Groups push limits on Oregon campaign contributions
SALEM — As one of several states that doesn't limit how much individuals, businesses or unions can contribute to candidates, parties or causes, Oregon has earned an "A plus" rating from a Virginia-based group founded by an advocate of deregulating campaign finance.
The rating comes as supporters of campaign finance reform are renewing efforts to amend the Oregon Constitution to allow such limits.
Oregon, Alabama, Nebraska, Utah and Virginia each got a perfect score in rankings released this week by the Institute for Free Speech.
"When people want to change government, they donate to and volunteer for candidates, parties and groups," the institute's leaders wrote in a foreword to the rankings. "Restrictions on these contributions protect incumbents and result in less speech."
The Institute for Free Speech was founded in 2005 by Bradley Smith, a proponent of deregulating campaign finance and a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Election Commission under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The organization has filed amicus briefs and pursued litigation involving campaign finance limits and provided co-counsel in the case SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission.
The outcome of that case allowed so-called "super PACs" to flourish. Super PACS are a type of political action committee that can raise unlimited amounts of money, but can't contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates.
As of March 25, Super PACs have raised $259 million and spent about $58 million in the current election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
David Delk, chair of the Oregon Progressive Party, says unlimited political contributions can reduce voters' faith in the democratic process.
The Oregon Progressive Party is one of several groups collecting signatures for a citizen initiative petition to amend the state's constitution to allow limits on campaign contributions and expenditures. If supporters get enough signatures, the measure would be on the statewide ballot in 2020.
Delk points to a $250,000 contribution from Nike founder Phil Knight to the campaign of then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat seeking reelection, in 2014. In late 2012 Knight had lobbied Kitzhaber for assurances the company's tax structure wouldn't change as it made a planned expansion. The Legislature passed a measure in special session giving Kitzhaber the power to grant such certainty as long as the company met certain benchmarks.
For Delk, that scenario created the appearance of a quid pro quo.
"It gives credence to the view that the system is rigged," Delk said.
Delk disagrees that limits on campaign contributions constitute restrictions on free speech.
"Money is property," Delk said. "And when you spend it, it should be subject to regulation."
Neither the Democratic Party of Oregon or the Oregon Republican Party have taken a position on the proposed initiative, the parties confirmed Tuesday.
Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, says unlimited political contributions create the risk of corruption.
"It can contribute to a negative climate in terms of ethics, but that doesn't mean it necessarily will," Weiner said.
Other factors can mitigate unlimited campaign donations, Weiner said. For example, Oregon also encourages popular political participation by virtue of being a vote-by-mail state with an automatic voter registration law.
Weiner is skeptical of the argument that incumbents benefit more from campaign contribution limits.
While very low limits on contributions can "create a system where it's hard to amass that critical amount of seed money you need to launch a campaign," incumbents typically have more to offer wealthy donors, Weiner said.
The latest initiative petition is not the first effort to create limits on political contributions in Oregon.
In 2006, Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 47, which created limits on individual donations to state and local elected office, and unions, corporations or other entities from payments called "independent expenditures" supporting or opposing a candidate or political party.
However, Measure 46, which went before voters in the same election and would have amended the state's constitution to allow the limits in Measure 47, was defeated.
Supporters had initially wanted to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot this year, but ran out of time to collect enough signatures after the Oregon Supreme Court reviewed public comments on the proposed measure, Delk said.
On the local level, Multnomah County and other supporters are currently appealing a March 6 circuit court ruling that held county limits on campaign contributions are unconstitutional.
Weiner says Americans are witnessing the effects of political giving on both politics and public policy — he points to the recent passage of sweeping federal tax reforms as an example of donors' political influence.
The role of money in politics also contributed to a sense of "disempowerment," Weiner said, that drove the rise of candidates with populist appeal such as now-President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
"What we're seeing right now in our country is that campaign finance rules and how we deal with money in politics matters," Weiner said.