Court restores Vermont campaign finance limits

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(Host) The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York has restored Vermont’s limits on campaign contributions and campaign spending. The judges sent the case back to the federal court in Vermont to decide when to put the provisions into place.

VPR’s John Van Hoesen reports.

(Van Hoesen) The decision by the federal appeals court reinstates primary elements of Vermont’s campaign finance law that was adopted in 1998.

The court said that Vermont can set limits on money spent by political candidates. It also allowed limits on the amount of money candidates can receive in contributions from individuals and political parties.

(Deb Markowitz) “Those two remarkable provisions were put back in place today by the second circuit court of appeals.”

(Van Hoesen) Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, who oversees elections, says the decision is a big win for the state of Vermont and will have a broad effect.

(Markowitz) “Overall though it’s really a remarkable decision. It’s certainly the most important first amendment decision dealing with campaign finance in this decade.”

(Van Hoesen) Markowitz says Vermont’s law was seen as one of the most dramatic and extensive campaign finance laws in the country.

It was later challenged and U.S. District Judge William Sessions ruled that some of the main provisions were unconstitutional. The federal appeals court reversed key parts of that decision.

(Markowitz) “First, it put back in place some very strict spending limits for candidates in campaigns. For example in the governor’s race, governor candidates would only be able to spend $300,000 for their campaign. Remember last time, each campaign spent more than a million. So it really tightly limits spending. It also allows contribution limits to apply to political parties. The district court left a huge political party loophole so that political parties could give an unlimited amount of money. Now they’re limited just like anybody else to a contribution of $400.”

(Van Hoesen) The court also ruled against a special out of state limit on contributions. Now, the hitch is whether or not the changes will apply to this year’s elections.

If the rules were changed this season, there would be a significant effect on the governor’s race. Markowitz says limits on contributions from political parties would already be exceeded by both Republican Jim Douglas and Democrat Doug Racine:

(Markowitz) “What this ruling would do, possibly, is change the rules midstream, so and that’s not fair. If indeed, the rule is applied to this campaign that a party can only give $400 to a candidate, it would put Jim Douglas in a pickle. He already has received a $50,000 contribution from his party. Doug Racine received a $25,000 or so in-kind contribution from his party. Both of them would have to reimburse their parties. In addition, if campaign limits applied to this cycle, according to the campaign finance reports that were filed just this past week, Jim Douglas would only have $40,000 or so left to spend. If there’s a $300 campaign [limit], Doug Racine would also be significantly limited.”

(Van Hoesen) The ruling was not greeted enthusiastically by everyone. Susie Hudson is the executive director of the Republican Party in Vermont.

(Hudson) “This decision comes down despite the Supreme Court ruling that the governor may not limit its campaign expenditures by candidates for electoral office in Buckley v. Valeo. This ultimately comes down to free speech and this law is infringing upon the free speech of Vermonters.”

(Van Hoesen) Meanwhile, the state is considering whether the attorney general will ask to delay the implementation of the ruling until after the election. The appeals court sent the case back to Judge Sessions to sort out that complication.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Van Hoesen.

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