As soon as they arrived in Montpelier Tuesday, Vermont legislators sought to open the floodgates to more money in politics.
A mere two hours after House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell gaveled in the 2014 legislative session, House and Senate negotiators signed off on a long-sought agreement to reform the state’s campaign-finance system.
Only problem is, the proposed “reform” would actually increase the amount of money many political actors could raise. It’s so watered down from earlier proposals that the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has spent years fighting for such a bill, has already vowed to oppose it.
“It just cannot be described accurately as campaign-finance reform any longer,” said VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns. “It increases the amount of money in politics in this state, and it doesn’t do enough to increase transparency that voters have a right to.”
The legislation would double from $2,000 to $4,000 the amount that statewide candidates and political-action committees could raise from individuals, corporations and PACs. And it would quintuple to $10,000 the amount political parties could raise from each of those entities.
Because parties will be permitted to transfer an unlimited amount of money to candidates, donors could easily circumvent even those higher limits by legally laundering money through a party.
So why are contribution limits going up — not down?
The cost of campaigning continues to rise, argues Rep. Debbie Evans (D-Essex Junction), one of six negotiators who forged the compromise between competing House and Senate versions that passed last spring. Their plan could pass the full House and Senate later this week.
“We did actually have some input from statewide candidates, and they felt that they could probably use more money,” Evans said, declining to name names.
No doubt they did!
Of the 56 individuals and corporations donating to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s reelection campaign in the first six months of last year, 39 of them hit the existing $2,000 limit. And that was just a quarter of the way through the two-year election cycle.
Not all contribution caps would increase if the agreement were signed into law. House candidates would be limited to donations of just $1,000, while senators would be limited to $1,500. Both currently can raise $2,000.
The bill also requires more frequent fundraising reports, though candidates still only have to file once in non-election years. And a provision aimed at Burlington heiress Lenore Broughton, who donated more than a million dollars to a conservative super PAC in 2012, would require such groups to identify big-dollar donors in advertisements.
But legislators scrapped other reforms, like a proposed ban on corporate donations. And at the insistence of House negotiators, it declined to require donors to disclose their occupations and employers.
“We come from small, rural communities. I mean, you’re going to be able to identify who that person is,” explained Rep. Linda Martin (D-Wolcott), who served on the conference committee. “What does it accomplish?”
“What’s the end game there?” Evans added. “We just thought it wasn’t necessary.”
Why would the public want to know which companies and industries are ponying up to political campaigns?
Um, I can think of a few reasons.
“Vermont has a problem: keeping our elected officials accountable.”
Those words kicked off a video Campaign for Vermont founder Bruce Lisman played for reporters last Thursday at a Montpelier television studio. There he unveiled a suite of reforms he said would clean up state government.
Among his recommendations? A new code of ethics governing state officials and a quasi-judicial ethics commission to enforce their compliance. New conflict-of-interest rules for legislators and personal financial disclosures for statewide officials. Also, a “revolving door” ban that would keep ex-officials from lobbying their former colleagues for up to two years.
“Sunlight, in almost all cases, cures problems,” said Lisman, a former Wall Street executive.
But which problems, precisely, was the Shelburne resident hoping to address? Oddly, he wouldn’t quite say. Throughout his hour-long presentation, Lisman declined to cite a single conflict or ethics breach.
But the four-minute video he played included some serious dog whistles. It was a virtual highlights reel of last summer’s news coverage of a controversial land deal between Gov. Peter Shumlin and an East Montpelier neighbor.
Asked if he was implying that Shumlin acted unethically when he bought his neighbor’s house on the cheap, the genial Lisman, who has spent more than a million dollars burnishing his own image with television and radio advertisements, demurred.
“The answer is I don’t know,” he said innocently. “I don’t know that anything was ever proven.”
That said, Lisman helpfully noted that if his proposed ethics commission had been in place, the gov “might have checked in beforehand and said, ‘What do you think?’”
Told about Lisman’s proposals, state pols didn’t exactly jump for joy. Many — Democrats and Republicans alike — view Lisman warily: either as a threat to be indulged or a gadfly to be ignored.
“I don’t know why this is needed,” said Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), a behind-the-scenes power broker. “I think we’re trying to address a problem that’s not there.”
But Gordon Witkin, managing editor for the Center for Public Integrity, sees it differently. In 2012, the nonpartisan investigative reporting organization gave Vermont a D+ on its “Corruption Risk Report Card.” The state lost points because it’s one of only three in the country with no ethics commission or personal financial disclosure rules.
“Folks from places like Vermont and the Dakotas like to cite the idea that, ‘We haven’t had any big corruption scandals,’” Witkin said. “But those who believe in strong disclosure standards say, ‘Of course not! You have none of the systems that would ferret out malfeasance or corruption.’”
