Oregon lawmakers increasingly unlikely to take up campaign finance

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
June 11, 2021 10:51 p.m.

Bills to limit political contributions always faced an uphill battle in 2021. Now a less contentious proposal to publicly finance campaigns faces skepticism in the Senate.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. A new bill passed by the Legislature this summer drastically limits application of the death penalty.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. A new bill passed by the Legislature this summer drastically limits application of the death penalty.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

The Oregon Legislature is unlikely to take any meaningful action to regulate or bolster the state’s campaign finance system this year, after gaining wide latitude to do so in the 2020 election.


Proposed bills that would create limits to campaign finance contributions in the state — a notoriously difficult topic in the Capitol — have little chance of moving as lawmakers near a fast-approaching adjournment, according to lawmakers working on the issue.

And even a more widely supported concept that would allow candidates to finance their campaigns with public money if they agree to limit private donations appears dead, its chief sponsor said on Thursday.

“It’s my impression that the Senate is not willing to move the bill,” said state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis. “There may be multiple reasons. I’m not exactly clear why.”

The bill Rayfield was referring to, House Bill 2680, began its life as a set of proposed limits on how much various entities could donate to campaigns. But Rayfield wound up scrapping that proposal when he could not find enough consensus to move it forward.

He substituted HB 2680′s contents with a proposal to allow legislative candidates to match $6 in public money for every $1 in private donations if they agree to limit those donations to $250 per person. Public funding for a candidate would be capped at $600,000 in Senate races and $400,000 in House races.

The proposal passed out of the House Rules Committee in its current form last week, on a party-line vote. It is now before the state’s budget-writing committee, the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

Public financing systems are used in New York City and Portland. They have support from an array of good government, labor and advocacy groups, who argue they help candidates without deep connections compete against moneyed interests.

In a letter sent on Thursday, nearly 30 of those groups asked Senate President Peter Courtney to allow the bill to move forward.

“This program is one of the few things we can do in the campaign finance space to make our system more equitable, empower everyday Oregonians, and reduce the impact of big money in politics,” the letter said. Courtney’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.


Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, acknowledged Friday that campaign finance bills face a difficult path in his chamber.

“Something as comprehensive as what was being talked about is going to be really difficult to pull off,” Wagner said, referring to HB 2680. “It’s going to be really hard to pull anything off in the next two weeks.”

Wagner noted that the Legislature is still working to pass big-budget packages on wildfire relief and mental health, alongside notable policy bills dealing with climate change and health care. He said he plans to tackle campaign finance proposals when the Legislature meets in its month-long “short” session next year.

“Nothing we were going to possibly be able to do was going to be able to take effect until the 2024 election cycle anyway,” he said. “I don’t think we’re dead dead for this cycle.”

By the time lawmakers convene next year, they might know a bit more about what options await them if they don’t act. In November, Oregon voters passed Measure 107, which modified the state Constitution to explicitly allow limits on campaign contributions.

Prior to last year, the state had operated under a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling that banned such limits, making Oregon’s campaign finance system among the most permissive in the country. Without any cap on what they could donate, special interests poured more and more money into crucial races, including a 2018 gubernatorial contest that saw the candidates spending nearly $40 million combined.

With Measure 107 in the books, and lawmakers apparently unable to find agreement, voters are likely to see at least one proposal for campaign finance limits in November 2022 — if not several.

“We’re preparing if we have to go to the ballot in 2022,” said Jason Kafoury, a member of the group Honest Elections Oregon, which has successfully passed campaign finance measures in Portland and Multnomah County. “I am trying to prevent multiple [left-leaning] measures on the ballot. I think that would be a really sad thing for democracy.”

Not everyone has been quick to give up on legislative action this year. State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who has his own proposal for campaign contribution limits, said last week he was hopeful lawmakers could still take action this year.

“Significant legislation has happened that fast around here before,” Golden said. “I can see more than a trivial chance they get through this session.”

Neither Golden nor state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, who is also pushing a campaign finance bill, responded to inquiries on Friday.

Kafoury meanwhile, said he and his allies would continue pushing Courtney and other senators to adopt a public financing system before lawmakers adjourn on June 27 or sooner.

“Just because the Senate says it doesn’t have bandwidth,” he said, “doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop trying.”