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Politics & Government

Oregon Opens Door For Campaign Finance Limits

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Measure 107 would amend the Oregon Constitution to explicitly allow campaign contribution and spending limits.

Limits to campaign contributions and spending should be explicitly allowed in the state’s constitution, Oregon voters decided Tuesday.

In a historic vote that presages the demise of some of the nation’s most permissive campaign finance rules, voters appeared to have approved Ballot Measure 107. The measure led in early, unofficial returns, and had no organized opposition.

The result is an exclamation point to decades of fighting over how much say the state and local governments can have over campaign cash. While the measure contains no actual campaign finance limits, it inserts language into the state constitution that ensures restrictions on contributions and spending are unquestionably allowed at all levels of government. The measure also allows rules requiring campaigns to be transparent about how political ads are funded, and about contributions and spending in general.

The measure’s passage sets the stage for a fraught debate in Salem, where state lawmakers are expected to take up new campaign finance rules in the 2021 legislative session.

Oregon is one of just five states that sets no limits on how much money candidates can receive from donors, a much-maligned system that has seen campaign spending explode in the state in recent years.

The history of campaign finance regulation in Oregon is long and convoluted. The issue’s most impactful decision in the last three decades was a 1997 ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court that campaign contributions qualify as speech, and cannot be limited under the state constitution’s current provisions.

Reformers tried and failed to enact limits via a pair of ballot measures in 2006. Calls for regulations grew louder in 2018, when the gubernatorial race between Gov. Kate Brown and Republican challenger Knute Buehler attracted roughly $40 million in donations. Both candidates saw large contributions, with Buehler benefitting from $2.5 million given by a single individual: Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Lawmakers wound up referring Measure 107 to the ballot in the 2019 legislative session. Supporters of the effort included good-government groups and labor unions, some of which opposed a similar measure in 2006. They argued that finance limits are needed to cut back on the influence high-dollar donors wield over the political process.

Notably, that’s a sentiment even sitting lawmakers have conceded. Included in voters' pamphlet statements favoring the measure was an entry from two state senators, Ashland Democrat Jeff Golden and Bend Republican Tim Knopp.

“Even for officials of the highest integrity, it can be nearly impossible to keep the mind from wandering to what the big donors are likely to think,” the statement says. “That distraction, right on the brink of critical decisions, doesn’t lead to sound government of, for, and by people.”

While the measure lacked organized opposition, a small cadre of skeptics insisted that it was improper to place restrictions on political spending, likening it to silencing their voices.

“Political spending is overwhelmingly for the purpose of communicating a political message to the voters,” said a voters' pamphlet statement filed by Kyle Markley, a Hillsboro engineer who spent $16,800 of his own money to land 14 separate statements in opposition to the measure. “We can legitimately question how effective it is but it’s intended to be informative and persuasive. A well-informed electorate is a good thing, not a bad thing.”