The Vermont Senate has advanced a bill that bans corporate and union contributions to state political candidates.
The campaign finance legislation also strengthens reporting requirements and doubles public funding for those running for governor and lieutenant governor.
Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, proposed the ban on corporate money. He said corporations buy access with their political donations.
"You look at the major corporate donors, they give to both sides. Obviously when you give to both sides in a close political election, you’re not doing it because you prefer the policies of one or the other," he said. "There has to be some other motive, and that motive clearly is having access."
The lopsided 24-3 vote came after Senate Democrats and Progressives met in a caucus Thursday to resolve differences over the bill. The sticking point was the corporate contribution ban, which clearly made some senators uncomfortable. The bill was pulled from the Senate floor last month, after senators approved an amendment offered by Galbraith to ban the union and corporate donations.
This week Government Operations Committee resurrected the bill, but the version did not include Galbraith’s amendment. But under pressure from Galbraith and others – who pointed out the Senate was already on record in favor of the ban – the language was reinstated.
"I think in the end they realized that was a mistake," said Galbraith. "After all, the Senate had already voted on the issue."
Senate President John Campbell ended up voting for the version that included the ban on corporate donations. But he told his colleagues that the bill will not bar corporate influence in Vermont politics. He said corporations will now funnel money to candidates through political action committees.
"While it’s abundantly clear that it is our desire to move toward transparency in Vermont this amendment only supports a second layer of anonymity," Campbell said. "Currently you could know a candidate’s contribution came from the ‘XYZ Corporation’ directly. (But) with this amendment you would only know that the donation came from ‘Vermonters for Excellent Government,’ the XYZ Corporation’s new PAC."
The legislation also sets a $3,000 limit per election cycle for individual contributions to statewide candidates. It also boosts public funding for those running for governor and lieutenant governor. A gubernatorial candidate who qualifies for public financing could receive $450,000 for a general election campaign
Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which advocates for campaign finance reform. He says the bill will give voters more information about who’s funding campaigns.
"We’re very happy. This is a long time political logjam that’s been broken in the Senate," Burns said. "We’ve been supporting legislation that would re-establish common sense limits on contributions to candidates and have much more disclosure. This bill has all of that, plus a ban on corporate contributions, which I think makes sense for Vermont."
The legislation comes up for final approval next week, and then will be considered by the House.