Lawmakers will try to override vetoes

Louis Porter // Published April 14, 2008 in The Rutland Herald
MONTPELIER — The Legislature will soon decide if two bills should become law even though they were rejected by Gov. James Douglas.

Since legislators would like to have those veto override votes completed before the end of the session, slated for early May, the state Senate may begin that process as early as this week.

One of the bills, establishing campaign-finance limits, is likely to gain most of the attention.

It is much less likely that the other, creating an instant-runoff voting system for Congressional elections in Vermont, would win the two-thirds majority in both the Senate and the House needed to override a veto.

Since taking office nearly six years ago Douglas has vetoed 11 bills. No attempts to override his vetoes have been successful.

Douglas turned down a somewhat different version of the campaign-finance bill last year and the override attempt was defeated by the slimmest of margins.

This year's bill would limit campaign donations from individuals to $1,000 per election (with a primary and general election counting as separate elections) for candidates running for statewide offices. Limits for state senators and county offices would be $500 and for state representative or local offices $250.

Originally those running for less high-profile offices like secretary of state would have faced stricter limits, but Douglas asked that all statewide office seekers be able to receive the same size contributions and lawmakers reluctantly agreed.

Under the bill, state political parties can give more, $30,000 for gubernatorial candidates in each two-year election cycle and lesser amounts for lower offices. It is the fact the bill would impose limits on political parties that caused Douglas to veto the measure.

Lawmakers had originally hoped to pass a bill early enough to have it go into effect for this year's election.

Adding to the pressure to make the bill into law is the fact that it is not entirely clear if the state has legally binding limits on campaign donations.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the state's stringent donation and spending limits several years ago, and since then Vermont candidates have operated under the law that existed before 1997.

Nobody has challenged the "revival" of that law in court, and whether it does have the force of law remains to be debated.

Douglas' messages on the vetoes of the two bills have also gained a fair amount of attention by supporters of the measures.

The instant runoff, or IRV, message even attracted the interest of The New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg.

Under IRV, voters pick both a first and second choice when they cast their ballots in a three-way race.

If there is no majority winner in the first round, the person who gets the fewest votes is counted out, and the support of those voters who chose that candidate as their first pick goes instead to the second choice.

"The process offered in this bill cannot result in a candidate being the top choice of a majority of voters. It is mathematically impossible for the candidate chosen by the IRV process to receive a majority of first votes cast," Douglas wrote in his veto message.

"Do I really have to explain why this is crazy wrong?" Hertzberg wrote on his Internet log. "Perhaps the governor meant that if no candidate receives a majority of first choices, then — er, no candidate has received a majority of first choices. But we already knew that."

That blog post led to a back-and-forth between The New Yorker editor and writer and Jason Gibbs, Douglas' spokesman.

"Mr. Gibbs was good-humored and pleasant, even when I mentioned that the Republican arguments against I.R.V. in Vermont (where Democrats have a Green problem) sound an awful lot like the Democratic arguments against I.R.V. in Alaska (where the Republicans have a Libertarian problem)," Hertzberg wrote.

If Vermont Democrats have a "problem" it is with Progressive party candidates, not the Greens, a party in Vermont but one with significantly less power and pull than the Progressives. But leaving that aside, Gibbs' take on Hertzberg's online column was a little less complimentary.

"I conveyed our fundamental disagreement with his point of view and frankly found his analysis callow, a bit arrogant and condescending," Gibbs said.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has been a major force behind the campaign finance bill, has taken aim at Douglas' message on that veto.

In his veto message Douglas said the bill, by limiting how much money political parties can give to their candidates, protects incumbents.

"The proposed party contribution limits extend unfair political protection to incumbents by establishing an obstacle for challengers," Douglas said.

Not really, according to VPIRG.

During the 2002, 2004 and 2006 election cycles — when Vermont's very strict campaign limits of $200 were in place — incumbent state House members were more likely to lose their seats than they have been in the years before or afterward, according to the group's research.

"I think the focus on the veto messages has been because they were so weak," said Paul Burns of VPIRG. "They were factually inaccurate and lacking in the clarity that we normally see from the governor's office.

"When faced with the fact that the contribution limits make elections more competitive he abandoned his rationale for vetoing it and suggested it is a philosophical objection."

The Vermont Republican Party has said that perhaps VPIRG's interest in the bill is hypocritical, since it would not limit contributions to the organization. Burns has replied that VPIRG works on issues, not campaigns.

In his weekly press conference Thursday, Douglas said VPIRG's research doesn't really matter.

"It doesn't matter to me," he said. "Philosophically" he doesn't like such restrictions on how much political parties in the state can give to their candidates, Douglas said.

"I think it is important for (parties) to be able to provide the support they think is necessary," he said.

Perhaps the Democratic-controlled Legislature is interested in party limits because it helps incumbents — primarily Democrats — the governor said.

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, a supporter of both bills, said perhaps the connection is between the veto and the support Douglas got from the political party in his first election for governor.

"I have got to assume there is some correlation there," Pearson said.

Ultimately the disagreements over whether campaign finance limits on party donations make it tougher for challengers or whether IRV is unconstitutional don't really matter.

Douglas made it clear his opposition to the two bills is based on his own experience as much as anything.

"I really believe these bills are not in the best interest of our election law," he said.

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, assistant minority leader, said the veto was the fitting end for the bill.

"It is not an issue in this state," she said. "There is no campaign corruption in Vermont."

Instead of limits, the campaign finance system needs more transparency and reporting, Komline said.

In the coming weeks it will be put to the test whether Republican lawmakers will stand behind that belief and bring at least two Democrats, Progressives or independents with them.

Speaker of the House Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, said that if House members listen to their constituents they will vote to override the campaign-finance veto.

Voters, she said, want "reasonable limits on the influence of money on elections in Vermont."

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