A proposed constitutional amendment to allow limits on campaign donations in Oregon was approved Monday by a Senate committee.
However, attempts to curb big money in politics – in a state with no limits on the size of donations – now appear dicey.
Several key Democratic legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick of Portland, say a House-passed bill spelling out contribution caps is now dead in the Senate. As a result, it’s unclear whether legislators will take any action this year to limit the flow of money into political campaigns.
Kate Titus of Oregon Common Cause, a campaign finance watchdog group, said many legislators are nervous about asking voters to amend the Oregon Constitution “without making sure they have agreement on limits lined up.”
Gov. Kate Brown made a revamp of campaign finance laws a top priority after winning re-election in what turned out to be the most expensive governor’s race in history. Together, Brown and Republican opponent Knute Buehler spent $40 million. Nike co-founder Phil Knight gave $2.5 million to Buehler, making the sporting apparel magnate the largest individual donor to a candidate in state history.
Oregon is one of five states that does not limit donations to candidates. Voters approved contribution caps in 1994, but the Supreme Court overturned them three years later, saying the limits violated the state’s constitutional free-speech rights.
Related: Oregon Campaign Finance Bill Might Curb Really Big Donations
Burdick, the Senate majority leader, has for months held up legislation in the rules committee that would ask voters to change the state constitution to make it clear that campaign donations can be limited. Burdick, who chairs the committee, had said she didn’t want to act until she got agreement on specific limits.
Those limits, contained in HB 2714, appear to be caught in a cross-current between some Democrats who think they are too weak and Republicans who think they hurt business donors while allowing unions — traditionally big donors to Democratic candidates — to largely contribute campaign money as they have in the past.
The proposed legislation basically limits individual donations to $1,800 per election in state races, but a number of provisions could allow contributors to funnel much more than that to favored candidates.
“There’s a large consensus that we need to do something,” said Burdick. “But once we get down to the details, that’s where people start to get nervous.”
However, Burdick said she is now trying a new approach. She said she will push forward with a constitutional referral, Senate Joint Resolution 18, to the November, 2020 ballot. Meanwhile, she promises that lawmakers will try to come up with an agreement on the actual donation limits that they could adopt in next February's legislative session.
“I am persuaded it will work if we separate them,” Burdick said, “but it is risky.”
Common Cause and other would-be campaign finance reformers were critical about the limits in the House bill but divided on whether it was better than nothing.
That bill “had way too many loopholes and way too many sources of unlimited money,” said Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who helped lead efforts to adopt campaign finance limits in Multnomah County and City of Portland races.
Kafoury said if legislators fail to take any action on moving toward campaign finance limits, activists could well go to the ballot with their own initiatives to clamp down on political money.
However, it does appear that the Legislature is likely to pass two bills aimed at providing more disclosure about big money in politics.
House Bill 2983 calls for nonprofits that run politically oriented advertising to reveal their larger donors. And House Bill 2716 calls forcertain kinds of campaign ads to reveal their top five donors. Both have passed the House and were passed by the Senate Rules Committee on Monday.
Kafoury said those bills also contain loopholes that limit their effectiveness. But he said they at least provide a framework improving public disclosure of the flow of campaign money.