Campaign finance reform joined the graveyard of dead bills in Montpelier this week.
With the clock running out on the 2011-12 session, the state Senate voted 20-9 yesterday to maroon S.20, a bill to establish new campaign contribution limits, to the Senate Judiciary Committee — effectively killing it.
Just in time to go home and campaign for reelection.
The bill actually passed the Senate Government Operations Committee last year, but it got "lost" in the end-of-session chaos and, consequently, didn't appear on the Senate calendar until just a few weeks ago.
The reason? Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham, pictured) promised to amend the bill to bar political candidates from accepting direct contributions from corporations and labor unions. With more than a third of the Senate receiving 40 percent or more from those sources, Galbraith's idea wasn't exactly a smash hit among his colleagues.
At his weekly press conference Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin slagged off the scuttling of this year's bill, saying that until the effects of Citizens United are reversed, state-level campaign reform is worthless.
"As long as Citizens is there, any efforts that states make to try to do quote-unquote campaign finance reform are rather irrelevant compared with the real problem," said Shumlin, who, along with Republican candidate Brian Dubie, shattered Vermont fundraising records in the 2010 governor's race.
Shumlin went even further, saying that state-level campaign finance reform, "distracts from what is the biggest threat to democracy in my lifetime, which is treating corporations as citizens and allowing them to spend unlimited money on campaigns in Vermont and every other state without even identifying where that money's coming from, who's spending it. ... And that's what I would focus on if I were, uh, giving some advice."
Vermont elections have operated under unclear campaign finance laws since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the state's previous campaign limits law in 2006. A federal lawsuit by conservative attorney James Bopp Jr., the subject of this week's "Fair Game," is seeking to throw out what's left of Vermont's disclosure rules and campaign contribution limits.
Responding to Shumlin's comment in the Statehouse cafeteria Wednesday, Galbraith said, "Getting corporate money out of Vermont elections would make a big difference." He said corporations that donate to political candidates are "buying access" and said this week offers a "perfect example of the power of corporations in Montpelier."
"It may be a coincidence or may not, but the largest contributors to campaigns in Vermont are the beverage industry and Casella," Galbraith said. "And when it came to a vote on expanding hte bottle bill, there was roughly 2-to-1 against expanding. Do I suggest that any particular senator's vote was influenced? No. But probably not a coincidence."
What exactly is Galbraith suggesting, then? "To say that corporations have undue influence is not the same thing as saying they always prevail," he said. "They don't."
Galbraith, a former high-level diplomat, won Shumlin's old Senate seat in 2010, helped in part by $45,000 of his own money behind the campaign. During Tuesday's Senate debate, some senators made veiled jabs at Galbraith for self-funding his victory.
“I’m also concerned about giving an advantage to people who have their own money," said Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), according to VTDigger.org. "If you can come up with $10,000 or $20,000 and you have a trust fund or a corporate dividend as a retiree with a golden handshake, you can come in here and run.”
Asked about those, Galbraith said, "Talk about malarkey! As the material I handed demonstrated, virtually no corporate contributions go to nonincumbents. So obviously, whether I spent my own money to run or not, has no relevance to that debate. The argument was that, while I could pay for own campaign, it's depriving some other poor challenger of the corporate contributions that might enable them to run. The reality is, no challenger gets corporate money. It's incumbent protection."
Galbraith is seeking a second term this November and pledged Wednesday he would not accept any corporate or union money.
Ironically, senators seemingly missed an easy opportunity to vote for banning corporate and union donations (thereby looking good) without actually having to abide by such a prohibition.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) had said the House would not take up the campaign reform bill before adjournment. So senators could have effectively outfoxed Galbraith by taking up his amendment, voting to ban corporate and union loot, watch the bill die in the House — and still have their funding sources available for their reelection campaigns.
Why didn't they do that?
"Perhaps the level of hypocrisy and cynicism in the Vermont Senate is less than you — a cynical journalist — might imagine," Galbraith said.
If reelected, Galbraith promises to reintroduce the corporate/union contribution ban again next year. Maybe in a nonelection year, he'll find fellow senators more receptive to the idea.
File photo of Galbraith by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur