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Big Out-Of-State Donations Have Oregon Lawmakers Mulling 'Pay-To-Play' Law

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

Casey Minter

Oregon Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.

State lawmakers looking into campaign finance regulations say Oregon should consider limiting how much public officials can accept from people or firms seeking state contracts, following reporting from OPB that raised concerns about the practice.

In the last week, Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, and Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, have said the Legislature should research instituting a so-called “pay-to-play” law similar to other states. Such laws are designed to limit influence companies or individuals seeking work with a public agency can wield over officials with a say on who gets that work.

Oregon is one of a handful of states that currently have no campaign finance limits whatsoever. That’s created a situation in which out-of-state law firms are pouring cash into the campaigns of incumbent Oregon treasurers and attorneys general, the two statewide officials whose departments choose which firms receive potentially lucrative contracts representing the state in class-action suits.

“I think for the integrity of our system, that needs to be changed,” said Rayfield, who has been among the most outspoken legislative champions for campaign finance reform, even touring the state last year to hold town hall meetings on the issue. “I put it on the list of, ‘OK, how are we going to figure that out.’”

Rayfield made clear he was not “casting any shadows” on Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Treasurer Tobias Read, Democratic incumbents who have accepted more money from class-action firms than any other state officials. Both deny that money plays any role in state decisions and say they purposefully insulate themselves from selecting lawyers to represent Oregon in lawsuits.

Still, law firms are finding reasons to give generously. As of early December, more than 40% of the money Read had raised last year for his upcoming re-election bid was from out-of-state law firms that often vie for state work. Historically, the state has awarded contracts for class-action cases it pursues to firms that were among the biggest political donors.

“It smells real funny to anyone who’s looking at it,” Rayfield said. “Whether or not there is impropriety, people in the public are going to believe there is.”

Like Rayfield, Golden has been focused on creating a general framework of contribution limits in the state. As chair of the Senate Campaign Finance Committee, he’s floating a proposal in this year’s legislative session that would bar campaign contributions from corporation, and limit what individuals and political committees could give to candidates for state office. Lawmakers return to Salem for their biennial short session in February. 

Golden said he hadn’t much focused on pay-to-play concerns, but that after reading OPB’s story that he’d concluded the issue should be discussed along with other limits.

“[Campaign finance reform] and pay-to-play are connected at the hip when it comes to government accountability and public trust,” said Golden, who also made clear he was not accusing Read or Rosenblum of wrongdoing. “With the assumption that there are no significant constitutional hurdles around pay-to-play ... I’d be very interested in a hard look at this in the interim.”

Burdick, the Democratic leader in the Senate, was more direct when asked whether she would support discussing regulations.

“Obviously yes,” she said. “That’s an ethics issue as much as a campaign finance issue. We always have to be on guard for corruption.”

While a 1997 Oregon Supreme Court decision has made campaign finance regulations hard to come by in Oregon, lawmakers have proposed limits for people seeking state contracts in the recent past.

In 2016, a collection of Republican lawmakers introduced a proposal that would have asked voters whether firms that received or negotiated state contracts should be prevented from giving money to officials connected to that contract.

At the time, Republicans appeared motivated by large donations to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown from labor groups with which the state had recently inked a new contract.

“This looks to many people like what is wrong with Oregon,” then-Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli said on the Senate floor. “It looks like corruption, it reads like corruption, it sounds like corruption. It looks like quid pro quo and, whether or not it is such a thing, we should not allow the appearance of a quid pro quo to be created.”

The resolution did not get a hearing, and Democrats, including Burdick, unanimously opposed a Republican attempt to bring it up for consideration.

Concerns over donations from possible contractors also could prove an issue in Read’s re-election race this year. The treasurer is expected to face a challenge from Republican Jeff Gudman, an investor and former Lake Oswego City Council member who came within 3 percentage points of beating Read in 2016.

On Facebook last week, Gudman wrote that Read had been “exposed for his blatant pay-to-play politics.” In conversations with OPB in December, Gudman said he would accept money from the same people who have given to Read, saying at one point, “I’ll probably take it, but I’m going to look askance at it.”

Gudman later said he would be “very open and transparent” about any such contributions.

Whatever comes of lawmakers’ professed interest in pay-to-play laws, it’s not likely to happen during the 35-day “short session” that begins Feb. 3. In a meeting with reporters last week, Democratic leaders indicated they did not favorpassing specific campaign finance limits during the session.

Instead, they intend to wait until after November, when voters will decide whether to amend the state’s constitution to explicitly allow campaign finance limits.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.