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Oregon Takes 1st Step Toward Campaign Finance Limits

<p>State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Medford, listens to arguments on the floor of the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Medford, listens to arguments on the floor of the Oregon Senate on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Oregon legislators took the first step Wednesday toward asking voters to amend the state constitution to allow donation limits on political campaigns.

The Senate Campaign Finance Committee approved a measure for the May 2020 primary ballot. It would undo state Supreme Court rulings that have struck down previous limits as an infringement of free-speech rights.

Oregon voters in 2006 didn’t approve a measure that sought to narrow those free-speech protections and place caps on campaign money.

Gov. Kate Brown helped spark the new drive to revamp the state’s campaign finance laws after she won re-election last year in the most expensive governor’s race in Oregon history. Brown called Oregon the “wild, wild west” of campaign-finance law after she and rival Republican Knute Buehler together spent about $35 million.

Democrats and Republicans on the Senate panel said they want to limit campaign cash. But the measure passed out of the panel on a 3-2 party-line vote with only the Democrats in favor.

Senate Joint Resolution 18 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over ballot referrals. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, chair of the rules committee, said she would look at changes in an attempt to get bipartisan support.

The resolution includes wording that would allow legislators or citizens initiatives to place limits on contributions. It would also allow the disclosure of spending made to “influence the outcome of any election” and allow laws that force campaigns to disclose their donors in advertisements.

SJR 18 would also invalidate any campaign finance limits passed before 2016. That wording would protect charter amendments passed by Multnomah County and Portland city voters that are still facing Supreme Court review.

But SJR 18’s language would invalidate limits approved by statewide voters in 2006. Those limits never took effect because a companion measure to amend the constitution was defeated.

Backers of that 2006 measure would like their limits to go into effect. But Brown and many other lawmakers say those limits are too low.

Burdick said in an interview after the vote that she wanted to add language to SJR 18 that would require any limits meet some sort of test for “reasonableness.”

“If you don’t do it right, you risk having a very draconian limit” enacted at some point, Burdick said. The problem with very low limits, she said, is that special interests will mount their own advertising campaigns weighing in on political races.

That could happen no matter what limits are set, but Burdick wants candidates to be able to have enough money to get their views out to voters.

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland and the chairman of the campaign finance panel, said his “overall objective is to move to people-powered campaigns.”

Republican Sens. Fred Girod of Stayton and Tim Knopp of Bend unsuccessfully fought for wording stating that different types of donors would be treated equally.

Girod said “it isn’t exactly fair” if corporate donations are curbed while “public unions go through untethered.” Unions are key financial supporters of the Democratic majority.

Democrats argued that the law already makes clear that different kinds of entities have to be treated equally. But they said the issue could be further discussed in the rules committee.

Unlike the constitutional measure that failed in 2006, SJR 18 would not be inserted into the free-speech section of the constitution. Instead it would be added Section 8, Article II, which deals with elections.

In addition, legislators expect to work this session on contribution limits that would go into effect if the constitutional amendment is approved by voters.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.