by Paul Heintz
Their goal was to resolve internal differences privately before a long-stalled campaign finance bill reemerges on the Senate floor Friday. But as Senate Democrats and Progressives met Thursday afternoon in a basement conference room near the Statehouse, a pitched debate erupted instead.
With tempers flaring over matters both philosophical and procedural, the group of 18 senators had to call in Senate Secretary John Bloomer (pictured standing at right) to explain how they should revisit legislation pulled abruptly from the floor late last month.
The crux of the issue is this: Two weeks ago, the Senate voted 21-8 to amend a comprehensive campaign finance bill to bar direct corporate contributions to political candidates. But before that and another amendment could be fully attached to the underlying bill, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) ordered it to lie.
In other words, he sent it to legislative purgatory.
In the weeks since, Campbell and the bill's author, Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) have been working behind the scenes to tweak it in order to resolve a bevy of concerns raised during the floor debate. As VTDigger's Nat Rudarakanchana reported earlier this week, those changes were incorporated into a substitute version of the bill, which was approved Tuesday by the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Oddly, though, despite the fact that more than two-thirds of the Senate had voted in favor of banning corporate contributions, the committee stripped that particular provision from its substitute bill.
That had supporters of the ban fuming at Thursday's meeting. Chief among them was Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham), who wrote the corporate contribution amendment.
"I'm a little bothered by the procedure," Galbraith said, pointing out that the Government Operations Committee adopted several changes suggested verbally by senators, but removed provisions actually approved by the full Senate.
. He noted that the Government Operations Committee incorporated into the new version several changes suggested verbally by other senators, but it excised provisions actually voted upon by the Senate.
Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) shared those concerns.
"It doesn't seem quite right that those votes are nullified without anybody in the Senate opening their mouths," he said.
In asking the Senate to approve the committee's substitute version of the bill, they argued, White was essentially asking 21 senators who'd voted for the Galbraith amendment to now vote against it.
That rankled even a pair of veteran Democrats who have largely opposed the campaign finance bill: Sens. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans). They said that undoing amendments approved by the Senate in this fashion was unwise, in that such a procedure could be used in the future by anyone seeking to undo amendments they didn't like.
"I'm just saying it's a bad precedent," Sears said.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that at least some of the 21 senators who voted for the corporate donation ban two weeks ago actually oppose it. As we wrote last week, those senators appeared at the time to vote for the Galbraith amendment with the understanding that the underlying bill would be killed. That allowed them to save face and avoid looking as if they favor corporate money in politics.
Chief among these supportive opponents was Campbell, the president pro tem. While he voted in favor of the Galbraith amendment two weeks ago, he argued against it Thursday afternoon.
In an interview after the caucus, Campbell explained his concerns.
"The unfortunate part of the [Galbraith amendment] is that it almost assumes that we're doing something that is unethical. I don't see it," he said. "If somebody can show that there has been that undue [corporate] influence in Vermont, then please let me know. But I just haven't seen it."
Furthermore, it's difficult to ask friends for campaign contributions, Campbell said, "Whereas there might be somebody who has a business and it's a lot easier for them to run it through their business than to have it come out of their own personal paycheck."
So if he opposes the Galbraith amendment, why did Campbell vote in favor of it two weeks ago?
"When they put it on the bill, the bill did not appear—" Campbell began, before cutting himself off.
He started again: "It was more of a vote, I guess, against the committee that day, because I just think that, uh—"
Asked if he was trying to say that he voted for the amendment because he knew the bill would die anyway, Campbell said he was not.
"No, that's not what I meant. What I meant was what I just told you: I did this because it was more a vote against the committee, because I was not happy with what the committee did. And yes, the way things were going at the time, I did not think the bill was going anywhere."
In the end, the caucus decided over White's and Campbell's objections to reinsert the corporate donation ban into the substitute version, thereby obviating the need for a second vote on the Galbraith amendment.
As the meeting came to a close, Baruth pled with his colleagues to amend the campaign finance bill as they saw fit Friday, but to vote in favor of the final product in the end.
"I think we have to have a caucus position on this bill and it has to be to pass campaign finance," he said.
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