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House Votes to Restrict Campaign Donations From Lobbyists


Rep. Kurt Wright - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Rep. Kurt Wright
House Democrats ushered in the legislative session in January by asking lobbyists to contribute to their political action committee. They're ushering out the session by banning the practice.

By a margin of 137 to 1, the House voted Wednesday to ban so-called "leadership PACs" from accepting donations from registered lobbyists and those who employ them until the end of the two-year biennium.

If approved by the Senate, the amendment to a broader lobbyist disclosure bill would close a loophole Democrats and Republicans alike have exploited for years: While individual legislators are currently barred from taking lobbyist cash during the session, the PACs that support their campaigns frequently accept such contributions. 

Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington), who cosponsored the amendment with Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), reminded his colleagues during a floor debate that many of them had previously expressed "unease" over the practice. 

"We all believe that it is wrong, that it does create a bad perception, at the very least — that we ought to ban this practice," Wright said. 

Wednesday's nearly unanimous vote came as a surprise even to the amendment's sponsors. Because majority Democrats rely on lobbyist contributions to fill their campaign coffers, Wright and Komline said they had expected House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) to rule the amendment out of order on the grounds that it was not germane to the underlying bill. 

"We heard all over the building that ... it's already been determined: 'This is not going to go anywhere. It's not going to be ruled germane,'" Wright said. 

Asked moments before the House took the floor how he would rule, Smith said, "I haven't really thought about it." He added, "I call them the way I see them, buddy."

In the end, Smith didn't have to make the call. Nobody rose to object to the amendment. After an abbreviated debate, House members cast their votes by roll call. Only Rep. Steve Beyor (R-Highgate Springs) opposed it.

Despite the overwhelming support for the bill, Smith himself did not sound excited about it. By custom, the speaker generally does not cast a vote.

"I probably would have voted for the amendment, but I think that the amendment is nothing more than a feel-good amendment that doesn't get money out of politics," he said. "I know that people tend to be creative and they will probably  find other ways to secure money to support candidates."

The amendment was attached to a bill that requires more frequent disclosure of lobbying expenses. Those who spend $1,000 or more on advertising intended to influence the legislative debate would have to publicly report within 48 hours that they had done so. It would also require lobbyists and those who employ them to report total lobbying expenses to the secretary of state seven times a year instead of the current three. 

While the Senate adopted an earlier version of the bill in March, it did not take up the question of banning mid-session lobbyist contributions. The Senate can now either accept the House's changes, propose its own or call for a committee of conference to negotiate the differences.

Just because a vast majority of House Democrats and Republicans supported Wright's and Komline's amendment doesn't mean they'll abide by its spirit if the Senate scraps it. After the vote, leaders of those parties declined to say they'd cease raising money from lobbyists if they weren't forced to do so. 

"We'll comply with the law," said House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton). "If the law passes, for sure."

He suggested his caucus would also cease raising mid-session money if Democrats committed to do the same. 

"But I can't put our caucus in a position where the majority continues to receive [lobbyist] contributions and we don't," Turner said.

The speaker said much the same.

"I will follow whatever the law is," Smith said. "I think we'll have a discussion about what our fundraising will look like after the session and discuss this particular issue, if this provision doesn't go into law. And I think we'll take into consideration the possibility of not raising money during the session."