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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

With New Bill, Lawmakers Seek To Clarify Campaign Finance Limits

A new campaign finance bill that would regulate contributions for state and local officials seems likely to pass after a conference committee merged differing legislation from the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Critics say the bill allows more money into Vermont’s politics, a reality proponents say will keep money from independent expenditure political action committees, better known as Super PACs, from drowning out political parties.

The bill passed the House of Representatives last week and is set to be heard in the Senate Thursday. Gov. Peter Shumlin has indicated that he supports the legislation.

If passed into law, the bill will also fix a problem Vermont has had since 2006: There is no clear campaign finance law on the books. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a campaign finance law passed in Vermont in 1997, which was for years among the most strict in the nation.

When that law was struck down because of its tight contribution limits – including limits on how much a candidate could spend on his or her own campaign – the legislature never revised Vermont’s campaign finance rules. In essence, the state hasn’t had intact campaign finance laws in place in more than seven years, and lawmakers haven’t passed a campaign finance bill since 1997.

“In 17 years, we haven’t really had a campaign finance bill,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee. “It went down 17 years ago and we haven’t really had one in place since then.”

Critics of the bill include Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D Washington, a member of White’s committee. Pollina said in a committee meeting that the contribution limits outlined in the law are too high.

The bill’s proposed campaign contribution limits reduce the amount of money local candidates can receive from PACs, but increases limits for statewide candidates. Current law, as interpreted by some officials, allows all candidates to receive up to $1,000 from individuals or businesses and up to $3,000 from PACs in a given campaign cycle.

The new limits would vary based on the office candidates are seeking:

  • Candidates for the House of Representatives or for municipal office could receive $1,000 each from individuals, businesses, and PACs.
  • Candidates for county office or state Senate could receive $1,500 each from individuals, businesses, and PACs.
  • Candidates for statewide office could receive $4,000 each from individuals, businesses and PACs.

The new limits apply to all elected officials serving in state, county, or municipal government, but not candidates seeking to represent Vermont in U.S. Congress; those candidates are governed by federal campaign finance law.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the bill is that it allows unlimited contributions to candidates from political parties. Those political parties are allowed to accept up to $10,000 from individuals, businesses, and PACs. Critics worry such a structure will allow individuals and businesses to essentially contribute $10,000 to their candidate by funneling that money through the candidate’s political party.

White and her counterparts in the House argue the unlimited contributions from parties is the only way to keep those parties from being drowned out by Super PACs, which states cannot limit under federal law.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has repeatedly called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, said Vermont’s new bill is a start.

“What this bill does is put on the books a bill that makes sense, that will put limits in place and that takes into light the fact that we don’t want to get slapped down by the United States Supreme Court again,” Shumlin said. “So we have to bear in mind the confines under which we’re working because of that [2006] decision.”

Shumlin said Vermont won’t be able to pass the kind of campaign finance reform he  and many Vermonters would want because of existing case law in federal courts.

The new bill is scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor Thursday.