Donor secrecy measure fails in Vermont

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By Aki Soga, editorial page editor, The Burlington Free Press, Burlington, Vt.

In March, the Vermont state Senate tabled a bill with an amendment that would have allowed the public colleges and the state’s student aid agency to grant anonymity to any donor. The Senate acted after furious lobbying by the Vermont Press Association, print and broadcast media organizations, and a series of editorials and opinion pieces appeared in several newspapers, including The Burlington Free Press.

We argued that people had the right to know who was donating money to the colleges, who had the power to influence policy at the state’s public institutions of higher learning. We also pointed to a troubling conflict of interest in the way the amendment made its way into the statehouse.

The amendment was introduced at the request of the president of the University of Vermont by the lawmaker who holds one of nine seats the UVM board of trustees reserved for legislators. The legislator is the chairwoman of the House Government Operations Committee, the committee of jurisdiction for the measure. The bill with the amendment was shepherded through the Senate Government Operations Committee by its chairwoman, who is also a UVM trustee.

We argued that the lawmaker trustees must be watchdogs for the people of the state, rather than a private conduit into the statehouse for the university’s interests. Neither the lawmakers nor the legislature saw conflict in the arrangement, but the president pro tem of the Senate, a candidate for governor, decided the amendment was not in the public interest.

The bill is not officially dead, and could be revived at any time or be quietly inserted into another bill. Still, this was a rare victory for government transparency in a state that boasts open record laws so full of exemptions as to render them virtually meaningless.

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