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Vermont Public Money Gives Progressive Fundraising Edge

Montpelier — Public campaign financing has left Vermont’s incumbent Republican lieutenant governor in an unusual position — trying to catch up in the campaign money race against a Progressive Party challenger.

Former Progressive lawmaker Dean Corren qualified for public financing by more than meeting the requirement that he raise $17,500 in donations of no more than $50 by June. That qualified him for public financing that would bring him up to $200,000.

Campaign finance reports filed Monday showed incumbent Republican Phil Scott had raised about $52,000 in the previous 30 days and had a campaign war chest of nearly $120,400.

Corren’s $200,000 is more than incumbent Scott raised or spent in either of his first two statewide contests, in 2010 and 2012, Scott said.

Scott said Wednesday he declined to take public financing and instead went the traditional route of trying to raise money from individuals, corporations and political committees because “I’m opposed personally to it (public financing). I would rather have people contribute to my campaign willingly and more than in just financial ways, rather than take it from taxpayers who may or may not support me.”

Backers of public financing often say they want to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics, so there may be a bit of irony in the fact that Vermont’s public campaign finance fund comes from corporate money — the annual fees charged to corporations that are legally required to register with the secretary of state’s office.

That means that any impact on taxpayers is indirect, said Secretary of State Jim Condos. A request for public campaign financing merely reduces the amount his office contributes in the year it is made to the state’s general fund, which pays for the bulk of state programs.

Under current Vermont law, public financing is available only to candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. The only candidate who has taken the money and run successfully was former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine in 2000, said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and a widely acknowledged expert on campaign finance in Vermont.

“It is a means of ensuring no candidate is too beholden to any one special interest or big donor,” said Burns, a supporter of public financing.

Darcie Johnston, a Republican activist and former campaign manager for 2012 gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock, said she strongly opposes it.

“Forcing taxpayers to pay for campaigns they don’t agree with? Yes, I think it’s wrong,” she said.

Corren said the cost of his campaign will work out to about 29 cents per Vermonter. A candidate for governor who took public financing would cost three times as much, as the cap for that office was raised to $600,000 this year.

Corren said his decision to take public campaign money is both freeing and constraining: freeing because he doesn’t have to spend hours every week on the phone asking for donations; constraining because publicly funded candidates are not allowed to raise funds beyond the $200,000.

“I’m going to spend $200,000 and Phil Scott’s going to spend a little more than that, maybe a lot more than that,” Corren predicted. “He has no limit on what he can raise. We do.”

While the sources of Corren’s and Scott’s campaign money will differ, their expenditures are likely to be similar. Corren said as in most campaigns, he’ll spend money on mass media advertising and organizing volunteers.