Common Cause Agitates for Elections Reform as Money Flows to Politicians

The principal players in the Oregon healthcare industry have spent $1.2 million on political campaigns between the end of the 2015 legislative session and Tuesday’s primary election. Oregon lacks any limit on campaign finances, giving big money an outsize influence in shaping public policy and state budget concerns.

In Salem, the people who testify and lobby for policy directions or money from the government are members of groups that have spent thousands in the off-season, financing the campaigns of the politicians on the other side of the dais. The legislators then shape policy and set spending priorities with the daily input of the people who paid to put them in power.

The average citizen may or may not have their own voice, but seldom will it be heard if it goes counter to those who have put money in the game.

“Their voices are not heard, and they feel that their donors have a bigger voice than they do,” said Daniel Lewkow, the political director for Common Cause Oregon, which is seeking to reform the elections process in Oregon.

A glance at state campaign finance records show that nine political action committees affiliated with Oregon’s top healthcare industry players have spent nearly $1.2 million to influence elections, policy and budget decisions since the end of the 2015 legislative session.

On the national level, the democratic socialist independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has hijacked the Democratic presidential nomination process and lain bare a corporatist party that has moved away from the people it feigns to represent.

“You see the voters really motivated by free and fair elections. You’re seeing this become a top-tier issue for secretary of state and legislative races,” Lewkow said. “Voters are really pissed about this, and they’re demanding change.”

In Oregon, if the dominant political party has remained attuned to its voters, it’s been in the few hot-button areas where its grassroots have been most energized, while nodding to special interest money when on the subjects that attract less attention, given the complete lack of limits on money flowing into campaign coffers in Oregon.

“If we did have some limits, I think people would feel better about their democracy,” Lewkow said.

As secretary of state, Gov. Kate Brown paid lip service to campaign finance reform in Oregon, but given the chance to make actual reforms, the Democrats quashed efforts that might cut off the gravy train that supplies their power. After public shaming by Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, they essentially agreed to belabor, rather than kill, the issue by sending it off to some committee.

A trio of minor party leaders are attempting to outmaneuver the major parties and get a measure on the ballot this fall to end the blockade on campaign finance reform imposed by the Democratic Party.

Republicans, of course, do not support cutting off the spigot of special interest money or a public financing scheme such as Seattle voters implemented, allowing average people to endorse candidates with a credit system that may make politicians treat them more seriously.

Both Dr. Bud Pierce and computer engineer Allen Alley, the major gubernatorial candidates in Tuesday’s Republican primary election, told an audience of Washington County voters last month that they opposed any limits on campaign finance contributions, nodding to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that said money is speech and corporations are comprised of people with First Amendment rights.

Instead, they agreed only to support greater transparency. Oregon is one of the few places where candidates and political action committees don’t even need to state that they paid for an advertisement. A deceptive mailer in the Salem mayor’s race attacked the winning candidate, Chuck Bennett, but never identified its source and claimed to be from Bennett while declaring his support for higher fees, fewer trees and tax breaks for his golf club cronies.

Pierce and Alley -- as well as Brown --  agreed, at least, that this loophole should be closed, although Democratic legislators also killed a bill that would have done that in 2015, claiming constitutional concerns.

Common Cause Oregon has solicited statewide and legislative political candidates for Oregon to get them to take a stand on key election integrity issues, including campaign finance limits and whether Oregon should wrest control of the redistricting process from partisans. “Voters have a right to know where candidates stand on abortion. They have a right to know where they stand on climate change,” Lewkow said. “Voters also have a right to know where voters stand on free and fair elections.”

Campaign Finance Numbers

The Oregon Nurses Association committee was the top spender of the eight surveyed -- topping $220,000. The union money counters the influence of business interests in the healthcare industry. The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems political action committee spent $106,000 while a group associated with Regence BlueCrossBlueShield spent $55,000 and the Oregon Medical Association PAC spent $52,000.

The Oregon Health Care Association, which includes service providers for senior citizens, put up $173,000.

Three doctor’s groups that have been heavily involved with the state’s delivery of Medicaid through coordinated care organizations have also spent mightily. Doctors for Healthy Communities, made up primarily of donations from Salem-area, has spent about $189,000 while a similar committee from Roseburg spent about $133,000. The Coalition for a Healthy Oregon, which is aligned with Portland-based FamilyCare and other CCOs, spent $126,000.

