Senators Debate Campaign Finance Bill

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(Host) Several state senators want to modify Vermont’s campaign finance law in the wake of a controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

But a committee has recommended significant changes to their bill, and now they’re not sure whether they can go as far as they’d like.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The legislation is the direct result of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that concludes that corporations and labor unions have the same first amendment free speech rights as individuals. 

The ruling means that these groups can spend an unlimited amount of money trying to influence a political campaign as long as their expenditures are made independent of a specific candidate.

Bennington senator Dick Sears is a co-sponsor of a new bill that responds to the Court’s ruling.

Sears wants corporations and labor unions to be required to disclose on the Internet, within 24 hours of making a major ad purchase, how much money is being spent and who is paying for it.

He also wants some of this information in the ads themselves and he supports stiff penalties for violations of the law. 

Sears is expecting a number of companies will be active during Vermont’s 2010 elections and he doesn’t want them hiding behind a shell organization. Speaking on VPR’s Vermont Edition, Sears said the owners of Vermont Yankee offer a perfect example about his concerns with the Court’s new ruling:

(Sears) "With that decision Vermonters need to have some awareness of who’s paying for all these ads. Who’s paying for it – could be "Citizens for Green Electricity" behind it, could be Enexus. We don’t know."

(Kinzel) Franklin senator Randy Brock supports most of the provisions dealing with the public disclosure of major ad campaigns but he says some of Sear’s proposals go much too far:

(Brock) "It goes to the issue that I think the intent of this is – ‘we don’t like the Supreme Court’s decision so therefore we’re going to try to impose as many barriers as we can to someone lawfully exercising first amendment rights that the Supreme Court has guaranteed.’ We may not like the decision but I don’t think it gives us the right to attempt to subvert it."

(Kinzel) Sears says the Senate Government Operations committee has passed out a "watered down" version of his original bill – he notes than even senator Brock voted for it.  Sears says he’s now pondering his next move:

(Sears) "Quite frankly I’m trying to make a decision along with some others whether to offer an amendment to the bill or to allow this to go forward, in hopes that this will start a greater discussion in the next two years about how to deal with it. I just hope that we can get to a point here where we can easily follow the money."

(Kinzel) Sears says he’ll have to make a reasonably quick decision in order to give the House time to review the legislation.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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