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Politics & Government

Competing measures could muddy Oregon’s campaign finance debate

Flags on the Senate floor at the Oregon State Capitol, May 18, 2021 in Salem, Ore. Voters could be looking at one or several ballot measures next year to rein in campaign finance contributions in Oregon.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Flags on the Senate floor at the Oregon State Capitol, May 18, 2021 in Salem, Ore. Voters could be looking at one or several ballot measures next year to rein in campaign finance contributions in Oregon.

After talks between left-leaning organizations broke down, three groups have filed competing proposals for reining in political spending.

Weeks after they came to an impasse over how Oregon should crack down on money in politics, left-leaning organizations are signaling they might just fight it out at the ballot box.

On Friday, two groups that are often aligned filed dueling ballot measure proposals for how to place limits on the state’s permissive campaign finance laws. Those proposals — one affiliated with public-sector labor and advocacy groups, the other from a private-sector union — join a series of three proposals filed earlier this month by good government groups.

The upshot: Six separate ideas for cracking down on political giving in the state have now been floated for the November 2022 ballot. Many, if not most, will die before they reach voters, but even two competing campaign finance measures next year could create confusion that advocates have been hoping to avoid.

Oregon is one of a handful of states that places no limits on how much an individual or entity can give to candidates, a fact that has helped campaign spending explode in recent elections.

But voters have signaled they’re eager to tamp down on money’s role in politics. A ballot measure that altered the state Constitution to formally allow limits on campaign giving passed in a landslide last year.

Left-leaning groups that pushed the Constitutional change met frequently in private this year, attempting to come up with a consensus framework for new regulations. Those talks broke down in early December. Now different factions are coming out with their own ideas, which they say need to be filed right away in order to have a chance to collect enough signatures in time for a July deadline.

“I think what happened was we all ran out of time, but we all are committed to doing something,” said Joe Baessler, political coordinator for the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75. “No one wanted to look like they don’t support campaign finance reform.”

Baessler’s union — one of the largest in the state with more than 23,000 members — has yet to endorse any proposal, he said. But he was a designated contact for two potential measures filed last week, currently known as initiative petitions 46 and 47.

Those proposals include many similarities to campaign finance regulations that good government groups floated in their own ballot measure filings in early December. They create a complex system of caps on how much various entities and political committees can donate to candidates and causes. They would also require campaigns to disclose top donors in political ads, and force so-called “dark money” groups to reveal their financial backers if they are politically active. And the proposed measures would create a system of public financing that would use tax dollars to bolster the campaigns of candidates who agreed to only accept donations of $250 or less per person.

But the new proposals also contain key differences from the framework good government groups have floated. They are less strict when it comes to penalties for breaking campaign finance limits.

They also contain exemptions to the kinds of financial backers advocacy groups must disclose. Some of those groups had worried they would lose out on crucial funding from charitable foundations if they were forced to name those foundations in connection with their political activities.

The extent of support for the initiatives was not clear Monday. One of the chief petitioners behind the measures, Samantha Gladu, referred questions to Baessler, who said he was not clear which groups backed the plan. Inquiries to some advocacy groups who’d participated in campaign finance negotiations were not returned.

Another group’s idea for campaign finance regulations is far more simple. The proposed measure filed last week by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 runs just a single page, as opposed to the dozens of hard-to-parse pages that make up other proposals. The private sector union represents thousands of grocery store workers, along with employees in manufacturing and healthcare.

Under the UFCW measure, individuals would be limited to donating $2,500 a year to any candidate or cause, and corporations would be banned from political giving. However, any entity could create a small-donor committee that could give limitless amounts if it accepted contributions of no more than $250 per “member” each year. Business groups and Republicans have been critical of such an approach, which they say favors labor unions that overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.

Michael Selvaggio, a UFCW lobbyist and chief petitioner for that proposed measure, said Monday that the union had not decided whether or not it was definitely moving forward with its plan. But he said the UFCW could not support the other concepts that had been floated, which its members fear would allow hostile groups to weaponize elections complaints.

“There were some concerns about some of the other measures that were filed,” Selvaggio said. “We got together and decided what we were going to do was float our own concept.”

Whether any proposal lands before voters next year is hard to predict. In order to qualify for the November 2022 ballot, a ballot measure campaign needs to collect 112,020 by July 8. But even to get to the point of collecting signatures, advocates of campaign finance limits are likely to face challenges from opponents about what ballot language should look like, a process that can take months.

Once that’s done, collecting signatures amid the pandemic has proven costly and difficult.

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