Shumlin unafraid of risks in imposing campaign finance limits
MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said he isn’t opposed to House legislation that would impose a $5,000 limit on contributions to super PACs, despite estimates from the attorney general’s office that the inevitable legal challenge could cost “millions” of dollars.
Shumlin said Wednesday that while he’s “concerned it would be challenged,” lawmakers ought to at least consider contribution limits that would flout federal legal precedent.
“Citizens United has brought a whole new world of hidden spending to campaigns. We should do everything we can to fix it,” Shumlin said at a Statehouse press conference. “And if we have to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court’s wisdom, so be it.”
House lawmakers gave final approval to a campaign-finance package Wednesday that includes the controversial super PAC provision. Shumlin said he was “not telling (lawmakers) not to” include the constitutionally risky provision. But many Republicans said he should have.
Rep. Kurt Wright, a Burlington Republican, said he loathes the influence of super PACs and the power they give wealthy donors over the political process. But he said the House limits are so legally shaky as to call into question the acuity of the legislators voting in favor of them.
A bill that would decriminalize marijuana had just won final passage in the Senate, and Wright wondered aloud “if people are already smoking it.”
Rep. Duncan Kilmartin, a Newport Republican, said the House language is particularly troubling given the state’s history defending campaign finance statutes. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2006 tossed out Vermont’s previous campaign-finance law, a case that left taxpayers on the hook for $1.6 million in plaintiffs’ legal fees.
“We fooled ourselves once and it cost us (money) to have the Supreme Court laugh at us,” Kilmartin said. “If we pass this, we show ourselves not merely fools twice, we show ourselves small-minded actors in a theater of the absurd for all the world to see.”
Rep. Donna Sweaney, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, said she believes the limits are defensible.
“And yes, there may be a court case,” said Sweaney, a Windsor Democrat. “But we can’t live that way.”
She added: “We have to determine for ourselves … what’s best for Vermont. And we have to vote that way.”
Final passage of the campaign-finance bill in the House sets the stage for a complicated negotiation with the Senate over significant differences between the two bills.
While the House has sought to impose contribution limits to super PACs — a measure key Senate leaders oppose — it has raised the ceiling on financial gifts to candidates, political parties and conventional PACs.
The House version also allows for unlimited giving from parties to candidates. And the House also got rid of a provision that would have limited to $50,000 the amount that a single individual can donate to political entities during each two-year election cycle.
Rep. Chris Pearson, a Burlington Progressive, said the House bill would do more to heighten the influence of money in Vermont elections than it would to curb it.
“We had an opportunity to pass a strong campaign finance bill,” Pearson said. “Instead, we’ve opened our doors to big money influence and the damaging impact that comes with it.”
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