MONTPELIER -- The Vermont Public Interest Research Group will make another attempt this year to change the way Vermont political campaigns are financed.
VPIRG wants to ban corporate and lobbyist contributions, and require Super PACs to disclose who is paying for campaign advertising.
For nearly a decade, VPIRG has pressured the Legislature to rein in the influence of "big money" from corporations and wealthy individuals on the political process in Vermont.
But there has been little appetite in the Statehouse to put restrictions on campaign contributors, in part because of a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a Vermont law that placed limits on campaign financing. Since that time, the federal courts have issued more rulings that equate money with free speech. The 2010 Citizens United decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on "independent expenditures" on behalf of candidates. The recent McCutcheon v. FEC ruling gives that same power to individuals. Vermont lawmakers passed a new campaign finance bill in the last legislative session that dramatically increases how much parties, individuals and corporations can donate to candidates, starting in 2015.
Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, has made "Taking on Big Money in Politics" the centerpiece of the organization's legislative priorities and summer canvassing effort this year. He said the only way to get lawmakers to support a prohibition on corporate and lobbyist contributions is to ask thousands of Vermonters to urge their representatives to support VPIRG's legislation. To that end, 55 canvassers (largely college students) will be knocking on doors and asking Vermonters to sign petitions supporting the change and to donate money to the cause. The canvassers stood behind Burns at a press conference held on the porch of VPIRG's King Street office in Burlington.
In 2013, VPIRG's primary goal was to press for a GMO labeling law, which passed this year in the state Senate and was recently signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin. Burns says lawmakers would not have pushed forward with the legislation, which made Vermont the first state to require the disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients in manufactured foods, if canvassers hadn't gone to every town in the state, knocking on 80,000 doors and collecting 32,000 postcards from Vermonters who supported the legislation.
"I think it's fair to say we wouldn't have taken that bold step if they hadn't heard from their constituents," Burns said.
The voice of average citizens has been drowned out by corporations and individuals who can buy influence by giving thousands of dollars to politicians and PACs. Too much corporate money, in particular, is spent on lobbying and directly on political campaigns, Burns said, and it is undermining the democratic process.
"People in this state and across the country are feeling that they're losing their voice when it comes to talking to their elected officials," Burns said. "The levels of giving grow higher and higher and the amount of money gets greater and greater and you see more from money Super PACs, more money from corporations, and what you find is that for average folks they see their possibility to influence their elected officials getting less and less. They are seeing less of them and seeing the dollar levels getting further away from anything they can imagine giving."
The average citizen gives $25 or $100, and that's a stretch for most. "When they see contributions of $1,000, $2,000, $4,000 or more, that increases cynicism, it increases the feeling that the system may be corrupt," he said.
In the 2012 election cycle, Lenore Broughton, a conservative activist, spent $1 million in independent expenditures - media buys and mailers - on behalf of Republican candidates. None of the statewide candidates she supported were elected.
Burns described how lobbyists line the committee rooms of the Statehouse, pressuring lawmakers to vote against legislation designed to protect consumers and the environment. According to a report by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, lobbyists spent $8 million on influence-peddling in Vermont last year.
VPIRG spent $71,000 on lobbying lawmakers in the last legislative session. The organization's budget was $1 million in 2012, and it had more than $500,000 in assets that year.
This year, Burns said, his organization wants to zero in on the problem that has the biggest impact on his organization's ability to move legislation forward. "This is an issue that relates to almost everything VPIRG works on," he said.
The ultimate solution, he said, is a constitutional amendment that clarifies that corporations are not human beings. (The Vermont Legislature passed a resolution last year that would require a constitutional convention on such an amendment.)
Ben Cohen, the co-founder of Ben & Jerry's, has launched a national "Stamp Stampede" campaign that encourages people to "stamp money out of politics."
Cohen pulled out a rubber stamp at the press conference and inked a dollar bill with the bright red words: "Not to be used by politicians."
"If the Supreme Court says money is free speech, we've decided to use money to communicate a message," Cohen said. "It's monetary jiu jitsu. We're using money to get money out of politics and it becomes a petition on steroids. Usually, if you want to make your voice heard you sign a petition. This way you do it very publicly. Every dollar stamped gets seen by 900 people as it's passed around."