MONTPELIER — While Democrats may still want to fight over who deserves credit for the idea, lawmakers have united across party lines in demanding heightened financial transparency in the new age of super PACs.
At a press conference Thursday morning, House Republicans unveiled a campaign-finance reform package they say will shine a light on the role of money in Vermont elections. Though the federal court rulings that gave rise to super PACs won’t soon be overturned, Rep. Tom Koch said, lawmakers can do a better job helping Vermonters follow the money.
“This is all about transparency and disclosure,” said Koch, a Barre Town Republican. “The people of this state have a right to know who is contributing to campaigns, how much of the money is being spent.”
Two federal court rulings in 2010 laid the groundwork for what have become known as “super PACs” — political action committees permitted to raise unlimited sums from individuals and corporations, as long as they don’t coordinate with the candidates whose campaigns they aim to assist.
House Minority Leader Don Turner credited the state’s first super PAC — the Committee for Justice and Fairness — with delivering a narrow victory for Attorney General Bill Sorrell in a fiercely contested Democratic primary.
But the conservative super PAC, Vermonters First, won a far higher profile when Republican benefactor Lenore Broughton spent nearly $1 million of her own money to bolster the electoral prospects of GOP candidates up and down the November ballot.
Turner said his call for reform shouldn’t be confused with opposition to the new campaign-finance landscape.
“I personally support what Vermonters First did,” Turner said. “I feel Vermonters First did exactly what I did — they used their money, I used my time and resources to travel the state to get Vermonters elected.”
Republicans’ proposals, however, are almost indistinguishable from those put forward by organizations and officials who lament the proliferation of super PACs.
Turner, Koch and Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, have called for more frequent reporting of contributions and expenditures, and would also require super PACs, regular PACs and candidates to submit their disclosures in electronic formats.
The Republicans also want a mechanism to spotlight high-dollar donors: If a single donor is responsible for more than 50 percent of a super PAC’s budget, Wright said, the person’s name would have to appear on the super PAC’s ads or mailings.
House Majority Leader Willem Jewett, a Ripton Democrat, struck a dismissive tone Thursday.
“These guys are a touch late to the party, I think,” he said.
Jewett said the disclosure proposals forwarded by Republicans on Thursday aren’t even “really what we as Democrats think of as campaign-finance reform.”
Asked to list aspects of the Democratic Party’s campaign-finance platform not included in the GOP presentation Thursday, Jewett said they were still under construction.
Secretary of State Jim Condos said the list of ideas offered by Republicans is nearly identical to the plan he put out shortly after Election Day. “I think this bodes well for improving transparency surrounding the elections, because it appears like all sides are lining up to do something.”
Republicans called for quarterly reporting during non-election years, monthly reporting in election years, and reports every two weeks between the primary and general elections. Under Wright’s plan, if a super PAC gets a contribution within 45 days of an election, it must report the donation to the secretary of state within 24 hours.
Condos made almost the same suggestions in November.
A liberal super PAC, called Priorities PAC, and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group have also called for intensified disclosure requirements.
Any disclosure bill will emanate from the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which is slated to begin hearings on the various proposals later this month. Sen. Jeannette White, chairwoman, said her committee will also contemplate tighter contribution limits on candidates for political office.
Since they’ll likely be more controversial, she said the contribution limits will be part of a separate bill.
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