Will Oregon legislators follow-through and enact campaign finance reform?
Lawmakers and Gov. Tina Kotek have pledged to move on this issue this session
Gov. Tina Kotek, shown here giving her victory speech in November 2022, promised she would take action on finance reform. (Jordan Gale/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
If Oregon legislators wind up their session this year without substantially addressing limits on campaign contributions, there will be no publicly acceptable excuses – not even that of their own self-interest.
It’s not only the legislators who have pledged to move on the issue, but also the formerly most-influential legislator and now governor Tina Kotek. Last year she campaigned on finance reform, and while accepting large contributions, she added, “if I have any say this will be the last governor’s race where we have no limits.”
That last comment was a reference to a weird distinction in Oregon’s overall election climate: It is one of just four states (Virginia, Nebraska and Utah are the others) that places no limits on personal or organizational contributions to campaigns. (Yes, Idaho, Texas, Arizona and Mississippi among others have such limits while Oregon doesn’t.)
The consequences of that became chillingly clear last year, as in race after race massive dumps of money swamped the environment.
The biggest single chunk of funding came from cryptocurrency billionaire (mega-rich no longer since his business collapse) Sam Bankman-Fried, contributor of more than $10 million in support of the locally unknown Democrat Carrick Flynn, who proceeded to lose his primary election. Many other races were lost last year by heavily funded candidates, but one congressional seat may have been flipped by it – Oregon’s 5th, where funding in support of new Republican Representative Lori Chavez-Deremer was more than twice that of her Democratic opponent.
Those congressional races are mostly under the reach of federal, not state, law. But massive amounts of money hit in numerous Oregon state races, too. Famously, Nike co-founder Phil Knight poured millions in the gubernatorial campaigns of first, non-aligned Betsy Johnson, and then Republican Christine Drazan; His funding and that of a few other large contributors overwhelmed smaller donors.
That happened in a string of legislative races. The most striking example may have been that of Democratic Senator Jeff Golden of Ashland, who raised a more-than-respectable treasury last year – almost a quarter million dollars – but still was outspent more than four to one by Republican Randy Sparacino. The effective difference between the two was a little smaller, however, because Democratic support groups also spent on Golden’s behalf. A critic of that kind of financing, he said after the election that “I could not get, no matter what I did, the upstate folks to stop spending money on the race.” Golden won, narrowly.
For campaign finance reformers, Oregon has been an exercise in frustration for decades, ever since the Oregon Supreme Court in 1997 said the state constitution’s free speech provisions barred campaign contributions limits. That ruling threw out a 1994 attempt at campaign funding limitation. But in 2020, the court upheld a Multnomah County attempt at finance regulation.
More critically, in 2020 voters massively backed (the yes vote was 78.3%) Measure 107 to amend the state constitution specifically allowing campaign finance regulation – but it still needed legislation to make the amendment active. Business and labor groups, both heavy backers of Oregon candidates, opposed the amendment and some fought it at the Legislature. Oregonians hoping for action in the last legislative term were disappointed with the failure of substantial movement at the statehouse.
In 2022, reform groups including the Honest Elections Oregon and the Oregon League of Women Voters proposed three initiatives aimed at limiting campaign contributions. They were frustrated when a decision by Secretary of State Shemia Fagan said the proposals ran afoul of legal requirements (dating from a 2004 court ruling) on the text that had to be included. When the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the decision, the measures were blocked from the ballot last year.
Since then, Fagan (as well as Kotek) has called for campaign finance reform as part of her legislative package.
Honest Elections spokesman Jason Kafoury said that “overwhelmingly, the citizens of this state want limits on big money dominating their politics, and as the governor’s race shows, six- and seven-figure checks are going to continue to overshadow everyday voices until we get real campaign finance reform in Oregon.”
The same forces that blocked finance legislation in the last legislative term may try again, but they’re losing key avenues of support.
There’s no constitutional bar, and clear legislation, with widespread support, has been drafted. And the idea – conceptually at least – has solid support from the state’s leadership.
Simply, legislators who return home having failed once again to pass will have little way of explaining why other than to helplessly say, “money talks.”
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