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Only lawyers could love these

Campaign reform bid unlikely to emerge from the courtroom

Ordinarily it would be encouraging news that a campaign finance initiative had qualified for the ballot. But the two measures that will appear on the Nov. 7 ballot promise little more than a protracted court battle &

8212; a battle that has already begun and could effectively invalidate both initiatives even before the first vote is cast.

Oregon is one of only five states without limits on contributions to political campaigns. That's because the state constitution contains one of the strongest free-speech clauses in the country.

The first of the two initiatives would therefore amend the Oregon Constitution to allow statutory limits on campaign contributions. The second initiative would enact a wide range of such limits. It would bar any contributions by labor unions and corporations and would sharply limit the amounts individuals could contribute.

We are leery whenever one initiative seeks to amend the constitution in order to render a second initiative valid. But there are more reasons to question the wisdom of these two measures.

The statutory measure would limit not only contributions to a candidate, but how much of the candidate's own money he or she could spend. It would also limit the amount independent individuals could spend to suppport or oppose a candidate. The U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo upheld limits on contributions but ruled that limits on expenditures violate the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. So part of this measure may run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

If the expenditure limits were overturned in court but the contribution limits remained, that would leave the door wide open for wealthy individuals to spend as much as they chose to support a candidate without contributing directly to the campaign.

In addition, the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the constitutional amendment measure on the grounds that it makes more than one change to the Oregon Constitution. The Court of Appeals ruled in the ACLU's favor, and the case is now before the state Supreme Court. If the court lets the appeals ruling stand or if it upholds the ACLU's challenge, the measures won't appear on the November ballot.

But wait &

8212; there's more. The proposed amendment says that statutes affecting campaign finances could be enacted or amended by a simple majority of voters, in the form of an initiative, or by a three-fourths vote of both houses of the Legislature.

The limits laid out in the statutory measure are complex and far-reaching. If they become law and there are problems with any of them and the Legislature needs to fix those problems, getting three-fourths of both houses to agree will be next to impossible.

These two measures, while well-intentioned, are unlikely to survive legal challenges even if they make the ballot and are approved. Campaign finance reformers should go back to the drawing board.