Campaign finance reform bill in jeopardyApril 01,2013
Democrats in January summoned reporters to a Statehouse news conference to herald in advance the passage of campaign finance reforms aimed at heightening disclosure requirements in the new era of super PACs.
But a series of unexpected turns last week landed the session’s signature campaign finance bill on life support. And as exasperated reform advocates wince from the sidelines, key lawmakers are coming under pressure to resuscitate the ailing legislation.
As late as Tuesday, prospects looked bright for a reform bill that would, among other things, increase the frequency with which candidates, political action committees, and super PACs have to disclose publicly the source of their contributions. The bill also called for a searchable online database where the public could track the information.
Lawmakers can’t do much about the federal rulings that allow super PACs to collect unlimited sums from individual donors, but they said they at least wanted to help Vermonters follow the money.
The bill at one time contained controversial increases in allowable limits to political parties — the former Vermont Democratic Party chairman wanted his organization to be able to accept as much as $20,000 from a single person. By the time the legislation reached the floor, however, the per-election donation cap had been lowered to $3,000 for PACs and parties.
But a cadre of senators looks to have conspired behind the scenes against the bill, and on Thursday the legislation was “ordered to lie,” a move that usually bodes grimly for any bill.
The move occurred in the wake of an amendment brought by Sen. Peter Galbraith that sought to ban candidates for statewide and local office from accepting direct contributions from corporations.
Galbraith, a Windham County Democrat, said that in light of all the talk here decrying Citizens United, it would be only fitting for senators to walk the walk.
“A year ago, the General Assembly passed a resolution denouncing the Citizens United case, declaring that corporations aren’t people, money isn’t speech, and it seemed to me very incongruous that we in Vermont then allow corporations to make direct political contributions,” Galbraith said.
As the clerk called the roll on Galbraith’s amendment, and “yeses” began to outnumber “nays,” observers in the gallery knew something was amiss. Lawmakers here by and large oppose efforts to prohibit corporate giving to candidates, mainly because it’s a source of funds on which many of them have come to rely.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Washington County Democrat and one of the few here who actually would support the ban, said he isn’t under any illusions that his colleagues have found religion on the issue of corporate giving, Thursday’s vote on the Galbraith amendment notwithstanding.
Pollina said discontent over other provisions in the bill, namely disclosure requirements viewed by some lawmakers as unduly onerous for local candidates, fueled approval of the Galbraith language.
“My gut tells me a majority of the body does not want to prohibit corporate contributions, but they were afraid to go on record as being in support of them,” Pollina said. “So they voted for the amendment with the hope that the whole bill would fail, and they wouldn’t have to comply with that ban.”
The plan worked. As it became evident that lawmakers would seek to dismantle other portions of the legislation, Sen. Jeannette White, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, stepped in and asked that the bill be ordered to lie.
Pollina said he thinks the bill will be tweaked in committee and brought back to the floor this week. But another vote on this particular piece of legislation may prove politically difficult.
That’s because Galbraith’s amendment can’t simply be scrubbed from the bill in committee, the Senate would actually have to vote affirmatively on the floor to remove it. And there probably aren’t a whole lot of politicians in Montpelier eager to go on the record as endorsing increased corporate influence on electoral outcomes.
Key lawmakers are scrambling now to find a path forward. And Secretary of State Jim Condos said they better figure something out quick. If the state waits until next year to install heightened disclosure requirements, he said, then they may not take effect in time to have any impact on the 2014 election.
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