Super PACs) will no longer be able to contribute $6000 each to candidate. They'll be limited to the same caps as individuals and corporations: $4000 to statewide candidates, $1500 to Senate candidates and $1000 to House candidates.

But the compromise forged by three House members and three Senate members actually removes several provisions aimed at increasing transparency. For instance, the Senate-passed version would have required candidates, PACs and parties to attempt to determine the occupation of those donating more than $100. The House-passed version would also have sought the names of those donors' employers, as is required in federal races. 

But the compromise version nixes both proposals, which irritates Vermont Progressive Party executive director Robert Millar.

"That's been required at the federal level since the early 20th century. I don't see why that should be such an imposition at the state level," says Millar, who previously worked for Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) reelection campaign. "As someone who worked for three and a half years on a federal campaign, it's not that hard a thing to get that information from folks ... It's an important tool for open government."

Previous iterations of the bill also would have increased the frequency with which candidates would have had to file campaign finance reports, but the current version reverts to requiring candidates to file just once during non-election years. It does increase the frequency of filing in the months immediately before an election.

The Senate debated at length last year whether to ban corporate contributions to candidates, parties and PACs. At one point, the body approved such a ban, only to later reverse course. The current draft continues to allow corporations to donate at the same level as individuals.

Millar, for one, says he's "extremely disappointed" in what he characterizes as a "watered-down" bill. 

"We've been disappointed in the process from the beginning. It's gone from seemingly tri-partisan support for some changes to barely plugging the dam. It's just Band-Aids on a system that needed to be overhauled."

House and Senate conferees will convene at 9 a.m. Tuesday in Room 49 of the Statehouse to debate and possibly sign off on the bill.

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