Saturday April 20, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- On Thursday, Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith was the only Vermont senator to vote against campaign-finance reform.

But the Townshend Democrat is standing by his vote, blasting the bill as a "sham" because the measure does not specifically ban direct political contributions from corporations and unions.

"The Senate voted to allow wealthy people to cheat," Galbraith said Friday. "It was not a great day for the Vermont Senate, that's for sure."

That put him at odds with Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, who had made the legislation a priority.

"I think it's a good bill," the Putney Democrat said. "It sets reasonable limits on single-entity contributions to candidates.

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White also took issue with Galbraith using words such as "sham" and "hypocrisy," saying that is "not respectful to the 29 other senators or to the process itself."

The bill last month floundered and was briefly set aside amid concerns about contribution-reporting requirements and penalties for violations. But after some additional tweaking, the legislation received final Senate approval Thursday on a 29-1 vote.

The matter now goes to the House.

The bill increases financial-reporting requirements for candidates, parties and political-action committees while also setting limits on how much cash a candidate can receive from a single source.

For example, someone running for state House or for a local office can take no more than $750 from a single source or political committee. That number rises to $1,500 for a state Senate or county-office candidate and to $3,000 for a candidate for statewide office.

"That's to prevent too much influence from a single entity," White said.

Earlier in the process, Galbraith had successfully amended the bill -- on a 22-8 vote -- to include a ban on direct political contributions from corporations and unions.

Those contributions have been banned under federal law for more than a century.

But that provision did not make it into the final version of the bill, and Galbraith's frustration was evident in comments recorded in the official Senate journal.

"This bill is a sham. It is intended to persuade Vermonters that we are serious about campaign-finance reform when we are not," he said.

Galbraith argues that allowing business owners to give to a candidate both from their personal and corporate accounts renders any contribution limits pointless.

"The bill purports to impose limits on the amount that an individual can contribute to a candidate when it does not," he said. "A wealthy donor can contribute from his personal account and from each company that he owns. This enables wealthy donors to evade easily the limits in this bill. For example, a donor who owns five rental properties -- each its own LLC -- could contribute $18,000 to a candidate for statewide office rather than the pretend limit in this bill of $3,000."

He does not buy the argument that his proposed ban would limit the ability of small-business owners to contribute to campaigns.

"Any small business owner who wants to make a political contribution can do so just like anyone else -- as an individual. And if he wants to use funds from his business, he can make an owner's draw to obtain the funds," Galbraith said.

"Contributions from small corporations are not the issue," he added. "A survey of campaign-finance filings in Vermont shows that very few small corporations make contributions. Contributions mostly come from large corporations including many multinationals. And these corporations almost always support incumbents."

White disagrees, saying research she has reviewed does not show that large companies have a major influence in Vermont elections.

"We do not have tens of thousands of dollars influencing our campaigns from corporations," she said. "So I don't know that it's a big problem."

She also argues that, because the bill as amended by Galbraith didn't cover some types of limited liability corporations, there would not have been a blanket ban on corporate giving anyway.

And White believes that the process is more transparent when sources of donations are clearly labeled. She fears that banning corporate donations simply would lead businesses to give to candidates from other accounts or entities.

"In my mind, it's better to know" who is contributing, she said.

But Galbraith contends his colleagues are sending conflicting messages on the topic of corporate influence.

"This Senate has proposed a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United with the goal of getting corporate money out of politics," he said. "But our real message is: Let's get corporate money out of politics, but please don't take away my corporate contribution. There is one word for this -- hypocrisy."

He also said he is not concerned that voting against a campaign-finance reform bill could have negative political implications.

"I felt that I should vote on what I felt was right," Galbraith said. "This isn't campaign-finance reform."

In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

-- When the House voted 92-49 on Tuesday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, nine Windham County representatives voted with the majority.

Among them was Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro. Toleno said the bill -- which imposes civil fine instead of a criminal penalty for possession of up to an ounce of pot -- is a good step.

In fact, he said he would prefer that the state legalize and regulate marijuana.

"Vermonters are largely supportive of moving in that direction," Toleno said, while adding that the sometimes-contentious decriminalization debate showed that not yet enough political support for such a move.

