Phil Scott asks some dumb questions

Apparently our humble & lovable Lieutenant Governor still has a bug up his butt about public financing of election campaigns. You may recall that Phil Scott had never uttered a word about public financing* until Dean Corren qualified for public funds last year, forcing Scott to actually put some effort into his campaign. The experience was traumatic enough that it birthed a “philosophical objection” to public financing in Scott’s mind.

*Correction: I’ve been informed that Scott has voiced objections on previous occasions. Sen. Joe Benning: ” I first heard him expressing his disagreement with public financing of campaigns when I met him back in 2010.” I thank the Senator for taking the time to write. I’d still like to know if Scott had ever expressed his disagreement on the public record, but clearly his concerns precede his 2014 campaign.

On Tuesday, Scott grabbed an opportunity to again state his “philosophical objection” to public financing, and raise a series of far-fetched questions about the law’s workings.

His testimony before the Senate Government Operations Committee drew no attention in the media because it was immediately followed by Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s appearance, in which he belatedly acquiesced to calls for an independent probe of his campaign finances. Yeah, that kinda overshadowed everything else.

Also, Scott’s remarks were immediately dismissed by the committee, which had convened to consider a single technical change in the law; there was no time for broader questions.

But before it vanishes into the mists of history, let’s recount some of Phil Scott’s testimony.

— He asked if there was a verification process for qualifying contributions. For those unversed in the miniutiae of campaign finance, a camdidate has to gather a large number of small contributions from registered Vermont voters in order to qualify for public funds. Each contribution must be accompanied by the voter’s home address, signature, and date of contribution.

Apparently Scott wants someone to check all those names, addresses and signatures, on the off chance that a candidate is committing massive fraud. But really, if a candidate were bent on breaking the law, there are easier and more rewarding ways to do it. The public financing system is a grim trudge, and the end result (if you’re successful) is just about enough money to run a decent statewide campaign. It’s not a windfall. And by accepting public financing, a candidate is barred from accepting any other contributions of any sort.

— He wondered if there should be limits on “perpetual candidates” qualifying over and over again, and…

— If there should be limits on the number of qualifying candidates in each campaign season.

Both of which are absurd. Qualifying for public financing is extremely difficult. In the past 14 years, only two candidates have managed the feat. A very energetic John Bauer came well short of qualifying for public funds in 2014. How hard is it?

To qualify, a candidate for lieutenant governor has to get at least 750 qualifying contributions from registered Vermont voters, each no more than $50, totaling at least $17,500. No more than 25% of a candidate’s contributions can come from a single county. (For governor, it’s 1500 contributions totaling at least $35,000.) The candidate has only three months to accomplish this feat. It’s a Sisyphean task, and no “perpetual candidate” is going to succeed year after year. And no single year will bring a tsunami of qualifying candidates; the process is just way too hard. (Besides, public financing is only open to candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. Not much room for a stampede.)

— Under current law, a qualifying candidate gets a certain amount of money for the primary and a larger amount for the general election. For lieutenant governor, it’s $50,000 and $150,000 respectively. Well, Scott asked if candidates who didn’t face primary opposition should still get the primary dollars.

Of course they should, Phil. Even if a candidate is unchallenged in the primary, the pre-primary period is valuable for building name recognition and promoting policy ideas. Leaving a publicly-financed candidate with no money until after the primary would be a significant handicap.

Scott also voiced a cautionary note that, as it happens, was completely off base. The committee was considering whether to ease the law’s language concerning penalties. The current law requires repayment of all public funds that hadn’t been spent at the time of a violation. The committee wanted to soften that language to give prosecutors and judges more discretion in imposing penalties.

“You may consider not requiring repayment,” said Scott, “but I would caution you that a candidate could spend all their money early and then violate the rules later.”

Well, yeah, I suppose — but that’s a problem with the current law, not with the proposed change. In his haste to assemble an imposing list of questions, Scott pulled a boner.

His other questions weren’t absolutely wrong, but they were ridiculous. His moment came and went; the committee thanked him for his time, shelved his testimony, and went on with its work.

2 thoughts on “Phil Scott asks some dumb questions

  1. Sen. Joe Benning

    John, your bias is showing again. You forgot to mention the Lt. Governor giving us his opinion that the exorbitant fine facing his former opponent was just wrong. As one of the committee members listening to his testimony, I thought that was a significant part of the conversation that was also, unfortunately, missed by the media- even you!. It also jived with the committee’s desire to bring about change. To suggest we listened and simply “shelved” his comments is not correct.

    And as for your statement: “You may recall that Phil Scott had never uttered a word about public financing until Dean Corren qualified for public funds last year…” this is simply not true. I first heard him expressing his disagreement with public financing of campaigns when I met him back in 2010. As he said then, and as he repeated this week, he thinks it is wrong for taxpayers to have to finance the campaigns of those who they would never consider voting for. You may disagree with that philosophy, but he has never wavered from that opinion.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Sen. Benning: Your comments are noted and appreciated. I still think I’m right in saying his comments were shelved. There’s a difference between “shelved” and “discarded.” Senator White clearly told him that his wider concerns were beyond the scope of Tuesday’s hearing and would not be taken up. Neither she nor I ruled out the possibility that the issues would be revisited later on.


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