With the release of two new television ads Wednesday, the conservative super PAC Vermonters First demonstrated that it's in Vermont politics for the long haul.
As the Vermont Press Bureau's Peter Hirschfeld first reported this morning, the group today began airing two new, 15-second ads attacking Democrats for proposing $70 million in new taxes.
“An eight-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase?” says a man featured in one ad as he fills up the tank of his pickup truck. “That’ll make it harder to do my job.”
A narrator then intones, “Vermont Democrats are proposing at least $70 million in new taxes on working Vermonters. Call your legislators and say no to these higher taxes.”
The ads are the first public move by Vermonters First since the final two months of the 2012 campaign season, when it spent more than a million dollars without much success. The ads signal that the group, which was almost entirely funded by Burlington heiress Lenore Broughton, has designs on influencing not just elections, but legislative deliberations as well.
How much Vermonters First plans to invest in its new media campaign is unclear, though WCAX-TV confirmed that the group has thus far spent $7800 to air the ads 31 times. They began running Wednesday and are slated to air at least through March 1.
The group’s treasurer, consultant and de facto spokesman, Tayt Brooks, declined to comment Wednesday on its plans or strategy.
The group’s critics on the left, however, were quick to pounce.
“A super PAC that invested a million dollars in an election and got zero wins in return has no business preaching about how to raise and spend money,” said Bob Stannard, who chairs Vermont Priorities, a liberal group that operates its own super PAC.
Stannard and others also took issue with the substance of the ads. They say Vermonters First cherry-picked from a number of revenue-raising proposals — some of which will never see the light of day.
Said House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), “There are a lot of discussions about revenue in this building every year and the only number that really matters is the revenue number at the end of the year, and there will not be $70 million raised for the general fund at the end of the year.”
Smith says the legislature is likely to approve no more than $25 million in general fund tax increases.
So where did Vermonters First get that $70 million figure?
While Brooks wouldn’t directly comment on the ads, he pointed to a Feb. 7 story in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, which said that Gov. Peter Shumlin “has recommended nearly $70 million in tax increases to support new government spending on renewable energy, thermal efficiency, heating assistance and road maintenance.”
Another proposed tax cited in the ads, which would hit home heating fuel, is not supported by Shumlin and doesn’t appear to have much traction. Smith called it “unlikely.”
Stannard suggested that the ads could have a chilling effect on legislative debate.
“One could deduce from these commercials that an elected legislative body should never be allowed to ever discuss any options about anything for fear of ads like this coming out and distorting reality,” he said.
A spokesman for the Vermont Democratic Party, meanwhile, accused Vermonters First of failing to register with the state as a lobbying entity.
“Vermonters First has had a history of not being in compliance with the law,” said VDP spokesman Ryan Emerson, citing instances last fall when the group illegally used the state seal in political advertisements and failed to properly fill out campaign finance disclosure forms. “They’ve done it several times. I hope there will be action taken against them.”
But according to Secretary of State Jim Condos, organizations have 48 hours after the start of a lobbying campaign to register with the state. He said Brooks took care of that Wednesday afternoon.
“They’re not out of compliance,” Condos said. “He was just in here and filed his papers.”