VPIRG’s concern about money corrupting Vermont politics rings hollow

by Robert Maynard

VPIRG recently made the argument that Super PAC money is corrupting Vermont politics.  The fact that they could make this argument with a straight face is absolutely amazing.  This is the kind of statement that the old saying about the pot calling the kettle black was made for.

VPIRG’s supposed concern about the integrity of our political system was expressed in a recent Vermont Digger article: “VPIRG executive director Paul Burns called on Friday for better disclosure of super PAC funders, arguing that this year’s elections had been corrupted by Vermonters First’s spending.”

VPIRG has been influencing Vermont’s politics for years and is arguably the most potent political force in the state.  Between their 501(c)3 and their 504(c)4 branches, they take in about $1 million per year.  The 501(c)4 branch can and does lobby for issues.  They employ 8 full time lobbyists, a number that can swell anywhere from 9 to 14 depending on the year.  They are constantly at or near the top of entities in Vermont that employ lobbyists, according to yearly rankings from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.  They were leading the pack when several non-profit left wing groups held a conference call with Governor Shumlin to coordinate support for single payer:

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.

VPIRG is part of a growing trend.  The influence of non-profits on shaping the political agenda was explored by a Hudson Institute Conference 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 September 2010 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.”

Whatever the problem may be with Super PAC’s, at least we know where their funding is coming from.  That is not so for 501(c)4s.  This is a theme brought up by a recent Front Line story entitled “Big Sky, Big Money“.

Given Vermont’s own restrictive campaign finance laws, one would expect such problems to be evident here. It appears that such an assumption is not off the mark given the clout that VPIRG and friends have in our political arena.  Although we do not know where the bulk of VPIRG’s funding comes from, we do know that its 501(c)3 branch has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from out of state foundations over the years:

  • John Merck Fund (Boston): $460,000 over nine years, mainly to combat global climate change and get an enforceable cap on greenhouse gas emissions
  • Public Welfare Foundation (Washington): $210,000 since 2000
  • Merck Family Fund (Milton MA): $80,000 in 2005-06 for the “Fair Tax Coalition”
  • Blue Moon Fund (Charlottesville VA): $80,000 for single payer health care
  • Nathan Cummings Foundation (New York): $50,000 in 2004 for the single payer health care campaign.
  • Beldon Fund (New York): $50,000 in 2004 for environmental health
  • Rockefeller Family Fund (New York): $50,000 in 2003-04.
That does not even include the money they got from the Vermont Community Foundation, which is a pass through funding operation, that gets a substantial amount of funds from out of state foundations.
When the left thought that Vermonters for Health Care Freedom was going to be the biggest threat to their rush to single payer, they constantly screamed about not knowing who the donors were and speculated that the group was a conduit for out of state money flowing into Vermont to corrupt our politics.  When that turned out not to be true, they looked around for another boogieman to take the public’s mind off from the lack of transparency with which single payer is being thrust upon us.  With Vermonters First, there is little out of state money involved, so the gripe is about the amount and the fact that it comes mostly from one person.  VPIRG’s funding sources are no more out in the open than Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, and unlike VHCF, there is evidence that VPIRG does get significant out of sate funding.  In addition, they have significantly more political clout than Vermonters First.  If VF was to initiate a conference call among conservative groups, attended by the Governor, to coordinate plans for a free market alternative to single payer, then we could put them in VPIRG’s league.  Where is the outcry over VPIRG’s political clout?