Oregon’s campaign finance system, often described as the “Wild West,” would be roped in somewhat under a proposal floated Tuesday.
At a meeting of the Senate Campaign Finance Committee he chairs, state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, unveiled a proposal for new regulations that contains elements he believes are "ideal." Those elements could become a key starting point as the Legislature prepares to grapple with the issue early next year.
Broadly speaking, Golden’s proposal would place ceilings on the amount of money individuals and various types of political committee could give to candidates, campaigns and one another. Oregon is currently one of a handful of states with no limits on campaign contributions.
“There is, at minimum, the perception of undue influence in state politics,” Golden said Tuesday. “My opinion is it’s more than perception.”
Under his proposal, individual donors would be limited to giving $2,000 per election for statewide races. That means they could give that amount to a candidate twice, once for the primary election and once for the general. In races for House and Senate seats, the limits would be set at $750 per election.
Those same restrictions would apply to candidates looking to give to other campaigns, as well as “multi-candidate” committees, which would be similar to current special-interest PACs.
Other groups would have more leeway in what they could give. State political parties and committees associated with party members in the House or Senate could give up to $40,000 per election to statewide candidates and $15,000 per election to legislative candidates.
The same limits would be applied to new “small-donor” committees, which Golden considers the most important innovation in his proposal. In exchange for being able to donate larger sums, those groups would be limited to supporting a single candidate, for a single election. They could accept no more than $200 per election from individuals and many PACs.
Golden believes the limited duration of these small-donor committees would help them avoid perceptions of being an “organized special interest.”
“This really gets to an effort to allow people to aggregate their donations into a committee with an attempt not to tilt the playing field to either side,” he said.
The proposal, which Golden hopes to use as a baseline for talks during next year’s session, is likely to see pushback from all sides.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said she worried the limits Golden drew up were too low, potentially opening the door for special interests to launch their own independent advertising campaigns for candidates.
“The voters need to see what kind of campaign the actual candidate runs,” said Burdick, echoing a criticism she raised earlier this year about another proposal. “If they’ve got the airwaves and the mail being taken up with third parties … that’s a disservice to the voters.”
Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, also voiced concerns with the plan. He believes the small donor committees Golden has proposed would most likely be used by labor unions, which largely support Democratic candidates, while business groups friendly to Republicans would be left with less sway.
Members of the public argued for changes, too. Former state Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland, and former Portland City Council candidate Julia DeGraw both suggested lower limits would improve Golden's proposal. Smith offered examples from his own time in office of lobbyists offering or withholding money because of certain legislative votes.
“Those who offer contributions often are expecting something concrete in return,” he said. “The candidate often understands that expectation and knows that contribution will cease if the expectation is not met.”
By limiting campaign contributions to amounts affordable to average Oregonians, Smith said, undue influence would be less of a concern.
Former state Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, also testified, suggesting that campaign donations be limited to checks from individuals, rather than business or labor interests. DeBoer did not suggest a specific limit.
Unlike last legislative session, when they punted on a different proposal, lawmakers face something of a deadline for finding compromise on a limit structure when they convene in February.
In November 2020, Oregon voters will decide whether to modify the state's constitution to explicitly allow campaign finance limits. The Oregon Supreme Court is considering whether to reverse its own earlier prohibition on contribution limits.
Given all that, lawmakers hope to have a framework ready should the legal landscape shift.
“We’d like to let Oregonians know what they might be dealing with,” Golden said last week, noting he’s willing to modify his proposal. “I’m not attached to every comma.”