MONTPELIER — Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a package of campaign finance reforms they say will rescue Vermont democracy from the corrosive impacts of super PACs.
They failed to mention, however, the one provision that could have the most profound effect on Vermont elections: an increase in the limit on contributions to political parties.
In a late-morning news conference that included the top Democrats in the House and Senate as well as the chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, officials sought to highlight a suite of proposals aimed at increasing the depth and frequency of election-related disclosures. Federal court rulings may have opened the door to unlimited spending on elections, said Secretary of State Jim Condos. But he said that doesn’t mean elected officials can’t reform state laws in a way that helps Vermonters “follow the money.”
But those uncontroversial proposals, which already have broad tripartisan support in Montpelier, may not be the headline out of the Democrats’ looming legislative offerings. And while nobody mentioned it at the press event, Jake Perkinson, chairman of the Vermont Democratic Party, confirmed Tuesday that he’ll be asking lawmakers for the ability to take in larger donations from individual contributors.
“I’m not one to advocate for more money in politics, but the reality is we have super PACs which have unlimited funding and right now the Vermont state Democratic Party can take no more than $2,000 every two years,” Perkinson said. “But I do think the playing field needs to be evened out as much as it can be so parties have resources to counteract super PACs.”
Asked what he thinks the new limit should be, Perkinson said the “number is up for debate.”
“I think $20,000 might be a good number to deal with. The reality is you’re not going to have too many people give $20,000, but I think that that’s a number where it’s not so high that it would allow a single individual to influence what a party does,” Perkinson said. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to buy a party for $20,000. You might be able to buy one for $200,000.”
Perkinson won’t be alone in pushing for the higher limits. House Speaker Shap Smith didn’t offer a specific number Tuesday but said that the $2,000 cap leaves political parties at a decided disadvantage when it comes time to push back against super PACs.
“When you have a parallel organization doing the same things that a party might do but with unlimited capabilities to accept contributions from one person, it seems like the $2,000 doesn’t make any sense,” Smith said.
Bob Stannard, a member of Priorities PAC, the liberal super PAC whose mission is to end super PACs, said the Democrats’ proposal at first blush “seems to be going in the wrong direction.” “If what we’re trying to do is get money out of politics, then this just seems like it’s adding more money into politics,” Stannard said.
But he said democracy might be better served if official political parties, which are at least beholden to citizen committees, have the resources to counteract super PACs. “It seems worthy of discussion,” he said.
There are plenty of end runs around limits on giving to state parties, as the Vermont Democratic Party displayed during the last cycle. The state party raised about $150,000. But Democrats derived their real financial power from a technically separate entity that is effectively run by the same people but is subject to federal rather than state law. That federal state party raised more than $900,000 during the last election cycle.
The federal state party is permitted to accept contributions of up to $10,000 from a single person.
House Minority Leader Don Turner said he thinks his party will be happy to get on board with the higher contribution limits.
“I think Vermonters are going to be far more supportive of parties, whose motivations are pretty clear, than they are of super PACs that they don’t really know anything about,” Turner said.
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