MONTPELIER — It’s become the year of the super PAC in Vermont, where the first full election cycle since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision heralded a new, and some say dangerous, brand of political activity.
Unlimited spending by individuals and corporations has given rise to super PACs like Vermonters First, the outfit funded by Burlington resident Lenore Broughton, who had spent nearly $700,000 as of Oct. 15 to boost the electoral prospects of Republican candidates in statewide and local races.
Reform-minded lawmakers are largely constrained by the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that spawned the new campaign finance regime. But election watchdogs say state government still has ways to mitigate the effects of unlimited political expenditures.
“Disclosure is the area where the U.S. Supreme Court has continued to allow discretion on the part of governments to regulate,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “And that’s where I think Vermont’s current statute falls short.”
Burns may find some high-profile allies in Montpelier next year, where the intensifying public discourse over the pitfalls of super PAC spending will inevitably seep into the Legislature. While there isn’t much they can do to limit spending by individuals, House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President John Campbell both say they aim to strengthen disclosure requirements, so voters at least know who’s trying to influence elections.
“I’m already working with our Legislative Council on legislation to try to deal with some of the problems that have arisen,” Campbell, a Windsor County Democrat, said Wednesday. “We’re trying to figure out a way to tailor it so that it will survive any type of challenge.”
Smith, meanwhile, is already voicing his support for one of the signature elements of the VPIRG proposal: real-time disclosure.
“I certainly would like to move to a system of real-time disclosure,” Smith said. “If we could do it at the very least for the last couple months before the election, I think that would make a lot of sense.”
Burns said real-time disclosure — a policy already adopted by the liberal super PAC Priorities PAC, which has spent close to $20,000 this cycle on behalf of Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce — would eliminate one of the many loopholes that now obscure the impact of super PAC spending.
While the largest super PAC in Vermont, funded by Broughton to the tune of $683,961 as of two weeks ago, had to file monthly campaign finance disclosures beginning in July, it won’t have to file its next report until after Election Day.
That means that between Oct. 15, the most recent filing deadline, and Nov. 6, Vermonters First — or any other super PAC, for that matter — could take in unlimited sums of money from a donor whose identity wouldn’t be revealed until after the election.
Burns wants super PACs to have to report donations within 24 hours after they’re received.
“I think more disclosure about who is giving what money to which PAC, right up until the day of the election, is going to be important information for voters to have,” he said.
Burns said an analysis by his office underscores the scope of influence super PACs are already having on Vermont elections.
Broughton’s contributions alone, according to VPIRG, are equal to nearly 61 percent of all the individual contributions made to every Democratic and Republican statewide candidate in Vermont.
“We can’t stop Ms. Broughton, or any other extremely wealthy individual or corporation, from spending money to influence elections, at least not until we change the Constitution or the makeup of the Supreme Court,” Burns said. “But we can require greater disclosure so that voters know exactly who is behind the blizzard of ads and mailings.”
Burns said VPIRG will call for additional disclosure provisions that would force the underwriters of super PACs to assume a more public role in the political process. Since being outed Sept. 15 as the sole funder of Vermonters First, Broughton has declined dozens of interview requests from numerous media outlets. When the weekly newspaper Seven Days sent a photographer to get her picture, she fled from view.
In instances where one person is responsible for more than 50 percent of a super PAC’s funding, Burns said that person’s name should appear on whatever political advertisements their financial support has enabled.
He said he also wants top super PAC donors to have to say in television ads that they are responsible for the content of the ads, much as candidates for office have to for ads produced by their own campaigns.
“It’s almost reached a kind of obscene level of spending,” Burns said. “I don’t think that it’s too much to ask Ms. Broughton take responsibility for those ads by appearing in them.”
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