Lawmakers tackle campaign contribution legislation

SALEM — Gov. Kate Brown testified in late April in support of legislation to cap campaign contributions, which she pushed for when she was secretary of state.

Advocates for campaign finance reform hope that with Brown’s support, they can curb campaign cash in the state, which has repeatedly tried and failed to adopt contribution limits that stick.

Although voters and the Legislature have adopted limits, those were struck down in court.

Oregon is one of six states in the nation with no limits on contributions to candidates’ campaigns, according to the interest group Common Cause, which is lobbying for the contribution limits. Daniel Lewkow, the group’s political director for campaign finance reform in Oregon, said he expects voters to support limits because “we have greater awareness than we ever have of campaign finance issues.”

Many lawmakers also support the limits because they do not want to spend so much time on fundraising, Lewkow said.

‘A better system’

The Legislature does not have authority to limit campaign contributions. One way to change that would be for voters to approve an amendment to Article II of the state Constitution, which covers regulations on elections.

Senate Joint Resolution 5 would refer a constitutional amendment to do just that to voters in the November 2016 general election. Senate Bill 75 would set state campaign contribution limits at the same levels as in federal elections — $2,600 for an individual donor, $5,000 for a political action committee — that would take effect if voters amend the Constitution.

Both bills were heard last week before the Senate Committee on Rules.

Kristen Grainger, communications director for Brown, said the legislation is just a starting point for a conversation about what, if any, limits Oregon should impose on contributions.

“The conversation will be about what is a reasonable limit in Oregon,” Grainger said, adding that the amounts in Senate Bill 75 are “just a starting point for conversation.”

The limits would not stop corporations, unions and other deep-pocketed donors from pouring money into state elections through super PACs and social welfare groups, as they have increasingly done since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United.

Others were skeptical of the proposal. Senate Republican Leader Sen. Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) said contribution limits might restrict the ability of businesses to contribute directly to candidates, but they would not rein in the ability of Oregon’s powerful unions to campaign for candidates and spend unlimited amounts on elections via outside groups.

“When somebody talks about getting the big money out of politics, they’re talking about the other guy’s money, not their money,” Ferrioli said.

Ferrioli said Oregon took a different approach than other states, by allowing unlimited contributions but requiring disclosure. “That to me is a better system than trying to outflank the other guy,” Ferrioli said.

House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) echoed Ferrioli’s remarks about transparency, saying Oregon has “good transparency, the best in the country.”

However, Kotek added “I think there’s a growing desire to have limits so maybe that will translate into interest in moving that measure this session.”

Unlimited contributions

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said he does not expect contribution limits will gain much momentum this session, despite the influx of money into some races last fall.

“A lot of conservative money did come in, but not as much as the Bloomberg and Steyer money,” Moore said, referring to billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. Bloomberg and Steyer funneled money to state Sen. Chuck Riley (D-Hillsboro) and other Oregon candidates in high-profile races last fall, through groups that work on gun control and environmental issues.

Nonetheless, Moore said the unlimited contributions in state elections does not seem like a problem to many Oregonians.

“And if the public thinks about it, they’re thinking of federal elections, not state elections,” Moore said.

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