SALEM — Following the 2020 election, for the first time in more than 20 years, people could see limits on the amount of money they're allowed to donate to candidates for state and local office in Oregon.
Oregon is one of 11 states with no cap on how much individuals can donate to a candidate's campaign, aside from the federal limits that apply to congressional and presidential candidates.
The Oregon Supreme Court decided in 1997 that the constitutional right to free speech protected election activity. That means campaign contributions can't be limited, even though voters have said they wanted such limits.
The ruling also shields political advertising. Television audiences in the Portland area may notice that during election season, political ads geared toward voters in nearby Clark County, Wash., include a list of businesses and groups that paid for them. But the Oregon ads don't carry similar disclosures — they're not required by law.
This month, the Legislature is poised to send a constitutional amendment to voters, hoping to make clear that, in Oregon, limiting campaign money is constitutional. But some legislators want to immediately pass campaign contribution limits and donor disclosure requirements so they're ready if voters do decide to change the constitution.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said her goal is to reduce money in politics. andidates for governor in 2018 spent more than $40 million, by far the most in state history. As the cost of running a winning campaign in Oregon has soared, legislators like Burdick, Sen. Jeff Golden and Rep. Dan Rayfield want to reverse the trend.
Rayfield, a Corvallis Democrat, is sponsoring what he describes as a "historic" trio of campaign finance reform bills, which the House approved Thursday, June 6. They would limit campaign contributions, require disclosures on some political ads, and compel nonprofits that spend large amounts of money on an election to publicly identify their biggest donors.
"What we really believe is that a representative democracy is stronger when candidates are funded via individuals … as opposed to one individual having an outsized influence within the system," Rayfield said.
To craft the proposal, Rayfield and other Democratic lawmakers have worked with reform advocates outside the Legislature, including Dan Meek, who helped craft campaign finance limits that voters adopted in Multnomah County and Portland, and Patrick Starnes, former gubernatorial candidate.
But they don't all agree on how to reform the campaign finance system. "It's the details that make the difference," Meek said. "You can pass anything that looks good, but if it's got a giant loophole in it, then it doesn't matter."
Interrupting the system
House Bill 2714 would cap individual donations to a candidate for state representative at $1,000, for state senator or circuit court judge at $1,500, and for a statewide candidate at $2,800. However, political parties and legislative caucus committees would be excused from the limits, as would "small donor committees," which can't take more than $250 from any one person.
If only certain contributors are limited, Meek and Starnes argue, donors would find a way to circumvent the law. "The word 'unlimited' should not be in the campaign finance bill," said Starnes, a Brownsville Independent who was his party's nominee for governor last year until he dropped out and endorsed Gov. Kate Brown — after she agreed to push for campaign finance reform in 2019.
Golden, a freshman Democrat from Ashland, raised about $205,000 when he ran for Senate last year. Nearly all of that money came from individuals. Golden pledged not to accept money from political action committees, or PACs, although he did receive a $2,000 contribution from the Jackson County Democratic Party.
One of Golden's objectives is getting corporate money out of politics. Like Meek, Starnes and other reform advocates, such as former Rep. Jefferson Smith, Golden is concerned about the influence that major donors wield over elected officials. He believes the contribution limits Rayfield has proposed are too loose, and he won't support them without significant changes.
"I think I am saying more than Rep. Rayfield that we need to interrupt the current system," Golden said. "He's saying we need to reform — we need to make what we have now somewhat better — and I'm saying that we really need something different. And time will tell who is taking the more effective approach."
Golden and Starnes support the other bills in the package, and they're as eager as Rayfield to let voters decide whether they want campaign finance limits in the constitution.
Meek remains skeptical. He thinks House Bill 2716's requirement for tag lines in political ads is too narrow. It exempts ads paid for by candidates, which he doesn't believe it should. He's also critical of House Bill 2983, feeling the requirement for political nonprofits to name their largest donors could be easily sidestepped. The proposed disclosure threshold for nonprofits — if they spend more than $25,000 to $100,000, depending on the race — is too high, he believes.
Even if such reforms take hold, Meek predicts Oregonians won't see much of a change in how elections are financed. "It erects a minor, almost imperceptible roadblock to what's already going on," he said, referring specifically to the disclosure bill.
Tom Powers, a Burdick aide who works on campaign finance issues, said the bills' architects have been working to tighten up language and close potential loopholes. But, he acknowledged, the final package is unlikely to please everyone. "Right now, you could give any amount of money to anybody," Powers said. "The perfect system is hard to write on paper."
"There'll be people who say, 'Well, the limits are too high,'" Burdick said. "But we need limits. We desperately need limits."
Courts weigh in
State voters in 1994 approved campaign contribution limits. In the only election year before the Supreme Court overturned them, those limits were enforced.
Burdick was first elected that year, in 1996. Although a supporter of limits, she recalled watching in dismay as candidates in more competitive races, unable to raise as much money as they had in past years, had their campaign messaging drowned out by a surge in independent expenditures.
Then, in 1997, the Supreme Court tossed out the limits, ruling that they encroached on "protected speech." Since then, independent expenditures haven't gone away, but candidate contributions and spending have skyrocketed.
In 2006, voters limited individual donations to $500 for a statewide candidate and $100 for all other candidates, banning contributions and independent expenditures by businesses and labor unions altogether, and restricting how much money candidates and parties can put into their campaigns, but they rejected a constitutional amendment that accompanied those limits. The limits have never been enforced, and the law remains in legal limbo.
Rayfield's bills would effectively replace the campaign finance limits from 2006, which Burdick considers "unreasonably low," before they ever take effect.
"The bottom line of what we're trying to do is set limits that will allow candidates sufficient funding to run a credible campaign, to communicate their message to the voters adequately, without the excessive spending that we've seen," Burdick said. "If you set the limits too low, then you will just have interest groups campaigning around the candidate."
Rayfield shares that concern. "What will happen is once we cap anything, everything's going to scoot over to 'dark money' at that point," he said, using a term by which reform proponents refer to PACs that aren't officially affiliated with a candidate and don't name their donors.
Even if his proposals are adopted, Rayfield said, he would watch what happens with campaign finance in future elections. "I don't think that these bills are the end of the conversation," Rayfield said.
Starnes agrees. "I feel that this campaign finance fight won't be over after this session, even if we got exactly what we wanted," Starnes said. "The big thing is blocking the billionaires, because right now, they can just try to buy it."