The U. S. Supreme Court says elimination of “corruption or the appearance of corruption” is the only legitimate reason for a state to abridge the First Amendment rights of its citizens through campaign finance legislation. Using this standard, the court struck down in June 2006 a 1997 law promoted by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).
In 2007, VPIRG was back with another campaign finance bill – different but with comparably strict contribution limits.The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, passed the new law despite expert testimony from the ACLU and the attorney who won the last round of lawsuits that the new bill was likely unconstitutional as well. As the voice of common sense, and probably saving Vermont taxpayers from having to foot the bill for another multimillion-dollar Supreme Court battle, Gov. Douglas vetoed VPIRG’s campaign finance law.
Now, VPIRG and its Democratic allies are back again. Why is VPIRG so determined to try to pass a campaign finance law of the type just declared unconstitutional? And why is the Democratic Party so willing to go along with what is an obviously bad bill that unnecessarily puts Vermont taxpayers in legal jeopardy?
Time was when public interest research groups like VPIRG really did serve the public interest. We have such groups to thank for much safer cars, much cleaner air and water, and the ability to know what’s in the food we buy.
But in recent years VPIRG has been, in reality, little more than a lobbying enterprise for special interests which, in large measure, fund it – primarily corporate wind power and alternative energy interests. Ironically, these are heavily taxpayer-subsidized corporate projects of the type public interest groups used to advocate against.
In this role, VPIRG appears to have the Democratic Party firmly under its thumb. It comes, then, as no surprise that that party’s agenda is tightly linked, not to the most pressing concerns of the people of Vermont, but to the personal agendas of VPIRG’s board of directors.
For instance, David Bittersdorf and Mathew Rubin, two men with active wind power enterprises in Vermont, are trustees of VPIRG, as is Dave Rapaport, who worked for five years for Mathew Rubin’s East Mountain Wind Tower Co. Trustee Leigh Seddon founded Solar Works Inc., a renewable-energy design and contracting firm. VPIRG’s five registered lobbyists work the state Legislature tirelessly for more taxpayer funding for renewable energy. VPIRG also spends a lot of time demonizing major competitors of its supporters – lobbying to close Vermont Yankee, a carbon-neutral power source, and to classify Hydro-Quebec as a nonrenewable energy source.
This brings us back to the campaign finance bill. The chief reason for this bill appears to be to handicap in future elections the political opponents of the policy agenda of VPIRG. VPIRG’s activities, many of them indirectly in support of candidates of the Democratic Party, would be immune from the campaign contribution and spending limits the new law would impose on political parties and others active in directly backing candidates. VPIRG can raise as much money as it likes from its allies and doesn’t even have to disclose who they are on required annual reports. Nor does it need to let voters know how it is being used.
The campaign finance bill in question was sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Ed Flanagan, who is also a member VPIRG’s board of directors. In addition, Scudder Parker, who ran for governor as a Democrat last time around and has served as the Democratic Party chairman, is now a hired lobbyist for VPIRG. Senate leader Peter Shumlin has been referred to only half-jokingly as the senator from VPIRG. And the current Democratic chairman, Ian Carleton, has also worked with VPIRG. If the Legislature is looking for corruption or the appearance of corruption to fix, it should start by looking at VPIRG and its relationship to the Vermont Democratic Party.
By Jack McMullen
Jack McMullen, a strategy consultant to Fortune 500 and technology-oriented companies, lives in Burlington. He was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2004.
19 January 2008
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