House fails to override campaign finance veto by one vote
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | April 26,2008
MONTPELIER — For the second time in a year, the Vermont House failed by a single vote to override Gov. James Douglas' veto of a new campaign finance reform bill.
Friday's vote of 99-51 came one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto of the bill, which would have set specific contribution limits for political candidates.
House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, who made the rare move Friday of casting her vote to override the veto from the speaker's podium, said she was disappointed in the outcome and cast her blame toward Douglas, whom she is considering a run against this year.
After Douglas vetoed last year's campaign finance bill — a veto that House lawmakers also failed to override by a single vote during a special summer session — Symington said lawmakers sought a compromise with the governor.
"The governor has stood in the way of having reasonable restrictions on the influence of money on our elections," Symington said early Friday morning during a meeting with reporters in her Statehouse office.
Friday's vote leaves campaign contribution limits pre-dating the 1997 state campaign finance law, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, in effect for the 2008 elections. Lawmakers had increased the limits under the proposed law in response to that court decision.
"The rules in place for the 2006 election will be in place again this year," said Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz.
Friday's House vote fell mostly along party lines, as Progressives and all but one Democrat, Rep. Ron Allard of St. Albans, voted to override the veto. All the Republicans voted to sustain the veto.
Democratic leaders anticipated Allard's vote. So, the swing on Friday's vote was Rep. Daryl Pillsbury, I-Brattleboro, a member of the House who typically votes with Democrats and Progressives. Pillsbury said his vote to sustain Douglas' veto was one of the toughest of his time at the Statehouse.
Pillsbury said he couldn't support a bill that he says favors members of political parties over independents and does little to stem the tide of money from these apparatuses in Vermont politics.
"I've probably had more phone calls over this one urging me to vote the other way than any other bill," Pillsbury said. "But I just couldn't support a campaign finance bill that continues to allow the political parties to pour tons of money into the process."
Pillsbury said the proposed law, which would have taken effect this year, would put him at a disadvantage as he prepares to mount a campaign in Windham County to join the Vermont Senate. Incumbents could raise larger amounts of money early on before the new regulations took effect, he said, putting a challenger at a financial disadvantage.
"I'm not a person to side with the governor too often," he said. "But that is unfair and it does result in incumbent protection."
During the 30-minute floor debate, nearly 10 Democrats stood up to point out to their fellow lawmakers that they won their seats by beating incumbents during a time when the contribution limits were even tighter — an effort to blunt an opposition talking point suggesting the new limits would result in incumbent protection.
"I'm honored to represent a district that doesn't have a lot of wealthy people," said Rep. Jim Hutchinson, D-Randolph, who noted that we won his seat in 2004 by beating an incumbent. "My contributions are $10, $20, $50 by and large … people in the state of Vermont vote on issues, not because a candidate can attract large contributions for a media blitz."
But those arguments were countered by Republican lawmakers, such as Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, who argued that the limits under the proposed law would result in another expensive court battle and amount to incumbent protection.
But research conducted by the Vermont Public Interest Group, a nonprofit group that supports campaign finance reform, suggests that House races from 2000-04, when the tighter limits were in place, featured more incumbents losing their seats than in other elections.
"Incumbents clearly would not be protected under this system," Burns said. "The facts just don't show that."
Rob Roper, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, responded Friday that those House races were fall-out from the civil union decision in 2000 and may be statistically irrelevant.
He added that he had constitutional concerns with some of the provisions in the campaign finance bill, including one that set different maximum contribution limits for statewide elected positions, such as governor or secretary of state.
But the differences were also philosophical. Roper said he prefers increased transparency as a way to stem undue influence on politics. Voters should be able to easily access exactly who gave a specific candidate how much money — and use that information to inform their decision in the voting booth.
"When they go into the voting booth they can then make their decision based on the company they are keeping and whose money they are taking," Roper said.
Supporters of the campaign finance reform bill saw things differently. Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, pointed his blame toward the governor for vetoing the bill, saying "only one man stands in the way of reducing the influence of money" on elections. Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, cited a "failure of leadership" among House Democrats to rally their troops to override the veto.
"We'll be back here next year," Burns said. "And until then, the problem of money in politics will only get worse."
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com.