Vermont Senate approves restrictions on campaign contributions

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(Host) A proposal for new restrictions on how much money political parties can contribute to a single statewide campaign moved ahead in Montpelier today.

With a unanimous vote, the Vermont Senate gave preliminary approval to the new campaign finance reform law.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Backers of the legislation argued that the bill was needed because last summer the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Vermont’s previous campaign finance law.

The Court ruled that the individual contribution limits established in the 1997 law were too low and that the campaign expenditure caps weren’t constitutional.

The bill establishes new contribution caps but it doesn’t address expenditures. For instance, in the governor’s race, a candidate can receive up to $2,000 from an individual donor, a state senate candidate can receive $1,000 and a House candidate is limited to $500.

Senate Government Operations committee chairwoman Jeannette White backs the new limits:

(White) “Whether it’s actually true in Vermont or not, there’s a perception by people that money buys campaigns, money buys politicians. And the perception is out there and this addresses that perception. And, in fact, it is nice to not see unlimited amounts of money being contributed, but unlimited amounts of money can still be spent.”

In recent years, the national political parties have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to gubernatorial candidates in Vermont. The new bill limits future contributions by these groups to $30,000.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group has been following this issue very closely at the Statehouse. V.P.I.R.G. director Paul Burns thinks these new caps are very important:

(Burns) “After all according to this bill it would limit what the parties can give to only about one tenth of what the parties have given in past years to specific gubernatorial candidates. Now, money may find another way to flow into these campaigns as independent expenditures or otherwise, but I think it’s not unreasonable to expect there would at least be some reduction in the overall amount of money spent, at least in comparison to recent years.”

V.P.I.R.G. was hoping that the legislation would expand the public financing of state campaigns to encourage more candidates to use this option, but the committee decided to delay consideration of that plan:

(Burns) “I think that’s going to be the key – in the second half of this session – is what action the committee takes there, because that really gets at the more comprehensive kind of reform that will really reduce the importance of money in politics.”

The measure is expected to come up for final approval in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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