Legislating Under the Influence?
By the time you read this, the Vermont Senate may have passed a resolution calling on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to overturn the democracy-eroding effects of Citizens United.
No doubt the Democrat-led House and Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin will endorse the measure, too, sending a clear and powerful message to Washington that Vermont wants corporate money out of politics.
Well, sort of.
The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United opened the door for corporations, unions and trade groups to spend unlimited sums — but only in support of or in opposition to a candidate, not directly to the individual running for office. Read: super PACs.
The local momentum to overturn the ruling comes from Vermonters in 65 towns who voted in huge numbers in favor of a constitutional solution last month. As Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) put it last week: “Vermonters are increasingly angry with money in politics and the power of corporations to dictate policy and control our lives.”
So far, super-PAC politics hasn’t been a factor in Vermont elections. But symbolically, the resolution is a big move. If Congress ever did send the states a constitutional amendment for ratification, a share of the credit would certainly go to Vermont — and to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is sponsoring such an amendment.
Meanwhile, corporate influence in state elections is alive and well. Vermont still permits corporations and unions to donate directly to candidates — but with limits of $2000 per candidate, per election cycle.
With three weeks to go before adjournment, a campaign-finance-reform bill that passed out of the Senate Government Operations Committee last year — and then stalled — appears to be doomed again this year.
One big reason is that a rogue senator wants to put his colleagues on record about a touchy subject: barring businesses and unions from donating directly to candidates or political committees. Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) has promised that if that bill comes to a floor vote, he would amend it to prevent candidates from accepting donations from corporations and unions. And here’s the rub: He’d request a roll-call vote so senators would have to go on the record for or against. Senate leaders, in turn, have blocked it from coming to the floor. Turns out politicians who raise big chunks of money from special interests don’t want to go there in an election year. Who would have guessed?
Galbraith doesn’t allege a quid pro quo between lawmakers and their corporate sponsors. But taking executive dough does create “the appearance of conflicting loyalties,” he says.
“A corporation isn’t giving money out of the goodness of its heart,” says Galbraith, who spent $45,000 of his own money to get elected in 2010 but took no PAC or business money.
What would Vermont politicians lose by going cold turkey on corporate and union cash? For some pols, quite a lot.
Common Cause Vermont, an advocacy group that supports publicly funded elections, created a searchable database of 2010 campaign filings and found that 11 of the Senate’s 30 members received 40 percent or more of their campaign funds from businesses or political-action committees, which often receive funds from corporations and unions. For some senators, the totals raised were relatively small, while others raised and spent tens of thousands of dollars.
Ranked No. 2 for the percentage of dough from businesses and PACs is Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor), who has more control over the Senate calendar than anyone. In 2010, Campbell raised 45 percent of his $9850 campaign funds, or $4450, from businesses. Anteing up to the powerful Senate leader were Coca-Cola of North America ($1000); First Wind Energy ($200), the Boston-based company that built the Sheffield wind farm; Montpelier lobbying firms Downs Rachlin Martin ($400) and Morris & DeMag ($100); and a dozen other in- and out-of-state companies.
Common Cause director Wally Roberts says that begs the question: “In this age of Occupy Wall Street and Citizens United, why would a good Vermont liberal pass up a chance to look good by facilitating the passage of a law that would curb corporate influence in Vermont elections?”
Campbell strenuously objects to the suggestion that he’s influenced by special-interest donors and says that Common Cause is out to get him, noting that Roberts erroneously accused him of failing to file fundraising reports several weeks back.
“It’s clear that these guys are trying to go after me because they see me as the reason why this bill didn’t go forward,” Campbell says, adding that the legislature is busy tackling health care, energy policy and Irene recovery. “If this guy has some evidence that I am somehow giving special treatment to corporations or better access, have him come forward. Because it’s just not there.”
Campbell adds, “I don’t like asking individuals for money to support my campaigns when I know times are tough. If I was running for higher office, I guarantee you, I could raise from individuals a hell of a lot more money.”
