VPIRG tells us how to run elections

by Angela Chagnon

Another constitutionally questionable bill

In 1997, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) helped give Vermont an unconstitutional campaign finance law. The Supreme Court struck it down in 2006. The legal bill to Vermont taxpayers was $1.5 million, and for nearly a decade our citizens were not able to freely exercise their full First Amendment rights. VPIRG’s quest continues.

Paul Burns, the Executive Director for VPIRG, offered testimony to the Senate Government Operations Committee in favor of S.20. VPIRG, as with the 1997 law, has played an instrumental role in crafting the bill’s language.

The committee members raised many questions about the bill’s low limits on financial contributions, expressing concern that lower income candidates would have to spend more time raising money from more sources while richer candidates would be able to contribute as much of their money as they wanted to their own campaign.

“I wish one could possibly make the 14th amendment equal protection [apply to money],” said Burns. “You know, we would all have equal access to money and therefore there could be reasonable limits placed on what one person could spend in a race. Whatever we might suggest could be a rationale for a Court decision, the Court has so far not gone for it.”

Since 2006, the Court has moved even further toward eliminating laws that infringe free speech.

VPIRG calls for an invasion of personal privacy (exempting themselves, of course)

Burns hope is that the new campaign finance law will force individuals to list their occupation and employer on a disclosure form.

“My feeling is that if you’re going to engage in this process of giving money to candidates for office, that you are giving up a certain amount of your privacy in that way, so that we as a society can have some confidence that whoever is giving the money is not getting a particular favor,” replied Burns.

Senator Flory expressed concern, “I think it’s horribly invasive of their privacy,” she said.

“If I have received a $200 check from a hundred of Entergy employees, what you’re saying is ‘we need to know’…,” said Flory. “But can’t the reverse be true that because of positions I’ve taken that people want to support me. You’re not requiring that if 100 people are sending Jennette [White] $200 checks, and they’re all VPIRG members, that they have to disclose that they’re VPIRG members.”

“For one thing, it’s a legal matter,” said Burns. “We all have interest in, you know, sunshine is the best disinfectant, as the saying goes, so the more we know about who is giving you money and what associations they have, at least with respect with their employment, that is thought to be good, useful information, or at least allowable information by the US Supreme Court, for organizations interested in political reform or good government, it is good information to know that the employees of a single outfit are giving X amount of dollars to a particular candidate–”

“And the members of a PAC or an organization are not important?” Flory interjected.

“They of course have no fiduciary interest in that relation — we’re not paying them any money,” said Burns. “I see your discomfort, I simply think it is useful information to have.”

Senator Galbraith sympathized with Flory’s position. He said he felt that the requirements were burdensome for Vermont’s amateur races, and gave the upper hand to incumbents. He also was concerned that employers would look up the disclosure forms and see how many of their employees gave to a candidate that the employer did not like, and would then take retribution against those employees.

Burns said that should employer retribution take place, it would come under other existing laws once the violation was discovered, but Galbraith was unconvinced. “It’s pretty hard to find out in the real world.”

(Editor’s note: It’s refreshing to hear a legislator refer to the “real world” under the Golden Dome.)

Asked after the formal testimony on this issue was over, Senator Ayer said was non-committal, “It would be nice to know who sponsors political candidates.” But, as for applying the same laws that are required of corporations to organizations, “The objective is to know who’s behind it. [Organization names] don’t really say who they are.”

Higher donation limits benefit low-income candidates

“I think what we’re trying to do is limit the influence that individuals or single sources have over candidates,” said Jennette White (D-Windham), chair of the committee.

Noting that Governor Shumlin funded much of his own campaign, Peter Gilbraith (D-Windham) said that there was a “certain amount of evidence” that higher limits have benefited candidates with average or lower incomes who are running against someone with a higher income.

“I’d like to see more of the general public run for office. We don’t want people to be intimidated by amount of money to be raised,” argued Senator Claire Ayre.

But the question is will people be intimidated by the amount of money really, genuinely needed to run an effective campaign and the impossibility under these rules of actually raising it.

The Senate Government Operations Committee

Jeanette White (D-Windham)

Claire Ayer (D-Addison)

Peg Flory (R-Rutland)

Peter Galbraith (D-Windham)

Anthony Pollina (D-Washington)