MONTPELIER — After a successful campaign to pass a GMO labeling law, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group is turning its attention to reforming campaign finance laws and eliminating the influence of big money in politics.
The advocacy group, part of a national network, launched its summer canvassing effort this week with an eye toward pushing lawmakers on the issue. Executive Director Paul Burns said about 60 canvassers will knock on doors across the state this summer seeking support for proposals to reduce the influence of money in politics.
“It is challenging,” he said. “It’s challenging in Vermont and probably any place else to change the rules of the game by which elected leaders were put in office. By definition, they got there by the existing rules.”
Vermont lawmakers have tried to limit money in politics in the past, only to be turned back by the courts, including a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s ambitious campaign contribution limits.
Another decision this year scuttled lawmakers’ plan to place aggregate limits on political contributions. And a campaign finance bill the Legislature passed this year actually increased contribution limits.
Still, Burns said plenty of Vermont lawmakers want to keep trying.
“You’re asking them, in this case, to address a problem that I think is widely recognized among most Vermont citizens and most legislators, too,” he said. “Even on the floor of the House and Senate there was consternation or concern on the part of lawmakers … who recognized that it was not all that it needs to be.”
“That gives us some reason for hope, I think. In Vermont, even though we are trying to address the problem of money in politics, this is still a state where lawmakers listen to their constituents,” Burns added.
VPIRG is seeking major changes to campaign finance laws, including:
A ban on corporate contributions.
A prohibition on lobbyist contributions.
More transparency from super PACs.
Incentives that will encourage small donor participation.
Participation by small donors can be enhanced by ensuring that nobody is giving large donations, Burns said. He said public financing of campaigns can help reduce the influence of large donors. Conceptual ideas for public financing include vouchers that citizens could give to the candidates of their choice.
“I think that we are ultimately trying to change policy in the state here, to demand more transparency … and to limit the influence of money in the process, particularly from corporations and lobbyists,” Burns said.
Most proponents of limiting money in politics agree that a constitutional amendment is needed. Vermont became the first state to call for a constitutional convention during the recent session. Burns said VPIRG is urging action in the meantime.
“The ultimate solution here will likely require an amendment to the United States Constitution, something to make clear that money is not speech and corporations are not people,” he said.
“That process has been started, and Vermont lawmakers have done all they can in that respect,” he said. “Our position is that we do not need to wait for a constitutional amendment in order to act.”
The group is also teaming with Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s, to promote Cohen’s StampStampede campaign, which encourages people to stamp messages on U.S. currency, including “Not to be used for bribing politicians.” Each dollar stamped gets into the hands of about 875 people while being circulated, according to the StampStampede website.
Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, said she has “no doubt” lawmakers will revisit the issue of campaign finance reform in the next biennium.
“I think we will have this discussion in light of some of the more recent Supreme Court rulings,” she said.
Sweaney said there must be a tipping point among the electorate for reform to succeed.
“I think it is difficult and will be difficult,” she said. “I think I see it as a point where enough people in the country have to be so upset to do something to make it go away, this total free-for-all of money in politics.”
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