Vt. lawmakers review campaign finance bill

Posted

Saturday February 19, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- A bill introduced this session to amend Vermont's campaign finance laws took center stage in the Vermont Senate this week, leading to a revival of old arguments on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Jeanette White, a Windham County Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said a revised version will appear next week taking into account some of the suggestions made up to this point.

"There are a few goals we would like to achieve by relooking at our campaign finance laws," she said. "There are many things that are not in there that we are considering, but basically it is to limit the influence by large donations, increase transparency and increase reporting requirement."

White said the measure intends to limit the influence of a particular entity on any candidate or elected official.

"It probably is not true in all instances, but money does buy access and big amounts of money could be seen as buying more access," she added. "Another goal is transparency -- voters have the right to know who is giving candidates money. This is accomplished by increased reporting and identification requirements."

The legislation, Senate Bill No. 20, comprehensively revises Vermont's campaign finance laws. The measure states large campaign contributions reduce public confidence in the electoral process and increase the risk and appearance candidates will not act in the best interests of all Vermonters.

The contribution limitations in the new bill read as follows: a single source or political committee for any election may contribute $250 for a state representative candidate, $500 for a state senate or county office race or $1,000 for statewide offices such as governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor of accounts, state treasurer or attorney general.

These restrictions "in the amounts permitted [in this act] adequately allow contributors to express their opinions, levels of support and affiliations with respect to candidates, political committees and political parties," according to the bill's language.

Even advocates acknowledge Vermont has very little corruption in elections, but the finance reforms on the campaign trail will move the state forward in its openness and accountability.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations expect to revisit the measure this Tuesday.

The bill has drawn fire from several senators in the Democratic majority. Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, said the major issue is whether Vermont should prohibit corporations from making campaign contributions, which is not written in the latest bill.

"Federal law prohibits corporations from contributing to candidates and I proposed that Vermont also prohibit such contributions," he said. Galbraith and Sen. Anthony Pollina, D-Washington, offered such an amendment to the bill, noting Vermont should not have looser campaign finance laws than the federal government.

"I don't believe that corporations should be allowed to buy access that is not available to ordinary Vermonters. While some individuals also contribute to gain access, most contribute because they believe in the candidate," Galbraith said.

The Galbraith-Pollina amendment also seeks to shine light on potential corruption by limiting the influence of any single donor. For example, a business owner could contribute $2,000 individually to a candidate and the same amount for each enterprise that person may own.

Opponents of the amendment argued Vermont lawmakers are not influenced by corporate contributions. Others noted individuals sometimes prefer writing checks to candidates from a company as opposed to from personal accounts.

White, who resisted the amendment, said this bill does not address expenditures at all since the U.S. Supreme Court has said that is a clear violation of the First Amendment.

"But we do want to have some limits on the amounts donated from a single source to a candidate," she said. "While we have some suggestions in the bill, we have not settled on any specific amounts."

In a 5-to-4 decision on Jan. 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the conservative action group Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, lifting strict restrictions on corporate spending in political campaigns. Republicans hailed the decision as protecting the contribution rights of private citizens, Democrats said it rescinded 100 years of campaign finance laws and opened the door to a flooding of corporate spending on Capitol Hill.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Putney Democrat, said he would like to pass the toughest campaign finance law in the country, but the challenge is more daunting because of the court decision.

"Now that corporations are considered citizens and can give unlimited money to campaigns without any recognition that they do so anonymously, and you saw it in the Shumlin/Dubie campaign as an example," he said, referring to his own 2010 gubernatorial campaign against Republican Brian Dubie.

The governor said he would like to see a better electronic presence of campaign donations on the secretary of state's website. "The need is greater than ever, and the challenge to get something real done is bigger than ever because of Citizens United," he added.

But it's not just the Citizens United decision that stands in the way of the latest version of the state's campaign finance reform bill.

Vermont's previous law was declared unconstitutional in 2006 by the Supreme Court in the Randall vs. Sorrell case, which said the limitations on campaign expenditures and contributions violated the First Amendment. The new regulations, as written, would likely suffer similar fate if the bill is approved.

After more recent campaign finance reform measures were successfully vetoed by former Republican Gov. James Douglas in 2007 and 2008, Democratic supporters see a more open route to passing a new law with Shumlin.

Rob Roper, former Vermont Republican Party chairman and founder of the online news site True North Reports, said the latest incarnation "looks a lot like its dead ancestors."

"What the bills seeks primarily to do is limit a citizen's right to contribute to the candidate(s) of his or her choice in order to, ostensibly, reduce the role of big money in politics," Roper wrote on his site.

"However, all this bill would really do is shift the ‘big money' out of the transparent areas of campaign finance law (all donations to candidates and political parties over $100 must be publicly reported) and into the shadowy realm of outside interest groups ...," he added.

