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No Laughing Matter: In the Vermont Senate, the Joke's on Campaign-Finance Reform 

Fair Game

What’s so funny about banning corporate contributions to political candidates?

That’s what Sen. Dave Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) was wondering last Thursday night when several colleagues began to chuckle during a roll call vote on a tough new campaign-finance rule.

For years, the Vermont Senate had resisted taking up an amendment that would prohibit corporations from donating directly to political campaigns. Incumbent politicians didn’t want to end a practice that benefits them — but they certainly didn’t want to go on record opposing limits on corporate money in politics.

On Thursday, the question was finally called.

Late in the evening, after hours of debate on a comprehensive campaign-finance bill, the Senate voted 21 to 8 in favor of an amendment offered by Sen. Peter Galbraith (D-Windham) banning direct corporate contributions.

Among those voting yes were some who had previously opposed the provision, such as Sens. John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington). Another yea-sayer, Sen. Ann Cummings (D-Washington), had given a speech just moments before the vote inveighing against the corporate contribution ban.

“I have yet to hear anyone define what is the problem we’re solving,” Cummings said.

To Zuckerman, the sudden switcheroos seemed suspect. Were the last-minute converts simply trying to save face? Or did they know the fix was in — and the campaign-finance bill would never see the light of day?

When the roll call concluded, Zuckerman stood up on the Senate floor and said, “I hope the ‘yes’ votes were sincere.”

That’s a no-no in the Senate’s rules of decorum, which quaintly prohibit members from questioning their colleague’s motives on the floor. Later that night, Zuckerman apologized for the public slight.

But the ponytailed Prog, who cosponsored Galbraith’s amendment, stands by his skepticism.

“I was frustrated having heard people laughing while voting yes on the amendment and making eye contact with others with similar sentiments as I realized they were likely to kill the underlying bill,” Zuckerman says. “Later on, one member said to me, ‘We voted for it because we wanted to be on record supporting campaign finance,’ but that was with the knowledge that they were going to then not vote for [the full bill].”

He adds, “I felt that was a bit cynical.”

Sears, for one, admits to engaging in a modicum of chuckling, but he claims his vote was sincere — and contends that Zuckerman was “out of line” to cast such aspersions.

“I know a lot of people were absolutely surprised the Galbraith amendment got the votes it did, so there was some smiling going on,” Sears says. “I was looking at [Lt. Gov. Phil Scott], and he was surprised as the vote carried on at the number of senators voting yes. I started to chuckle a little bit.”

Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who was one of six Democrats and two Republicans to oppose the Galbraith amendment, shares Zuckerman’s view.

“As soon as the roll got past me, it was clear they were voting for it because they were going to vote the bill down,” she says.

Sure enough, immediately after the amendment passed, Sears and other campaign-finance reform opponents drew their knives and slashed the bill to pieces. They complained that the penalties for violating campaign law were too strict — and that the bill hadn’t been properly vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), who voted for the Galbraith amendment, then moved to send the bill back to Judiciary for further vetting. This late in the session, such a move would surely kill the bill, as Sears, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, confirmed.

“I will not commit to getting a bill out this session,” Sears warned his colleagues. “I’m fine with looking at the bill maybe next year, but I want to make it clear that if you vote to do this, the bill will not be voted on this year.”

That elicited an emotional reaction from Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), whose Senate Committee on Government Operations has labored for years to update the state’s campaign-finance laws.

“It’s very clear to me that people don’t like the limits, don’t like the reporting, don’t like the bill itself,” she said, her voice quavering. “I would just ask us to vote it down right now.”

In the end, the Senate neither voted the bill down nor dispatched it to Judiciary. Instead, Campbell, the Senate president pro tem, ordered the bill to lie. That means it’ll languish in legislative purgatory until a senator brings it back up.

Did Galbraith’s amendment kill the bill — or was it doomed from the start? Galbraith himself says that’s beside the point.

“The fact that there were 21 votes in favor of banning direct corporate contributions is a major statement,” he says. “Not everybody may have been enthused about that position, but it’s hard to see how they could vote against that position next time.”

So what’s next for the bill? Campbell and White both say they hope to resurrect campaign-finance reform this week — once they’ve addressed concerns that came up in debate.

But here’s some cold hard math: With a month remaining in the legislative session, an 88-page bill rewriting the state’s campaign-finance laws still hasn’t won preliminary approval in the Senate — let alone in House committee and on the House floor.

Which means that for the third year in a row, a legislature that swears up and down that it wants to reduce the influence of money in politics will have failed to really try.

It’s almost enough to make you chuckle. But not quite.

Citizens Divided

If you believe Zuckerman, at least a few cynical chuckleheads voted yes on the Galbraith amendment only to turn around and beat the underlying bill to within an inch of its life. But what about the eight people who voted against banning corporate money in politics?

