Vermont’s public financing system is worse than useless

Before this year, our mechanism for public campaign financing was woefully limited and seemingly designed to discourage potential candidates. The excessive and punitive rules resulted in the only person ever to gain public financing, Dean Corren, facing an overzealous prosecution by Attorney General Bill Sorrell, our deeply tainted Guardian of Electoral Purity.

But that’s the good news.

The bad news is, the whole system has suddenly become a cruel joke. It’s so bad that unless the Legislature can bring itself to enact a simpler, more generous process, I’d just as soon they kill the thing. In its current state, it’s an insult to the very ideals it purports to uphold.

What’s different this year? As I wrote in my previous post on the Progressive Party, public financing has been rendered irrelevant by the unprecedentedly early start to the 2016 campaign (for governor and lieutenant governor, anyway) and the likelihood of record-breaking campaign spending.

I realize that 2016 may prove to be an outlier in terms of length and expense because the top two offices are open, but I wouldn’t bet a nickel on future campaigns getting shorter and cheaper. It tends not to work that way. Which means the current start date and money caps are unworkable.

The system was bad enough already. Its Byzantine rules force potential candidates to effectively sprint through a minefield.

Here’s what they have to do. First, they can’t conduct any campaign activities or even hint at a candidacy until February 15 of election year. Then, once they’ve launched, they have a mere 90 days to gather hundreds and hundreds of small individual donations. Gubernatorial candidates must get at least 1,500 Vermonters to donate no more than $50 apiece; Lite-Gov hopefuls must get at least 750 small donations. And your donor list has to have a broad geographic spread; you can’t rely on your home turf.

Let’s say you manage to do all of that. Then you face a hard cap on campaign spending, plus virtual bans on any outside support. Which means that, in Corren’s case, the Democrats and Progressives could do little on his behalf even though he occupied both parties’ tickets.

If I were of a cynical mindset (heh), I’d speculate that our esteemed lawmakers deliberately crafted a system that was as difficult and unrewarding as possible, while paying lip service to the idea of publicly-funded campaigns.

But leaving aside the questionable motivations of past legislatures, it’s clear that the current system is a wreck. There’s been talk of a modest rework to prevent future entanglements like Corren’s, but I see little point. This system doesn’t need a patch; it needs a complete reinvention. Otherwise, we should just stop pretending we have a system, because we really don’t.

What should a real public financing system look like? Well, I’m no expert on campaign law, so I’m open to correction; but here’s what I think.

— It should include legislative offices as well as the statewide ones. Publicly financed candidates would have a better shot at success on a more local level. And the legislature is at a much earlier point in the political cost curve than the statewide offices: most campaigns are downright affordable. Public financing could have a real impact.

— The mandated starting date of February 15 needs to be moved back, at least for the statewide offices. I’d suggest exactly one year before Election Day, but I’m not dogmatic about that.

— The requirements for collecting donations should be relaxed somehow. For statewide offices, I’d retain the current totals but double the 90-day period for gathering funds. Make it six months. Potential candidates wouldn’t have to conduct an insane spring, but would still need to prove their appeal. (The fundraising period and the donor totals would be smaller for legislative candidates.)

— The rules on outside assistance need some serious easing. Direct financial support should be barred; but if a candidate gains a party’s nomination, said party should be able to offer the kinds of assistance commonly given to candidates on its ticket.

Of course, if we open up the system, more candidates will qualify and it’ll cost more money. And there’s the question: are we serious about public financing?

If we are, then we should consider the funds a useful investment in democracy. If we aren’t, then we should stop pretending.

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4 thoughts on “Vermont’s public financing system is worse than useless

  1. Brooke Paige

    John,

    Having watched Wild Willy Sorrell attempt to castrate Dean for having “accepted” the assistance of an e-mail from Democratic “big wig” Dottie Deans which Willy valued as having a substantial cash value (I thought it well may have been counterproductive and therefore probably had a negative $ value).

    It strikes me that the best way to assist candidates (for statewide office) would be to have a contribution floor of several thousand dollars ($5,000?) – once the floor was reached the state would match contributions dollar for dollar to a maximum of say $55,000 (thus the state would have kicked in $50,000) for a total of campaign budget of $105,000. If the candidate chooses to continue to raise campaign funds beyond this point they would repay the contribution at a rate of $1 for every $3 collected. This would give virtually all candidates equal footing as their campaigns gain momentum, keep the states exposure at a reasonable level and provide for some recapture from candidates who prove highly successful at raising contributions ! I think that “in-kind” and intangible campaign assistance (like Dottie Deans’ e-mail message for Corren) should be either exempt or treated as having a cash value at a percentage of actual cost (25% – 50%). Lastly, supporters contributions, in addition to providing cash for the needs of the campaign, are an affirmation of support and their prohibition sends a mixed or muddled message to those who are seeking express their enthusiasm for their favorite. .

    Like you I am looking at this from the outside, as my modest campaigns have been self financed as I felt it unfair to solicit contributions for an efforts which needed divine intervention more than cash contributions. In any case, I hope my thoughts give you another perspective on the public financing idea.

    Best Wishes, Brooke

    Reply
  2. chuck gregory

    John,

    Under Vendor-Based Oversight, campaign finance reform can be implemented in Vermont one race at a time– e.g., set it up for the Auditor’s race this time, and when it’s seen to work well, put it in effect to all the others. It has the following advantages over the present system:

    A focus on the money-flow chokepoint of every campaign—the spending of the money.
    It delegates detection of violations to the electorate.
    It raises the public’s interest in and lowers its cynicism toward politics.
    It exempts from the law the very legislators who otherwise would have to approve legislation meant to penalize them.
    It applies to only nine elected offices: the 6 statewide ones and the 3 Congressional ones.
    It eliminates the unspoken but well-known obligation every elected official has to his or her major contributors.
    It eliminates the myth which drives all candidates and most legislators at present—that there is no such thing as enough money.
    It involves almost no public spending and therefore does not depend on state finances for its existence.
    It could yield a tax revenue return of 1200 percent or more per tax dollar spent, because:
    It involves the attention of only one state employee;
    It encourages Vermont businesses to use Vermont vendors, and
    It encourages entrepreneurs to set up in Vermont.

    Finally, because it does all of the above, it reduces the public’s cynicism about the electoral process.

    Reply
  3. Walter Carpenter

    “It eliminates the myth which drives all candidates and most legislators at present—that there is no such thing as enough money.” I like that one:) It would also, in the long run, make candidates more accountable to the voters than to their donors, which is often the case now

    Reply

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