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Ruling upends campaign finance rules

The Oregon Supreme Court has dropped a bomb into the middle of the 2020 election, ruling on Thursday that campaign contribution limits do not violate the Oregon Constitution. The most immediate effect is in Multnomah County, where voters in 2016 approved a $500 limit on contributions. But the ruling has statewide implications as well.

The case the court decided Thursday was a challenge to the campaign contribution limits in Multnomah County. But it also may apply to Ballot Measure 47, passed by voters statewide in 2006.

What complicates matters is that the state Supreme Court had ruled in 1997 that limits on contributions violated the free-speech provisions of the state constitution. So supporters of limits also asked voters in 2006 to amend the constitution to allow contribution limits.

The voters approved the proposed limits — $500 on individual contributions in statewide races and $100 on donations to legislative candidates — but rejected the constitutional amendment, making the limits invalid. The state Supreme Court then said Measure 47 was on hold, but would take effect automatically if the 1997 ruling were ever overruled.

Now it apparently has been, but the court did not directly address the question of the Measure 47 limits approved in 2006. It did, however, invalidate the reasoning of the 1997 ruling.

That leaves 2020 election candidates facing even more uncertainty. Already forced to campaign under the stay-at-home restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, office-seekers might be holding campaign contributions that exceed what are suddenly valid limits.

Must they return contributions in excess of the limits? No one knows. Secretary of State Bev Clarno, whose office oversees statewide elections, was reviewing the opinion.

Supporters of contribution limits hailed the ruling, but business leaders questioned whether statewide limits on hold since 2006 should immediately take effect. Legal challenges to applying those limits seem inevitable.

The important thing is that, once the details are sorted out, Oregon will not longer be one of five states with no limits on statewide campaign contributions. That wide-open system has led to state legislative races that topped $1 million in contributions. In the 2018 race for governor, Kate Brown and Knute Buehler amassed nearly $40 million.

That’s not healthy in a state that is supposedly governed by a “citizen legislature” rather than career politicians. The consequences of huge corporate donations to Oregon legislative candidates were documented in a series of stories in The Oregonian last year revealing how those donations effectively left Oregon with some of the weakest environmental protections on the West Coast.

Whether Thursday’s court ruling will put the squeeze on campaign contributions before the November 2020 election remains to be seen. But going forward, office-seekers in Oregon will see a more level playing field.