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Oregon lawmakers spend $5.4 million to prep for oncoming campaign finance rules

Oregon lawmakers are spending more than $5.4 million to help elections officials revamp their system for reporting campaign finances and clear a massive backlog of languishing election complaints, in preparation for new rules set to shake up state politics.

The money, approved Friday morning, is a crucial bit of unfinished business left after lawmakers’ scramble earlier this year to pass a package that will limit the money Oregon political campaigns can accept beginning in 2027, among a host of other changes.

Oregon lawmakers approved new campaign finance rules earlier this year to curb the impact of money in swaying voters. Now, lawmakers plan to spend $5.4 million to upgrade the system used to track political spending and hire more staff to help investigate complaints. Voters line up at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, in this Nov. 8, 2022 file photo.

Oregon lawmakers approved new campaign finance rules earlier this year to curb the impact of money in swaying voters. Now, lawmakers plan to spend $5.4 million to upgrade the system used to track political spending and hire more staff to help investigate complaints. Voters line up at the Multnomah County Elections Division in Portland, in this Nov. 8, 2022 file photo.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

That surprise proposal, House Bill 4024, was the product of hurried negotiations between business, labor and so-called good government groups. But it came together too late for elections officials to get a clear picture of what it would cost to put into place.

Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade instead brought a $5.4 million proposal forward this week, as lawmakers are meeting for routine interim committee hearings and considering dozens of “emergency” spending items. Similar or higher costs for the effort are likely in the next budget.

Griffin-Valade’s proposal includes expanding her office by 21 employees.

Many of those will be informational technology workers who will help completely revamp the state’s ORESTAR system for reporting and displaying campaign financial transactions. Oregon elections officials have pressed for years for funding to replace the two-decade-old system, which they say is unwieldy for users and so old that finding technical support is difficult. The office is now seizing on the new campaign finance rules – and a related requirement that it create a new online dashboard to help the public track political spending – to push forward with a replacement. A written proposal says the Secretary of State plans to “undertake a complete overhaul of ORESTAR prior to January 1, 2027… with a required go-live date of January 1, 2028.”

The office is also proposing adding two investigators who can look into elections complaints that have ramped up in recent years, along with a manager to oversee that work. Those would add to an existing staff of three investigators, one of which was approved in the recent legislative session.

There are more than 750 outstanding complaints before elections officials, some of them years old, and more coming in all the time.

“So far during the 2024 election cycle, SOS has received twice as many complaints as they had at this point in the 2022 election cycle and seven times more than the 2020 election cycle,” the Secretary of State’s Office said in a budget request.

Griffin-Valade says extra workers will be necessary to clear the backlog before the onset of new regulations that are bound to spur new complaints, and which require that officials handle complaints more quickly.

The surge in complaints isn’t unique to Oregon. But it has been a special concern to lawmakers like state Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, who urged his colleagues to approve the funding in a meeting of the Legislature’s Emergency Board on Friday morning.

“This isn’t something we can wait on,” Gomberg said.

Not everyone was convinced. A handful of Republican lawmakers voted against the package over concerns that the funding should have been approved alongside the campaign finance bill, and that the state was moving too hastily to replace its ORESTAR system.

“I don’t see any harm in waiting until the next legislative session,” said state Sen. Fred Girod, R-Silverton.

The proposal passed the Emergency Board despite those concerns.

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