The Reformer obtained permission from Roper to reprint his comments.

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Post-VY meeting
scheduled for Brattleboro

Galbraith announced this week the Senate Committee on Economic Development, General & Military Affairs will hold a public hearing in Brattleboro next Wednesday on the future of Windham County's economy without the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

The future of the 39-year-old plant, scheduled to close in March 2012, has remained a divisive issue in the county, but even opponents of Yankee recognize the economic importance to the region at this time. The nuclear facility employs more than 650 full-time workers and contributes an estimated $100 million into the local economy.

"Our purpose is not to relitigate nuclear power or VY's license. Those are going forward in other venues. We are interested in what people haven't thought about so far -- what will happen in Windham County if and when that large employer closes," said Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, chairman of the Senate committee.

Illuzzi credited first-term Sen. Galbraith for naming the county's economy future as his highest priority in the committee this session.

Galbraith, who favored closing the plant as scheduled in 13 months, said Yankee employees are an important part of the community and plant owner, Entergy Corp., is a generous supporter of charitable activities.

"As we have learned from other communities where nuclear power plants closed, the high-paid professionals find jobs elsewhere but [the] community experiences the impact in term of lost business and declining property values," he said.

Dr. John Mullin, a University of Massachusetts Amherst dean and nationally known economic development planner, will discuss his research on the aftereffects of Yankee Rowe Power Station closing in Franklin County, Mass. Testimony will also focus on the town of Wiscasset, Maine, which had a nuclear facility close in December 1996.

Windham County residents are invited to come and share their stories as well.

"The state has taken a decision not to extend the operations of one of our largest employers and I believe the state should help us make the transition. These hearings are a first step in that process," Galbraith said.

"While the future of Vermont Yankee is an important question, that is not what [this] hearing [is] about. They are about the future of Windham County and I am grateful to Sen. Illuzzi for holding them so early in the session," he added.

The hearing will take place on Wednesday, Feb. 23, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Brattleboro Retreat Education Center. Local municipal and business leaders will attend the forum to discuss the economic future of Windham County minus Vermont Yankee.

In the Committees

-- Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said the House Transportation Committee held a joint hearing with its Senate counterpart on Wednesday to listen to issues involving federal and state transportation funds allocated to towns.

"All towns in Vermont receive quarterly payments of general state aid for town highways. In addition, towns can apply for grants up to $175,000 per project for bridges, culverts and retaining walls along with grants up to the same amount for the resurfacing or reconstruction of town highways," Burke said. "This money must be matched in percentages ranging from 10 to 30 percent."

While officials and road commissioners appreciated the state aid, they also expressed frustration for the oftentimes lengthy and bureaucratic timelines and regulations. Those who testified offered ways to improve the connection between the towns and state.

The transportation committee also took testimony this week on House Bill No. 150, which would ban the use of handheld portable electronic devices while driving.

Currently, only operators between the ages of 16 and 18 are prohibited from using handheld devices while driving.

"Last year, the Legislature passed a bill banning texting while driving, but was unable to come to consensus -- despite concerns about distracted drivers -- about a ban on cell phone use," Burke said. "House Bill No. 150 brings the issue up again. However, there may not be enough momentum to move this forward.

Happenings Around
the Statehouse

-- Grafton Elementary School students collected 2,663 plastic bags for a project with the Nature Museum last spring. That figure, according to the museum, is the number of bags used every second in the country.

As the bags were placed around the community, students researched the negative environmental effect of the bags. The children also write a ban for plastic bags, which Windham Democrat Carolyn Partridge and former Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Bellows Falls, sponsored this session.

Earlier this month, Grafton students traveled to the Statehouse to testify to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee in support of the measure. They presented each committee member with a "Grafton is green and so are we" reusable bag and a copy of a video they made illustrating the environmental issues with plastic bags.

-- Evelyn Trier of the Family Garden in Brattleboro and the Putney Family Garden spoke in favor of a bill this week before the House Human Services Committee about legislation that would give child-care workers a seat at the table when the state is making decisions about their profession.

Trier, whose organizations collectively provide care and education for 42 children, said House Bill No. 97 can help provide respect and stability for care workers and parents.

"Young children offer something that cannot be found anywhere else -- joy, a trust in the world, hope and endless opportunity. With this joy comes true responsibility," she said, but mentioning industry turnover is a significant problem in the state.

"[This bill] will help to attract and retain high-quality teachers who want nothing more than to be successful in doing this important work," she said. "Reducing the turnover is one huge step in improving the overall quality of our state's early education system."

The legislation has received support from Shumlin, as well as former Gov. Howard Dean, and was co-sponsored by 64 lawmakers from all three major parties.

Chris Garofolo is the political reporter for the Reformer. He can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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