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Politics & Government

Good government groups are pushing campaign finance limits in Oregon. They might have competition.

Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Oregon State Capitol building, May 18, 2021. The capitol was completed in 1938.

Following months of negotiations, labor unions and advocacy groups did not sign onto a plan for creating new campaign regulations.

After months of negotiations over what a system of campaign finance limits might look like for Oregon, a collection of left-leaning groups came to an impasse last week.

Now some participants in those negotiations are going it alone.

A coalition of good governance groups filed three potential ballot measures with the state on Monday that would shake up Oregon’s permissive system of funding campaigns. The group says it will decide on one to put forward to voters in 2022, once polling shows which is most popular.

While complex and differing in their specifics, each of the proposals would create new limits on what individuals, advocacy groups, labor organizations, corporations and political parties can contribute to candidates and causes.

The proposals also include requirements that political advertisements prominently display top donors, and that so-called “dark money” groups disclose their funding sources if they engage in campaigning.

One of the proposals would implement a system of public campaign financing, allowing candidates to accept small donations from individual donors and have that money multiplied by matching public funds. With public funding of up to $8 million a cycle for gubernatorial candidates — and far lower amounts for other offices —-- the system is designed to allow candidates to run competitive campaigns without focusing solely on big donors.

“I think they’re all transformative for Oregon,” said Jason Kafoury, a longtime advocate of campaign finance limits with the group Honest Elections Oregon, and a chief petitioner in the efforts.

“These measures can help to restore voters’ confidence in healthy democracy,” said Rebecca Gladstone, president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon. “Voters must know that our elections are fair and free of undue influence by powerful dark money at the expense of voters. We can accomplish this and restore trust in our political system.”

If passed, any of the measures would ensure Oregon no longer sits among a handful of states with no limits on how much donors can give to candidates and ballot initiatives. Without those limits, the cost of Oregon campaigns has increased each cycle, with the 2022 governor’s race seemingly on target to be the most expensive in state history.

But the proposals put forward Monday lack something their backers had worked toward: buy-in from Oregon’s public employee unions and left-leaning advocacy groups that play a powerful role in state politics.

In talks that played out over six months, those groups agreed to some aspects of the system Honest Elections Oregon and its allies are proposing, participants have said. But unions and advocacy groups bristled at enforcement mechanisms they felt could be overly strict, and disclosure requirements the leaders of some small nonprofit groups said could make it hard for them to raise money.

“We couldn’t quite get there,” Joe Baessler, political coordinator for the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, said Monday.

Groups such as Planned Parenthood, the Communities of Color Coalition, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and the state’s farmworker union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, were among those that did not ultimately sign off on a proposal.

“There were a lot of conversations, and they were productive,” said Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters. “In the end, there just wasn’t agreement.”

Kafoury said Monday the differences came partly down to a disagreement over how much the status quo of Oregon elections should change.

“Good government democracy groups were looking at: How do we get big money to have much less of a dominating force in Oregon politics?” he said. “Labor and the [nonprofit] groups were looking at it through: How do we do that, but then also be able to maintain how we participate politically?”

The lack of consensus creates a potential nightmare scenario for groups such as Honest Elections Oregon. If labor unions and their allies actively oppose a campaign finance measure or file their own, the battle could doom hopes of implementing new rules before the 2024 election.

But people on both sides of the split said Monday it was too soon to tell whether anything so dramatic would come to pass.

“I would not be surprised if some of our coalition partners want to file their own measures,” Baessler, the AFSCME political coordinator, said Tuesday. “If that has everything we want, we would support that measure.”

Kafoury said the decision to move forward without consensus was partly a function of timing. His campaign plans to collect 1,000 valid signatures for each of its three proposals -- enough to trigger the state to draft language that would appear on the ballot.

But legal wrangling over ballot language can draw out for months. Kafoury said advocates needed to file measures now in order to leave themselves enough time to collect signatures. To qualify for the November 2022 election, the campaign must submit 112,020 valid signatures by July 8.

“We had to file now or we weren’t going to have a shot at making the ballot,” he said.

Oregon voters have shown recent enthusiasm for limiting the influence of money in politics. Last year, a measure that amended the state constitution to formally allow for such limits passed with more than 78% of the vote.

And more than a decade earlier, in 2006, voters approved a measure that included strict limits on campaign giving. The law didn’t ultimately take effect, however, because of an earlier Oregon Supreme Court ruling that had deemed such limits an unconstitutional violation of free speech protections.

The subject of campaign financing is a perennial live wire in Salem, where lawmakers who have succeeded under the current no-holds-barred system struggle to find consensus on how to change the status quo.

Lawmakers were unable to find the political will to pass regulations of their own this year, despite the overwhelming support of voters. Proposals to implement campaign contribution limits and to create a new system of public financing for campaigns failed to garner enough interest.

Given the tension on this subject, the plans put forward Monday are certain to have critics.

Each of the three proposed measures implements a similar set of limits on how much different entities can donate to campaigns and causes. For instance, all measures would limit an individual to give $4,000 per election cycle to a candidate for statewide office, and $2,000 per cycle to legislative candidates. Political action committees associated with specific candidates would be subject to the same limits.

But some entities could give far more. Committees associated with political parties could give up to $100,000 per cycle to candidates for statewide office, and $20,000 to legislative candidates.

The proposals also have higher limits for small-donor committees likely to be favored by labor unions, and membership organizations that include advocacy and business groups that engage in campaigning.

Caucus committees, the partisan PACs in each chamber of the Legislature that raise and spend large sums in support of legislative candidates, would be limited to contributing $10,000 per election cycle on any race.

The initiatives also include new requirements -- similar to laws that Honest Elections Oregon convinced voters to pass in Portland and Multnomah County -- that require political ads to reveal the groups that paid for them, and the top funders for each of those groups. And they require so-called dark-money campaigns that spend above certain thresholds to independently support or oppose a campaign -- without that campaign’s involvement -- to disclose donors.

Violations of the limits would be punishable by civil fines in at least the amount of the illegal campaign contribution or expenditure. If passed, the new contribution limits would take effect on Jan. 1, 2023, while requirements for disclosing donors would begin in June 2023.

Kafoury said Monday he expects the proposals to be popular with the public -- particularly in an election year in which they’re likely to see eye-popping political spending as candidates jockey to replace Gov. Kate Brown. Former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof and state Sen. Betsy Johnson, in particular, have been raising money at a furious pace, with big checks flowing in from industry groups and well-placed supporters.

“If there was ever a moment in Oregon politics showing how necessary this is, just look at the last few months of the gubernatorial race,” Kafoury said. “It’s going to be the perfect cycle, we think, to bring campaign finance reform before the voters because of the grotesque amount of money that’s going to be spent.”

But there are likely to be hurdles, too. Covid has made signature-gathering efforts far more difficult than before the pandemic. Kafoury said his campaign could end up asking a court to alter the threshold for collecting signatures, if the campaign runs into trouble.

Or, they might ask lawmakers for help.

“It’s possible that if we reached an agreement, the legislature could refer something directly” to the ballot, he said. “There are many different scenarios, moving forward.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.