Outgoing state senator weighs campaign-finance stances

TOWNSHEND — During my four years in the Vermont Senate, I was struck by how many times the special interest trumped the broader public interest.

I believe one reason for this is Vermont's system of campaign finance, which allows corporations to contribute directly to candidates as well as for individuals to evade limits by contributing both individually and through their companies.

I was therefore struck by the differing responses the candidates for the Vermont Senate gave to my question at the first candidate forum in Townshend, which I moderated. I asked each candidate if she or he would vote to prohibit candidates in state elections from accepting corporate contributions.

I explained that such contributions have been illegal for federal candidates since 1907. In 2012, the Vermont Senate had considered - and narrowly defeated - my amendment to conform Vermont law to federal law.

Roger Allbee was unequivocal in his response. He said he would vote to make corporate contributions illegal and announced that his campaign does not accept corporate, PAC, or special-interest money.

Joan Bowman also said she would vote to ban corporate contributions.

Rebecca Balint said she would vote to keep corporate contributions unless the Supreme Court reversed its 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo. Since that won't happen, she supports corporate contributions.

Senator Jeanette White also said she supported the continuation of corporate contributions, which is not surprising since she has been the principal opponent of legislation to ban these contributions.

Indeed, in 2011, she took the unprecedented act of not bringing to the Secretary of the Senate a campaign finance bill that had been reported out of her committee. (Her violation of the Senate rules led me to resign from the Government Operations Committee in protest.)

So, why is the important? In my four years in Montpelier, I repeatedly saw how special interests - even the interest of a single well-connected individual - overrode the broader public interest.

To give just one example, 17 senators cosponsored a bill that would have better protected the connectivity of our forests, and the Natural Resources Committee reported the bill favorably.

However, a single developer was concerned the bill could affect his proposed expansion of a ski area. The developer had made campaign contributions personally and though his company, thus evading the limits on the amount that can be contributed.

The bill was defeated. (Senator White was among the co-sponsors who voted against the bill.)

In making your decision on how to vote in the Democratic primary on Aug. 26, I urge you to consider which candidates are most likely to stand up to the special interests. Roger Allbee, a former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, knows how Montpelier operates and has clearly said he will stand up to those interests. I also commend Joan Bowman for her answer.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates