MONTPELIER — Rarely does the state’s top prosecutor give would-be scofflaws the go-ahead to violate civil statutes.
But in an advisory opinion issued last week, Attorney General William Sorrell announced that he’ll no longer enforce a campaign finance provision that aims to limit the influence of money on Vermont’s political system.
It’s not that Sorrell isn’t in favor of the $2,000 cap on contributions to political action committees — in fact, he said he supports it vigorously.
But in light of recent federal court decisions — notably one handed down last month by U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions — Sorrell said that so long as PACs aren’t coordinating with the candidates themselves, Vermont’s limits are constitutionally indefensible.
“By announcing the office’s position on the issue, it is my goal to provide advance guidance to PACs and all participants in this election cycle and take meaningful steps to avoid potentially costly litigation,” Sorrell said.
The announcement opens the floodgates for the unlimited flow of cash into Vermont’s 2012 campaign cycle, establishing the same statutory framework locally that gave rise to “super PACs” federally.
Sorrell’s announcement comes on the heels of a filing by Vermont Priorities, this state’s first, and only, super PAC so far. Founded by a coalition of Vermonters representing liberal interests, the group’s spokesman said Sorrell’s ruling signals the green light to begin fundraising.
“Now that we have some clarity … I fully expect we are going to solicit and receive funding to support candidates,” said Bob Stannard, a former Democratic legislator and anti-nuclear power lobbyist.
Political observers have long assumed that Vermont’s limits on PACs wouldn’t survive a legal challenge. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, coupled with a lesser-known ruling in D.C. circuit court in a case called “Speechnow.org. vs. the Federal Elections Committee,” gave corporations and individuals free rein to spend unlimited sums to advocate for or against the election of specific candidates.
Last month, those federal rulings seeped into Vermont via a 63-page decision authored by Sessions.
The case marked the first post-Citizens United challenge to Vermont’s $2,000 limits. And while Vermont won the case on what amounted to a technicality, Sessions made clear that PACs operating independently of candidates were free to collect unlimited sums from individual donors, Vermont statute notwithstanding.
“The State has not offered a persuasive basis on which to limit contributions to a political action committee that only makes independent expenditures,” Sessions wrote.
With Sorrell’s announcement, those PACs now know they can collect unlimited sums without even the fear of a lawsuit from Sorrell’s office. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said the new statutory landscape poses an existential threat to Vermont democracy.
“I don’t question the attorney general’s decision from a legal perspective. I don’t know that he had any other choice,” Burns said. “But I think there’s a real danger here that the voices of average citizens are at risk of being drowned out by the massive spending of the super-rich.”
It’s a lament echoed by Sen. Bernard Sanders, who, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee last week, warned against a slippery slope toward oligarchy.
“A handful of billionaires own a significant part of the wealth of America and have enormous control over our economy,” Sanders told the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. “What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires, ‘You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.’”
Stannard, ironically, said he shares Sanders’ and Burns’ distaste for the new campaign finance regime. He said the tale of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate who has said he’ll spend up to $100 million to defeat Barack Obama, underscores the threat posed by the abolition of contribution limits.
“The people of this country have to wake up and realize that a handful of us, 20 people, can buy the game and put you out of business,” Stannard said. “They own Boardwalk and Park Place. Now they can own the presidency.”
Stannard said Vermont Priorities will be more of a “people-powered” PAC than the ones now supporting candidates like Obama and Mitt Romney. He said the creation of the super PAC is an effort “to wake people up to what’s going on in this country.”
“If normal, regular people don’t get in the game themselves, they’re going to get rolled,” Stannard said.
It’s too early to say whether a state version of a federal super PAC will spend big to influence the outcome of Vermont elections in 2012.
“We’ve been spared to a large degree so far, but there’s no reason to think that’s going to last forever,” Burns said. “I think it depends on what races seem close, and whether the issues are important enough to attract those kinds of big-money interests.”
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