Those would be Sens. Ayer, White, Chris Bray (D-Addison), Peg Flory (R-Rutland), Eldred French (D-Rutland), Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), Alice Nitka (D-Windsor) and Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden).

Oddly, all but Flory and Bray voted in favor of a resolution last year calling for a constitutional amendment to undo Citizens United and get corporate money out of politics. Flory voted against that resolution; Bray wasn’t serving in the legislature at the time.

The resolution’s chief sponsor was Lyons, who became a frequent spokeswoman for ridding politics of corporate cash.

“The constitution is for people, not for corporations. Money does not equal speech,” she said at a Montpelier rally in November 2011. “The infusion of money into the electoral process results in a lack of transparency in our open elections.”

So why didn’t Lyons back the Galbraith amendment?

“I don’t think by banning corporate donations, we are solving the problem,” explained Lyons, who last year raised $550 from corporations and another $2300 from political-action committees and unions. “The real problem we’re not solving is the problem of PACs and the problem of general corporate influence on democracy overall.”


“I think it’s probably a very good idea to ban corporate donations in our state,” Lyons elaborated, sort of. “I just did not vote for that proposed amendment.”

Say what?!

“It didn’t feel like the right thing to do at that time,” she said.

But in the future she could vote for such an amendment?

“Oh yeah, I could vote for that in the future.”

Um, OK.


The Vermont House hasn’t exactly embraced Gov. Peter Shumlin’s priorities this session, but last week it adopted a scaled-back version of his proposed welfare reforms.

Shumlin has been seeking to limit temporary cash benefits for struggling families — known as the Reach Up program — to three years, with an additional two years possible after breaks from state assistance. Currently there are no time limits.

As soon as Shumlin announced his proposal, liberal legislators pushed back against the proposal. They argued that the state should focus on eliminating barriers to work rather than needlessly punish the needy.

But after a pitched debate in committee and then on the House floor last Thursday, a majority of Democrats and Republicans agreed to limit some Reach Up benefits to five years, with exceptions in certain cases.

In making its argument for the cap, the Shumlin administration said it was necessary to invest an additional $17 million in childcare subsidies to eliminate one of the biggest barriers to employment. Doing one without the other simply wouldn’t work, Shumlin argued.

“If the state’s only providing a time limit, yeah, harm’s going to be done,” Human Services Secretary Doug Racine conceded in February. “What we’re trying to say is there’s a way to do it that is very supportive of the individuals who reach and even exceed the time limit. That’s why our childcare subsidy proposal is essential.”

But here’s the rub: The House chose not to fully fund the governor’s $17 million childcare plan. Instead, it appropriated a paltry $3 million.

Adopting Shumlin’s own logic, which is disputed by low-income advocates: Aren’t the Reach Up caps doomed to failure without the full childcare subsidy increase?

“The way the House bill passed is very problematic, but that’s a third of the process,” Racine said this week, arguing that the Senate and governor could yet win back the $17 million. “So that’s my number-one priority right now as secretary, to advocate for that proposal in the Senate.”

But if, at the end of the day, the legislature doesn’t pony up the cash, will the administration walk back its support for the Reach Up caps? After all, even they say you can’t do one without the other.

“That’s a decision for the governor to make, and I’m not able to answer that,” Racine said.

So we asked the governor — or, at least, spokeswoman Sue Allen.

“While the governor appreciated the House taking a step toward getting people off Reach Up, he was disappointed they didn’t do more to fix the disincentive to work for those in Reach Up by increasing benefits available for parents who need childcare or will lose money otherwise,” Allen said. “We look forward to working with the Senate on this package of legislation.”

Doesn’t sounds like an answer to us.

Hey Girl

Speaking of Shumlin, the governor spent Monday and Tuesday hanging out in New York City with David Axelrod and Ryan Gosling.

Well, kind of.

Shumlin was in the city on business with the Democratic Governors Association, the partisan group of govs to which he was recently elected chairman.

What kind of business?

Shumlin’s state office directed press inquiries to the DGA, whose spokesman, Danny Kanner, would only say this: “Gov. Shumlin was in New York for press, policy planning and finance meetings.”

Repeated hassling elicited no further details about which high-dollar DGA donors Shummy was schmoozing during his Empire State “finance meetings.”

But some high-tech googling revealed at least a couple stops on his media tour. Seems the governor chatted up former Obama adviser David Axelrod Tuesday morning on the set of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

And he sat down Monday with reporters and editors from BuzzFeed, the online entertainment site best known for totally hilare cat photos. During Shumlin’s state visit to the outfit’s Manhattan office, BuzzFeed reporter Andrew Kaczynski tweeted a photo of the governor gamely posing with a full-size cardboard cutout of Gosling.

Shummy had a big grin on his face, but Gosling looked very serious — not to mention

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."


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