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Will Oregon Voters Go For Publicly Financed Campaigns For State Office?

The city of Portland is gearing up for another round of publicly financed campaigns for the city council.  So far ten candidates have filed to get public money to run for mayor and city council seat.

Now, supporters of publicly financed campaigns are hoping to take the idea statewide.  It would be funded in part by speeders, a Colin Fogarty reports.

Oregonians have voted on a proposal to publicly fund statewide political campaigns before.  In 2000, Ballot Measure 6 would have set aside state income taxes for people to run for the legislature or statewide office.

Voters trounced it 59 to 41 per cent.  That was a victory for one of the initiatives biggest critics, Portland attorney John DiLorenzo.

John DiLorenzo: "I believe that one of the main reasons the voters so soundly defeated it is because they did not want their money being used to spread messages that they might find abhorrent."

Think about taxpayer dollars paying for a candidate's negative attack ads.  But what if voters could voluntarily check a box on their income tax forms to contribute five dollars to campaigns?  And how about drivers getting speeding tickers?

That’s what Lane County commissioner — and former Democratic candidate for Governor Pete Sorenson — has in mind.

Pete Sorenson:  "The proposal here for  the Oregon voter-owned election act is to have the system be entirely optional."

Sorenson would tack a 10 per cent surcharge on speeding tickets.  That’s how Arizona pays for its public campaign finance system.  And Sorenson thinks the idea would work in Oregon too.

Pete Sorenson: "We would really broaden the choices of Oregonians to have more people and other kinds of people to run for public office if they didn’t have to go out and promise everything lobbyists in order to get elected."

Sorenson’s dream would be for the Oregon legislature to pass his plan during a special session in February.  That’s likely to remain a dream according to Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney, who says lawmakers have other things on their minds.

Peter Courtney: "Although all of us agree there’s just too much money in these doggone campaigns, I just don’t think we’re going to talk about that right now.  We just lost a major funding mechanism to fund health care.  There’s a huge need for transportation dollars we haven’t come up with."

One race for the Oregon Senate last year topped a million dollars.  Still, convincing Oregon voters to replace that system with public financing would be a tough sell.

If critics were looking for a campaign bumper sticker it might be “Remember Emilie Boyles”.  She ran for the Portland city council last year and  mismanaged the public campaign money she received.

City auditor Gary Blackmer says she still owes $70,000.

But Leslie Hildula says Portland learned hard lessons from that fiasco and tightened the rules.  Hildula chairs the commission that oversees the campaign finance system.

Leslie Hildula: "Human beings are infinitely ingenious and creative.  And there is no system out there – including the old one that we still have and we’re operating under – that someone won’t come along and try to scam it.  But we think we’ve made significant safeguards to make it much more difficult to do so."

If critics of public financing have a poster child in  Emilie Boyles, supporters like Hildula have their own  example to point to.

Remember Dan Doyle?  He was the state legislator convicted of using campaign contributions for personal purposes. 

The main sponsor of the public financing system – Pete Sorenson – says if the Oregon legislature doesn’t act on it, he’ll plan a ballot measure next year.

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