Campaign Reform: Oregon’s High Court Rejects Delay

Oregon voters approved tough campaign finance limits in 2006, but blocked by a court ruling, they never took effect. That may now change.

Last week,  Oregon’s Supreme Court rejected a request by business groups to delay hearing a new campaign finance case, which means campaign donations could be capped as early as next year. Given a new slate of judges on the court, the new case arose when Multnomah County voters approved donation limits for local races in 2016.

Currently, the state has no controls on the sums of money flowing through its political system.

How We Got Here

In a landmark 1997 opinion, Vannatta v. Keisling, justices concluded that contribution limits violate Oregon’s constitutional free speech protections. The campaign finance measure voters approved in 2006 was a statute, not a constitutional amendment. In the same election, voters rejected a companion measure that would have amended the constitution concerning contribution limits.

Earlier this year, The Oregonian investigated what the lack of controls has meant for the state, and the results were damning. The series was titled Polluted by Money.

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed Senate Joint Resolution 18, which sends a measure to voters that would amend the constitution so that limits could be put into place.

If the Court Reverses Itself

The hearing business groups sought to delay is scheduled for November 1. Some analysts believe the 2006 measure could be brought out of suspended animation if the court reverses itself. If that happens, the 2006 limits could be placed on next year’s elections.

Other analysts believe the court could make a decision that would at least permit localities to vote in measures limiting contributions in local general elections. Still other analysts point out there are other possibilities in between.

Odd Senate Joint Resolution Twist

The measure state lawmakers referred to voters for next year is less stringent than the measure voters already approved back in 2006. If the court does permit the earlier measure’s limits, the newer measure would loosen those limits in subsequent elections.

The business groups that had requested the court delay the matter include the Portland Business Alliance and Oregon Business and Industry. They argued it was inappropriate for the court to consider the matter, given voters would be making a decision in November of 2020. However, campaign reform advocates argue these business groups simply want another elections cycle without limits.

In a previous order, the court said it would only delay the matter  “upon a showing of extraordinary circumstances.”  In this latest order, Chief Justice Martha L. Walters denied the request for postponement without explanation.

By Andy Thompson