Disclosure for Thee, But Not for Me

Worried about the impact of PACs on Vermont politics, some Vermont politicians seem to be ready to do VPIRG’s bidding by calling for selective disclosure of money in politics:

Lawmakers and activists in Montpelier have been clamoring for greater campaign finance disclosure since the 2012 general election kicked into full gear. Much of the debate has been over the conservative Super PAC Vermonters First, which bankrolled more than $1 million last election cycle.

Now, Republican Rep. Kurt Wright — the former Burlington mayoral candidate whose campaign manager, Tayt Brooks, founded Vermonters First — is spearheading legislation he says will impose more disclosure requirements on politicians and political organizations.

On Thursday, Wright and 10 legislators — nine Republicans and Democrat Sarah Buxton of Tunbridge — announced their intent to introduce legislation next week that would enhance campaign finance disclosure. The crux of the bill, Wright said, would be new mandatory filing deadlines.

Wright’s bill calls for monthly campaign finance filings after Jan. 15 during an election year and quarterly filings in an off year. Leading up to a primary or general election, filings would be due every two weeks, he said. Super PACs would have to file an additional report within 24 hours if they receive a donation 45 days prior to a primary or general election.

It should comes as no surprise to discover one of the major forces pulling the strings behind this push:

Many of these recommendations echo those recently made by Secretary of State Jim Condos and VPIRG executive director Paul Burns.

Burns would also like to see the state cap contributions for elections at levels commensurate to a position’s reach and responsibility. One such bill that the Senate passed but the House did not take up last year would have limited single-source donations to $500 for representatives, $1,000 for senators, and $2,000 — which the cap is set at now — for statewide and gubernatorial races.

“We really need to re-establish common sense limits on campaign contributions and insist on the best disclosure possible,” Burns said.

More disclosure in Vermont politicians is a good thing, but PACs already are far more transparent than 501(c)4’s like VPIRG.  Such groups wield a lot of political power and are a conduit for a lot of unreported donations to impact politics.  This is a matter that I wrote about in 2010 for the old True North Radio website:

This begs the question of what is driving our political agenda if it is not the interests of the voters. This question was explored by a Hudson Institute Conference that was held in 2005 called “When Non-Profits Attack: Nonprofit Organizations as Political Advocates“. The theme of the conference was that the use of non-profit organizations is increasingly advancing political interests. Since then, using non-profits as a funnel for money to advance a political agenda is starting to be more widely seen as a serious problem.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article: “The Senate’s chief tax writer has called for a federal investigation into advocacy groups that have become increasingly popular vehicles for outside donations.

These groups, known as 501(c) 4s after the section of the tax code that defines them, can raise unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and labor unions to spend on political advertisements.”

The problem has become more pronounced after changes in the campaign finance laws according the Wall Street Journal article: “After a 2002 campaign-finance law that banned companies and labor unions from making unlimited donations directly to political parties, more outside political entities began running their own independent campaigns for political candidates.”

The article then zeros in on VPIRG’s political influence in the state:

“The press had done a good job shedding some light on the $8000 donation to Peter Shumlin by big time donor David Bilttersdorf, Shumlin’s appointment of Bilttersdorf to the Clean Energy Development Board, and Bilttersdorf’s company ultimately receiving $4.3 million tax credits from that very board.” – True North Radio Host Rob Roper

“Companies founded by, and linked to, Burlington renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf received $4.3 million in tax credits for solar projects across Vermont. The total pool of available tax credits was about $7 million.” – Rutland Herald

This is just the beginning as Roper points out: “This $8000 is not the only “investment” David Blittersdorf has made, and the $4.3 million in tax credits has not been his only pay day. Since 2003, David Blittersdorf and his wife Jan have given nearly $100,000 in direct donations to the Vermont Democratic Party, including $20,000 this 2009-2010 election cycle. In addition, Blittersdorf made in April, 2010, a stunning $35,200 donation to Vermont Senate 2010.”

Direct political contributions are only a minor means by which people like Mr. Blittersdorf seeks to gain political advantage. As Roper has noted: “And, perhaps not so coincidentally, it’s the same Peter Sumlin who is leading the charge to shut down David Blittersdorf’s number one business competitor, Vermont Yankee, with the help of another organization of which David Blittersdorf just happens to be a board member – VPIRG.

We don’t know how much money Bilttersdorf has donated to VPIRG as that organization is under no legal obligation to disclose the names or amounts of individuals who donate. However, VPIRG’s half a dozen lobbyists in the State House, grassroots activities, and ad campaigns have been tightly linked to the Blittersdorf’s business agenda.”

In VPIRG the wind companies are getting an effective advocate for their interest. They are a registered 501(c)(4) organization. Its 2007 IRS Form 990 showed revenue of $382,006 and expenses of $384,320. It took had $511,917 in revenue in 2008. VPIRG compensated its executive director. The VPIRG website lists nine staff members: an executive director, an associate director, a clean energy advocate, a health care advocate, an environmental health advocate, a health care advocate, a field associate, a membership coordinator, and an office manager.

 VPIRG shares this staff with its 501(c)(3) arm the Vermont Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, whose 990 reports reveal an average of between $500,000 to $600,000 per year in addition to what the 501(c)(4) branch earns. Of course the public sees them as simply pursuing the public good, rather than advancing the political agenda of wind companies.

As noted in a July 17th 2011 TNR article by Rob Roper, VPIRG and its non-profit allies are an integral part of the agenda being advanced by the Democrats and Progressives:

VPIRG, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Vermont Health Care for All, and the Workers Center recently held a joint conference call with a number of activists to discuss and coordinate strategy for keeping the momentum going on single payer healthcare legislation. Their objective is to gear up their grassroots efforts for the 2012 legislative session when the next set of decisions will be made to shape issue.

“Tonight is kicking off our ground campaign,” said Cass Gekas, Health Care Advocate for VPIRG. “We’re partnering with local legislators and focusing on reaching Vermonters where they are and looking to folks like yourself – the local residents and local healthcare providers, and business owners and clergy members among others – to really help drive the discussions in your communities…. We have more than twenty events around the state on the docket for the summer and fall…. To make this successful we are really looking to the trusted messengers in the community” to help sell our position.

Governor Peter Shumlin joined the call at the end to thank these organizations for all their hard work, acknowledging that Vermont wouldn’t be where we are today without their hard work. Shumlin cut short some of his comments after learning press might be present on the call.

Vermonters First is the entity that seems to be drawing all the scrutinty, but they cannot come anywhere close to matching the political clout in Vemront of VPIRG and friends.  Despite this fact, when VPIRG calls for the passage of bills that would hinder the effectiveness of any possible competition for political influence, Vermont politicians jump.  Disclosure of the money influencing Vermont’s politics is a good idea, but unless it applies to other entities in addition to PACs, it really is just a VPIRG empowerment bill.