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Oregon Campaign Finance Bill Might Curb Really Big Donations

<p>Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis. </p>

Casey Minter

Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.

Under campaign finance legislation taking shape in the Oregon Legislature, billionaires would no longer be doling out eye-popping donations like they did in last year’s race for governor.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight could no longer cut $2.5 million worth of checks to a single candidate, as he did for GOP gubernatorial nominee Knute Buehler in 2018.  Also, no longer OK: the $750,000 that a gun-control group funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.

But the emerging legislative package is still loose enough to allow big money into Oregon politics. As many critics noted at a hearing this week, there would still be plenty of special-interest money flowing into campaigns.

“It should prevent the outliers of really large contributions,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon. “But what it won’t do is fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed.”

Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, said he’s worried lawmakers will blow a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to revamp the campaign system to reduce the role of special-interest money.

Under this bill, he added, “you end up with this really complex, cluttered landscape that Oregonians are going to expect is hiding conduits of money.

The latest amendments to House Bill 2714 lay out a system that in some ways mimic campaign limits for congressional and presidential campaigns.

Right now, there are no limits on what individuals can give in Oregon. Under the proposed changes, individuals could give no more than $2,800 per election to statewide candidates, $1,500 to state Senate and judicial candidates and $1,000 to state House candidates.

But the new system quickly gets more complicated than that:

— Certain kinds of political committees, such as the legislative party caucuses, could give donations of any size to candidates. This provides the opportunity to shuffle money around to concentrate it on the most competitive races.

— Public-employee unions, key backers of the Democratic majority, would largely be able to operate as usual since they rely on small political donations from thousands of members.

— Congressional candidates could give unlimited amounts to political party committees. That provision allows Oregon’s U.S. senators and representatives – six out of seven of whom are Democrats – to continue being big contributors to voter-turnout efforts. But it could also potentially provide a pathway to funnel big cash to state candidates.

Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who helped lead campaigns to pass tight contribution limits for Multnomah County and City of Portland candidates, said these various political committees would have too much power to shuffle money around.

“This is a really a loophole that eats the bill,” he said.

Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, who helped lead negotiations to put together a bill, said in an interview last week that he had to compromise on several issues to get agreement.

“I wanted lower limits,” he said, adding that he still believed that the measure takes important strides toward ending Oregon’s anything-goes approach to financing campaigns.

Oregon is one of only five states that doesn’t place any limits on contributions, including from corporations. As a result, the state has some of the most expensive legislative campaigns in the country.

“At the end of the day, this is something that really improves on what we have now,” said Charlie Fisher, state director of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.

Still, Fisher said he is also fighting to ratchet down the proposed limits to something more in line with what the average person could imagine giving to a campaign.

He noted that the $2,800 limit for statewide candidates isn’t as tight as it sounds. This cap is applied separately for both the primary and general elections. Well-heeled donors also often arrange to have spouses contribute. That means, in the end, they could give $11,200 to a favored election candidate.

Fisher said that would encourage candidates to continue tapping their usual sources of political money. Instead, he’d like to provide some kind of system where small donations are matched by taxpayer money. But Rayfield and other lawmakers say there isn’t the support to dig into the state budget to help finance campaigns.

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, has talked favorably of adopting the federal limits. She wants to ensure that candidates will be able to raise enough cash to mount a vigorous campaign.

If the limits are too tight, she and others say, special interests will simply turn to running independent advertising campaigns that operate apart from the candidates.

She’s also made it clear that she wants some plan for limits in place before sending a separate constitutional amendment to voters. That amendment would make it clear that the state Constitution’s free speech provisions don’t prevent limits on campaign contributions.

Patrick Starnes ran for governor the Independent Party nominee and is now lobbying the legislature on the issue. He dropped out of the race shortly before the election after one of his rivals, Democratic incumbent Kate Brown, said she’d work with him to enact restrictions on political money.

Starnes said he’s pushing for tighter limits. But he says he’d at least like to get a framework this year for changing the culture of campaign donations in the state.

“This won’t be the last fight for campaign finance reform,” he said.

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.