Wednesday March 13, 2013

MONTPELIER -- A Vermont Senate committee delayed final action on a bill Tuesday to rewrite Vermont’s campaign finance law after a longtime advocate for tough spending limits called a 250 percent increase in what people could contribute to statewide candidates cause for "outrage."

The Senate Government Operations Committee has been wrestling for much of this legislative session with a bill that would require more frequent disclosure of campaign contributions and would set limits on how much can be given to the new breed of independent political action committees known as "super-PACs."

But what drew the ire of Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, were new donation limits that would raise from $2,000 to $5,000 the amount someone could give to a candidate for governor or other statewide office. The committee decided to put off a vote until Wednesday.

Vermont has a checkered history in its attempts to rein in campaign fundraising. A Vermont law that set limits of $200 for state House races, $300 for Senate contests and $400 for donations to candidates for statewide office was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006.

More recently, the state has had limits of $2,000 for all three candidacies. The new legislation would lower the limit to $1,000 for House races, keep it at $2,000 for Senate candidates, and raise it to $5,000 for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, auditor, secretary of state and attorney general.

If the lawyer who had argued against the state in the 2006 case had argued for the limits being contemplated now, "I think there would have been a general sense of outrage," Burns said. "I still am outraged. I wish you could be, too. These limits are very, very high."

So high, he said, that the Public Interest Research Group would oppose the bill.

He said that under the bill, Vermont’s limits would be higher than in other states including Massachusetts and Florida, where elections have traditionally been much more expensive than in Vermont.

Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham and committee chair, said the panel was trying to craft legislation that would survive a court challenge. She argued that the state would have a hard time justifying deep reductions in the contribution limits from the current $2,000 level.

She said Vermont has not seen any evidence of widespread corruption of the political process with the $2,000 donation limit, making it hard to justify a limit lower than $1,000. And if that amount is set as the floor in Vermont’s tiny House districts -- average population about 4,000 per member -- the limits for larger state Senate districts and for statewide candidates logically have to be higher, White said.