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Top Oregon House lawmakers say they’re working to produce a campaign finance deal

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, speak with reporters in January 2024. Helfrich and Fahey are attempting to find agreement on new campaign finance rules.
Dirk VanderHart
House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, and House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, speak with reporters in January 2024. Helfrich and Fahey are attempting to find agreement on new campaign finance rules.

Democrats and Republicans often clash on the subject of caps on political giving, but are hoping to avoid a messy ballot fight.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Oregon House acknowledged this week they are hoping to reach a swift compromise on campaign contribution limits this session, in a bid to avoid dueling ballot measures on the topic in November.

Such a deal, if it can be reached, would be a surprise after years of deep partisan divides on the subject of caps on political giving. It faces an especially fraught path during the five-week legislative sprint of an even-year “short” session, in which lawmakers are already wrestling with weighty policies on housing and addiction.

“We have heard Oregonians loud and clear that they want to see reasonable limits placed on campaign contributions in our state,” House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, said in a statement to OPB. They added: “With multiple ideas potentially competing at the ballot this year, our hope is that stakeholders—including legislators, good government groups, labor, and business—can come to agreement on a proposal this session.”

A formal proposal for campaign finance limits, if it emerges, will be inserted into a bill already before the House Rules Committee that both Fahey and Helfrich sit on. Then it would need to be quickly sold to lawmakers in both parties who have failed repeatedly to pass limits in the past five years.

“We’ve asked representatives from these groups to continue talking,” Fahey and Helfrich said. “We hope that they can reach a compromise that represents good public policy and matches what Oregonians are looking for.”

As OPB reported last week, business and labor groups that are major political donors in the state are quietly negotiating a possible bill creating campaign contribution limits. Oregon is one of five states that places no ceiling on political donations from any entity or individual.

The groups involved in those talks — including business coalition Oregon Business & Industry and large labor unions like Service Employees International Union Local 503 — are often on the opposite ends of policy and political fights. They are well versed in using the state’s permissive campaign finance laws to support candidates and causes, and often disagree sharply on what contribution limits should look like.

Now the labor and business groups have been forced to the bargaining table because of a proposed ballot measure from good government groups that would institute tight limits on giving, institute strict rules about disclosing donors, and allow private citizens to sue over campaign finance infractions. The measure, known currently as Initiative Petition 9, is backed by Honest Elections Oregon, Common Cause Oregon and the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

The state’s largest unions have filed a competing measure, Initiative Petition 42, that is also making its way toward the ballot. It contains looser limits than what good government groups have proposed, and raises the specter of a confusing, multimillion-dollar fight in November.

The question is whether that fight can be averted.

Felisa Hagins, executive director of the SEIU Oregon State Council, said Tuesday that labor unions and left-leaning advocacy groups have been working for years to develop campaign finance limits. But with the threat of ballot measures, she said, “that broad coalition is getting bigger, with business interested in working on passing something through the Legislature as well. A legislative solution with that big of a coalition could be really real.”

But winning unanimous support for any system appears unlikely. Over the weekend, business and labor groups met with representatives of the good government coalition pushing IP 9, the potential ballot measure, to walk through some basics of their proposal. According to four people with knowledge of the meeting, details were too scant to produce an agreement and good government representatives raised numerous concerns about possible loopholes.

If voters are presented with a ballot measure limiting campaign contribution limits in November, history suggests they will be eager to approve it. In 2020, a measure that modified the state constitution to explicitly allow contribution limits passed with more than 78% support.

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.