MONTPELIER — It’s been more than two years since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case spawned “super PACs,” the political action committees that can receive unlimited donations and use the money to attack and support political candidates.
But it wasn’t until Wednesday that a super PAC appeared in Vermont.
A Montpelier-based nonprofit, Vermont Priorities, filed paperwork with the Vermont secretary of state’s office Wednesday saying it intends to operate as a super PAC and “raise individual, corporate and labor funds in unlimited amounts.”
The new left-leaning political action committee, called Priorities PAC, plans to soon begin raising money and hopes to play a role in Vermont’s general elections this fall.
Bob Stannard, a lobbyist and former lawmaker, is a founding member of Vermont Priorities and is the treasurer of Priorities PAC.
Stannard said the group will use its resources to support Vermont candidates for statewide offices and the Legislature who share its support for progressive tax policies, universal health care, renewable energy and campaign finance reform.
“I would expect this super PAC will be used in the same way all super PACs are being used: to work for people that are working for issues we believe in,” said Stannard, a Manchester resident.
Priorities PAC’s formation will serve as a test case for how officials in Vermont who regulate campaign finance law will respond to super PACs, which by definition are “independent expenditure-only” groups that operate separately from candidates and can accept contributions of any size.
Political action committees have existed for years in Vermont but have had to abide by contribution limits outlined in state law.
If the state tries to oppose super PACs by enforcing those limits for independent expenditure groups, however, it would face the risky and difficult task of fighting against Citizens United.
Attorney General William Sorrell said Wednesday his office hasn’t decided how to proceed.
“This is the first time we’ve been faced with this issue, and we need to do a little more homework before issuing an opinion publicly, so it will be legal research and discussions with the secretary of state’s office,” said Sorrell.
If his office determines Vermont law calls for contribution limits for independent expenditure-only groups, Sorrell said, he will then have to decide whether to try to enforce those limits in light of Citizens United and a subsequent ruling that said state contribution limits on super PACs are unconstitutional.
“We’ll be discussing what sort of fight, if any, we want to engage in in this arena,” said Sorrell.
Sorrell said he expects to reach a conclusion by next week.
“We’re not going to leave this hanging out there for any extended period,” said Sorrell. “We’re in campaign season, and these people sound like they’re serious.”
Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political science professor, said it seems unlikely Sorrell will want to enforce state law if it means taking a risky legal position that runs counter to Citizens United.
“If the state wants to go after them,” Davis said, “they better add a couple million more to their legal budget.”
Decisions since Citizens United have solidified the legal ground on which super PACs stand, Davis pointed out.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last month that struck down a Montana state law because it conflicted with Citizens United.
“After that Supreme Court decision in the Montana case, it’s quite clear that the Supreme Court said all the provisions of Citizens United apply to state elections,” said Davis.
In another ruling last month in U.S. District Court in Burlington, Judge William Sessions said the state did not make a compelling case that it could limit political donations to super PACs.
“The state has not offered a persuasive basis on which to limit contributions to a political action committee that only makes independent expenditures,” Sessions said.
Davis believes Priorities PAC will get donations from individuals who feel constrained by existing contribution limits and want greater influence.
A super PAC backed by major industries that sets up shop to influence policy in Vermont could have a much greater impact, said Davis.
A prime example would be a super PAC funded by the pharmaceutical and insurance industries aimed at undermining the single-payer health care reform effort being pursued by the Shumlin administration.
“What I’m more interested in is whether the health care industry will set up some sort of organization in Vermont,” said Davis.
Stannard said he views Priorities PAC as a way to counter that exact kind of group.
Stannard said he and Vermont Priorities oppose the kind of influence super PACs can wield in the political sphere and intend to support politicians who will work to limit the influence of the independent expenditure groups.
Stannard called using a super PAC to further a political agenda an “unfortunate and distasteful option.”
But he justified his creation of a super PAC by saying it’s just a matter of time before right-wing groups try to use the new campaign finance laws to reshape policies in Vermont.
“The landscape’s changed, and it wasn’t me that changed it, it wasn’t Vermont that changed it, but it’s a change that very well may be changing Vermont,” Stannard said. “You can sit back and opine about what’s going on around you or say I don’t like the rules of the game, but I’m not going to sit back and watch it happen if I can participate.”
Vermont Priorities’ six-member board has control over Priorities PAC, said Todd Bailey, a lobbyist and consultant who has advised Vermont Priorities.
Stannard said he doesn’t think the formation of Priorities PAC is helping to open the door for the very super PACs he other board members oppose.
“When the time comes for people like Karl Rove to participate in the health care initiative promoted by the governor, I don’t think anything Priorities PAC is doing is going to cause them to come here or dissuade them from coming here,” said Stannard. “If anything, we are getting ahead of the storm. There should be little doubt in anybody’s mind as the governor goes forward with his single-payer health care plan we should expect to see a torrent of money spent to undermine that effort. We have the ability to prepare ourselves to put on an attack — not an attack, I should say, but a defense when that comes. But it’s coming and it’s coming in the form of industry money.”
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