The Low-Income Dental PAC, which is supported by dentists who work with Advantage Dental to find a cost-effective way to provide dental care to people with Medicaid, spent $36,000.

About half of the money spent by the Oregon Nurses Association group -- $100,000 -- went to Defend Oregon, a coalition of labor and liberal groups that’s working to repel union-busting, anti-immigrant and anti-abortion ballot measures.

But the nurses are also involved with state legislative and executive branch races -- spending $20,000 to bankroll public health nurse Sheri Malstrom, who is running unopposed to replace Rep. Tobias Reed, D-Beaverton, the leading candidate for state treasurer. They put their weight behind Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, with $15,500 in the race for secretary of state, and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown received $5,000.

Beyond the secretary of state’s race, which Devlin lost, he’ll retain his post as the powerful Senate chairman of the Committee on Ways & Means, which controls budgets, giving interest groups an incentive to support him.

Each of the health policy chairs -- Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, and Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham -- have raised $6,000 from the nurses and they also endorsed James Manning, founder of the Oregon Black Education Foundation, with $5,000 in his failed bid to replace Rep. Val Hoyle, and represent the west side of Eugene.

Not to leave their Republican friends out, the nurses’ PAC gave $1,500 to Sen. Tim Knopp and Rep. Knute Buehler, both Bend Republicans who serve on the health committees.

The Oregon Health Care Association gave $36,000 to Devlin, and $10,000 to Brown, while directing its other big gifts to the Democratic leaders in the Legislature: Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, and House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, each got $7,500. 

The association gave to the opposition Republicans in smaller amounts, including $2,500 each for Knopp and Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem.

Hospitals and Insurers

Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, and Monnes Anderson, who helped squelch efforts for hospital price transparency reform in 2015, were two of the the biggest recipients for the hospital association, at $4,500 each.

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, received $3,000, as did Devlin, while Hoyle received $5,000, to support her fight with Devlin to become the next secretary of state. (Both lost to Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.)

The hospital association PAC gave $2,500 to Courtney, fellow Salem Democrat, Rep. Brian Clem; and Rep. Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton.

Regence Oregon Political Action Committee gave to three conservative groups that counter the work of progressive groups like Defend Oregon -- Associated Oregon Industries ($10,000), Oregon Jobs Now ($3,000) and the Taxpayers Association of Oregon ($2,500)

Despite the insurers’ support for conservative organizations, Monnes Anderson, a Democrat, was its top legislator, with $3,000.

Republican and Democratic leaders alike also took money from Regence’s political arm, with Courtney and Tina Kotek, each getting $2,500, the same dollar amount as Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day and House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Prineville. Two other Republicans -- Buehler and Rep. Mark Johnson, also received $2,500, as Johnson seeks to defend his Hood River seat despite a Democratic voter edge.

Medicaid Providers

The Advantage dentists gave $12,000 to McLane, while also putting $5,000 to the House Republican caucus campaign fund. Knopp received $3,500 and Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Cottage Grove received $2,500. The dentists also gave $3,500 to Sen. Alan Bates of Medford, a Democrat.

Doctors for Healthy Communities has sunk $75,000 into the campaign of Dr. Bud Pierce, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor to oppose Brown. The doctor’s group also supported Bates, a Democratic physician, with $5,000 for his campaign account. Devlin got this group’s endorsement for secretary of state with $4,750.

Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland, led the Legislature from this group, with $5,500.

The Salem doctors’ group gave $4,500 to Clem; $3,250 to Winters; and McLane got $4,750 while Knopp and Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, received $4,250.

The Coalition of a Healthy Oregon gave $11,250 to Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, who is expected to be the House budget chairwoman in 2017. Other top Democrats for COHO were Sen. Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay and Burdick, who each received $5,500.

On the Republican side, COHO gave $6,000 to Knopp and $5,750 to Hayden while Rep. Bill Kennemer of Canby got $5,000.

The Douglas County Physicians’ PAC led off with $8,500 for Devlin, and $6,000 for Bates, Knopp and Kennemer, none of whom serve Douglas County. Hayden, who represents the north part of that county, received $5,500 while his caucus leader, McLane, took in $5,000.

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