My First Priority as Governor: Trust, Ethics, and Transparency

Throughout our history, Vermont has set the standard for what it means to be progressive, from being the first state to ban slavery to the first to say love is love and that the state should recognize LGBTQ relationships.

These achievements are testaments to the progressive belief many of us share, which is that government has a role to play in the lives of citizens. From being the first state to require the labeling of GMOs to being the first state to guarantee that every child has health insurance, Vermont has proven time and again to the rest of the country that a government truly of the people and for the people provides a better life for all.

But our state is in danger of losing our position as a progressive leader, because we are in danger of Vermonters losing trust in their government.  

That trust is the foundation that allows us to continue building on our legacy of progress.  And when that foundation cracks -- when people lose trust in their government, when they stop believing government has their interests at heart -- progress grinds to a halt.  

And make no mistake, that foundation is cracking.  Between allegations of sexual misconduct towards a sitting State Senator, to the fact that some in state leadership received millions of dollars in construction contracts to a company they own, to the fact that the alleged perpetrators in the Northeast Kingdom EB-5 scandal gave tens of thousands to politicians, funneled through various companies they owned - Vermonters have been watching and seeing a trend.

And to put this all in context, Vermont is next to last, if not last in the nation in terms of transparency and accountability.

We’re one of only 3 states that don’t require disclosure of relevant financial information from all candidates for office.

We’re one of only 7 states that don’t have an ethics commission.

We’re one of 17 states that don’t have any rules aimed at closing the revolving door between the public officials and lobbyists.

And we’re one of the remaining states to allow direct corporate contributions, which have been illegal at the federal level for over 100 years.

National watchdog groups for government integrity have consistently ranked us near last in the nation. On ethics and accountability, we are ranked 50 out of 50. When it comes to promoting and protecting the integrity of our government, our laws and institutions just don’t measure up.

All of this is why I held a press conference to announce our first major policy initiative -- a set of proposals to rebuild trust in state government in Vermont. If we can’t rebuild trust, nothing else matters -- we aren’t going to be able to do what we need to do to meet our challenges in this state. To that end: 

We must create a real ethics commission that applies to all legislators and executive officials.  Vermont ranks last in the nation on ethics mainly because we lack an organized body tasked with overseeing ethical guidelines.  That has to finally change.  We should have an independent ethics commission with one full-time commissioner and several staff accountants.  

We must require that all candidates for legislative and executive office, and all executive officials, file a standard disclosure of their financial interests.  Vermont is one of only three states that has no requirements at all for disclosure of financial information.  That’s why we rank last in the nation for independent measures of accountability and conflicts of interest.  

We must ban all direct corporate contributions to all candidates. We all agree that corporations are not people, and yet we still allow corporations to cut checks directly to campaigns. The really problematic part of this - which happens in our state, by the way -  is that a wealthy individual can create multiple LLCs and donate from each of them to circumvent individual contribution limits.

We must make Vermont’s system for public financing of elections the most robust in the nation, rather than one of the least effective. In the long term, our state and nation have to move to a true public financing system to eliminate any possible monied influence.  We have a long way to go before that -- however, we must take the first step by ensuring our public financing system is effective for those who opt to use it.   

We must institute a 2-year cooling off period before former legislators or executive branch officials are allowed to lobby for any organization or work in a sector they were responsible for overseeing.

We must require monthly, rather than quarterly disclosure of campaign funds raised.

We must explicitly prohibit legislators and executive officials from being involved in decisions that present clear conflicts of interest. An Ethics Commission, when enacted, should have guidelines on what is ethical covering everything from nepotism to interest in government contracting decisions.

We must strengthen laws preventing coordination between campaigns and Super PACs.  Even though coordination is technically illegal, it is commonplace. To discourage it,  we must lower the legal threshold at which coordination is presumed by courts.

Over this campaign, we have made a decision to walk the walk and have returned over $16,000 in direct corporate contributions and will not be accepting them in the future.  Today, I am again calling on all the candidates in the gubernatorial race to join me in rejecting direct contributions from corporations.  

Vermonters have long understood that corporations are not people, and have roundly rejected the premise behind Citizen’s United, that corporations should be allowed to spend unlimited amounts of money through Super PACs to try and influence our elections.

The resounding support for Bernie Sanders in every corner of our state makes another point clear - Vermonters are fed up with very wealthy individuals spending massive amounts of money trying to buy electoral outcomes.

That is why our campaign is going to be walking the walk in another way. I will personally be adhering to the contribution limits set for an individual Vermonter, and will not be self funding the campaign above those limits.  

And we're calling on all the other candidates in the race to do the same and abstain from self-funding their campaigns.   

Just like a single individual exploiting the current loophole and donating multiple times through LLCs to circumvent the campaign finance contribution limits, a single individual pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into their own campaign erodes the public trust and directly contradicts the ideal of “one person one vote.”

At the end of the day, if we don’t have trust in state government, we won’t be able to expand family leave or access to childcare.  We won’t be able to break the cycle of poverty or turn the tide against the opiate epidemic.  And we won’t be able to finally fix a broken healthcare system and continue on the path to universal healthcare.

To build a house, you have to trust the foundation, and we are at a moment in time where our foundation is shakier than I can remember it being in my lifetime. We still have good intentions and noble ideals, but we need to do some work on the foundation of our government before we can act on them.