By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

SALEM — In the latest in a string of setbacks for limiting the amount of money in Oregon elections, a petition to change the state constitution and allow limits on donations candidates can accept can’t move forward, the secretary of state announced this week.

Initiative Petition 77, which has ties to the state’s third parties, proposes two changes Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins ruled Wednesday were too distinct and therefore would require two separate votes on the November ballot.

If allowed to move forward and if voters passed the measure, IP 77 would allow donation limits and require campaigns to list top donors in their advertisements. The ruling is a setback that makes it likely Oregon will remain one of six states without any limit on the money businesses, political committees, unions and political parties can give.

“It’s virtually impossible for it to move forward at this point,” said Rob Harris, a Hillsboro attorney who proposed the measure and also an official in the Independent Party of Oregon.

Petitioners have until July 8 to submit the thousands of signatures they need from registered voters to qualify for the November ballot. Because IP 77 proposed changing the constitution to allow contribution limits, Harris’ group needed to collect nearly 118,000 signatures if it were approved.

Oregon voters in 2006 passed strict campaign finance limits but failed to pass a separate measure that would have changed the constitution to allow the limits to go into effect. The moot measure limits individuals to give $500 for statewide candidates and $100 for legislative races.

IP 77 would have amended the constitution to put the limits voters already passed into effect.

In deciding the petition couldn’t move forward, Atkins relied on an opinion from the state Department of Justice that said if a measure has multiple components that are distinct enough, voters must have a chance to cast separate votes on each of the different components in the petition.

“An initiative that proposes constitutional changes that are not closely related violates the separate-vote requirement,” Steven Wolf, chief counsel in the Department of Justice, wrote in an opinion Tuesday.

Atkins’ ruling will likely keep off the November ballot any campaign finance measure after lawmakers neglected to pass a bill in February. That means voters will likely see two more elections where candidates can receive six-figure donations, which occurred multiple times in the primary election this year.

In the weeks before the primary election, secretary of state candidate Val Hoyle, a Eugene Democrat, received a $100,000 donation from Emily’s List, a group that works to elect pro-choice women, and $250,000 from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. Both of those donations would have been prohibited in most states.

Gov. Kate Brown, who proposed campaign contribution limits shortly before taking over for former Gov. John Kitzhaber, this year received a $100,000 check from a public employee union that also would have been outlawed in a vast majority of states.

Atkins’ ruling came the day before a task force working on campaign finance reform met for the first time since legislators failed to take up the issue in February,

The group, which includes members of major and minor political parties and other interest groups, has remained deeply divided on the appropriate scope of its work.

Kyle Markley, with the Libertarian Party, argued there is a benefit to allowing some secret political spending. Members of the Democratic and Republican parties focused not on limits but on reporting requirements and ensuring voters can see where contributions are coming from.

Those deep divisions were on display for the months leading up to February, when the group had a hard time agreeing on what kind of bill to propose to the Legislature. It eventually agreed on language that ironically would get rid of the strict limits put in place in 2006 that are still on the books.

The timing of Atkins’ ruling created tension among some members who disagreed with it.

“Basically, a bureaucrat can make an opinion and decide voters don’t get a say on this,” said Seth Woolley, a member of the Pacific Green Party who is also a chief petitioner of IP 77. “It’s a fundamental attack on democracy.”

Atkins said in an interview after the meeting she agreed with the Department of Justice opinion, saying the constitutional amendment and provision requiring disclosure of funding sources for campaign communication are distinct and therefore require separate measures.

She said she remains committed to reform, noting that during her time touring every county in the state while working for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, weakening money’s influence over politics was the No. 1 issue she heard voters wanted to be addressed.

“This is the issue,” Atkins said.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,