SALEM — Campaign finance reform hawks have a message for the Oregon Legislature: Take steps to put in place limits on money in elections, or they’ll do it themselves next November.
Two separate groups of advocates are planning to work toward removing Oregon from a short list of six states that don’t limit the amount of money businesses, unions, individuals and political groups can pour into the campaign accounts of candidates and ballot measures.
Oregon has a rocky relationship with money in politics. In recent years, voters twice have approved limits on campaign contributions. But a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling threw out the possibility of imposing limits until the state constitution is changed.
That’s now the target come next November of Common Cause Oregon and Dan Meek, another political activist and attorney working with other activists. Meek is also the co-founder of the Independent Party of Oregon. Daniel Lewkow, the state political director for the nonpartisan public interest group Common Cause, says if the Legislature doesn’t pass a bill putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot, his group will lead the effort to collect the more than 117,000 signatures and do it themselves.
“People like legislators to act on issues, not to ignore issues,” Lewkow said last week, adding voters “cannot be more clear that they want them to act on money in politics.”
Voters in 1994 approved a measure that enacted limits on campaign contributions, and the amount of money needed to run a campaign in 1996 dramatically declined. But the Supreme Court in 1997 ruled the state’s free speech protections prevented such limits.
Voters passed another measure in 2006 that would have enacted the limits, but a companion measure that would have changed the constitution to allow those limits failed, leaving Oregon — along with Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah and Virginia — without any limits.
The Legislature last session briefly entertained the idea of putting the question to voters next November.
Before becoming governor, then-Secretary of State Kate Brown proposed Senate Joint Resolution 5, which would have put the constitutional amendment question on the ballot next year. A second Brown bill would have also set limits starting July 2017, if voters amended the constitution in 2016.
After taking over as governor, Brown in April asked a panel of legislators to pass the bill because “no one should be able to buy a megaphone so big that it drowns out every other voice.”
Meek is also proposing his own initiatives that would amend the constitution and another that would change the charter to set limits on elections in the state’s most populous county, Multnomah. He called Brown’s appearance at the April hearing “window dressing.”
“She has done nothing of substance to promote campaign finance reform, either as secretary of state or governor,” Meek said. “She has spent no political capital on campaign finance reform and has not made it a priority in any sense.”
The joint resolution to refer the constitutional amendment to the 2016 ballot had one hearing but never passed out of the Senate Rules Committee despite what Lewkow called strong support in the Legislature to pass it. The Legislature opted instead to study campaign finance reform, and a task force will meet again in November to discuss what limits might be effective.
Despite her bill fading out last session, Brown still supports amending the constitution to allow the Legislature or voters to enact campaign contribution limits, according to Melissa Navas, a Brown spokeswoman.
“We hope the Legislature takes this up in the short session and actually moves the ball forward on this,” Lewkow said. “The people have twice before voted for limits. We’ve seen how hyper-concerned people are.”
Oregon’s elections are open to unlimited campaign contributions that regularly hit $10,000 for statewide candidates and often more, such as when Nike founder Phil Knight donated $250,000 to former Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2014.
Some groups are wary of enacting strict limits on campaign donations, noting a trend nationally toward money flooding nonprofits that operate independently of campaigns and aren’t required to report where their money comes from, an influx of what’s known as “dark money.”
The Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 made way for those nonprofits to spend unlimited amounts of money to help candidates.
That gush of cash is playing out in the presidential race now, and some fear it would make its way to the legislative level if Oregon stemmed the flow of individual contributions, which today are required to be filed through the secretary of state’s office and are displayed online.
“I don’t personally think that corporations are people, or that money is speech,” said Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene. “But our Supreme Court has ruled differently. I think they made the wrong decision. I hope they overturn that. But until that, we’re working within what we have.”
Hoyle, who as majority leader last session controlled the House Rules Committee that generally oversees elections law changes, said she thinks lawmakers might have a chance at passing a bill this session but noted it would be difficult to do so during the 35-day short session that starts this February.
“We need to have a thoughtful, deliberative process so that we don’t end up with unintended consequences of … encouraging more dark money into our elections,” said Hoyle, who is also running for secretary of state next year.
Meek’s Multnomah County proposal aims to limit dark money in elections by requiring the top donors to groups making independent expenditures to be listed prominently on campaign ads. Meek’s proposed statewide ballot initiative would allow voters to set limits. Lawmakers could also set limits if three-quarters of members in the Senate and House agree on the terms.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,