Campaign Finance Reform Fails After Reaching Senate

A bill to cap individual contributions to political campaigns passed in the House will not move forward in the Senate, but a proposal to hold a ballot measure to amend Oregon’s constitution,  allowing campaign finance restrictions, still may. 

House Bill 2714 would have capped contributions to House candidates at $1,000, Senate candidates at $1,500, and statewide candidates at $2,800, and allowed unions and membership organizations to pool individual member donations, up to $250 per member, per year. 

HB 2714 has been criticized as both too permissive and too restrictive. Those who believe, as both state and federal courts do, that spending money qualifies for legal protection as a form of free expression, question the need for limits at all. Reformers don’t believe the bill goes far enough, allowing major loopholes like party committees which are used to funnel large sums of money.  

Some campaign finance reform activists are focused on the constitutional amendment measure, but others want to impose limits passed by ballot measure in 2006 which set caps at $100 for legislative races and $500 for statewide offices. This measure was eventually rejected by the courts, setting the precedent in Oregon for understanding money as speech. 

 Portland passed campaign finance limits in November 2018, considered to be a test balloon for campaign finance limits statewide. However, a Multnomah County judge recently found this measure to be a similar violation of the free expression clause of Oregon’s constitution.   

Passing a constitutional amendment allowing campaign finance restrictions would remove the one of the main legal barriers to passing contribution caps – the broad interpretation of the free expression clause to include spending money. However, the possibility of a constitutional amendment by ballot measure remains a proposal in the Senate. 

 Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) told reporters she didn’t “believe that we have time to resolve” the issue of contribution limits before the end of the legislative session on June 30. The critiques of the bill from both ends of the debate made forming a coalition to pass it in the Senate (which tends to be more conservative) even more unlikely.  

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis), along with Senate Campaign Finance Committee Chair Jeff Golden (D-Ashland) and Burdick all said they plan to continue working on contribution limits during the next session, beginning in February 2020.   

By Ian MacRonald