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Oregon power players in business, labor are negotiating a campaign finance package

A sign points to a ballot box in downtown Bend, May 19, 2020.
A sign points to a ballot box in downtown Bend, May 19, 2020.

With an expensive ballot fight looming, two sides often opposed to one another are attempting to find a path forward in this year's legislative session.

Oregon business and labor groups have quietly begun negotiating a deal that could result in campaign contribution limits in state races for the first time in decades.

The surprising development, confirmed to OPB by four people with direct knowledge of the talks, is an attempt to avoid a potentially costly ballot fight in November. If the two sides are able to find a workable proposal — a tall order in the compressed timeline of a five-week short session — it could be an opportunity for lawmakers to act.

Oregon is one of just five states with no limits on political giving.

Details of a tentative deal are being closely guarded, but talks between business groups like Oregon Business & Industry and representatives of large labor unions have been going on for nearly a week, one participant said. Even that is notable: The two sides often oppose one another in political campaigns and policy matters, and in the past have disagreed about what a system of contribution limits should look like.

The meetings come as both business and labor interests warily watch a campaign finance proposal by good government groups that appears to stand a chance of qualifying for the November ballot. The proposal, currently known as Initiative Petition 9, combines strict contribution limits for individuals, political parties and interest groups with new rules forcing more disclosure about who is backing campaigns.

The initiative’s supporters include Honest Elections Oregon, Common Cause Oregon, and the League of Women Voters of Oregon. Backers say they have collected roughly 100,000 signatures to date. To qualify for the ballot, they must secure 117,173 valid signatures by July.

“At our current clip, I feel pretty confident,” said Jason Kafoury of Honest Elections Oregon, one of the proposal’s architects.

The state’s largest labor unions have made no secret that they oppose the good government groups’ effort. They are particularly critical of a provision that would allow private citizens to sue over election law infractions.

So the labor groups — representing a wide array of government employees, teachers, grocery workers and more — have put forward their own proposed ballot measure that would include looser contribution regulations while creating a system offering public funding to candidates who limit the size of individual donations. The plan has been panned by Honest Elections Oregon, which says it includes massive loopholes.

The prospect of a multimillion-dollar, confusing fight between two ballot measures has both labor and business groups rushing to see if they can find a compromise that’s palatable to lawmakers before the session ends in March.

None of the groups involved in talks were keen on offering specifics when asked.

“Legislative leadership doesn’t particularly enjoy the idea of competing ballot measures,” said Joe Baessler, interim executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75. “Folks have asked us if we’d be willing to think about a referral instead. It all just depends on the details.”

Melissa Unger, executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503, said Friday the union was participating in “overall conversations about how campaign finance is coming to Oregon some way or another.”

Any success would amount to a head-snapping change of course in Salem, where the Legislature has failed time and again to pass contribution limits, despite the issue being a stated priority for many top Democrats.

Last year, Gov. Tina Kotek called on lawmakers to find a path forward on the issue, after pledging action during a gubernatorial race where she spent roughly $30 million. But a campaign finance bill never got attention in a session that was consumed by other top priorities and a six-week walkout by Senate Republicans.

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, has repeatedly attempted to pass contribution limits during his time as a lawmaker, even succeeding on getting a bill through the House in 2019.

Rayfield will end his legislative career in January, and is running for attorney general. And while people involved in negotiating a potential campaign finance deal said Rayfield and other top lawmakers are aware of their discussions, he suggested to reporters Thursday that the Legislature is unlikely to take up campaign finance in this year’s session.

“No matter when you leave any job that you have, there are always going to be things that you look back and you’re like, ‘Hey, that’s something that’s unfinished business,’” Rayfield told reporters. “Campaign finance reform is one of those things.”

Business and labor have long used Oregon’s permissive campaign finance laws to suit their interests. With no limits on political giving, businesses — and wealthy business people — routinely pour big money into conservative causes and candidates, while unions like the Oregon Education Association and Service Employees International Union do the same for Democrats and progressive efforts.

But voters have signaled they are eager to enact contribution limits, ending Oregon’s place among states that don’t limit political giving. A 2020 ballot measure that modified the state constitution to explicitly allow contribution limits passed with more than 78% support.

Attempts to institute limits in the past have often drawn objections along partisan lines — particularly proposals that would grant higher limits to “small-donor committees,” entities that accept only small donations and theoretically suit labor’s existing model of generating political cash.

How business and labor representatives might find agreement on that and other issues remains to be seen. It’s also unclear whether any proposal could win over the groups behind IP 9.

“Good government groups are open to working with stakeholders and legislators to put a real campaign finance reform package together,” said Kafoury. “This is something we’ve been working on for many decades as a state, and now is the time to make real reforms happen.”

Copyright 2024 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.