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Bill Would (Almost) End Anonymous Campaign Donations

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*UPDATED BELOW WITH COMMENT FROM VPIRG'S PAUL BURNS*

*UPDATE #2 BELOW WITH HIGHLIGHTS OF SEN. JEANETTE WHITE'S COMPREHENSIVE CAMPAIGN FINANCE BILL*

Last fall, Seven Days told you about the flood of secret campaign donations collected by the candidates running for governor. Vermont law permits small-dollar donors — those contributing $100 or less to a candidate — to remain anonymous. And the five Democrats and one Republican running for Vermont's top job raked in small fortunes from unnamed donors.

As of August 25, 2010, five candidates (four Dems and the sole Republican) had collectively raised $423,812 from 7759 donors who gave $100 or less — meaning that fully 14 percent of the $2.9 million raised in the governor's race up until that point came from unnamed individuals.

Republican Brian Dubie had the most ($147,263), followed by Democrats Deb Markowitz ($123,792), Doug Racine ($73,696) and Matt Dunne ($51,142). Peter Shumlin, the eventual big winner, had grossed $27,919 from 479 low-dollar contributors. Susan Bartlett's campaign couldn't supply the data.

For Democrats in a crowded primary, the law proved especially helpful: rank-and-file Dems leery of taking sides publicly could donate small amounts discreetly to their favored candidate, or candidates, without pissing off the others by having their name appear on a public report.

Now a second-term state representative from Manchester, Democrat Jeff Wilson (pictured), has proposed a bill that would change that rule — and require any donor who gives more than $10 to a candidate to be named in public disclosure reports. Introduced yesterday, H.199 would lower the disclosure limit from $100 to $10 — meaning anyone donating $9.99 or less could still remain anonymous.

Calling the issue a "no brainer," Wilson tells Seven Days he can't think of a single good reason not to require names and addresses for low-dollar campaign donors.

"There's no reason these days — with Excel spreadsheets — that one can't keep track and report this," Wilson says. "I mean, if you can't figure how to use an Excel spreadsheet, you shouldn't run for office, basically."

Wilson doesn't believe there's a whole lot of money-bundling in Vermont campaigns, and so doesn't think his bill will prevent that kind of behavior. However, during his own campaign in 2008, Wilson says he received unsolicited donations — all in the amount of $100 — from several special-interest groups, which he returned. He wouldn't name those groups.

Are his legislative colleagues behind the idea?

"I got a little ribbing today," he says. "In good fun. I haven't had any real serious discussion with colleagues about it. We'll see if there's any traction behind this or not."

When we wrote the story during the campaign, watchdog groups were split about the importance of identifying small-dollar donors. Paul Burns of Vermont Public Interest Research Group and Allen Gilbert of the ACLU-VT both said nameless small donors wasn't a huge deal in their view. A more urgent reform in Vermont, they said, is requiring big-dollar donors — who can give up to $2000 to candidates — to disclose their occupation and employer. Currently, the law doesn't mandate that.

However, Gail Zatz of Common Cause Vermont was troubled by the anonymity, calling it one more reason Vermont deserves the 'F' it received in campaign-finance transparency in a 2008 survey of states by the Campaign Disclosure Project.

"The secrecy makes it impossible for the public, journalists and watchdog groups to know who or what may be influencing a campaign," Zatz told Seven Days at the time.

Wilson's bill wouldn't address identifying employers and occupations for individual large donors. "I was trying to keep it as simple as possible," he says. "Sometimes incremental change is easier than the comprehensive, holistic approach."

State Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) has introduced a comprehensive campaign-finance reform bill — S.20 — which I will address in a future post.

***UPDATE***

VPIRG's Paul Burns tells me he hasn't seen Wilson's bill but that it probably is not something VPIRG would support. Excerpts from Burns' email to me, which includes some info about S.20, the comprehensive campaign finance bill:

As I said to you last fall, very small contributions to candidates are not the problem when it comes to money in politics.  In fact, VPIRG believes that as a public policy matter we should encourage candidates to reach out to as many voters as possible seeking small gifts of support.  The idea that a candidate is funding his or her race through the small gifts of many people is a good thing for democracy.
 
This legislation would add a record-keeping burden to campaigns and provide a possible disincentive to giving (some folks don’t want it known that they have given) with no clear justification.
 
Meantime, S.20 is the bill I would encourage you to take a look at.  Among other things, it would reestablish commonsense limits on contributions to candidates from individuals, corporations, PACs and political parties.   Also, it would (as currently written) require disclosure of a donor’s occupation and employer.  This is important information for the media and the public.  It’s the only way one could begin to determine whether a particular company or industry sector is trying to influence legislators in a concerted way.
 
Senate Gov’t Ops has already started taking testimony on S.20.  I testified last week.  It’s a major priority for them (and legislative leadership too I think) this year.   It’s similar to legislation twice vetoed by Gov. Douglas (where the overrides each fell one vote short in the House).

***UPDATE #2***

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After a quick read through, here are some highlights of S.20, the comprehensive campaign finance reform bill introduced by state Sen. Jeanette  White (D-Windham, pictured).  Click the link above to download the whole bill:

Disclosure:

 - Would require candidates to collect and disclose occupation and employer of contributors (currently not required).

Contribution Limits:

 - The amount in total contributions that candidates for office could accept from a single source or political committee would be: $250 for state rep.; $500 for state senator; and $1000 for the statewide offices of governor, lt. governor, secretary of state, treasure, auditor and attorney general.

 - A single source could not contribute more than $20,000 to all candidates in any two-year election cycle.  And a single source could not contribute more than $20,000 to all political committees and political parties in a two-year cycle.

 - Candidates could not accept from a political party more than: $30,000 for statewide offices; $2000 for state senator or county offices; and $1000 for state rep. or local offices.

 - Contribution limits would be adjusted for inflation every two years (non-election years) based on the Consumer Price Index.

 - Political committees could not accept contributions totaling more than $2000 from any single source, political committee or political party.

 - Political parties could not accept contributions totaling more than $30,000 from another political party.

ID Requirements for Electioneering Communications

 - At the end of any TV or radio ad, an audio statement must provide the following: name of speaker, name of person who paid for the ad, and a statement that the speaker approves of the content of the message.

 - For TV ads, the person, candidate or representative of the political party or committee funding the ad would have to appear in a "full-screen, un-obscured view" at the ad for "at least four seconds."

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