Campaign finance bill missing the ‘reform’
There are two bills in the Oregon House proposing campaign contribution limits. One, House Bill 3343, proposes clear, modest limits and has the support of good-government groups that have long fought to cap donations. The other, House Bill 2680, does little to curb the massive contributions that corporations and labor unions have long donated to candidates and political parties.
So, guess which bill has the momentum?
Unfortunately for Oregonians who want to get big money out of politics, that would be HB 2680, which was scheduled for a work session in the House Rules Committee on Friday.
The bill, in its current version, does impose some limits. Candidates for a statewide office — such as governor or secretary of state — could not accept more than $2,900 per election from a person or $40,000 from a political party caucus committee. Candidates for state house and senate seats face lower limits. Local governments could set their own caps, provided they do not exceed the state’s.
The range of per-person contributions are much higher than the $500 to $1,000 caps contemplated by HB 3343, but more important, HB 2680 would have little effect on changing the dynamics set by the same players who have long dominated the political landscape — corporations and unions. Loopholes and design flaws abound in the legislation, which is opposed by League of Women Voters of Oregon, Common Cause Oregon, OSPIRG, Honest Elections Oregon and several other groups that have pressed for meaningful contribution caps.
Among the flaws: A “person” who can give to a candidate is defined as an “individual, labor union or corporation, including any corporation operated for economic gain or any not-for-profit corporation.” Entities can easily skirt the limit by forming new corporations, which takes $100 and a couple of minutes, as campaign finance reform activist and lawyer Dan Meek has said, noting that many exploited a similar campaign contribution loophole in New York before the state closed it.
There’s more. The bill would allow corporations — for-profit and nonprofit — to provide a candidate with $50,000 a year in paid staff time, such as a political consultant. That gives the donor considerable influence in a candidate’s campaign. It would permit Democratic and Republican caucus committees to amass and redirect donations at levels far higher than most other political committees. And it would continue to bless game-changing donations by public-employee unions and other so-called “membership organizations” that would still be able to indirectly steer massive sums to candidates through “small-donor committees,” as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Hillary Borrud reported.
Corvallis Democratic Rep. Dan Rayfield, the bill’s chief sponsor, deserves credit for wading into the campaign finance morass. But even he can’t support the current version without changes, telling The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that he would want the amendment allowing donation of staff time to be narrowed, though not eliminated. He said the provision furthers a legitimate policy objective — helping organizations that have been historically left out of the political process to participate on behalf of candidates.
That’s a worthy consideration. But legislators should look for other avenues to support that goal that don’t allow the same old players to keep playing the same old game. Nineteen states ban contributions from corporations and unions outright, according to Meek, who helped author the successful campaign finance limit initiatives in Portland and Multnomah County. Another 23 states have limits far stricter than those under consideration in Oregon.
The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Polluted by Money series in 2019 exposed how Oregon’s lack of campaign contribution limits has translated into weaker environmental laws and lower standards than neighbors with stricter campaign-finance requirements. Oregonians responded by overwhelmingly supporting a constitutional amendment last year to allow the setting of campaign limits. And voters in Portland and Multnomah County have already enthusiastically embraced ballot initiatives establishing strict caps. The only part that’s missing is the Legislature.
While it’s an admittedly difficult challenge to divorce campaigns from the limitless cash infusions that have fed them, lawmakers across the Capitol need to summon their political courage to do what Oregonians elected them to do.
They should start by scrapping HB 2680, embracing the straightforward approach in HB 3343 and committing to pass meaningful campaign finance reform this session.