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Lawmakers Feel the Specter of Supreme Court Hanging over Campaign Finance Legislation

Members of the House Government Operations Committee were like pinballs last week, ricocheting between two walls as they worked to set campaign
contribution limits.

Every time they leaned toward limiting how much money candidates can receive during election campaigns, the looming specter of the U.S. Supreme Court would send them reeling in the other direction.

Legislators are trying to come up with a campaign finance law to replace one that the Supreme Court struck down in June. The danger of ending up in court again hangs over the debate.

Jim Bopp, one of the lawyers who defeated Vermont's 1997 law before the court, warned the committee in testimony April 18 that it risks another lawsuit by setting unjustified limits.

"I think you're again treading in the area of being way too low," Bopp said of proposed $40,000 limits on what a single individual can give to all campaigns and political groups in a two-year cycle.

Attorney General William Sorrell, who unsuccessfully defended Vermont before the Supreme Court, is apprehensive, too. "Having had this rough outing with the Supreme Court, we want to dot our i's and cross our t's," Sorrell said.

The striking down of the 1997 law not only left Vermont without a campaign finance law, it also could prove costly. Those who challenged the law are seeking $1.5 million from the state for legal costs, a request that is pending in federal court. House Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, feels the pressure not to repeat history. "We don't want to go to court," she said. "We want to come up with something that's constitutionally sound."

At the same time, she said, she wants legislation that limits the corruption -- and the perception of corruption by money -- in politics.

The Senate sent over legislation that raised constitutional questions from Bopp, Sorrell and others. Sorrell provided the committee with a four-page outline of his concerns, some of which mirrored Bopp's concerns.

The Senate bill calls for graduated limits on contributions to candidates for governor and other statewide races -- $1,000 for the governor's race, $750 for the others -- even though all those candidates are trying to reach the same number of voters. Bopp warned the House committee that if a certain limit is not deemed corrupting in one race, it shouldn't be in the other.

The committee, in discussion Friday, was sticking with varying limits, but working out the rationale for them. History has established that candidates for governor have more vigorous races and spend more than those for treasurer, argued Rep. Chris Pearson, PBurlington.

"I personally think the governor's race is different," said committee Vice Chairman Kenneth Atkins, D-Winooski. "It should be a higher amount."

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said establishing justification is the key. "We think the most important thing is the Legislature has to have justifications for the limits. I think what you saw today was an effort to find those limits."

As the House committee leaned Friday toward setting higher but safer limits than the Senate set -- $1,500 for the governor's race and $1,000 for other statewide races -- Paul Burns grew agitated. His Vermont Public Interest Research Group fought for the 1997 Vermont law, which sought lowest-in-the-nation contribution limits.

"These are no longer precedent-setting, groundbreaking limits. These are moderate, middle-of-the-road, shouldn't-we-have-something limits," he said.

Burns said the lower limits in the Senate's version are entirely defensible. He provided the committee with a list of contributions in recent Vermont races that show most fall below the proposed limits, indicating that the limits are reasonable.

Brenda Wright, a lawyer who helped Vermont defend the 1997 law, told the committee last week that the limits in the Senate version are higher than those in a few other states. "Vermont certainly will not have the lowest in the country," she said, also noting, "Several of those states have far, far more expensive elections than Vermont." Legislators are living too much in fear of the prospect of another lawsuit, Burns said Friday. "It's a shame when someone needs only to threaten a lawsuit," he said. "It's causing them to proceed with inordinate caution."

The committee, under pressure to pass legislation this year so it will be in place for the 2008 elections, is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday, sending it to the full House. Contact Terri Hallenbeck at 229-4126 or [email protected] What was struck down.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that contribution limits in Vermont's 1997 campaign-finance law were too low and that its spending limits restricted free speech. The law that was struck down set:

Spending limits at $300,000 for governor; $100,000 for lieutenant governor; $45,000 for other statewide offices; $4,000 for state senator in a one-member district and another $2,500 for each additional seat in the district; $3,000 for a two-member state House district and $2,000 for a one-person district. Incumbents in Senate campaigns could spend no more than 85 percent of the limit; House incumbents, 90 percent. In 2005 the Legislature added an inflationary increase to the limits but it never took effect because of the court challenge.

Contribution limits that said individuals (including political parties) could contribute no more than $400 for governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide races; $300 for state senator; $200 for state representative.