Major parties overwhelmingly back campaign finance bill in House vote

The Vermont House overwhelmingly passed a campaign finance bill Thursday that will make it possible for parties to give unlimited contributions to individual candidates. The legislation, which passed 124-15 in a roll call vote, goes to the Senate on Friday for final passage.

The bill, S.82, is the result of a compromise struck by House and Senate conferees Tuesday.

Republicans and Democrats alike are concerned about the role of Super PACs on elections. The House originally passed a bill that would have set limits on Super PACs. The Senate was concerned that the provision would leave the state vulnerable to future litigation over the constitutionality of placing caps on campaign spending by independent groups.

Instead of setting new limits, lawmakers decided to make it possible for political parties to raise significantly higher amounts from individuals and corporations. The committee conferees say giving parties more fundraising power will even the playing field.

Under the new proposal, parties can accept as much as $10,000 from a single source and $60,000 from a national party. State parties can then donate unlimited amounts to candidates.

Statewide candidates will be able to accept twice as much - $4,000 as opposed to $2,000 - from corporations, individuals and political action committees.

In the brief House debate Thursday, independents and Progressives complained that the bill gives the major parties - Republicans and Democrats - an unfair advantage.

The Vermont Progressive Party is not tied to a well-heeled national party machine, and independents have no party backup.

Rep. Susan Davis, P-Orange, asked what changed between May and November to justify raising limits and giving parties the ability to give unlimited contributions.

"Why would we want more money in the political process when Vermonters want the opposite?" Davis asked.

Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre. VTD/Josh Larkin

Independents will fare particularly poorly under the new system, said Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre. It isn't right, he said, to limit the maximum amount independents can receive to $1,000 per donor while Republican and Democratic candidates would have unlimited access to contributions from their respective parties.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, was one of a few Democrats, including Burlington Reps. Jill Krowinski and Kesha Ram, who voted against S.82. Browning said she couldn't support the bill because "the role of corporate money in campaigns is one of the issues my constituents are concerned about."

"To have no particular limits on direct corporate contributions to candidates when we're a small state and corporations try to influence our policies, I see that as such a grave omission that I cannot support this bill," Browning said.

Republicans, with the exception of a few, including former party minority whip Rep. Patty Komline, R-Dorset, endorsed the new campaign contribution structure. Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, who held a news conference calling for better campaign finance reporting a year ago, said it was a compromise he could live with.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre Town, said he was pleased that lawmakers had sidestepped the constitutional issues.

"This bill provides reasonable financial limits, which the previous bill did not; it also recognizes the legitimate role of parties in the election process, which the previous law did not," Koch said.

Though he's not entirely happy with the bill (he would have preferred more frequent disclosure filings), Secretary of State Jim Condos said the legislation is a "good start" based on the history of campaign finance in Vermont.

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, a watchdog group that has lobbied for campaign finance reform, was disappointed by the bill. He says it sets up a money "arms race" between parties and Super PACs.


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