And despite Lisman’s reluctance to cite specifics, there’s never any shortage of eyebrow-raising moves in and out of Vermont state government.
Take, for instance, Karen Marshall, Shumlin’s former telecom czar, who decamped from the administration last year to take a job with the Vermont Telephone Company — just weeks after voting to increase a state grant to VTel.
Or former House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche, who resigned her seat in June 2012 to take a job with Green Mountain Power, only to be named deputy secretary of commerce six months later.
Or Vince Illuzzi, who signed up to lobby for the Vermont State Employees Association immediately after concluding his 32-year run in the Senate.
Of course, some state legislators have no need for the revolving door, since they already work for companies or advocacy groups that heavily lobby the state.
Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), whose day job is Vermont director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, no longer serves as the organization’s registered lobbyist. But she oversees the guy who does: Nick Carter.
While Krowinski says she hasn’t recused herself from any votes, she’s “cautious” to avoid conflicts between her two jobs.
“If I’m at work, I’m never doing legislative stuff and when I’m at the legislature, I’m very clear about what hat I’m wearing,” she said.
Rep. Bob South (D-St. Johnsbury), who took a job last May as an organizer for the VSEA, says he would recuse himself “in a heartbeat” if his union’s legislative priorities come before him.
“But everybody needs a job, unless they want to make a full-time legislative body where we’re there year-round,” he said.
Speaker Smith says he’s not interested in limiting his members’ employment options, but he concedes that the legislature “could improve our conflict-of-interest policy.” While both the House and Senate have a one-sentence rule barring legislators from voting on any issue in which they are “immediately or directly interested,” Smith calls it an “honor system” that is infrequently invoked.
“I think people probably need to more fully disclose the boards they’re on and their employment situation so that the general public has a sense of whether there might be some conflict of interest,” he said.
Not every potential conflict is cut and dry.
Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden), for instance, recently introduced legislation that would provide a tax credit to those who donate to “socially responsible, small farms.” He says the bill would create jobs by helping farmers invest in new capital projects.
But Zuckerman concedes that his own Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg would qualify for the program, so long as he provided more sick days to his employees. So is he pushing the proposal to boost his own bottom line?
“I don’t know that I would say yes or no to that question,” he said. “I would say my experience just sort of influenced this opportunity — and I think it’s an untapped opportunity — be it for me or any number of farms.”
Like many, Zuckerman argues that Vermonters benefit from “a huge diversity of professional experience” in the legislature.
According to Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), a medical doctor who serves on the House Committee on Health Care, “When you don’t have any staffs or anything like that, having inherent expertise is really critical to the process. Otherwise, you really completely turn it over to the lobbyists to be the only experts.”
Like Speaker Smith, Zuckerman says he would support new rules to better disclose conflicts, but he’s less interested in Lisman’s proposal to require statewide officers to disclose their personal finances, as most states do.
“If it’s about what each of us earns every year, that’s getting a little bit personal, I think, and beyond what’s necessary,” he says.
Shumlin said he’d actually go further than Lisman in requiring that “all elected officials serving in Montpelier” — including legislators — disclose their finances.
“Having the same rules in place for those who make laws and are elected to carry them out makes sense to him,” said Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen, adding that he’d review other ideas.
Perhaps the gov realizes there ain’t no way legislators will force themselves to disclose their finances.
As for Lisman, Mr. Transparency isn’t about to open up his books for the masses, even though his million-dollar advocacy machine is surely more influential than most legislators.
Asked if he’d disclose his finances, Lisman said, “If I ran for office, I would. Sure. And so would you. But [I’m] just sitting at a table talking about it today.”
Speaking of revolving doors, now-former deputy commissioner of labor Erika Wolffing ended her second tour of duty in state government last week to begin her third tour of duty as Shumlin’s campaign fundraiser.
Wolffing, who served as the gov’s finance director during his 2010 and 2012 races, moonlighted as his fundraiser last fall, even as she held down her government job. Shumlin told Seven Days last month that his reelection campaign had yet to staff up, but that he had “been having discussions with her about the future.”
Evidently those discussions went well.
“I made the decision to pursue fundraising and consulting,” Wolffing said this week in an email. “I have several clients including Shumlin for Governor, raising money as I have done in the past, and a part-time fundraising contract with the Democratic Governors Association.”
Shumlin serves as chairman of the DGA, a partisan political organization dedicated to electing Democratic governors. That group, which does not have to abide by fundraising restrictions, regularly raises six- and seven-figure contributions from corporations and labor unions. It then funnels the money back to vulnerable gubernatorial candidates.
How’s Wolffing going to navigate working for both organizations? And could any conflicts emerge if Shumlin for Governor’s top fundraiser is also raising unlimited contributions on his behalf at the DGA?
We’d tell you, but neither spokesmen for the governor, nor for the DGA, agreed to comment.
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