Markowitz says campaign finance loopholes should be closed

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(Host) Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says she’ll ask the Legislature to close some loopholes in Vermont’s campaign finance reform law. Markowitz wants to be certain that larger political organizations are required to disclose how much money they’re spending to influence elections in the state.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) During this fall’s election there were a lot of questions raised about which types of political organizations have to file financial information with the state. Markowitz says Vermont’s law requires political action committees to register. It calls for PAC groups to disclose their donor base and the legislation places a $2,000 cap on individual contributions to a PAC.

The problem, according to Markowitz, is that the law contains a very narrow definition of what constitutes a political action committee and this provision doesn’t include non-profit political groups which raise and spend money to defeat certain candidates. This type of organization ran ads this fall in the lieutenant governor’s race as part of their campaign to defeat Democratic candidate Cheryl Rivers and they were exempt from the disclosure provisions of the law:

(Markowitz) “What we believe is that the goal of the Legislature was to create transparency. So if an organization – whether it’s a corporation or an association that’s not incorporated of two or more individuals – if they raise money from other people and spend that money to try to influence the outcome of the election, we should know. ‘We’ meaning the public, the press – people who are voting should know who’s paying for those ads.”

(Kinzel) There was also a controversy this fall over a plan by the Republican Governors’ Association to buy over $300,000 in advertising to support the candidacy of Governor Jim Douglas. The RGA claimed it didn’t have to make any financial disclosures because it had gotten an informal ruling from the Secretary of State’s office stating that the RGA wasn’t a political action committee. This ruling was later changed but by the time the decision had been made most of the ads had run.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell, whose office is in charge of enforcing the law, said recently that the definition of a PAC group definitely needs to be addressed this winter:

(Sorrell) “We certainly learned some lessons from this election cycle and we think the law is flawed. And we’re going to try and change it and make it better so that it’s understood what the law says, who’s bound by it and then we should avoid some of the problems that we just encountered.”

(Kinzel) Both Sorrell and Markowitz plan to have specific recommendations ready for lawmakers to consider at the start of the session in January.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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