In the seven and a half years since the United States Supreme Court struck down Vermont's restrictive political fundraising rules, lawmakers have struggled in vain to replace them.
But on Thursday afternoon, after just 25 minutes of debate, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of a campaign finance compromise hammered out over the legislative off-season by House and Senate negotiators.
The vote was 124-15.
If passed by the Senate next week and signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, the legislation would double to $4,000 the amount statewide candidates could raise from a single person or corporation. And it would quintuple to $10,000 the amount political parties could raise from the same sources.
Candidates for the House and Senate, both of whom can currently raise $2,000 from such entities, would be restricted to donations of $1,000 and $1,500 respectively. (See this week's Fair Game for more on the bill.)
The liberal Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has spent years fighting to pass a campaign finance law that would lower contribution limits and increase disclosure requirements, announced earlier this week that it would oppose legislation it once promoted. VPIRG informed House members Thursday that they would be docked points in the group's annual legislative scorecard if they voted in favor of it.
But that didn't keep the leadership of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses from endorsing the bill. Only a handful of Progressives, independents and Democrats — and a single Republican, Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset) — opposed it.
Speaking before the vote, House Speaker Shap Smith said that while he favors decreasing the influence of money in politics, he's leery of another court challenge.
"I think that we have to take into account what the U.S. Supreme Court is saying and balance the fact that they are not receptive to limits in the first place with the notion that we'd like to have some sort of limits. And that's the balancing that we try to strike in this bill," Smith said. "It's not going to make everybody happy — particularly those people who have really strong views about campaign finance reform — but we're trying to put limits in place at the same time we try to avoid future litigation."
But during the House debate, Rep. Susan Hatch Davis (P-West Topsham) took issue with the work of the conference committee charged with narrowing the differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill that passed last spring. She noted that while the Senate had agreed to limit donations to parties to $3,000 and the House limited them to $5,000, negotiators somehow landed on $10,000 — a result she called "quite baffling."
Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre City) argued that the bill would make it difficult for independents like him to compete against those supported by the state's major parties. Not only would parties be able to raise five times as much from every donor, he said, they would also be able to spend an unlimited amount of money on the candidates they support.
"Is this really fair?" he asked.
But Rep. Tom Koch (R-Barre Town) defended the bill, saying it included "reasonable financial limits" and increased transparency. The bill would require candidates to disclose how much they raised and spent nine times per two-year election cycle instead of the current seven times. It would also require the secretary of state to build a searchable database to make it easier to determine how political races are funded.
The Senate plans to take up the bill next Wednesday. Gov. Peter Shumlin, meanwhile, is "generally supportive, but wants to let the Senate finish its work on the bill," said his spokeswoman, Sue Allen.