Oregon legislators are wasting no time in once again diving into a new political fight over Oregon’s wide-open system of raising money for campaigns.

The new battle lines emerged Tuesday – one day after the opening of the new session – when the House Rules Committee heard testimony over a bill aimed at preventing strict voter-approved limits on donations from immediately taking effect if the Oregon Supreme Court rules they are legal.

Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said he wants to prevent a “chaotic 2020 election cycle” by making sure these new limits aren’t suddenly put into place.

Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, sits in the House chamber.

Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, sits in the House chamber.

Casey Minter/OPB

Portland lawyer Dan Meek, the author of those strict limits, drily countered that putting these new curbs in place will always “be considered chaotic by the folks who are subject to those limits.”

This particular debate may only be hypothetical.

The Oregon Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn its own 1997 landmark decision declaring that strict campaign finance limits violate the state’s free-speech protections. The case involves a sweeping campaign finance measure passed by Multnomah County in 2016 that puts a $500 limit on contributions to candidates in races for that county’s offices.

The potential stakes in this Supreme Court case go way beyond a handful of Multnomah County political races.  If the court rules these limits are legal, it opens the way for a 2006 ballot measure approved by Oregon voters that approves tight limits for state races. 

Under that measure also authored by Meek, candidates for governor could accept no more than $500 per donor while legislative candidates would face a $100 limit.

Currently, Oregon is one of a handful of states with no limits. Nike co-founder Phil Knight gave $2.5 million to Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler in 2018. Buehler’s opponent, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, received several six-figure donations from labor unions.

Separately from the Supreme Court case, Oregon voters will also in November consider a ballot measure that would amend the state Constitution to allow campaign finance restrictions. So one way or another, the issue will be a prominent feature of the state’s political landscape over the next year or two.

Rayfield, the Corvallis legislator, has introduced legislation that sets up a task force to study what kind of limits the state should adopt. It also includes a provision that anticipates the possibility the Supreme Court would reverse itself. House Bill 4124 would delay the implementation of the 2006 voter-approved limits until July 1, 2021.

The idea, Rayfield said, is to not allow tight limits to suddenly go into effect in the middle of a campaign season if the court issues a ruling sometime in the next several months. He said that would be unfair to candidates who hadn’t stockpiled cash early in the campaign.

Rayfield argued that pushing back implementation to July of the off-election year would give the Oregon Secretary of State’s office time to write new campaign finance regulations for the next round of elections in 2022.

Meek said he is OK with letting the campaign finance limits he authored go into effect after the 2020 election.  But he said they should take effect the day after the November election. He noted that candidates are quick to start fundraising for the next election cycle and there’s no need for any longer delay. He argued that the measure is detailed enough that regulations aren’t needed.

Meek said he thinks the real reason Rayfield wants to delay until July is so that the 2021 Legislature can either repeal his measure altogether or pass something with “ineffective” limits.

Rayfield and many other legislators have been critical of those voter-approved limits, known as Measure 47. 

When the Legislature decided last year to ask voters to amend the state Constitution to allow campaign finance limits, it included language prohibiting the enactment of any limits adopted before 2016 – expressly wiping out Measure 47. Many critics of the measure say they fear that if the limits are too tight, wealthy political interests will just run their own independent advertising campaigns promoting or attacking candidates.

In addition, Rayfield on Tuesday released an opinion obtained from the Legislative Counsel’s office warning that Measure 47 is so strict that it could violate federal court rulings. That could create more chaos, he said, if Measure 47 goes into effect but is immediately facing a welter of lawsuits likely to succeed.

Meek said Measure 47 includes language that allows the limits to be adjusted if a federal court determines they are too tight.

Rayfield did get support from the Oregon League of Women Voters, which has been fighting for years to get big donations out of Oregon politics. The group’s president, Rebecca Gladstone, said it was reasonable for legislators to have time in 2021 to consider what limits to adopt.

Katherine McDowell of the Oregon chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said her group also thought it was better to take more time. “These issues are too important to rush,” she said.

The early hearing for the bill was a sign that Democratic legislative leaders are interested in moving forward with the bill this session.