Voting against the bill were Rep. Mike Hebert, a Republican representing Vernon and Guilford, and Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington.

Manwaring said there are two legal substances -- nicotine and alcohol -- that have inflicted "grief and personal and cultural costs" on society.

"I see no point in having a third," she said.

Manwaring also believes that expanding a court-diversion program would have accomplished the same goal as decriminalization by ensuring that young people caught with small amounts of marijuana are not saddled with a lifelong criminal record.

-- While many believe the marijuana bill also will be approved in the Senate and become law, the outlook is not as rosy for a bill that would require that any food containing a genetically modified substance be labeled as such.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has expressed support for the so-called GMO-labeling concept. But he also is concerned that Vermont -- which would be the first state to adopt such a standard -- would face tough legal challenges from the food industry.

Toleno said the House Agriculture Committee, on which he sits, approved the bill. It now is in the House Judiciary Committee, and there is not much time left before state lawmakers leave Montpelier for the year.

"I think we're running out of time for this session," Toleno said. "So I don't think it's going to happen this spring."

He believes that might be a blessing in disguise for backers of the bill, who would have more time to lobby the Senate and Shumlin.

Those supporters include Vermont's 17 food cooperatives, who banded together on Tuesday to lobby for the legislation's passage. Among them were the Putney and Brattleboro co-ops.

"We believe it's everybody's right to know what's in their food," said Robyn O'Brien, the Putney co-op's general manager. "Our membership has made it clear that they want to have labeling."

O'Brien said the GMO-free certification process that currently exists is "rigorous, voluntary and expensive." Making labeling mandatory would be much more effective and comprehensive, she said.

She praised Whole Foods' recent promise of storewide GMO labeling by 2018.

"They're the biggest purchaser of natural foods in our country," O'Brien said. "I hope that helps tip the scale."

Brattleboro Food Co-op has signed onto a non-GMO project that provides a list of products that are free of genetically modified ingredients, said Sabine Rhyne, shareholder and community relations manager.

"We're actually in the process of labeling those products on our shelves that have been certified that way," Rhyne said.

But she added that "it's going to take something like the bill that's in the House to make this widespread."

-- Brattleboro's name came up in another way in Montpelier this past week as the town's representatives -- Toleno, Mollie Burke and Valerie Stuart -- proposed a bill to modify the town charter.

The changes, which were approved by voters in a special Representative Town Meeting held Oct. 20, clarify the duties of the Office of Assessment, the town assessor and the listers, Town Manager Barbara Sondag said.

For instance, the town assessor will report to the town manager rather than to the listers. Also, the town assessor has the sole authority to appraise properties and the elected listers will handle only appraisal appeals, Sondag said.

Though town-meeting representatives already have endorsed the changes, the state Legislature also must do the same.

"We don't anticipate any issues with this," Sondag said. "It's not controversial."

-- A controversial gas-tax hike approved earlier by the House also was given the nod in the Senate on Friday. But the Senate tweaked some aspects of the bill, including the removal of a provision that would have made future gas-tax increases automatic by tying it to the Consumer Price Index.

Burke said the House now will consider those changes, but she said time is short: Supporters want the new tax to take effect June 1, and a month's lead time is needed.

"There's a push to get this done by May 1, because otherwise we lose out on quite a bit of revenue," Burke said.

-- Stuart, who sits on the House Education Committee, said the coming week could bring action on two important bills.

One attempts to address education issues such as small-school funding and student-to-staff ratios. The bill is the product of a recent meeting among leaders of the Appropriations, Education and Ways and Means committees, Stuart said.

"It was to try to address some of these funding problems," she said. "These are problems that keep coming up."

Another bill would expand access to "high-quality, publicly funded" pre-kindergarten programs. It calls for at least 10 hours per week, 35 weeks per year of instruction for any child ages 3, 4 or 5 (if not yet enrolled in kindergarten).

Participation in such programs would remain voluntary for parents and guardians.

"All the research shows that this is a great investment," Stuart said.

Mike Faher is the political beat writer for the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.