Oregon lawmakers pass first campaign finance limits in 50 years

Oregon’s new limits on political campaign contributions will not take effect until 2027.

But as Gov. Tina Kotek, legislative leaders and representatives of interest groups said at a recent ceremony, Oregon’s real achievement was legislative approval of such regulations for the first time in half a century — and during a 35-day short session in an even-numbered year.

The 1973 Legislature approved spending limits, but the Oregon Supreme Court overturned them in 1975.

A ballot initiative that voters approved in 1994 imposed contribution limits — $100 for a legislative candidate and $500 for a statewide candidate per election — but the Supreme Court overturned them in 1997.

Voters approved contribution limits in an initiative in 2006, but rejected a companion constitutional amendment — and the Supreme Court ruled that the limits could not take effect.

Lawmakers in 2019 cleared the way for a constitutional amendment to exclude campaign finance regulation from Oregon’s free-expression guarantee — the Supreme Court upheld Multnomah County’s limits in 2020 — and voters approved Measure 107 in 2020 by a 78% majority. (The measure almost failed to reach the ballot; it passed the House, with a nudge from then-Speaker Kotek, on the final day of the 2019 session.)

But no implementation measure reached a vote in either chamber during the 2021 and 2023 sessions. Despite some talk about its prospects this year, campaign finance regulation was overshadowed by the big issues in the short session: Housing and homelessness, addiction treatment and restored penalties for drug possession.

The odds were good that Oregon would remain with Missouri, Utah and Virginia as the only states with no limits. Seven other states have minimal limits, but the rest do have limits.

‘Here we are’

“I know there were many people, myself included, who thought getting campaign contribution limits through the Oregon Legislature would never happen,” Kotek said.

“But Oregon voters sent a clear message when they voted in favor of amending the Oregon Constitution to allow for campaign contribution limits in our state. Here we are.

“Even in the pursuit of a common goal that the vast majority of Oregonians have supported, there were multiple possibilities as to how campaign finance reform should look like in our state. For something as important as this, the details do matter.”

“What I can say today is that I truly believe that the new law that has been passed will strengthen transparency and confidence in Oregon’s elections.”

According to a survey conducted by DHM Research in late 2023 and released by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center earlier this year, 75% of the respondents supported changes in campaign finance.

Kotek conducted a ceremonial signing of House Bill 4024 in her temporary office in Salem. She signed the actual bill on March 20.

The new law contains a web of provisions, including a limit of $3,300 for individual contributions to campaigns, and varying limits on political committees and parties.

Nike co-founder Phil Knight spent freely against Kotek. He gave $3.75 million to the independent bid of Betsy Johnson for governor in 2022, and when she faltered in the polls, $1 million more to Republican Christine Drazan. Kotek defeated them both.

He gave another $2 million to a political committee aimed at electing more Republicans to the Legislature. (The party did succeed in gaining one seat in the Senate and two in the House to end the Democratic supermajorities.)

Knight has since donated $2 million to the same committee in 2023 and again this year.

Meanwhile, Local 503 of Service Employees International Union, which represents the largest group of state government employees, spent about $3 million in the governor’s race backing Kotek.

What caucus leaders said

Two of the chief legislative negotiators were then-Majority Leader Julie Fahey of Eugene, who ascended to House speaker upon the resignation of Dan Rayfield just before the 2024 session ended March 7, and House Republican Leader Jeff Helfrich of Hood River.

“It will level the playing field between everyday Oregonians and the billionaires who have been pouring money into Oregon campaigns in recent years. It represents a good-faith compromise in the best Oregon tradition,” Fahey said.

“Our goal was to meet the need for reasonable contribution limits and better transparency and accountability, but without simply shifting contributions into dark money and independent expenditures — and without shutting out the grassroots organizations that are doing the kind of pro-democracy campaigning that we want to see more of.”

Helfrich conceded he was taken aback when Rayfield, a Democrat from Corvallis who was still the speaker during the short session, suggested it might be the right time for lawmakers to act.

“We had so many issues that were in front of us that I did not see this coming at the moment it did,” Helfrich said. “We were able to get Republicans and Democrats to get together and seek a consensus on what we needed to do to have a check on the unlimited flow of money coming into our elections.”

Though they did not mention it publicly, the negotiations involving the bill likely drew Fahey and Helfrich to the point where Helfrich agreed to let the 2024 session settle the question of when Rayfield would give way to Fahey as speaker. Helfrich had hinted earlier that Republicans might be content to let Democrat Paul Holvey, also of Eugene, be a caretaker speaker for the rest of the year. Holvey, the speaker pro tem since 2017, is leaving the House after 20 years. Rayfield is keeping his House seat for now but is running for attorney general.

Views from outside groups

If lawmakers had not acted this session, outside groups could have mounted signature-gathering drives for ballot initiatives setting stricter limits — and be outside the control of the Legislature. Two competing proposals could have emerged, one from good-government groups and the other from labor unions.

Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, said she never bought into the assumption that legislators could do nothing about regulating campaign finances.

“The question is not whether we can do anything to restrict the influence of big money. It is: Will we? I think what we have finally seen this legislative session is that we will,” Titus said. “What we passed here is not everything we need. There is still work to be done. But it is a big leap forward for Oregon.”

Though the farmworker union known by its Spanish acronym PCUN is not among the big-dollar donors to candidates as other labor unions and business groups, executive director Reyna Lopez said her aim was to protect direct action by its members, such as volunteer canvassing and distribution of campaign materials.

“This is written in a way that is going to protect Oregon voters from loopholes that could be exploited by bad actors,” she said, while it allows efforts such as those of her union based in Woodburn.

The long lead time will allow for whoever is elected secretary of state on Nov. 5 to draft rules for implementing the legislation. That person likely will have to obtain a replacement for the automated reporting system for campaign contributions and expenditures that dates back to January 2007.

Since Secretary of State Kate Brown was thrust into the governorship as a result of John Kitzhaber’s resignation in February 2015, there have been five people who have been the state’s chief elections officer during the decade, excluding those in a temporary role.

Lawmakers also can make changes in their 2025 and 2026 sessions.

Angela Wilhelms is president of Oregon Business & Industry, one of the state’s leading business advocacy organizations. She is a former chief of staff to the Republican co-speaker in 2011 and 2012, when the Oregon House was tied 30-30. Her father, Gary Wilhelms, served the first of his four House terms back in 1973. He also became a lobbyist and legislative staffer.

“It is an imperfect piece of legislation. Such is the nature of compromise. So too is the nature of campaign finance systems generally. If there were a perfect system, those 45 states we join would share that — but they all vary,” she said.

“There will inevitably come a time when someone, somewhere, will look to manipulate what we have done in this bill for their own political benefit,” she added. “We cannot let that happen. We have to remember the spirit of compromise that got us here today and keep that in mind as we discuss any future changes.”



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