By: Laura Misch
Currently, Oregon is one of five states—along with Alabama, Nebraska, Utah, and Virginia—that allows for unlimited campaign contributions. As a result, the money has been pouring into state elections. Just last year, the gubernatorial race between Democratic incumbent Kate Brown and Republican Knute Buehler became the most expensive one in the state’s history, as contributions amounted to over $37 million. Phil Knight, a co-founder of Nike, alone donated $2.5 million to the Buehler campaign. The Oregonian also published a series called “Polluted by Money,” which found that over the last ten years corporate interests gave more money to Oregon lawmakers than any other state in the United States.
One thing standing in the way of serious campaign finance reform in Oregon is the 1997 Vannatta v. Keisling decision. In this case, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that contribution limits violated the state constitution because they infringed upon free speech protections. However, this ruling has not stymied efforts to combat money in politics.
In January of this year, House Bill (HB) 2714 was introduced with the purpose of setting campaign contribution limits. Under the proposed law, any candidate running for statewide office could not accept than $2,800 per election from any single individual, multi-candidate political committee, single candidate committee, or recall committee. Candidates for state Senate and circuit court judgeships could not take more than $1,500 per election, and House candidates could not accept more than $1,000. Limits would also be placed on how much political action committees (PACs) could take from any given individual, multi-candidate political committee, or recall committee.
While HB 2714 ultimately passed in the House with a party-line vote of 35 to 23 (only one Republican voted in favor of the bill and only two Democrats voted against it), the bill still faced harsh critiques. House Republicans attacked the bill for restricting business donors but leaving public employee unions unfettered in the amount of money they could donate. Another significant loophole is that caucus political committees and state political party committees could still accept unlimited contributions from candidates, political party committees, and caucus committees. These PACs then in turn have no limit on the amount of money they can give to a candidate running for statewide office. Furthermore, there is nothing in the bill that limits the two-way transfer of money between different committees, which means they can effectively collect and then funnel money to any candidate who they think needs the boost.
Given these major loopholes, the bill’s death in the state Senate comes as no surprise. However, the death of HB 2714 does not mean the death of campaign finance reform. Lawmakers have instead shifted all of their focus to Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 18—a ballot measure that asks voters to amend the Oregon state constitution so as to allow for campaign finance limits. By July, the state legislature had officially decided to put SJR 18 on the November 2020 ballot. If the measure passes, other bills like HB 2714 could not only be passed but actually be implemented.
Yet, in a rare turn of events, the matter of campaign contribution limits may be decided before it ever reaches the ballot box. The Oregon Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that has no ruling from the Oregon Court of Appeals. The case (Multnomah County v. Trojan) focuses on a campaign finance law approved by Multnomah County voters in 2016. The law in question, Ordinance 1243, imposed a contribution limit of $500 per individual and per PAC in Multnomah County races for public office. In 2018, a local county judge ruled that the ordinance’s limits on contributions were unconstitutional—a ruling that follows the precedent set in Vannatta. By allowing the case to bypass the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court has essentially agreed to reconsider Vannatta and review the constitutionality of contribution limits. If the Supreme Court upholds the county ordinance, then the ruling would reverse the decision made in Vannatta. Therefore, the 2020 ballot measure would become moot. If the Court strikes down the law, then the ballot measure simply proceeds as planned. Either way, it seems that all roads are leading to reform and that it is only a matter of time.