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State senator resigns from committee over campaign finance bill

Galbraith, at odds with committee chair Jeanette White, urged to continue

BRATTLEBORO—State Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, famous for causing stirs at the Statehouse, has caused another.

The senator resigned from the Senate Committee on Government Operations (SCGO) on April 13. His decision — called problematic by other legislators — is unprecedented in the Legislature.

Not known for sitting politely in a corner while the elder lawmakers speak, Galbraith decided to resign from his committee post, accusing the committee chair, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, of “deep-sixing” the campaign finance reform bill by not delivering the bill to the Senate leadership after it was voted out of SCGO last year.

“Vermont prides itself on being a clean government state, but the reality is a bit different,” he said.

The Committee on Committees, which appoints members to standing committees, has asked Galbraith to reconsider. According to a letter sent May 1, the committee said his decision had “presented the committee with a difficult decision.”

To the committee’s knowledge, no legislator has ever resigned from an appointment.

In the letter, the Committee on Committees asked Galbraith to consider the “problematic influence” his resignation could have on the legislative process and his “stature as a Senator.”

Still, the committee wrote, it would not enforce his service on SCGO.

The letter also stated that Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, would write Galbraith addressing specific “allegations.”

As of press time, Galbraith had not received correspondence from Campbell.

According to Nancy Driscoll, chief of staff for Lt. Governor Phil Scott, who serves as the president of the Senate, Galbraith’s resignation places fellow SCGO members in a difficult position.

Most Senate committees have between five and seven members. Government Operations has five. Dropping the membership to four means fewer people are doing the same amount of work and the committee loses its ability to break a tie vote.

“There’s one less voice in the room,” Driscoll added.

If senators start the practice of walking away from their assignments, she said, it could lead to a bad situation for the entire Legislature.

She added that not fulfilling his obligation as a senator reflects poorly on Galbraith.

To Driscoll’s knowledge, Galbraith never asked for a meeting with the Committee on Committees to help work through any issues he faced at SCGO.

Senate rules require that committees have a specific number of members.

Driscoll said that committee assignments are based on Legislators’ expertise. Galbraith’s background seemed well suited for Government Operations.

Requests to Campbell for an interview were not returned by press time.

The Legislative session ended last weekend. Galbraith also completed his first term as Senator and seeks to run for a second.

Fussing and fighting

Reports of dysfunction riddling the Senate became commonplace in the 2012 session.

The campaign finance bill at the center of Galbraith’s conflict, S.20, eventually made its way from White’s desk back to the Senate floor.

But the Senate ultimately voted 19-9 to send the bill back to the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1.

Galbraith said the process has effectively killed the bill, which would have increased campaign financing transparency. It would have required new disclosure benchmarks for political contributors and introduced new limits for campaign contributions.

Galbraith did add an amendment that would have halted candidates from taking corporate and union contributions, and he contends that the banning of corporate contributions would bring Vermont campaign laws parallel with a federal law on the books since 1907.

In Galbraith’s opinion, the real reason behind the S.20’s “pocket veto” — a term for killing legislation by allowing it to die — was that the leadership never wanted it to pass.

The relationship between Galbraith and White had been strained, although Galbraith said he bears no personal ill will toward his colleague. The two also butted heads over redistricting.

In his letter of resignation, Galbraith referenced a previous offer to resign from SCGO over redistricting.

“I considered the Senate’s decision to strip the Committee on Government Operations of its jurisdiction over reapportionment to be a vote of no confidence in the Committee,” Galbraith wrote.

According to White, Galbraith did not want to serve on SCGO from the get-go. But, she said, committee work is one way legislators serve the voters, whether or not the lawmaker agrees with the committee assignment.

About the contentious S.20, White said she simply forgot to deliver the bill to the Senate.

But, she said, Galbraith also voted against sending S.20 out of committee last year.

Galbraith addressed that paradox in his letter, describing the bill as “inadequate” but saying that he had “looked forward to working to strengthen it on the floor.”

Galbraith feels that one reason Vermont needed campaign finance reform is that lobbyists have, and take advantage of, direct access to legislators.

Going through Common Cause Vermont’s 2010 campaign contributions database, he estimated that 70 percent of contributions made to incumbent legislators came from corporations. Very few corporate contributions went to first-time campaigners, he said.

According to Common Cause Vermont’s numbers, the former ambassador-turned-senator contributed $45,000 to his own campaign. The remaining $13,470 came from individuals or entities whose identities were not required to be reported.

Galbraith points to the recent refunding of about $3 million in taxes to companies related to cloud computing, calling it a symptom of lawmaking by legislators under the influence.

He opposed the move, since he believes it was an issue for the Tax Department or a court of law. This, despite some legislators opposing refunding ratepayers $21 million from the CVPS/GMP merger because they did not want to interfere with the Public Service Board, he said.

“The Legislature won’t relieve your tax burden,” he said. “It’s discouraging that way.”

‘A little shaking up’

Fellow legislators have criticized Galbraith’s behavior in committee, and on the Senate floor, using phrases like “bully,” “aggressive,” “not a team player,” and other unprintable nouns.

“This place needs a little shaking up,” he responded. “We pat ourselves on the back, but we don’t deserve all the pats we give ourselves.”

Galbraith, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998 and as United Nations deputy special representative to Afghanistan in 2009, said that when he was a diplomat, he followed instructions.

“I’m at a stage of life that I can do what I think is best, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.

“It was my greatest joy to be chosen by the people of Windham County,” Galbraith said. “I can use my own judgment, and I’m accountable to them.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #151 (Wednesday, May 9, 2012).

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