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Oregon Senate Scraps Campaign Finance Committee Months Ahead Of Major Vote

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

Oregonians might be on the verge of passing historic campaign finance policy this year. The Oregon Senate? Not so much.

In a further sign that Senate leaders are in no rush to move to limit campaign contributions, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, is not bringing back the chamber’s Campaign Finance Committee for the 2020 legislative session.

First created last year, the committee was a central forum for the politically fractious debate over what such limits might look like. Oregon is currently one of a handful of states that has no limitations on how much individuals, businesses, trade groups and anyone else can donate to candidates and causes.

“What I’m told is they don’t think we can fit this conversation into the short session, given everything that’s happening,” said state Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, who’d chaired the committee.

Golden said he’d learned recently that the committee would definitely not be returning for the 2020 session. But he said Courtney’s office had always made clear that was a possibility when the president brought the committee back — with just three members instead of its initial five — during the interim period between sessions.

The committee’s absence raises questions about whether the legislature will so much as discuss potential campaign finance limits during a session expected to be dominated by bills on guns and greenhouse gas emissions.

Golden has authored a bill that would sharply curtail what individuals and certain political committees could give campaigns, and had hoped to workshop the idea during session — even if no action was actually taken. In a sign of how divisive the subject can be, a hearing on the proposal generated criticism that it is both too strict and too lenient.

Lawmakers have a good reason to be thinking about what regulations should look like. Voters in November will be asked to amend the state’s Constitution to allow for campaign finance limits. The state Supreme Court has ruled such limits are currently not allowed.

Legislators had previously voiced support for passing a system of limits prior to the November vote, in order to give voters a sense of what they were enacting. But leading Democrats, including Gov. Kate Brown, are now saying the debate can wait.

“We need to get the discussion started,” Golden said, adding that he would press for his bill to get a public hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland. That committee has historically handled elections-related bills.

In a meeting with reporters last week, Burdick suggested was open to holding a hearing on limits, though she and other leading Democrats won’t push passage of a bill in 2020.

“Initially I wanted something in place during the short session,” Burdick said. “I have come to agree with the governor: one thing at a time. We will have time in the 2021 session, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have the discussion now.”

Golden’s campaign finance limits weren’t the only piece of policy he’d hoped to consider during the session. His interim committee also introduced a resolution that would spur Oregon to join a group of state’s calling for a convention to enshrine election reforms in the U.S. Constitution.

The future of that resolution is unclear.

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.