Backers of strict curbs on campaign money in Oregon lost twice Friday in their attempt to quickly impose limits on donations to candidates for public office.
The actions — involving limits at the statewide level and in Portland’s mayoral campaign — came after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled on April 23 that strict limits do not violate state constitutional protections on freedom of expression. In doing so, the court reversed a long-standing ruling barring limits on political donations.
On Friday, Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno announced that she would not allow a 2006 voter-approved initiative that placed a $1,000 limit on donations to statewide candidates and a $100 limit on contributions to legislative candidates.
Clarno’s office released a brief statement saying that “the Secretary has concluded that Measure 47 from 2006 was not made operative” by the Supreme Court decision, “and as such there is no change in current state election laws.”
Meanwhile, Multnomah County Circuit Judge Thomas Ryan ruled that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s campaign did not need to limit his spending, after a suit filed by his main opponent questioned his use of contributions.
Portland mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone had joined several campaign finance activists in a lawsuit earlier this week against Wheeler's campaign. They contended that the mayor must repay all the donations he's received that surpass the $500 campaign finance limit approved by Portland voters in 2018 but never enforced due to legal challenges.
After last week's state Supreme Court ruling, the city auditor's office said it will begin enforcing Portland's campaign finance measure this Monday, but candidates won't be retroactively punished for taking large donations. Iannarone's suit contends the city has it wrong and that the mayor must repay all the contributions he's received over the $500 limit. According to the campaign's accounting, that would be more than $172,000.
On Friday, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked the judge to issue a temporary restraining order to stop Wheeler’s campaign from spending these donations. The judge declined, saying they didn’t meet the requirements for the order and “no injury, loss or damage clearly appear.”
After the hearing, Portland attorney Dan Meek said he felt the judge’s decision didn’t take into account that the use of the contributions could sway the results of the May 19 primary.
“He’s saying Sarah Iannarone is not harmed by the fact that Ted Wheeler is spending the unlawful money, which seems strange,” he said.
In a statement issued after the hearing, the mayor’s campaign dismissed the suit as a politically motivated attempt by Iannarone to advance her bid for office.
"The simple fact is that our campaign opted out of using taxpayer dollars to fund our election efforts. We have followed the existing laws, implemented self-imposed contribution limits, and adopted new limits of $500 in advance of the City's implementation of that rule, in effect on May 4," the statement read. "We ask the Iannarone campaign to cease wasting additional taxpayer resources on distracting legal filings she knows are not going to withstand scrutiny under the law."
In response, Iannarone's campaign, which is taking part in Portland's publicly funded election program, said in a statement "not one cent" of campaign money has been spent on legal proceedings and said their attorneys were working as volunteers.
Meek, who has played an instrumental role in pushing campaign finance limits at both the local and state level, said Clarno’s action was part of what he called “massive obstruction to campaign finance reform by government officials.”
Meek said he would ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider its April decision to make it clear that Measure 47, the 2006 decision by voters, should go into effect immediately. If the court declines to do that, Meek said he will file complaints against candidates who exceed the Measure 47 limits and seek to get the issue into the courts.
Sandra McDonough, president of Oregon Business & Industry, said it makes more sense for the Legislature to next year draft a package of campaign finance changes in light of the Supreme Court decision. In addition, voters will decide in November on a proposed state constitutional amendment that would make it clear that the state could adopt any limits allowed under the U.S. Constitution.
“We’re in the middle of an election cycle and a sudden change in rules involving a very confusing, old initiative would have created a lot of chaos,” McDonough said. Her group was among those that urged the state Supreme Court to stick to an earlier ruling prohibiting major curbs on campaign money.
The high court’s ruling last week involved a $500 limit adopted by Multnomah County voters in 2016. Two years later, Portland adopted almost identical limits.