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Rejected campaign finance ideas could have new life in Oregon Senate bill

Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, shown leading a committee hearing in 2019, is attempting to resurrect plans to cap political donations in Oregon.
Arya Surowidjojo/OPB
Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, shown leading a committee hearing in 2019, is attempting to resurrect plans to cap political donations in Oregon.

After Secretary of State Shemia Fagan bounced three proposals to cap political donations, one state senator says he'll try to convince colleagues to put a similar measure before voters.

Proposed ballot measures to cap political donations in Oregon face a tough road to the ballot, after Secretary of State Shemia Fagan rejected them on procedural grounds Wednesday.

Now, one prominent state lawmaker says he’ll push his fellow legislators to put a similar proposal before voters themselves.

Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, unveiled an amendment on Thursday that cobbles together elements of several now-defunct proposals from good government groups, labor unions and advocacy organizations.

Running 66 pages, the amendment to Senate Bill 1526 would limit how much candidates, labor unions, political party committees and advocacy groups can accept and give in state elections. It also would set penalties for violating those rules. And the amendment would create a system of public financing for campaigns.

But the amendment also contains a controversial provision, allowing limitless giving for “small donor committees” that accept donations of no more than $250 per person each year. That’s been criticized in the past by Republicans, who fear it will allow labor unions and other groups that historically favor Democrats to have an outsized influence.

Wagner’s amendment also does not include requirements that political ads and so-called “dark money” groups more fully reveal the sources of their funding, which were included in some of the ballot measure proposals the secretary of state rejected.

If passed by the Senate and House, Wagner’s proposal would appear on the November 2022 ballot. The provisions, if approved by voters, would kick in following the 2024 election.

“I believe one central truth holds: The voters of Oregon want action on establishing a system of regulation around campaign,” Wagner said Thursday during a hearing on his proposal and a similar bill. He called his amendment “an initial attempt to pull together elements” of measures like those Fagan rejected.

The senator’s decision to press the amendment comes after Fagan, the state’s top elections official, ruled this week that three ballot proposals submitted by Honest Elections Oregon and other good governance groupsfailed to meet a technical requirement set out in the state constitution. Backers of those proposals — initiative petitions 43, 44, and 45 — say they will challenge that determination before the Oregon Supreme Court.

Two other proposals for campaign finance limits, filed by labor unions and advocacy groups, contain the same error and will likely be scrapped, supporters have said.

Wagner said Thursday morning that he believed his bill could pass in the ongoing month-long legislative session, scheduled to end by early March. “And…I’m going to try,” he said in a text message.

Under his amendment, candidates for statewide office such as governor would be limited to taking no more than $2,000 from individual donors and other candidates per election. Committees representing political parties in each chamber could give far more — up to $50,000 per election . Small-donor committees could give up to $50 for every donor who lives, works or attends school in Oregon. Other types of committees created by the bill would have their own limits.

Like campaign finance limits, the Legislature has in the past declined to create a system that would use tax money to pay for campaigns of candidates who limit private donations. Under Wagner’s proposal, candidates for governors could receive up to $8 million in public money. Legislative candidates in the program would be eligible for up to $600,000 in public funds, and candidates for statewide offices like attorney general and secretary of state could qualify for up to $750,000.

Kate Titus, executive director of the group Common Cause Oregon, told lawmakers that public financing systems must offer enough money for candidates in tight races to be competitive. Otherwise, she said, candidates won’t participate.

Some groups are already lining up to oppose Wagner’s proposal. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the state’s largest private sector union, signaled it would oppose the measure as written. And a lobbyist for Oregon Business and Industry, one of the state’s largest business lobbies, suggested the proposal was far too lengthy, and could wind up discriminating against business interests.

“I think we need to learn to walk before we can run,” said the lobbyist, Paloma Sparks. “I don’t know how candidates would navigate something that is so complex.”

If Wagner is correct that his bill can pass, Oregonians would vote on campaign finance matters for the second time in as many general elections. 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 Oregon 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 in 2020.

Even if SB 1526 or another bill dealing with campaign finance does not pass this session, advocates of the three ballot measures rejected by Fagan had renewed hope Thursday, after Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed certified ballot language for their measures. That will allow the group to challenge Fagan’s ruling before the state Supreme Court, they say, while still progressing to the point where they can begin collecting signatures if justices side with them.

In order to qualify a measure for the ballot, advocates would need to gather more than 112,000 signatures by the July deadline.

“Now we have a fighting shot,” said Jason Kafoury, a member of Honest Elections, who’d been adamant in recent days that Rosenblum must release ballot language. “Political pressure did work.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit 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.