Disagreements, political theater delay campaign finance reform

White, Galbraith battle on Senate floor over details of legislation

The state Senate is clashing with recent House-approved campaign finance measures and called for a conference committee to resolve the disputes.

Senate Government Operations committee chair Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, called some aspects of the House version “troubling.”

She cited House approval of unlimited donations from political parties to candidates, no limits on how much one person can give to different races within one election cycle, and a cap on Super PAC donations, among other problems.

Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, White's counterpart as House Government Operations chair, said allowing political parties to donate as much as they like to candidates will ensure that parties have enough resources to battle Super PACs on fair terms.

She argued that political parties were more transparent and accountable to the public, compared to Super PACs, which lack a readily identifiable platform or agenda.

Under current law, political parties can donate unlimited amounts. The House's move to keep it this way comes over the protests of House and Senate progressives, who say that unleashing more money into elections via parties does nothing to curb corruption, influence or poor appearance.

Senate-approved aggregate caps - which prevented one person from giving more than $25,000 in a single election year to different candidates - could wait until next year, Sweaney said.

One legal battle this year is enough, Sweaney said, referring to House support for a legally risky cap on Super PACs.

Sweaney is reluctant to budge on that cap, though it's a chief bone of contention between the two chambers. Risk-averse senators fear an expensive lawsuit that they could lose, while some House lawmakers argue that bold policy guidance is required nonetheless.

“We had the battle on the floor,” Sweaney said. “Ninety-some people supported what we did. And it's hard to back away from that and just say, Oh, OK, we'll throw it out. So it'll be a discussion.”

The other drama over campaign finance legislation Friday stemmed from the tactics of Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, a maverick senator who has irritated many colleagues in recent weeks with his style of politicking.

Galbraith embarked on a mini-filibuster lasting about an hour and a half, forcing White, his fellow senator from Windham, through a detailed reading of the highly technical 51-page campaign finance bill.

After an hour or so, Democratic majority leader Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, stood up and called Galbratih's remarks “tedious,” requesting that Galbraith stop his lengthy speech.

“My motion ... is that I believe the senator has spoken tediously,” Baruth said on the Senate floor, quoting an “ancient rule governing debate” and a dictionary definition of “tedious.”

Galbraith managed to dodge Baruth's motion, along with several others from other senators throughout his speech. Frustrated senators left the chamber during his speech. The chamber was half empty during his relentless interrogation of Sen. White.

Galbraith told reporters later that he sought to delay the passage of the legislation, which he finds legally risky and unconstitutional, until 2014 by holding up the new conference committee. If he was able to delay debate effectively enough, with only two days left in the session, the bill would have been forced to wait until next year.

He was eventually defeated 27-1, as the Senate opted for a conference committee.

“If this bill becomes law in 2014, we will actually have much greater clarity on the legal issues,” said Galbraith, who described the legislation as a “very bad bill” and worse than existing law.

“As a practical matter, it would not apply to the 2014 election cycle,” if passed next year, continued Galbraith. His delaying tactics had nothing to do with his recent failure to ban companies from donating money to candidates, he said.

White, who endured questioning from Galbraith on countless details in the bill, wasn't personally upset or offended by his tactics. She did feel annoyed, though, that Galbraith wasted the time of the rest of the Senate, its staffers and president.

“Personally, I didn't care,” said White. “I mean, I tried not to get rattled.”

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