Group Says Vt. Needs To Update Campaign Finance Laws

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A group of left-leaning political activists say the Legislature needs to shed light on the operations of "super PACs" well before the next election.

Andrew Savage is a former top assistant to Congressman Peter Welch and is still heavily involved in politics.

He noted that many of the candidates that the group Vermonters First weighed in on during the campaign actually lost.

So Savage and others who care about campaigns worry that concerns about the influence that can be wielded by unregulated "super PACs" like Vermonters First will soon be forgotten.

"Just because they were ineffective last time doesn’t mean they’re going to go away," Savage said. "I think we have every reason to believe that they’re going to come back, and potentially stronger than before."

And not all of the efforts of the super political action committees were ineffective. Attorney General Bill Sorrell was helped during the primary in his closely contested re-election bid.

Super PACs became a force after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have the same First Amendment rights as individuals.

The PACs can raise and spend as much money as they wish – and can be bankrolled by a small group or just an individual.

Former Burlington mayoral candidate Dan Smith says that power to buy ads and send mailers threatens to drown out regular voters.

He says it has no place in a state like Vermont that depends so heavily on grassroots democracy.

"When we go to town hall in March our comments aren’t anonymous and we don’t give out speaking time based on the size of our bank accounts," Smith said. "What troubles me most about the current state of affairs is the lack of transparency."

So the group wants the Legislature to change campaign finance laws to require more frequent disclosure of financial donations.

It also wants big contributors to be identified in advertising, along with the super PAC that sponsors the ads.

The group ultimately wants a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court decision.

But Smith says local changes are needed in the meantime to get a handle on what he sees as a serious emerging problem.

"We don’t want to wake up two years from now and find out that all the shelf space on the marketplace of ideas has been bought up by veiled special interests," he said.

The organizers say they’ve been in touch with House Speaker Shap Smith and Secretary of State Jim Condos.

They say they’ll continue speaking out and writing commentaries for local newspapers as they lobby lawmakers to move on campaign finance.

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