Critics say campaign finance bill has gone off the rails

Elections watchdogs say a bill aimed at tempering the influence of money in politics would only exacerbate the problem.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations has spent much of the first two months of the session on a wide-ranging campaign-finance bill, S.82, that originally sought heightened disclosure requirements in the elections process.

The bill comes in the wake of a 2012 election cycle that saw super PACs make their debut in Vermont. Lawmakers from all three parties seemed to agree that while the Legislature can’t curb the flow of  money into these new entities, they can at least help voters follow the money.

But changes to the bill in recent weeks have drawn fire from elections watchdogs, who say the legislation would actually intensify the stream of cash flowing into the elections process.

At issue is a proposed increase in the size of allowable donations to candidates and political parties, who would, under the new rules, be allowed to receive larger contributions from their donors.

Proponents say the higher limits are a necessary evil aimed at helping candidates counteract the impact of super PACs, which aren’t bound by limits on the contributions they can accept. Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, disagrees with the tactic.

It’s like saying that I object to the amount of pollution that a large factory is discharging into the river, and my solution is to allow every other factory to increase its pollution in order to achieve parity,” Burns said in a release. “This arms race mentality only increases the problem of money in politics, it doesn’t solve it.”

Political candidates currently can accept no more than $2,000 from a single donor in a two-year campaign cycle. The Senate bill, up for a committee vote later this afternoon, would increase that figure to $5,000. The bill would allow candidates to accept up to $7,000 from political action committees, and $85,000 from political parties.