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February 06, 2014

Media Note: With Campaign Finance Database, VTDigger Puts the State to Shame

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Who donated the most money to State Treasurer Beth Pearce's first bid for public office in 2012? Which Vermont politicians took campaign cash from tobacco giant Philip Morris during the last election cycle? How much money did renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf pump into Vermont politics in 2012?

Before this week, those questions were pretty tough to answer.*

To arrive at the first, you'd have to sift through seven PDFs (from seven reporting deadlines) of often handwritten disclosure forms, some as much as 12 pages long. To answer the second, you'd have to do the same as the first for each of the 205 candidates who reported fundraising activities last election. And to answer the third, you'd have to do the same as the second, but you'd also have to keep an eye out for all the entities through which Blittersdorf makes campaign contributions.

Now you don't. And that's thanks to nonprofit news organization VTDigger — not the state of Vermont.

On Monday, Digger launched Vermont's first fully searchable, sortable collection of campaign finance data. It's a work in progress — Digger plans to add more functionality and more data in the coming months — but it's already a tremendous improvement over the status quo, which could charitably be called archaic.

According to Anne Galloway, Digger's founder and editor, the endeavor cost roughly $30,000 and took nearly a year to complete. With funding from the Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Galloway hired data and web gurus and tasked summer interns with scrubbing numbers provided by 

Was all that effort worth it? I mean, who on earth is Digger's audience for a gizmo like this?

"That's a good question. You!" Galloway jokes. "No, I hope that people outside the 'golden bubble' use it, because I really want people to understand the connection between money and politics." 

Galloway acknowledges that surfing the system "is sort of like solitaire for political geeks." But its intuitive design was intended to make it easier for average Vermonters to figure out who's financing the state's political class.

"We wanted ours to be easy for everyone to use," she says.

That's huge. The existing system — if you can call it that — is so byzantine that even reporters paid to ferret out campaign finance trends struggle to do so. Many don't even bother trying. 

In a piece she wrote unveiling the system, Galloway recounted her difficulties trying to get a sense of the fundraising landscape during the 2010 gubernatorial race. We've all got stories like that. When I wrote a piece about Vermont's use of the federal EB-5 investor visa program in April 2012, I found it virtually impossible to figure out how much money those who make use of the program have given to the politicians who support it. To get a full accounting, you'd have to read through hundreds, if not thousands, of documents.

Now anyone hoping to figure out how much Candidate X got from Donor Y can do so in a snap. And that's awesome.

One obvious question is why it took a scrappy little nonprofit to get the job done. Why hasn't the secretary of state's office taken care of this, as in most states?

"Part of it was the legislature was reluctant to spend the money to do it," explains Secretary of State Jim Condos.

Following last month's passage of a comprehensive campaign finance bill, Condos' office signed a $2.8 million contract last week to build a suite of new systems tracking campaign finance, lobbyists, voter checklists and absentee ballots. Seventy percent of the cost will come from the federal government and 30 percent from fees to Condos' office.

Condos says he hopes to have a preliminary version of the state's new campaign finance system online by July, but candidates won't be required to use it until next year. 

Is he miffed that Digger beat him to the punch? Not at all.

"I think what Digger has done is a good thing because it's certainly going to be more immediate, and any additional exposure we have on campaign finance is a good thing for the public," he says. 

There's much more work to be done.

Galloway hopes to add new components to Digger's system to track who's giving to political action committees and what they and other groups spend on last-minute electoral advertising. She also has ambitions to track the money raised by the state's congressional delegation and political parties. And, if possible, Galloway hopes to go back in time and add data from previous election cycles. 

It won't be cheap. Galloway says a $10,000 grant she recently received from the Lintilhac Foundation will get her part of the way, but she'll have to pass around the hat to get the job done.

Here's hoping she's successful.


* Looking for those answers?

Treasurer Pearce's biggest donor was the Vermont Political Awareness Committee, a PAC run by the Vermont State Employees Association. The PAC donated $5,000 to her campaign.

In 2011 and 2012, Philip Morris gave money to Gov. Peter Shumlin ($2,000); Lt. Gov. Phil Scott and state auditor candidate Vince Illuzzi ($1,000); state treasurer candidate Wendy Wilton ($500); Senate candidate Dustin Degree ($250); senators and Senate candidates Joe Benning, John Campbell, Bill Carris, Robert Lewis, Norm McAllister ($200); and House Minority Leader Don Turner ($100). 

Blittersdorf personally donated $12,650 to 19 candidates. He contributed another $14,000 through the following entities: AllEarth Services, Chittenden County Solar Partners, Georgia Mountain Community Wind and Green Acres Solar Partners.

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