The decision came down last Thursday, and seemed to be a rare victory for Vermont's campaign finance law. Vermont Right To Life had sought to overturn reporting and disclosure requirements for political action committees. US Judge William Sessions dismissed the suit, prompting a brief and boastful press release from Attorney General Bill Sorrell:
The court's ruling provides resounding confirmation of the validity of Vermont's campaign finance disclosure laws and the state's ability to address Vermonter's (sic) concerns about the influence of money in politics.
It was so reported by the Associated Press' Lisa Rathke, and by Nancy Remsen on the Freeploid's* vtBuzz blog.
*My nickname for the new, "improved," tabloidy Burlington Free Press.
But not by Peter Hirschfeld of the Vermont Press Bureau. (Update: Article now available for free at the VPB website.)
But while Sessions upheld the contribution limits in this specific case, he said that if a political action committee operates independent of candidates, and organizations that contribute to them, then the $2,000 limit would likely fail constitutional muster.
In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case especially, Sessions said, any limit on independent expenditures will likely be found to violate the First Amendment.
...The decision could open the door to increased corporate spending on Vermont elections, which have yet to see the kind of super PAC activity now influencing national politics.
After the jump: further explanation, and the health of our news media.
According to Hirschfeld, VRLC's case was specifically tainted because it had failed to maintain proper distance between two political spending entities: its PAC, which makes direct contributions to candidates, and its Fund for Independent Political Expenditures (FIPE), which spends money on "independent" political activities.
VRLC argued that, because FIPE did not directly support candidates, it shouldn't be subject to the state's reporting requirements and its $2,000 limit on individual contributions. Sessions basically found VRLC guilty of sloppy bookkeeping -- failing to truly maintain FIPE's financial independence.
So it was a victory, but a narrow, procedural one. Sessions upheld the letter of the law, but he gave everyone a clear blueprint for how to circumvent its spirit. And that could open the door to more "independent" money in state politics. (And, as I pointed out in a previous diary, it doesn't take a lot of money to create a strong presence on our political scene.)
This story is another example of how difficult it is to regulate political spending in a post-Citizens United landscape. It is also a rather astounding example of how shallow and unreliable Vermont's news media have become. The Associated Press' story failed to mention the broader implications of the ruling. The AP is the sole source for most other media outlets, including VPR, which offered only a brief AP rewrite in its newscast. The Freeploid, as far as I can tell, never published or posted a full writeup of the decision; its only coverage was in vtBuzz, an entry Remsen admitted was "based on a quick skim." She promised "more reaction and analysis to come," but it hasn't come yet. Makes me wonder if the Freeploid has cut back on (or, as Jim Fogler would say, "improved") its coverage of state politics. VTDigger, which does its level best with limited resources, did not cover the story at all -- except to post Sorrell's celebratory press release.
Only Peter Hirschfeld of the VPB reported the full story -- and his account is hidden behind a paywall, where most Vermonters will never see it.
Makes me wonder how many other stories are going unreported, or underreported. And with the economics of the business still in decline, it makes me wonder how much worse our news coverage is going to get.