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Money in Oregon politics as unchecked as ever

The strongest belief that pulled me back into politics three years ago is this: we won’t make much headway solving Oregon’s core problems until we dramatically reduce the power of big money in Salem.

It wasn’t a hard case to make to voters. Donald Trump had one applause line in 2016 that rang true for everyone who heard it: the system is rigged.

I heard it again and again on my own campaign trail two years later. Pretty much everyone I talked to, left to right, gave a big nod or handshake when I put campaign finance reform at the top of my if-elected agenda.

That momentum helped send me to the Senate and moved President Peter Courtney to hand me the gavel of a brand new Campaign Finance Committee. There we passed SJR 18, which referred Measure 107 to the voters. It asked Oregonians to clarify state constitutional language and tell us if they wanted to empower state and local government to regulate campaign financing.

What they — you — answered last November, by a whopping 4-1 margin was YES.

Great — you gave us clear marching orders to get serious about limiting campaign contributions.

I walked into the 2021 session with SB 336, my proposal for campaign finance reform (CFR), and two other legislators brought theirs. This would be the year for CFR in Oregon!

Well … earlier today I sent off my end-of-session newsletter with a summary of legislative accomplishments. We actually got some valuable things done; I’ll probably brag on a few of them if I hit the campaign trail again. Absent from that list, and I mean nowhere in sight, is CFR.

Our progress towards a transparent political system driven more by people power than big concentrated money advanced not one inch.

Why? For starters, CFR’s not a conversation many legislators relish. Few would say that the status quo’s just fine, and most would welcome a change that freed them from the dialing-for- dollars game. But many are left cold, if not insulted, by a conversation that implies that they put campaign dollars ahead of principle.

Which is not what I’m implying. I actually hold the integrity of most of my colleagues in high regard, and the notion that they’re bought off with canvas bags of cash, perhaps with cartoon $ signs stenciled on the side, is way off the mark.

Big campaign contributions aren’t corrupting so much as they are distracting. They distract us from our duty to weigh the pros and cons of complex bills to arrive at AYE or NAY. That’s often a tough task that calls for every ounce of our attention.

What doesn’t help is a question that sometimes, maybe unconsciously, enters the head of just about every officeholder I’ve met, however principled: “What will my big donor(s) think of this?”

That’s not a question we want in the mix as leaders finalize voting decisions. I don’t know how often it changes votes, but I’m sure that it postpones or waters down bold solutions, the kind these times require. When that happens, we fall farther behind; the root problems we face — the widening gap between rich and poor, the deterioration of natural systems, the cycles of crime and social dysfunction — keep moving faster while our piecemeal fixes, hobbled by worries about what big funders will think, tip-toe along.

The solution to the distracting big-donor question isn’t to wait for a change in human, in this case legislator, nature. It’s to make sure there aren’t big donors.

SB 336 would do that, and I’ll bring it or a similar bill back for another round in the 2022 session. It does two things that CFR has to do: exclude all distractingly large donations from any person or group with a vested interest in how legislation comes out, and provide a structure simple enough for interested citizens to follow the money. We have to get this done; giving up on CFR amounts to giving up on the promise of representative democracy.

But who will do it? Legislators, who ran and won office in the campaign finance system we have now? Can we who sit in the Senate and House get serious about genuine reform? Or will citizens have to grab the reins with a CFR ballot initiative?

The 2022 session should answer that. Either way, count me in.

Senator Jeff Golden represents Medford, Ashland, Phoenix, Talent, Jacksonville and the Applegate Valley. For a summary of legislation passed in the 2021 session or details of current CFR proposals, contact him at sen.jeffgolden@oregonlegislature.gov