Oregon House leaders make last-ditch effort on campaign finance reform

Legislative leaders in the House are moving forward with a last-ditch effort to pass their own version of campaign finance reform ahead of a potential ballot measure that would curb the influence of big donors.

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey and Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich crafted their proposal over the past few weeks with labor and business groups, two of the most powerful forces in electoral politics. They introduced a 48-page amendment at 4:55 p.m. Friday, March 1, for an 8 a.m. Monday hearing, as they rush to finish a proposal before the Legislature must adjourn for the year on Sunday.

The new amendment to House Bill 4024 reflects some criticism from the coalition of nonpartisan groups advocating for stricter campaign finance laws, but those groups still panned the proposal as having too many carveouts for big donors. Oregon is now one of the only states with no limits on campaign contributions, and voters have grown increasingly frustrated with the large checks wealthy individuals or groups write to candidates.

Fahey and Helfrich responded to the specter of two competing ballot measures: Initiative Petition 9, proposed by a coalition of good government groups led by Honest Elections Oregon, and Initiative Petition 42, backed by labor unions and progressive organizations. Helfrich, of Hood River, said the two proposed ballot measures aren’t the right approach for the state, but he thanked the labor unions, progressive organizations and nonpartisan good government groups behind the competing proposals for providing an incentive for lawmakers and others to start negotiating.

“It’s because of you that we are here today, and I think Oregonians owe you a debt of gratitude for making this conversation finally move forward,” Helfrich said.

Under its latest amendment, the legislative proposal would also go to the ballot in 2024. If approved, new contribution limits would take effect on Jan. 1, 2027, ahead of the 2028 elections.

The proposal would prohibit candidates for state legislative offices, circuit court judges and district attorneys from receiving more than $3,300 per election — or $6,600 assuming a primary and general election — from an individual. A candidate could receive up to $5,000 per election from a political party’s committee, from a multicandidate committee that exists to support multiple candidates and from a legislative caucus’s committee.

Proposed limits increase when it comes to labor unions: Unions and other membership organizations could give up to $16,500 per election, or $33,000 for candidates running in both primary and general election. And small donor political committees, or committees that accept up to $250 per year from individuals, could give up to $33,000 per election for every 2,500 donors to the small donor committee. That means a small donor committee with 10,000 donors could give a candidate $132,000 per election, or $264,000 for an election year with both a primary and general election.

Unions and other membership organizations could give twice as much to candidates for governor and other statewide offices. The amendment also would allow membership organizations to give tens of thousands to candidates in in-kind organizations, including spending $5,000 on food and drinks for statewide candidates or $2,500 for other candidates and paying for up to 2,500 square feet of office space for a campaign. They could also hire up to three full-time employees for a year to work on a campaign.

The bill also would require incumbents to file for office seven days before the filing deadline, making it more difficult for retiring incumbents to pick their own successors. Critics say this doesn’t solve the problem because it doesn’t require incumbents who file for office to withdraw from the race earlier than other candidates, so in theory an incumbent who didn’t intend to run could file, recruit their successor and then withdraw from the race up to three days after the filing deadline.

Every person who spoke during a public hearing Monday opposed the proposal, as did the vast majority of written testimony: By midday Monday, lawmakers had received more than 200 written comments about the proposal, with only 35 supporting it.

Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, called the amendment “a testament to the hubris of the political donor class” in written testimony. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Common Cause supports IP 9, the stricter measure backed by Honest Elections Oregon.

“Oregon voters will have no trouble seeing through this,” Titus wrote.

Jason Kafoury is a Portland-based attorney and one of the chief sponsors of the Honest Elections proposal, which would limit individual contributions to $2,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for all other offices. Kafoury said he wants the Legislature to work more on campaign finance reform, whether that happens this week or in the following session. He said the $3,300 limit for individual contributions is still too high, and that the Legislature’s proposal would allow rich people to set up multiple 501(c)4 organizations classified as membership organizations to get around the proposed caps.

“You’re incentivizing someone who’s got multi millions and wants to influence elections to set up (c)4s,” Kafoury said. “You just are. And I don’t think that’s good for elections in Oregon.”

Norman Turrill, governance coordinator of the League of Women Voters of Oregon, warned lawmakers that the nonpartisan league wouldn’t support its proposal unless and until other good government groups support it and that the league would rally its members in opposition if the committee passed the measure to the House floor.

“The labor union and business interests which drafted the (latest) amendment and want to refer it to the ballot represent only a small portion of voters,” Turrill said.

Nathalie Paravicini, a Pacific Green Party member who ended her 2022 campaign for governor after Gov. Tina Kotek agreed to support campaign finance reform, said she was disappointed in the legislative proposal.

“I trust that in Oregon we believe in democracy, but this is not what I’m seeing today,” she said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X, formerly known as Twitter.


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