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Residents filed a prospective petition to limit individual contributions to $500 for a candidate in local elections

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - A ballot measure proposed by a group of citizens would limit contributions to candidates for local office.A group of Columbia County residents aim to get a campaign finance reform bill on the ballot.

Residents filed the proposed ballot measure with the county elections clerk earlier this summer.

The Columbia County Campaign Finance Regulation Ordinance would limit the dollar amount that individuals or groups could donate to fund campaigns for local elections.

Candidates would not be allowed to accept donations over $500 from an individual, business, or most political committees.

To qualify for the ballot, the petition's backers would need to collect roughly 1,477 signatures from Columbia County voters, or convince the county board of commissioners to refer the measure to the ballot.

Emily Miranda, one of the chief petitioners on the measure, said she hopes county commissioners will agree to put the measure on the ballot, in part to avoid door-to-door and public event signature gathering while the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing.

That doesn't seem likely, though.

At a July 28 meeting, Commissioner Henry Heimuller said that if the ballot measure moves forward, "It should come to us in a manner that shows that the public is actually interested in weighing in on this matter, rather than a few very dedicated folks out there that are passionate about this."

Commissioners Casey Garrett and Margaret Magruder agreed, saying that organizers should go the signature route to demonstrate that there is public interest in the measure.

Miranda said that the results last year on Ballot Measure 107 proved there is local interest in campaign finance reform.

In November 2020, 78% of Oregon voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow laws that limit campaign contributions and expenditures and require disclosure of donors.

In Columbia County, 74% of voters approved of Measure 107.

Approval from county commissioners wouldn't mean the local measure would go into effect; it would just place the measure on the ballot.

"The people would still have to vote on it. The people would still decide," Miranda said.

Candidates are already required to report contributions to the secretary of state's office if they spend more than $750 on their campaign.

Locally, races for county commissioner and Port of Columbia County board seats surpass that spending mark far more often than city council, school board and other special district elections.

The proposed measure is modeled after measures previously approved by voters in Portland and Multnomah County.

In 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that campaign finance regulations are not unconstitutional. Until that point, the courts had been relying on a 1997 Oregon Supreme Court decision that said campaign contribution limits violate free speech.

The Supreme Court decision remanded the 2016 Multnomah County measure back to the local circuit court, where a judge had previously ruled that most of the measure was invalid.

In 2018, the same year that Portland voters approved campaign contribution limits, organizers in Columbia County had attempted to get a similar measure on the ballot,

Carroll Sweet with Envision Columbia County led signature gathering for that proposed measure, but the group was unable to collect enough signatures. Sweet said that was a consequence of not having enough people organized to gather signatures, rather than a lack of interest from potential signees.

"Nobody ever turned us down when we were doing it, as I knew it," Sweet said.

Sweet said the result of the state constitution amendment wasn't surprising.

"We were noticing more and more that people were getting upset about corporate entities calling the shot," she said.

The only concern with the measure in 2018 was the constitutionality, Sweet said.

With the top court's ruling and the constitutional amendment, she added, "We can do it and we should do it."

Though Miranda, Sabbath Rain Mikelson and Madeline Reese volunteered to take the lead on the new attempt, Sweet has led the charge on asking the county commissioners to put the measure on the ballot.

"We're happy to have the younger people taking it over, but none of us are going to stop trying," Sweet said.

Commissioner Casey Garrett said that there are already many rules and procedures that candidates have to follow, which can be daunting for people seeking elected office for the first time.

"I would worry if we change the rules in Columbia County, overcomplicate things, that will make it even harder to get candidates to throw their hat in the ring," Garrett said.

Garrett said he could see contribution limits being "a detriment to newcomers."

"It's hard to get your name out there," said Garrett, a former county employee who was elected to the commission last year. "It was basically a second job for me to get my name out there, and the bottom line (is) that cost money."

The proposed ordinance carves out an exception for small donor committees, meaning a political committee that doesn't accept more than $100 per donor, which would be allowed to make unlimited donations.

An individual would be prohibited from donating more than $5,000 to candidates in a single election cycle.

Candidates often jumpstart their campaigns by funding themselves through a loan to their campaign fund. Those loans would be limited to $5,000 under the proposed ballot measure. Candidates could only contribute $10,000 to their own campaigns if running for re-election, or $15,000 if not the incumbent.

The measure also requires that campaign materials display the names of top donors.

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