Rep. Jim Harrison, center, questions a witness about S.120.
Members of a Vermont House committee have plenty of questions about S.120, the Senate-passed bill that would ban corporate campaign contributions to candidates or political parties.
The House Government Operations Committee held its first hearing on the bill Friday morning. Both Democrats and Republicans appeared to be skeptical that the bill would accomplish its purpose: to keep Vermont immune from the effects of big-money politics. That’s because corporations would still be able to donate unlimited funds through political action committees and independent organizations.
“Many of us have gotten lots of calls asking us to get corporate money out of Vermont politics,” said committee chair Rep. Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington). “This bill, the PACs would collect the money and put it into our political system. If it’s direct from corporation to candidate it’s not OK, but if it goes from corporation to PAC to candidate, it is OK?”
Rep. Jim Harrison (R-Chittenden) wondered, half-jokingly, if S.120 didn’t simply create “a way to launder the money,” and pointed out that “any candidate could set up a PAC and accept corporate contributions.”
Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters said that his office supports S.120 “in concept,” but warned of unintended consequences. “It could encourage the creation of a lot more PACs, which could diminish transparency,” he said. “It could funnel more money to out-of-state PACs and independent organizations.”
And he pointed out that federal law bans direct corporate donations to candidates, but “the money has found ways to get around that.” He expressed the office’s support for a beefed-up system of public campaign financing as a more effective way to limit the influence of corporate cash.
“I was glad to hear the secretary of state’s office make a strong stand in favor of public financing,” Townsend said after the hearing. “Because what we have now is pretty weak. Doesn't amount to a hill of beans, as far as getting all these different pressures out of the political process.”
The current public financing system is underfunded and imposes very tough restrictions on candidates seeking to qualify for public money. And if they do accept public funding, the candidates are prohibited from accepting any further support — financial or otherwise. In recent years, lawmakers have turned a cold shoulder to proposals to improve the system.
Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington), who refuses to accept corporate or PAC contributions, was also wary of unintended consequences. “If we do this, the money is just going to go dark,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better to improve disclosure requirements?”
Members of the panel didn’t vote on the bill or even conduct a straw poll. But the committee’s 11 members include six Democrats, one Progressive and four Republicans. If the Republicans vote “No” and two others (hypothetically, Townsend and Gannon) joined them, the bill would die in committee.
Consideration of the bill is scheduled to continue on Wednesday with more testimony and committee discussion. With perhaps three weeks left in the legislative session, time is definitely not on S.120’s side.