So what does Campbell think businesses and PACs want — or expect — for their money?
“I would say this is the way things have been done, and they just continue to do it,” he says. “I can give you a list of people who have never donated to my campaign at all who probably have had more access to this office than people who have donated. I’m not going to question the motivations of the corporations.”
Vermont has tried to enact stricter campaign-contribution limits in the past. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the most recent law in 2006, and subsequent attempts to pass a new one have failed. Former Republican governor Jim Douglas twice vetoed campaign-finance-reform bills passed by Democrat-led legislatures, and each time the House fell a single vote short of overriding it.
In the 2011-12 session, lawmakers introduced nine separate bills dealing with campaign finance. Rep. Jim Condon (D-Colchester) and 12 cosponsors proposed a ban on campaign robo calls. Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) was lead sponsor of a tripartisan bill that would have forced certain political committees — such as so-called 527 groups — to disclose their largest funders in radio and television advertising. Rep. Jason Lorber (D-Burlington) called for creating a searchable database of campaign donations to replace the paper filing system at the secretary of state’s office.
It appears none will move this year. On the House side, leaders blame inaction on legislative redistricting, which they say left the House Government Operations Committee too little time to tackle campaign-reform bills.
“Campaign finance is obviously not a must-pass bill for this legislature,” says Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group. VPIRG actually supports Galbraith’s corporate-contribution ban, but not at the expense of the entire reform bill, which Burns says would reestablish “common-sense limits” on donations.
State Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) says Common Cause’s analysis actually understates the issue because it doesn’t count money spent by PACs controlled by House and Senate leaders, which also raise money from businesses and interest groups. For instance, in 2010, the Senate Leadership Committee spent $31,386 on behalf of Democratic senate candidates. Not to be confused with Vermont Senate Victory, a PAC that spent $94,205 on behalf of Democratic hopefuls that year. Both committees listed the same person as the contact — Campbell’s senate aide.
Illuzzi himself ranks No. 3 on the Common Cause list of senators who’ve received the largest percentage of their campaign contributions from businesses and PACs; 51 percent of his $16,268 fundraising total came from those sources.
Illuzzi chalks up that kind of generosity to his post as chairman of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee and insists, “It’s not going to influence my vote.”
“I’m pro-business anyway. I always have been,” Illuzzi says, before offering another motivation for his corporate supporters. “Maybe they just like me.”
What impact do corporate contributions have on lawmaking in Montpelier? It depends on whom you ask.
Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the Government Operations Committee, has maintained that lawmakers don’t vote based on donations. As long as voters can see who’s donating to candidates, she has said, citizens can make up their own minds about whether it presents a conflict. Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), the main mover of the anti-Citizens United resolution, tells Fair Game, “If corporations want to donate, they should be able to donate. I don’t believe we have a lot of authority to do a lot with corporations” in terms of regulation.
Others, such as Pollina, argue that corporate money creates a perception problem that undermines trust in elected officials.
“A lot of citizens believe contributions make a difference,” says Pollina, who took no money from businesses in 2010 and had the highest percentage of individual contributors of any winning senate candidate. “Even the fact that they believe that matters.”
But you have to wonder: If special-interest money is such a nonfactor, why the resistance to giving it up? When it comes to corporate money in politics, the message from Montpelier to Washington sounds a little like “Do as we say, not as we do.”
Not Dead Yet
A “death with dignity” bill may have new life in Montpelier. In a surprise move Tuesday, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee found a way to advance right-to-die legislation that had looked to be dead. Using a procedural move, the committee attached a right-to-die provision to a bill regulating tanning salons. The amendment would make it legal for terminally ill Vermonters with fewer than six months to live to request a fatal dose of medication. The measure passed committee by a 3-2 vote.
Whether it survives to get a floor vote — as soon as Thursday — hinges on whether right-to-die is deemed germane to the tanning legislation. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the arbiter of such decisions, doesn’t think it is, and senators appear to be headed for a showdown on the question. Read all about it on Blurt, the Seven Days staff blog.