UPDATE (Tuesday, 12:24 p.m PT) — The Oregon Legislature took a big step this weekend toward allowing the state to curb the flow of unlimited money into political campaigns.
Lawmakers agreed to put a measure on the November 2020 ballot asking voters to amend the state Constitution to make it clear that limits on campaign contributions are allowed.
“I thought everything was dead and gone,” said Jason Kafoury, a Portland lawyer who has helped lead efforts to revamp the state’s campaign finance laws.
He added that the legislation’s revival was “an amazing accomplishment. It’s the first time the Legislature has done anything on campaign finance reform in my lifetime.”
Voters in 1994 approved strict limits, but the Oregon Supreme Court tossed them out, saying they violated the state’s expansive free speech protections.
However, this weekend’s legislative action was very much the first step. A companion bill that would actually impose limits on contributions died in the Senate last month after passing the House.
On top of that, there was some grumbling about the language of the referral, Senate Joint Resolution 18, that was sent to the ballot.
“I feel like we’ve been somewhat held hostage to a sub-par constitutional amendment,” said Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who has been one of the leading negotiators on campaign finance legislation.
Rayfield said the measure was changed at the last minute in the Senate at the request of Oregon Business & Industry. He said the new language could make it easier to mount legal challenges to future limits.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she didn’t think the last-minute changes had much of an impact on the resolution.
“It’s really a good measure,” Burdick said. “It would allow us for the first time have meaningful campaign finance limits.”
Greg Chaimov, a Portland lawyer involved in the legislation on behalf of the business group, said he was concerned that previous language in the bill could allow tighter regulations against messages from commercial enterprises.
Gov. Kate Brown, who has made campaign finance limits a big priority this session, also took a victory lap on Monday.
“I’m absolutely ecstatic,” she said of the bill. “I’m very pleased we got it done in a collaborative way.”
Brown said she was “horrified and appalled” by the amount of money that it took to run for re-election last year, about $20 million. Together, she and Republican opponent Knute Buehler spent nearly $40 million and each received big-dollar contributions that far exceeded any limits contemplated by the Legislature.
For example, Nike co-founder Phil Knight gave $2.5 million to Buehler’s campaign, a record amount for an individual in Oregon politics.
Brown said this referral now puts the pressure on legislators to try again in the February session to pass a bill laying out limits that would take effect if the amendment is approved by voters.
She said the limits bill that failed in the Senate needs “some fine-tuning” and conversations about having a “level playing field.”
The limits bill that failed would have placed a $2,800 limit on contributions per election to statewide candidates. But critics charged it would have still allowed a number of political committees to aggregate donations that could, in turn, be passed on in the form of big contributions to candidates. In addition, many Republicans complained that the bill would have allowed unions – which are key financial backers of Democratic lawmakers – to continue doling out contributions pretty much as usual.
Kafoury, the Portland lawyer who has worked on measures calling for tight donation limits in Portland and Multnomah County, said he thought the Senate Republican walkout, which helped kill a climate bill, helped focus attention on their dependence on corporate contributions.
“They were leaving for things that directly affected their contributors’ wallets,” said Kafoury, referring to timber industry donations to the GOP lawmakers. Those senators say they are standing up for rural constituents they charge would have been disproportionately hurt economically by the bill.
Before it adjourned, the Legislature also passed two other bills dealing with campaign finance.
House Bill 2983 requires nonprofits involved in politically-oriented advertising to provide more information about their large donors. And House Bill 2716 calls for some political campaigns to list their biggest contributors.
Dan Meek, another Portland attorney who has drafted a number of initiatives seeking to limit big money in politics, said those two bills are the first stabs at providing more disclosure. But he said that “these requirements are not very stringent at all.”