Reconsidering the Public
Finance Provisions of Vermont's Campaign Finance Law: 17 V.S.A. 2801
Senator Peter Shumlin, Senate pro tempore
Senator John Bloomer, Minority Leader
Representative Walter Freed, Speaker of the House
Representative John Tracy, Minority Leader
Representative Steven Hingtgen, Progressive Caucus Chair
FROM: Secretary of State Deborah L. Markowitz
RE: Reconsidering the Public Finance Provisions of Vermontís
Campaign Finance Law - 17 V.S.A. 2801 et seq.
March 29, 2001
CC: Cindy Metcalf, Chair, Democratic Party
Patrick Garahan, Chair, Republican Party
Robert Miller, Chair Progressive Party
The Issue: This legislative session a number of us have been grappling with ways to build on the success of the Vermont Campaign finance law and preserve its relevancy in light of the last yearís Federal District Court rulings striking our spending limits. In that spirit I encourage the legislature to begin a conversation about whether the goals of the public finance provisions of our campaign finance laws, as articulated in Act 64, can be more effectively accomplished by the public finance of our legislative races.
We all know that lack of access to the money it takes to run a campaign will keep good people from deciding to run for legislative office. Providing public resources for state legislative races would encourage participation from citizens who might not have the ability to raise the amount of money it would take to run a credible race. By offering public financing for house and senate candidates who demonstrate grassroots support we will enable broader participation, encourage more diverse representation and we will strengthen Vermontís democracy.
Vermontís Experience with Public Finance:
Vermontís ability to achieve the policy objectives of the public finance law was greatly undercut by the Federal District Court ruling which struck the campaign spending limits and opened the door to unlimited contributions from political parties.
Act 64 articulated two policy objectives for public finance of elections:
- The principal objective was to increase citizen participation in campaigns by de-emphasizing the need to fundraise. The legislature suggested that public finance of elections would leave candidates free to devote more time and energy to debating the issues and conducting grassroots campaigns, and it would enable elected officials to spend more time responding to constituents and performing official duties.
- As a second goal, the act states that "public financing of campaigns, coupled with generally applicable contribution and expenditure limitations, will level the financial playing field among candidates and provide resources to independent candidates, both of which will increase the debate of issues and ideas."
The public finance provision of the campaign finance law met these objectives in only a limited way. Public financing of the governor and lieutenant governor races, without spending limits, neither worked to level the playing field nor did it de-emphasize fundraising. This is because candidates who choose not to accept public money can raise and spend unlimited amounts while candidates who agree to public financing may spend no more than the public finance grants. The objective of creating a level playing field and de-emphasizing fundraising in campaigns would be more easily achieved by the public finance of legislative races as more candidates would participate in public financing and our experiences thus far is that most legislative races stay within the spending limits articulated by our campaign finance law, despite the fact that the court held that these limits are not enforceable.
We also saw that, while public financing can open the door to some independent candidates, it is only realistically available to candidates for governor or lieutenant governor who already have name recognition and a statewide organization to assist with obtaining qualifying contributions. In contrast, publicly financed legislative races can have the real effect of encouraging nontraditional candidates to run for office.
Working to reduce the influence of special interest money on Vermontís campaigns is also an important policy objective of our campaign finance reform law. Publicly financing elections is a practical way to advance that goal. However, the expectation that Vermontís public finance provision would reduce the influence of special interest money was predicated on some enforceable spending limits between and among candidates for statewide office. Once the Federal Court decision lifted those limits and opened up unchecked contributions from political parties it became impossible to achieve that goal within the new legal framework. Again, this year, we see that at least one potential candidate has already opted out of public financing making it unlikely that in the next election cycle the public finance option for the Governor or Lieutenant Governorís race will have a meaningful impact on reducing the influence of special interest money in those races.
Proposal For Broadening Vermontís Public Financing Law: While the ideal scheme would provide the option of public financing to both statewide and legislative candidates, given the current lack of mandated spending limits, and given our finite financial resources the Vermont legislature might consider replacing the public finance of gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial races with public finance of state legislative races. As I understand it, a change of this nature should not affect the pending court cases as the constitutionality of the public finance provisions of the law were not challenged.
It would do well to look to Maine as a state whose public finance scheme was enormously successful. This past year in Maine approximately 1/3 of all candidates for the House and Senate took advantage of public financing. 134 candidates in the primary and 110 candidates in the general election were given a total of $875,000 with grants for the general election in amounts of $3,252 for house races and $12,910 for senate races.
The following are the principal components of the Maine model that Vermont might use as a starting point in this discussion.
ß 2805a. (Senate: $4,000.00 plus $2,500.00 for each additional seat in the district. House: $2,000.00 for a single-member district and $3,000.00 for a two-member district.)
If a publicly funded candidate has a privately funded opponent who exceeds the limits, the state will make additional grants Ė but only up to a certain cap. (In Maine a candidate can receive additional amounts to match spending of opponents up to two times the amount of the original grant.)
- If house and senate candidates collect a certain number of five-dollar contributions they can qualify for public finance of their campaigns. (In Maine, House candidates are required to collect 50 qualifying contributions and Senate candidates must collect 150 qualifying contributions.)
- The candidates would be required to sign a pledge not to spend their own or anybody elseís money, and in return the state would provide a payment in the amounts set out in 17 V.S.A.
We Can Afford It: By the next election cycle we expect to have approximately $900,000 available in our campaign finance fund to publicly finance elections. Using Maineís experience for guidance we can expect that we would be paying out approximately $600,000 in grants (assuming that Ĺ of the races opt for public financing. This is a safe estimate as in Maine only 1/3 of the candidates opted for public financing.) In addition, based on Maineís experience, our office would require two temporary employees to work between the months of June and November of the election year, costing approximately $25,000 every two-year election cycle.
Note that we do not currently raise enough money to fund both the legislative races and the Gubernatorial and Lieutenant Gubernatorial races. We currently raise approximately $400,000/year from corporate fees for this fund. The legislature could consider raising and appropriating additional money for the fund in order to provide public financing for all races.
Conclusion: The public financing of legislative races can reach many more candidates than merely offering public financing to candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor. In doing so it can help us achieve the original goals of the campaign finance law. I would be happy to assist the legislature in any way I can on this important issue for the future of Vermont.