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News / Northwest

Oregon takes steps toward campaign finance reform

By SARAH ZIMMERMAN, Associated Press
Published: June 8, 2019, 7:18pm

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon is one of only five states to have absolutely no limits on how much money can be donated to political campaigns.

But lawmakers took a step to change that Thursday, when the House passed a measure approving the state’s first campaign contribution limits in decades.

The proposal caps contributions to House and Senate candidates at $1,000 and $1,500, respectively. Contributions to all other statewide candidates would be capped at $2,800.

The measure now goes to the Senate, though voters would need to approve the limits in the 2020 election.

Although legislators have tried to implement campaign finance reform, they’ve run into legal complications thanks to the Oregon constitution’s free speech provision. The state’s Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that campaign donations are a form of free speech and can’t be limited.

The high-priced governor’s race last year rekindled the debate over spending limits and has prompted lawmakers to try again. In addition to donation caps, legislators are also considering disclosure requirements for political ads.

But campaign finance limits would still require a constitutional change, and voters would need to approve amending the state constitution in addition to the caps proposed by lawmakers.

Gov. Kate Brown secured re-election over former Republican state Rep. Knute Buehler in a race that broke fundraising records when candidates raised a combined total of $30 million. Buehler received a $1.5 million donation from Nike co-founder Phil Knight, the largest donation by an individual to a candidate in Oregon history.

Brown, who received a $500,000 donation from the D.C.-based nonprofit EMILY’s List, has made political spending limits a priority and expressed support for the constitutional change and the proposed limits.

“We are way out of step with the rest of this country on this issue,” she said. “No one person should be allowed to buy a megaphone so loud that it drowns out all the other voices in the race.”

But the proposed limits have drawn criticism, and Republicans rapped a loophole in the bill allowing for unlimited money to flow to candidates through political party committees.

Rep. Cheri Helt, a Republican from Bend, said she supports campaign finance changes but said she believed this proposal “limits transparency.”

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Other opponents say the limits are far too high, higher than limits voters approved back in 2006. Voters over a decade ago approved capping donations to $100 for legislative candidates and $500 for statewide candidates, but that law never took effect because of the state’s constitution.

This new proposal explicitly overturns the 2006 law, ensuring it can never be enforced even if voters eventually approve a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Dan Rayfield, the Democrat from Corvallis behind the proposal, said that while he understands the criticism, the state can’t afford to continue to do nothing.

“This is a tough topic and it’s probably why this legislature hasn’t done anything on this in 44 years,” he said. “This bill sets up a strong structure in the state of Oregon to build upon.”