Will a new campaign finance database make Vermont’s politics more accountable?

by Robert Maynard

According to a Vermont Digger article, Secretary of State Jim Condos says that a searchable campaign finance database is two years away.  The article brought this up in the context of a discussion of transparency in state government.  In citing a report by the Center for Public Integrity, the article noted that: “How Vermont fares among other states in terms of access to campaign finance information is debatable.”  It also noted that the report “gave Vermont a ‘D+’ for overall government transparency, ranking it 25th out of 50 states, but gave the state a B- for political financing specifically.”  What the article did not say was that the report gave Vermont an ‘F’ for both Legislative and Judicial accountability.

It would appear that our problem with accountability and integrity goes deeper than matters related to campaign finance.  If that is the case, will a new campaign finance database make Vermont’s politics more accountable?  It could be argued that attempts to deal with the campaign finance matter has actually caused more problems elsewhere.

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.”  This problem was dealt with extensively five years earlier at a conference sponsored by the Hudson Institute entitled: “WHEN NONPROFITS ATTACK: Nonprofit Organizations as Political Advocates“. The conference starts out by raising the following question:

The IRS Internal Revenue Service withholds nonprofit status from organizations where a “substantial part of the activities… is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislations.” But nonprofits can and do engage in the political process, with fellow 501(c)(3) groups such as the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest and Alliance for Justice to guide them. Matter of fact, some see political activism as a significant part of the nonprofit sector’s purpose. And yet the questions remain: Is activism a charitable activity? How far should charities go in engaging in politics? What does politics look like when it has been shaped by widespread nonprofit activism (as in, for example, New York City, according to panelist STEVEN MALANGA)?

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. Vermont’s politics are greatly influenced by non-profits groups like VPIRG.  With the Citizens United decision the dynamics could be changing, but anyone interested in accountability in Vermont politics needs to take a closer look at the role that non-profits play in steering state politics.