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Oregon lawmakers could ask voters to impose campaign contribution limits this year

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, has been working to craft a proposal that would limit contributions in state political races for the first time in decades.

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, has been working to craft a proposal that would limit contributions in state political races for the first time in decades.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon lawmakers are moving forward with a bill that would create limits on political giving for the first time in decades — and now they’ve included a provision designed to convince a competing proposal to back down.

The House Rules Committee on Monday morning held its second hearing on House Bill 4024, a proposal that top Democrats and Republicans in the House have hatched with the help of major business and labor groups.

A new amendment to the bill contains some notable changes from a version the committee heard in February. They include modestly tighter giving limits for some entities, a later date for regulations to take effect, and a rule designed to block incumbents from cherry picking their successor.

“We have asked everyone involved in that campaign finance conversation to give something in the spirit of compromise, and they responded by doing so,” state House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, who has played a leading role in creating the bill.

But with those overtures of goodwill, the new version of the bill also contains a piece that critics see as a power play. If passed, it would go before voters for approval in November.

That ballot referral is an insurance policy of sorts for the politically savvy business, labor and advocacy groups who have been working to craft a proposal. All of those organizations are openly hostile to what’s known as Initiative Petition 9, another system of campaign finance limits that a coalition of good government groups is attempting to qualify for the ballot this year.

The two camps met on Sunday to negotiate a possible deal that could result in all parties — including good government groups — to come together behind HB 4024. But so far, no deal has been struck.

If they cannot find agreement, a ballot referral would create some thorny difficulties for IP 9, which backers have been working to qualify since 2022. A ballot measure put forward with the backing of lawmakers, and supported with the collective might of business and labor, could pose a significant challenge for the good government proposal if the two go head-to-head for voter support.

What’s more, lawmakers could write the ballot language for the proposal in HB 4024, potentially ensuring it looks like the most palatable choice when voters are making their decision.

The impact could be definitive, even if voters ultimately passed both measures: In areas where the two proposals conflict, the measure that received the largest amount of votes would prevail.

That possibility irritates some of those who support Initiative Petition 9.

Nathalie Paravicini, a former Pacific Green Party candidate for governor, chided lawmakers at Monday’s hearing for what she called “a referral whose purpose is basically to undercut years-long grassroots efforts to implement campaign finance reform in Oregon.”

Jefferson Smith, a former Democratic state representative from Portland, said lawmakers were moving too hastily.

“This bill aims at blocking reforms approaching the ballot that the biggest political spenders in the state are worried might, in fact, stem runaway spending, and might be too expensive to defeat,” Smith said.

HB 2024 would create a complex system of limits for how much a wide range of groups could donate to candidates.

Most basically, it would limit any “person” to donating $3,300 every election to state and local candidates. Given that word’s legal definition, those limits would also allow a wide variety of entities, including multinational corporations, to donate under the same limits. Critics say it would allow a single person to give multiple times by doing so under separate guises.

The proposal would offer its highest giving limits to “small-donor committees,” political groups that could accept no more than $250 from any given person, and which are expected to be used extensively by labor unions. Under the proposal, any such committee could give $33,000 to a candidate every election, for every 2,500 individual donors it has. That means a committee that attracts 5,000 donors could give a candidate $132,000 between a primary and general election.

The bill also grants higher limits to “membership organizations” — nonprofit organizations formed by business interests, advocacy groups, or any other interested party. They could accept unlimited donations, give candidates up to $16,500 every election, up to $33,000 an election cycle, and also pay for staffing costs for campaigns.

The backers of IP 9, meanwhile, have proposed stricter limits, requirements that “dark money” groups disclose their donors and other regulations that labor and business groups have argued are extreme and could be unconstitutional in practice.

Good government groups, led by Honest Elections Oregon, have railed against the business and labor approach as filled with loopholes. They have argued for lower contribution limits for some kinds of political committees laid out in the bill, and to tighten a number of other provisions they say could allow big money to flow freely in political races.

The latest amendment of the bill, introduced by Fahey and House Minority Leader Jeff Helfrich, R-Hood River, makes several changes that incorporate critiques that have emerged in recent weeks.

It would ensure that campaign finance limits begin Jan. 1, 2027, rather than the beginning of 2026. That’s a response to concerns that the initial effective date occurred halfway through an election cycle and would allow some politicians to amass war chests for an election before the limits started.

The new proposal also ratchets down the amounts that small-donor committees and membership organizations can give to political committees that support multiple candidates. It includes new language intended to make it harder for one person to start multiple membership organizations, thereby multiplying their ability to donate.

And the bill would force incumbent candidates to file for reelection at least seven days before the filing deadlines for others. That’s intended to cut back on instances of candidates waiting until the last minute to announce they won’t seek reelection in order to give handpicked successors a leg up. But this change spurred criticism from Dan Meek, an attorney with Honest Elections Oregon, who noted it would still allow incumbents to withdraw their candidacies at the last minute to help allies.

More broadly, Meek told lawmakers Monday that the updated bill “remains clearly unacceptable.” Testimony on the new proposal on Monday morning was nearly all critical.

Even so, negotiations have continued. If enough lingering disagreements between HB 4024′s authors and the backers of IP 9 can be worked out, it’s possible all ballot measures would be taken off the table, and Oregon lawmakers would pass new limits without asking voters to weigh in.

“I want to say that I appreciate how seriously I feel that a lot of folks in the legislature have suddenly taken this issue in the last few weeks,” said Jason Kafoury, another member of Honest Elections Oregon and a chief petitioner behind Initiative Petition 9. “There’s been a lot of hard work and there’s been a lot of negotiations.”


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