It’s hard to find a politician in Salem who doesn’t profess to want to rein in the explosion of campaign spending the state has seen in recent years.
It’s just as hard to find meaningful action on the issue in the Capitol, despite a clear signal from voters that they want to end Oregon’s status as one of a handful of states with no limits on political giving.
With two months left in the 2023 session, the notion of curbing massive donations to political campaigns – always on the list of possible subjects majority Democrats plan to take up – is once again in danger of falling by the wayside.
The issue has yet to receive a hearing in either chamber, despite a variety of bills that would create new regulations. And while legislative leaders say they still plan a push to enact limits, campaign finance hasn’t gotten anything like the attention lawmakers have lavished on housing, economic development, guns and abortion.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to try and continue the conversation,” House Speaker Dan Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat and long-time proponent of campaign contribution limits, told reporters in mid-April. “I just don’t know what the odds are.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Tina Kotek said recently she’s counting on Rayfield and Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, succeeding.
“We’re going to try to get that done because it’s important we do it this session,” Kotek, a Democrat, said April 19. “I’ve made that very clear to both of them.”
The governor campaigned last year on a promise to press for contribution limits, in an election where she spent roughly $30 million to win a three-way race that became the state’s most expensive political contest ever. That race featured eye-popping contributions from billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight along with record support from unions and interest groups rushing to fund their candidate of choice.
If lawmakers fail to pass a bill this session – and many lobbyists working on the issue seem to expect they will – Oregon voters are increasingly likely to be treated to a confusing slate of choices in 2024.
A coalition of good governance groups have already filed three separate ballot measure proposals that would, among other things, create contribution limits, require increased transparency around donations, and institute optional public funding for campaigns. The groups – including Honest Elections Oregon, Common Cause Oregon and the League of Women Voters of Oregon – hope to begin collecting signatures on their chief proposal, Initiative Petition 9, in coming days.
But those regulations have powerful detractors among labor and business interests who view them as overly complex, confusing, and potentially damaging. The state’s largest unions and business groups have made no secret that they could put their own campaign finance measures before voters, possibly creating a scenario where three vastly different proposals land on the ballot.
“I appreciate the efforts and aims,” said Michael Selvaggio, a lobbyist for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the state’s largest private-sector union. “But when we’re looking down the barrel of a 56-page mishmash of well-meaning but poorly written code, that’s something we’re going to have to oppose on the basis that it’s done poorly.”
For now, all eyes are on Salem, where Rayfield has introduced House Bill 2003 as his first draft of what a system of contribution limits should look like. The proposal has roots in a bill Rayfield successfully navigated through the House in 2019, only to see it die in the Senate. The concept has since been refined.
“In the years of doing this, the conversation has not really changed,” Rayfield said Tuesday. “We have to have a bill in this Legislature that can pass both chambers... That is the difficult balance to strike.”
In its current form, HB 2003 would ask voters to set a series of limits for how much individuals and various types of political committees could donate to candidates, and allow candidates to access public money to run their campaigns if they agree to only accept donations of $250 or less.
Under the bill, private citizens and many political committees would be limited to donating between $1,500 and $3,000 to a candidate per election, depending on the office sought.
Committees affiliated with a political party could give far more, and the bill does not currently contain a stated limit for “small-donor committees” that collect donations of no more than $250 an election.
Those small-donor groups are a third-rail in the campaign finance debate because of the likelihood that labor unions – a major Democratic backer – could leverage them more easily than the business-oriented organizations that often support Republicans.
“Any laws or regulations governing campaign contributions must be fair, clear and constitutional,” said Preston Mann, political affairs director for the group Oregon Business & Industry, which has expressed concerns about HB 2003. “Convoluted schemes that make it harder for the public to follow the money or understand the rules of the game are not helpful. They only lead to more bureaucracy, greater costs to taxpayers and less transparency.”
Rayfield’s proposal has also been panned by Honest Elections Oregon, the advocacy group that has passed campaign contribution limits in Portland and Multnomah County.
Honest Elections and its allies failed to land a system of statewide limits on the 2022 ballot, after Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s office found its proposals contained technical errors. In addition to pursuing a ballot measure next year, the group has circulated a list of detailed critiques about Rayfield’s proposal. A chief complaint: The bill would allow wealthy companies and people to escape limits by giving to candidates via a variety of shell companies.
“The problem is the bill has so many loopholes that the nominal limits don’t mean anything,” said Dan Meek, an elections attorney and member of Honest Elections Oregon. “All we know is that Rayfield wants to pursue a bill that all the good government groups oppose.”
Rayfield, meanwhile, suggested this week that any attempts to pass campaign finance laws on the ballot could be doomed before they begin.
“A lot of these ballot measures have had multiple biennia to be filed and raise the money to put on the ballot, and nobody has done it,” he said. “What’s to say that the next two years is any different?”
Oregon has a fraught history with attempting to tamp down campaign spending. For decades, a state supreme court ruling that political donations qualified as free speech ensured policymakers were blocked from creating limits. But the court reversed course in 2020. That same year, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that amended the state Constitution to explicitly allow for campaign finance limits.
The mandate from voters seemed at first like it would give urgency to lawmakers. Instead, the Legislature has largely punted on the issue as the state’s 90 lawmakers bring different views of what limits on political giving should look like – and what such rules might mean for their political futures.
“I’m not going out on a limb when I say, ‘Yeah, I believe there should be limits,’” said House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene. “The voters have said our current system doesn’t work.”
Rayfield and Fahey have been talking to business, labor and good governance groups in recent weeks, and are working up an amendment to HB 2003. Fahey expects to hold a hearing on that amendment in the House Rules Committee she chairs, but in a recent interview said she didn’t know when.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has his own bill advocating tighter limits than HB 2003. Golden’s bill has yet to get a hearing, however, and Senate leaders have signaled they could be content allowing the House to take the lead on campaign finance issues this session.
If Democrats do advance a proposal, they’ll likely need to pass it along party lines. Republicans have long complained that proposals like Rayfield’s are unfair.
“Democratic campaign finance proposals game the system in favor of their public sector union donors,” House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville, said in a statement to OPB. “While these conversations have occurred this session, we know progressive activists are pressing the majority to introduce extreme and unbalanced proposals. Any discussions surrounding campaign finance must prioritize transparency over control.”
Despite the varied opinions about what sensible contribution limits look like, virtually everyone expects a system to take hold eventually.
When that happens, the state is likely to see a rush of “independent expenditures,” campaign spending in favor or opposing a candidate that is created without a candidate’s input or knowledge. Because of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, independent expenditures are not subject to campaign finance limits.
“You can’t stop money going into politics,” said Joe Baessler, associate director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, a major political donor. “The best you can do is figure out what is the type of electioneering, what is the type of electoral behavior you want to incentivize.”