Legislature Fails to Pass Campaign Reform

May 14, 2013

Political leaders came into the 2013 session seeming to outdo each other with promises for election finance reform.

They leave Montpelier with the House and Senate in a stalemate over campaign legislation and the bill dead for the year.

Secretary of State Jim Condos, was frustrated by the political gridlock.

“I think the real loser here is Vermont’s citizens and voters in this state, because what this bill is really about was accountability and transparency,” he said.

Condos said the bill was designed to help the public track how political money is spent, as well as set some limits on contributions. But with the legislation stalled, he said those limits will probably not be in effect until the 2016 election cycle.

“The contribution limits really would be difficult to put in place once the middle of the campaign season starts,” he said.

The House and Senate spelled out different limits that candidates could raise from individuals. But the real sticking point was a new provision added by the House that would set a $5,000 limit that people could give to political action committees in each election cycle.

Senators believed that the PAC limit would be challenged in federal court, and they wanted to impose it only after it had survived a legal test.

Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, who chairs the Governor Operations Committee, was disappointed the bill failed to pass. But she said it’s better to wait and try to improve it next January.

“I don’t want to start trading on sections just to get something out and then end up with a bad law,” she said.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, was disappointed as well.

“This is a bill that kind of demonstrates that year after year that campaign finance reform is the toughest kind of legislation to pass, because you’re asking politicians to change the rules under which they themselves were elected,” he said. “And that’s never an easy thing to do. And this year is just further evidence of that, even though you had so many people in agreement at the beginning of the session saying they wanted a bill, it still didn’t happen and that’s a shame.”

But Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, is not disappointed the bill died for the year. He said the House version did not go far enough, because it did not set limits on how much a political party could give to an individual candidate. 

“So there was a lot not to like in what the House did. And the problem then becomes how do you compromise between that bill and the good work that the Senate did?” he said. “And it was evidently very hard to find middle ground.”

Secretary of State Condos said his office will work to make campaign finance reports available in a searchable on-line data base. He said the goal is to have that system on line by January of 2015.