Limits on campaign contributions unlikely with Court ruling

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(Host) With today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling against Vermont’s campaign reform law, it’s unlikely state and local political candidates will see limits on contributions this year.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Vermont’s law, passed in 1997, established spending and contribution limits for statewide and legislative races. Legal challenges have prevented the spending provisions from being implemented.

The limits on contributions were put into place but now the Court has also struck these down.

Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis says the Court found Vermont’s 400 dollar contribution level for the governor’s race was too restrictive:

(Davis) “It wasn’t the contribution limits per se are unconstitutional, but that the contribution limits in the Vermont law were so low that they would both restrict the first amendment rights of candidates and supporters, and perhaps would create a situation in which incumbents would have unfair advantages over challengers.”

(Kinzel) The Vermont Republican Party was one of the groups seeking to overturn the campaign finance law. State director Jim Barnet says he’s pleased by the Court’s decision:

(Barnet) “This is a victory for the First Amendment and it’s a big loss for the incumbent politicians who passed this law really as a way to protect them from any serious electoral competition.”

(Kinzel) Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell argued in favor of the state’s law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last fall. Sorrell says he’s deeply disappointed by the ruling:

(Sorrell) “This law was intended to enhance citizen participation at all levels of our elections. And this is a setback and it’s a boost for those who have access to huge amounts of money.”

(Kinzel) The ruling could have a direct impact on this year’s campaigns. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says a preliminary look at the case indicates that there will be no contribution limits for statewide and legislative contests in 2006:

(Markowitz) “It may be that it opens the floodgates for this election cycle for the raising and spending on money. So candidates for governor for example have been asking people for $400 now then can go back and ask for $4,000. In theory we have to go back and study it to see if that’s really what it says.”

(Kinzel) Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hannah thinks the decision puts the Vermont Legislature in a difficult position if it wants to revisit the issue of contribution limits next winter:

(Hannah) “Now that expenditure limits are unconstitutional here in Vermont the Legislature’s going to have to think long and hard about how they are going to want to deal with that question relative to contribution. Because what it’s going to mean is wealthy candidates can spend what they want and people who don’t have money are going to have to look outside the state for contributions.”

(Kinzel) Prior to the adoption of the campaign finance reform law, Vermont did have a contribution limit of $1,000. In a previous case involving a statewide race in Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this limit was constitutional.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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