The State Integrity Investigation recently rated the 50 States on the openness of their operations. Oregon's overall "C minus" grade was influenced by low marks for the state's system of campaign finance. Oregon is one of only four states that has no limit on how much you can donate to candidates and political action committees. Here's how attorney Dan Meek, a longtime advocate for reform, puts it: "If you like Citizens' United, you've love the non-enforcement of Oregon's campaign finance laws."
Citizens United is the controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on money in politics. April Baer reports on Oregon's campaign finance system.
Oregon gets a high transparency score for the way the state's database, ORESTAR, lets you see money moving in and out of lawmakers' political action committees.
But it's the sheer volume of those donations that dragged down the state's grade. There's no limit to the amount of money you can give to a candidate or party.
Some Oregonians, buzzing with energy from Occupy Portland and related movements, are starting to pay attention.
"We've got about two hundred umbrellas all jazzed up -- we need 200 carriers."
Hundreds of marchers turned out on a rainy day last February for what was called the F29 protest.
One of them was Portlander David Osborn.
Osborn said, "This is about democracy. When money is the way you have have voice in in our political system it is fund unequal and undemocratic."
Born of the Occupy movement, F29 was about protesting how corporations make their influence known in politics -- specifically, a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. ALEC's is a non-profit. Its website lists executive advisors from companies like ExxonMobil, Wal-mart, and Pfizer. ALEC's mission is to support laws that bolster free markets and limit government. Neither ALEC nor its state chairman, Representative Gene Whisnant responded to requests for an interview.
During F29, Osborn and other protestors said they don't like the millions of dollars ALEC members gave to state candidates.
"ALEC is such a prime example of how money has come to dominate our political system," he said.
A report from Oregon Common Cause pegs those donations at almost $19 million since 2001.
But players in Oregon politics note there's discontent with big money in politics from across the political spectrum.
Oregon had some pretty standard limits on campaign finance in place starting in 1908. The legislature repealed them in 1973. But in 1994, reformers convinced Oregonians to approve Measure 9. That proposal barred officials from using campaign money for personal use, and put limits on donations -- $100 for legislative candidates and $500 for statewide office. It also banned corporate and union contributions.
All that came crashing down when the state Supreme Court struck down Measure 9 in 1997. Running for office has changed since then. Just ask Bill Kennemer.
"There's an extremely high correlation between candidates that win and candidates who have the most money in their PAC," Kennemer said.
Kennemer's a Republican State Representative in a swing district. In 2008, he was running against a well-regarded Democrat, whose campaign fund included more than $600,000 in contributions. Kennemer said he was bothered to see money flowing in to the race from other candidates.
"One of those was a State Rep who contributed $27,000 against me. And OEA contributed $47,000, and they reported that. But you see there's somewhere approaching $500,000 that came from the caucus PAC," he explained
That's the Democratic caucus of leaders who wanted to make sure their candidate won the race. Kennemer says both parties do this regularly, but it drove him crazy that there was no way to know who might have given to a leadership PAC, that then made a legal donation to his opponent.
Bill Kennemer "It's impossible to say who contributed to the $500,000 that went against Bill Kennemer."
Kennemer barely squeaked through by a margin of a few hundred votes.
His opponent and legislative leaders familiar with the race were unavailable for comment.
Six-digit campaigns have become the norm for important legislative races. Spending for some statewide offices has reached into the millions, fueled by legislators' ability to pass funding through to friends and allies.
Jim Markee is a lobbyist who has represented various causes in Salem for more than 35 years. Back in 2006, he took part in a law commission brought together by the state attorney general, to look at how Oregon might overhaul campaign finance.
Jim Markee "We thought there should be more limitation on the use of campaign funds that were not needed for election of a person in office, so called excess campaign funds."
After much talk of how much is enough, Markee says the legislature didn't go for it. And the commission felt it wouldn't get a win on limiting contributions, given the State Supreme Court precedent. Because of the important role money has come to play in cementing political alliances, Markee's not optimistic the legislature will revisit the issue anytime soon.
Markee said, "I think the ultimate goal here would be not to solicit money you don't need for your campaign."
It would take a constitutional amendment to counteract the State Supreme Court's ruling on limits to campaign giving.
SEE OREGON'S GRADES: The State Integrity Investigation graded each state on more than 300 indicators of accountability, transparency, and corruption risk. The indicators are divided into 14 categories, which appear on the report card. Click on each category to see its individual indicators. Or follow the link on the report card to read an overview of what your state is doing well – and not so well – when it comes to government integrity.