VPIRG: Businesses back more senators
By Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | July 16,2011
MONTPELIER — In the wake of a failed attempt by lawmakers this year to pass a campaign finance reform bill, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group has been digging through Vermont senators’ campaign finance records from last November’s election.
Among the findings: AT&T gave the most in direct contributions at $4,500; Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, got the most in direct contributions from corporations; and seven senators took no money directly from corporations.
Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, said after a campaign finance reform bill stalled in the Legislature this year due to a proposed amendment to ban corporate contributions, he wanted to gather data to bring back to the Statehouse when lawmakers reconvene in January.
“It just seemed to be an important unanswered question: How much are corporations giving directly out of their treasuries, as opposed to corporate PACs?” Burns said.
The answer to that question, according to VPIRG, is not that much when it comes to last year’s Vermont Senate races.
The nonprofit advocacy group this summer has combed campaign finance filings at the Secretary of State’s office for each member of the Senate, though they could find no records that Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex-Orleans counties, filed campaign disclosure forms. Starr could not immediately be reached for comment.
The results show that of the stated donations of $369,452 for the senators who won their races last November, $33,298, or 9 percent, came directly from corporations, VPIRG said.
The bulk of the donations, $269,083, or 73 percent, came from individuals.
The results were “interesting,” said Burns, and also a bit surprising.
“I guess I had an idea that direct corporate contributions would be bigger when it comes to Senate candidates,” said Burns.
Burns also was surprised that Entergy Corp.’s political action committee, or PAC, donated just $1,900. Entergy owns the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon.
The relatively small number of direct corporate donations doesn’t take the full measure of corporate influence in elections, Burns said.
Corporations also can finance outside groups that can spend unlimited amounts on campaigns as long as they don’t coordinate with the campaigns themselves, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in the Citizens United case.
People who work for or own a company also can simply give as individuals rather than as a business.
In addition, there are business associations — like the Beverage Association of Vermont — that don’t fall under the category of direct corporate contributions.
PACs, which often are established by corporations, also donate. PACs gave $37,255 to sitting senators in the election cycle that ended in November.
But VPIRG focused on direct contributions by corporations because that was the subject of an amendment that Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham County, wielded during the legislative session this year. Key senators opposed Galbraith’s provision, leading to the demise of a broader campaign finance reform bill.
In addition, direct corporate giving is banned at the federal level. So, at least for now, Vermont would appear to be on stable legal ground if passed a similar ban — another reason why that specific category of donations is distinct, said Burns. The state, on the other hand, would not be able to ban contributions by corporate PACs, for instance, which don’t get their money directly from corporate treasuries but often from shareholders and officers, said Burns.
Overall, Burns said, the direct corporate donations don’t appear to be playing a major role in Vermont Senate races.
“This data, I would suggest, does not point to a huge problem,” said Burns.
Sears questioned VPIRG’s research. He doesn’t dispute that out of the $10,670 he raised in the last election cycle $4,200 of it came directly from corporations like Anheuser-Busch, AT&T and the Corrections Corporation of America. But he does believe that other senators who raised more than double what he did must have ultimately received more corporate money, even if it was from people working for a corporation who gave as individuals.
“That just doesn’t sound reasonable to me, so I would dispute VPIRG’s numbers,” said Sears.
Sears said money doesn’t influence the way he votes, but admitted it can get someone a meeting.
“It might buy access in some cases, there’s no question,” he said. “This system is not a great system.”
The real problem, however, lies with the outside groups that can spend unlimited amounts and don’t have to say where they get their money, Sears said.
“The problem is not necessarily what’s coming in in terms of my donations or what I get or don’t get for donations,” said Sears. “The problem is the outside groups that can influence elections.”
Banning direct contributions to candidates could actually magnify the influence of outside groups, Sears said.
“You know where I got my money from,” said Sears. “Can you tell where some of these outside groups get their money? No.”
Sears said he would only support a ban on direct corporate contributions if it came with a larger overhaul of campaign finance laws to include the public financing of elections.
“As soon as you put a roadblock up, people will find away around it,” he said.
Burns and VPIRG have advocated over the years for lower contribution limits and more disclosure of who is donating.
Despite the relatively low level of direct corporate contributions in the Senate races, Burns said lawmakers should still consider next year the ban advocated by Galbraith because Vermonters are worried about corporate influence on elections.
Burns pointed to a hearing on corporate influence Sen. Bernie Sanders, in independent from Vermont, held in Montpelier in March and the level of interest Vermonters showed there.
“It strikes me this is an issue Vermonters care about,” said Burns.
Burns suggested making the ban a standalone bill so it would be easier to advocate for.
VPIRG plans to start digging into the financing of the last year’s statewide races and House races, Burns said.