According to the Attorney General’s Office, the answer is yes – in some cases.
In a recent letter to a school district, the Attorney General’s Office informed a municipality that when it spends more than $1,000 advocating for a position in a local election, it must file a campaign finance report with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office.
Although municipalities have the legal authority to provide information to their voters about the issues they vote on at their local elections, “when the dissemination of electoral information turns into advocacy for a certain electoral outcome, municipalities, like almost every other entity, must file reports with the Secretary of State if their expenditures on electoral advocacy exceed $1,000.” See 17 V.S.A. § 2970(a). Arguably, there is a fine line between information sharing (providing the electorate with information about the issues they will vote on) and advocacy (encouraging the electorate to vote a certain way). The Attorney General’s Office pointed to the case of State v. Green Mountain Future, 2013 VT 87, ¶ 54-55, as support that the two actions can be distinguished on the grounds that advocacy involves persuading someone to vote in a certain manner.
The controlling law in question is 17 V.S.A. § 2970(a), which reads:
Any formal or informal committee of two or more individuals or a corporation, labor organization, public interest group, or other entity, not including a political party, that makes expenditures of $1,000.00 or more during the election cycle for the purpose of advocating a position on a public question in any election shall file a report of its expenditures 30 days before, 10 days before, and two weeks after the election with the Secretary of State.
The Attorney General’s Office says the law applies to municipalities because under a plain reading of its broad language a legislative body is a “committee of two or more individuals,” it is an “entity,” and it is most definitely a municipal “corporation.” They also did not find any indication that the Vermont Legislature intended to exempt municipalities from the law’s application. The Attorney General’s Office doesn’t stand alone in its opinion, noting the “Secretary of State’s Office concurs with this interpretation of the statute.”
Despite the reported consensus, this is the first that VLCT has heard of this interpretation from either office, and we’re fearful that it will catch many municipalities off guard. Fortunately, the letter states that the Attorney General’s Office “is more interested in enforcing campaign finance laws through voluntary compliance than it is with punishment.”
If you disagree with the law as interpreted by the Attorney General’s Office and would like to see VLCT advocate for a change, please contact Karen Horn, VLCT’s Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, at firstname.lastname@example.org and learn how you can help.
Garrett Baxter, Senior Staff Attorney
VLCT Municipal Assistance Center