SALEM — A trio of bills advocates say were inspired, in part, by Nike founder Phil Knight’s multimillion-dollar contributions to Bend Republican Knute Buehler’s 2018 campaign for governor were approved by the House on Thursday.
The centerpiece of the package is House Bill 2714, which would limit donations to candidates, ranging from a maximum $1,000 for House candidates to $2,800 for governor. The bill passed on a 35-22 vote.
The House approved HB 2716 on a 44-10 vote. It requires better identification of the source of political ads. HB 2983 requires nonprofits contributing to campaigns to identify their top donors. It was approved 39-17.
All three bills go to the Senate, where they are expected to be assigned to the Senate Committee on Rules.
Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, a chief co-sponsor of all three bills, said during the House floor debate that the package was a first step in curbing Oregon’s wide-open campaign finance laws.
Oregon is one of the five states in the nation with no limits on the size and number of campaign contributions.
“The Legislature hasn’t done anything about it for 44 years,” Rayfield said, adding “It’s time for the Legislature to deliver.”
Rayfield acknowledged critics of the bill, who say loopholes weaken the impact of the bills. He likened his efforts to someone sweeping up a grimy gymnasium floor, then having people standing on the sidelines pointing out “you missed a spot.”
But opponents said HB 2714 would do little more than allow a proliferation of political action committees to get around the limits.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, said on the floor that she felt conflicted over how to cast her vote. She voted no because she said the bill would end up creating a more complex, less transparent campaign finance reporting system.
“I strongly support campaign finance reform,” Helt said of the bill. “It hurts my heart not to support it.”
Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, said the bill shifts too much power to political parties and legislative caucuses.
“This bill is poorly written because we will not have control of our own messaging,” Zika said. “I think it is very important we get to say exactly what we want to say about ourselves.”
Helt and Zika voted no on HB 2714. Helt and Zika voted yes on HB 2716, which would better identify sources of political ads. They split on HB 2983, the bill affecting nonprofits, with Helt voting yes and Zika voting no.
Critics — and even some supporters — said all three bills had major flaws written or amended into the bills. While HB 2714 sets low individual contribution rates, it exempts political action committees of political parties and legislative caucuses. HB 2716 was criticized for exempting candidates from the tag line requirements at the end of advertisements. The threshold for reporting donors under HB 2983 rises up to $100,000 for candidates for governor — amounts critics contend is too high.
Patrick Starnes, the 2018 Independent Party candidate for governor, suspended his campaign to back Brown because she promised to make campaign finance a top goal for the 2019 legislative session. Starnes has stumped the state since the election in support of the reforms and testified before legislative committees. He said Thursday that Brown has kept her pledge, but the bills in the Legislature left much to be desired.
“I am half excited and half disappointed with the passage of the bills today,” Starnes said. “It’s a good start, but there is more work to do. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Starnes said he hoped the Senate Committee on Rules would amend the bills to close more of the loopholes. He’s hoping the committee will support Senate Joint Resolution 18, co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. It asks voters to amend the constitution to specifically exempt campaign contributions from the state’s wide-ranging free speech guarantees. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that curbs on campaign contributions were an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
Brown and Buehler together raised and spent more than $37 million in their 2018 race, won by Brown. The money shattered the record of $17 million set in the 2010 governor’s race.
While both candidates received large donations, Brown reiterated Thursday that Knight’s $2.5 million in contributions to Buehler warped the political debate.
“No one voice should have a megaphone loud enough to drown out all other voices,” Brown said.
Brown said she will likely sign the package of bills if they get to her desk.
“Do I think it is perfect? Absolutely not,” Brown said. “But it is substantial progress.”
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