A bill that would impose the first limits on political donations in more than two decades passed the state House Thursday – as did a measure that would also require so-called “dark money” groups to disclose their large donors.

A three-bill legislative package, which now moves to the Senate, is aimed at ending Oregon’s status as one of the least regulated states in the country when it comes to the flow of political money. Oregon is one of just five states with no limits on how much money corporations, unions and other big donors can give to candidates.

The legislature has long refused to deal with the issue while “the costs of elections has soared, and the influence of money has increasingly played a role in Oregon politics,” said Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.

Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.

Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.

Casey Minter/OPB

Rayfield brokered a compromise that would place a $2,800 per election limit on donations to statewide candidates, a $1,500 cap for state Senate races and a $1,000 limit on state House races.

In addition to House Bill 2714, the House passed two related bills:

  • House Bill 2983 would require nonprofits that run their own politically-oriented advertising to report donors giving more than $10,000, if the nonprofit spends more than $100,000 on ads referring to statewide candidate or $25,000 on legislative and local races. This would make Oregon one of the few states to try to force the disclosure of the funders that give to these so-called “dark money” campaigns.
  • House Bill 2716 calls for political ads to disclose the names of their largest donors.

Rayfield has been under fire by liberal campaign finance activists. They say his measure on limits, House Bill 2714, contains too many loopholes allowing big donors to continue to influence Oregon politics. The bill would allow a slew of political committees to make unlimited donations to candidates, although the committees would generally have limits on how much they could accept from each donor.

However, on the House floor, Rayfield was peppered with objections from Republicans, many of whom questioned whether his measure would do more harm than good.

Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, recalled that voters passed a ballot measure in 1994 enacting strict campaign finance limits – only to see a proliferation of independent advertising campaigns that could freely spend money praising or attacking favored candidates.

“It was a low point in civic engagement,” said Drazan, adding that candidates had “no control about what was said about them in the campaign.”

The voter approved limits were struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court in 1997 on free speech grounds.  Legislative leaders are also working this year on a measure asking voters to amend the constitution to make it clear that campaign finance limits are legal.

Republicans have also complained that public employee unions, which largely support Democrats, will be able to continue donating large amounts of money to campaigns under HB 2714. Meanwhile, they say business donors who tend to support Republicans could face more restrictions.

House GOP Leader Carl Wilson of Grants Pass said that “taking money out of the system is popular with my constituents.” But he said that issues like this should be negotiated by groups that are “absolutely balanced.”

In the end, HB 2714 was approved on a 35-23 vote. Every Republican – with the exception of Rep. Greg Smith of Heppner – opposed the measure. Democratic Reps. Jeff Barker of Aloha and Brad Witt of Clatskanie also voted against it.

The role of big money was a big issue in last year’s race for Oregon governor. Republican Knute Buehler receiving a record $2.5 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight while Democratic incumbent Kate Brown received $750,000 from a gun control group funded by Michael Bloomberg. He’s the billionaire businessman and former New York City mayor.

Independent Party candidate Patrick Starnes, who ran on the issue of tightening campaign money laws, dropped out of the race in the last few days and instead endorsed Brown.  She pledged to work with him to tighten the state’s campaign finance laws.