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Campaign Finance Revisions Fail

American flag with cash
Steve Johnson/Flickr

An attempt to delay implementation of Vermont’s new campaign finance law has been forestalled by the Vermont House.

Arlington Representative Cynthia Browning, a Democrat, is a critic of Vermont’s new campaign finance law, which was passed and signed into law in January. Browning says the law sets contribution limits too high and will not restrict the influence of wealthy political donors. She also says the law failed to include provisions requiring disclosure.

Browning tried to amend the law on Thursday when the House considered a technical correction. After twice failing, she changed strategy to delay implementation of the law from 2015 to 2019. That move also failed.

Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Political Science Eric Davis characterizes Browning as a bit of a maverick and isn’t surprised that her attempts to change or stall the law.  “It was predictable on her part. Cynthia Browning is listed on the ballot as a Democrat, but she’s been a sort of thorn in the side of the House Democratic leadership for several years now. So it’s not surprising that when there was a need to make some technical corrections in the campaign finance bill to change a provision about the effective date, she took the opportunity to try and open up some substantive matters related to the limits that political parties could contribute and the amount of campaign contributions that were allowed.”

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group wants new campaign finance limits, but has also criticized the new law.  VPIRG Executive Director Paul Burns had discussed with Representative Browning some of the problems with the bill and how it could be improved.  “It’s important to have a campaign finance law in place. But the law that was passed earlier this year, which actually allows more money to flow into statewide races and to special interest groups and political parties, was an unfortunate piece of legislation. It really could make the problem of money and politics worse. So to that extent a delay in the law might be useful. But really what we need is a better law to be passed. And that’s tough because most legislators are just very recently on record as supporting a law that put more money into politics.”

Vermont Progressive Party Chair Emma Mulvaney-Stanek says the state’s new campaign finance law is the opposite of campaign finance reform and she applauds Browning for trying to rein in the new limits.  “Those who made this mess frankly should clean it up before the end of this session. It was great to hear that a democrat was willing to try to amend this.  I still think the limits that she was proposing in the amendment are still too high. It’s the same shade of grey in terms of increasing the amounts rather than trying to be really thoughtful about capping the amount of money that people can pump into campaigns. But it’s better than what the law is now. And I wish that the Legislature and the democratic leadership would take more leadership in saying ‘This is a mistake that we went too far and we should  rein it back in.’”

Vermont’s new campaign finance law provisions include doubling the amount individuals and corporations can give to statewide candidates to $4,000. It increased the cap on donations from individuals or businesses to political parties to $10,000, which applies separately to the state and national parties. There are no limits on what political parties can give to candidates.

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