Nearly eight years after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Vermont's campaign fundraising and spending limits, the state is poised to adopt a new set of rules.
By a vote of 20-8, the Vermont Senate on Thursday passed compromise campaign finance legislation approved last week by the House. It now heads to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who "will want to review the language but expects to sign the bill," according to spokeswoman Sue Allen.
The legislation would double to $4,000 the amount individuals and corporations can donate to statewide candidates in a two-year election cycle and would quintuple to $10,000 the amount they can donate to political parties.
At the same time, it decreases to $1,500 the amount those entities can contribute to Senate candidates; to $1,000 for House candidates. Those limits currently stand at $2,000.
Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who sponsored the legislation, urged her colleagues Thursday to quickly pass the bill, arguing that the state has operated with legally murky rules ever since the Supreme Court ruled against Vermont in 2006. The bill, she said, enhanced "transparency" by requiring candidates to disclose their fundraising and spending activities more frequently and by forcing so-called super PACs to identify some of their top donors in advertising.
But Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham), who has battled his fellow Democrats over the legislation since last winter, took one last stand against it.
He raised a point of order, arguing that the conference committee charged with resolving differences between House and Senate versions of the bill had acted outside the scope of its duties. While the Senate had previously agreed to limit party donations to $3,000 and the House limited them to $5,000, the conference committee settled on a $10,000 limit — far more than either.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott ruled Galbraith's motion out of order. But that didn't quiet him down.
(Left: Senate Secretary John Bloomer, Sen. Philip Baruth and Galbraith listen as Scott deliberates on Galbraith's motion.)
Noting that parties could continue to funnel an unlimited amount of money to candidates and that parties could maintain both state and federal accounts, Galbraith said, "These new high limits make it incredibly easy to evade any limits at all." He said that because the conference committee dropped previously passed requirements to disclose the employer and occupation of those who donate more than $100, "This bill actually reduces transparency as compared to what was in the Senate and House bills."
Asked later in the debate by Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington) whether any particular party would benefit from the legislation, Galbraith said, "I think it's quite clear that here in the state of Vermont, these arrangements would work to the great advantage of the Democratic Party, at the expense of the Republican and Progressive parties."
Unlike in the House, where the bill found support from most Democrats and Republicans, the Senate vote count didn't fall precisely along party lines.
Voting for the bill were 15 Democrats, four Republicans and Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden). Opposing it were three Democrats, three Republicans, Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and Sen. Anthony Pollina (P-Washington).
While the left-leaning Vermont Public Interest Research Group railed against the bill for failing to curtail campaign cash, liberal legislators such as Zuckerman and Sen. Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) nevertheless voted for it. Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), meanwhile, said he was chagrined that, "I'm finding myself in complete agreement with VPIRG."
Benning voted against the bill.
After the vote, VPIRG executive director Paul Burns excoriated lawmakers for passing the legislation.
"This bill should have been written on a giant piece of canvas so that it could be more easily waived as the white flag that it is," Burns said. "I think it's a retreat from genuine campaign finance reform, and it gives more power and more influence to corporations, political action committees and very wealthy people who already have plenty of influence over our elected officials."
Burns said his organization planned to send an email blast to its list of 25,000 supporters, asking them to contact Shumlin and ask him to veto it.
"The governor has spoken persuasively in the past about the need for genuine campaign finance reform, and we'll see if he's serious about that," he said. "And I think whether he signs this or vetoes it will give us the answer."