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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

In The Age of Super PACs, House Wants to Prohibit Big Contributions

Despite the threat of a federal lawsuit, the House passed legislation on Wednesday that would cap donations to political action groups known as “Super PACs.” In a lengthy floor debate, House members said many Vermont voters are disillusioned with how much money pours into politics – at the state and federal level.

House Speaker Shap Smith said his constituents’ concerns have largely revolved around Super PACs, which aim to control the message in political campaigns.

“Unlimited sums of money can be put into a SuperPAC by one person and labeled as something that doesn’t identify the person,” Smith explained. “That’s a real problem.”

To address that, the bill approved in the House proposes a $5,000 limit on individual donations to super PACs. Smith said that restriction would help to undermine big spending in campaigns.

“Money is less important than just going out and knocking on doors and that individual contact means a whole lot more than how much money you can spend on the race,” Smith said.

The U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United effectively said if wealthy people, unions or corporations have money to spend, that is a form of free speech and they should be allowed to spend it as you like.

Secretary of State Jim Condos says finding out who writes checks to the Super PACs is more important than capping donations. “The most important part of this whole campaign finance [debate] is transparency and disclosure so that Vermonters know where the money is coming from and how it is being spent,” Condos said.

Proponents have argued that the bill might be a way to dispute the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, even though much larger states have decided against such a challenge.

Rep. Tom Koch, R-Barre, warned his colleagues on Wednesday that a constitutional challenge is difficult to defend – and costly.

“We are assured that a court challenge to this provision will be filed and a loss by the state of Vermont will result in loser fees probably in excess of $5 million,” Koch said. “I think we have better uses for taxpayers’ money.”

Still, Gov. Peter Shumlin is joining Democratic leadership in supporting the campaign finance bill, although he’s also concerned about a legal challenge.

“We’ve got to do what’s right for Vermont that keeps our democracy free of big corporate money where it is spent with extraordinary freedom and where we don’t know where the money came from, who’s donating it or who the message is coming from,” Shumlin said, adding that it’s “a brave new world” for political spending in American politics and Vermont has a unique opportunity to lead the way on campaign finance reform.

Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, connecting the dots between post-secondary education and the economy, national security, jobs and global competitiveness. Kirk has been a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wis.; a writer and producer at WBUR in Boston; a teacher and coach at Nativity Preparatory School in New Bedford, Mass.; a Fenway Park tour guide; and a tourist abroad. Kirk received his B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and earned his M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. When he's not reporting or editing stories on campus, you can find him posting K's on the Wall at Fenway. You can follow Kirk on Twitter @KirkCarapezza.
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