Tuesday February 16, 2010

BENNINGTON -- A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has prompted a small group of state senators to craft legislation aimed at providing more transparency in political advertising for the November election and beyond.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, are working to draft a bill they say will make it clear who is paying for political advertisements, and on behalf of whom.

A decision handed down last month by the nation's highest court "basically struck down the campaign finance laws regarding companies," Sears said. The effort now is "to respond in some constitutional manner with the Supreme Court decision," he said.

That decision, in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, allows corporations and unions to spend money to influence elections with few restrictions so long as they do not coordinate with candidates.

Shumlin, one of five candidates vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, maligned the decision, saying it provides corporations and unions with "unfettered access to politicians because they can spend unlimited money to say whatever they want.

"There's no reason to say that the CEO of a corporation shouldn't be able to express what they think of a candidate and give money to a candidate within the limits of the law," he said. "But for (the court) to say the corporation has free speech seems a creative interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

"Basically, Sen. Sears and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is one of the worst decisions for elections and democracy that the Supreme Court has ever made. What can we do to mitigate it?'" Shumlin said.

The legislation that Sears, Shumlin and Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, intend to introduce will not limit campaign contributions in any way, they said. Vermont lawmakers have run afoul with the U.S. Supreme Court in the past over limiting monetary contributions. The court struck down in 2006 a state law that limited contributions in statewide races.

Rather, it will require any person or group that purchases political advertising to register the purchase on a Web site within a short time-frame. The registration would indicate who purchased the ad. "We want to make clear who's paying for these ads. We've all had them run against us, those of us who've been around for a little while," Sears said.

Under the legislation, advertisements on television, radio and in print would be required to more prominently display who purchased it. Television spots will require a continuous banner, while Radio and print ads would have to be more boldly declared and displayed. Any so-called robo calls would have to announce exactly who paid for it.

"We've had a pretty loose system," Sears said. "You need to understand who's paying for these things. That's critical, I think, so the electorate knows."

In addition, the legislation would require any corporation to get clear approval by a majority of board members, Shumlin said.

The tougher requirements would be mandated on independent expenditures made on behalf of a campaign or candidate. The legislation, expected to be introduced in the coming weeks, would not alter how a candidate or campaign spends money on their own behalf, according to Shumlin.

The ideas have been developed in concert with Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, a constitutional law expert, he said.

Such a law is aimed at providing Vermonters with information about which companies are backing a candidate, and why. It is not focused on any one company, but Entergy Nuclear, currently embroiled in a battle with state officials over renewing the operating license for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, is an obvious example, Shumlin said.

"The job of government is to level the playing field between those who have and those who don't. Any profitable corporation is always going to try to protect their profits. There are so many examples where we pass legislation that is in the public's best interest, but might have some impact on a corporation's profits," Shumlin said. "Entergy Louisiana is an obvious possibility, but there are so many. The sky is the limit."

David Coriell, a spokesman for Republican Gov. James Douglas, said Monday that Douglas, in general, favors more transparency.

"Philosophically, we believe that the more people know about who is donating to campaigns, the better for democracy. We'll take a look at what the bill says and see what's in the details," Coriell said.

However, Coriell said Vermont has a custom "of not changing campaign finance laws through legislation in the middle of an election year."

To "truly remove the politics," any new legislation impacting campaign finance disclosure "should, at minimum, take effect in 2012," Coriell said.

Former state Sen. Matt Dunne, also running for the Democratic nomination for governor, has pitched changes to campaign finance laws, too. Dunne said the state should limit the contributions of companies or groups that conduct business with the state.