Thanks to a disruption in the space-time continuum, the Cedar Creek Room of the Statehouse was briefly transported to Bizarro World Thursday morning.
At the podium stood a crew of mostly House Republicans calling for new campaign finance disclosure rules meant to make it easier for voters to know who's funding political campaigns, political action committees and so-called "super PACs."
Their recommendations closely mirrored those offered up in recent months by several liberal groups, including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Vermont Priorities.
"This is all about transparency and disclosure. Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure," said Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre). "The people of this state have a right to know who was contributing to campaigns — how much, how the money is being spent. What they do with that information is their business."
Republican candidates, you'll remember, benefited from a million dollars in campaign expenditures made by the conservative Vermonters First super PAC during the 2012 election.
After a public backlash that may have contributed to many of those candidates losing, the GOP appears to be trying to get out in front of the issue.
"I think Republicans are sometimes unfairly maligned," said Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), who, like Koch, is writing legislation to require candidates and committees to report donations and expenditures far more frequently.
Wright noted that though a former campaign manager of his, Tayt Brooks, ran Vermonters First, Wright expressly requested that the group refrain from supporting his 2012 reelection campaign.
Lurking in the back of the room as Republicans rolled out their plan was a number of Democratic legislators and operatives. Given their castigation of Republican super PACs during the 2012 election, surely they hopped right on board the Republican campaign finance bandwagon to sing "Kumbaya," right?
Not so! Because, you'll remember, we were stuck in Bizarro World.
Instead, the Dems opted to take a giant dump on the Republican plan.
"While the current system isn't user friendly, it didn't fail," said Majority Leader Willem Jewett (D-Ripton), adding that super PACs "got plenty of ink" during the 2012 election and don't necessarily require new disclosure rules.
Referring to Koch's and Wright's plans, Jewett said dismissively, "That's not campaign finance reform."
"That's the hard part," Jewett responded. "We're going to put that challenge to committees."
Newly minted Vermont Democratic Party political director Nick Charyk was equally dismissive — though more on the politics than the substance.
"It's nice to hear what they're saying now. They're a little late to the party," Charyk said. "I think making it a partisan issue now, coming from the Republican caucus, seems like a little bit of a cynical move."
OK, wait. So Republicans decide to back the kind of reforms Democrats have been calling for and that's somehow partisan and cynical? Surely if Republicans had opposed the same reforms, they'd be called partisan and cynical, right?
"The timing — I think they're trying to take credit," Charyk responded. "It's an abrupt shift from how they've been talking."
Regardless of their motivations, the House Republicans — along with Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) — said they were working hard to be inclusive and nonpartisan. Joining them at the press conference was Rep. Sarah Buxton (D-Tunbridge), who has signed on to Wright's bill. Wright said he was hoping more Democrats would join him before he introduces it next week.
While the details of both Wright's and Koch's bills are still being ironed out, both legislators said they hoped to require political entities to file disclosure forms quarterly during years in which elections are not held and monthly during years in which they are held. Between the primary and general elections, those deadlines would be even more frequent — perhaps weekly for candidates and within 24 hours of a contribution for super PACs.
The Republicans also called for the Secretary of State's office to adopt a mandatory electronic filing system and for candidates to be penalized if they are late in filing. They suggested their proposal could be paid for out of a fund reserved for public financing of elections.
Wright's legislation would also require super PACs to list the names of their top contributors in any campaign advertisements they buy.