Politically Thinking: Anonymous PACs sprout in Vt.

Advertisements from the Campaign for Vermont and from Vermonters for Health Care Freedom are running in Vermont newspapers, on radio stations and on news-oriented Web sites. These organizations, which are not subject to the campaign finance laws and regulations that apply to political action committees and political parties, will be major players in this year’s elections.
The Campaign for Vermont was founded by Bruce Lisman, a native of Burlington and a graduate of, and subsequently trustee chair at, the University of Vermont. From UVM, Lisman worked his way up the ladder of the financial services industry to become a senior executive at Bear Stearns and J.P. Morgan Chase. After retiring in 2009, Lisman moved back to Vermont, and established the Campaign for Vermont in 2011.
Among other issues, the Campaign for Vermont supports the continued operation of Vermont Yankee, a “flexible and accessible” health care system rather than single-payer, a reorganized local education system with lower property taxes, and a tax system “fueled by a broadened economic base” rather than higher taxes. These goals sound very similar to those that Gov. Jim Douglas pursued when he was in office. It is not surprising that Lisman’s associates in the Campaign for Vermont include former Douglas administration officials and members of the “Democrats for Douglas” and “Democrats for Dubie” groups that those Republican candidates set up in recent election cycles.
Vermonters for Health Care Freedom was established in 2011 by Darcie Johnston, a Vermont political consultant, to oppose the Shumlin administration’s plans to move toward a single-payer health care system. This organization claims that a single-payer system would limit Vermonters’ health care choices, would insert government between patients and their doctors, and would be unaffordable for both individual Vermonters and Vermont businesses. Johnston recently left the organization, and was succeeded as its director by Jeff Wennberg, formerly mayor of Rutland and subsequently an official in the Douglas administration.
Both Vermonters for Health Care Freedom and the Campaign for Vermont are so-called 501c(4) organizations. This means that they are supposed to confine their efforts to public education and issue advocacy, rather than campaign messages for and against candidates for office. There is no limit to the amount an individual or a corporation can contribute to a 501c(4) organization and the names of donors are kept confidential by law.
Lisman himself is a large donor to the Campaign for Vermont. The group has spent an estimated $150,000 on radio advertisements since the end of 2011, which is a significant sum of money for Vermont. While Vermonters for Health Care Freedom does not have to disclose its donor lists, I would not be at all surprised if those lists were headed by representatives of the health insurance industry, who stand to lose millions of dollars in profits and fees if a single-payer system were established to provide health care to a significant number of Vermonters.
In this year’s elections, these 501c(4) organizations will come as close to the line of advocating for the election of Republican Randy Brock as governor, and Republican candidates for the Legislature, as they can without violating the law. Indeed, Brock has said that Johnston, the founder of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, will work as a consultant on his gubernatorial campaign. As long as their ads do not say “vote for Brock,” or “vote against Shumlin,” they would be engaging in issue advocacy that is within their legal rights. Together, the two organizations will likely spend several hundred thousand dollars by November, but Vermonters will know little about the sources of their funds.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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