Rejected campaign finance ideas could get new life in Oregon Senate bill

Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, shown leading a committee hearing in 2019, is trying to resuscitate plans to cap political donations in Oregon.

Arya Surowidjojo/OPB

Proposed ballot measures to cap political donations in Oregon face a tough road to the ballot, after Secretary of State Shemia Fagan rejected them on Wednesday on procedural grounds.

Now, a prominent state lawmaker says he will push fellow lawmakers to bring a similar proposal to voters themselves.

Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, unveiled an amendment Thursday that brings together elements of several now-defunct proposals from good government groups, labor and advocacy organizations.

At 66 pages, the amendment to Senate Bill 1526 would limit the number of candidates, unions, political party committees and advocacy groups that can accept and donate in state elections. It would also establish penalties for violations of these rules. And the amendment would create a public campaign finance system.

But the amendment also contains a controversial provision, allowing unlimited donations for “small donor committees” that accept donations of no more than $250 per person each year. This has been criticized in the past by Republicans, who fear it will allow unions and other groups that historically favor Democrats to have outsized influence.

Wagner’s amendment also fails to include requirements that political ads and so-called “dark money” groups more fully disclose the sources of their funding, which appeared in some of the proposed ballot measures that the Secretary of State rejected.

If passed by the Senate and House, Wagner’s proposal will appear on the November 2022 ballot.

The senator’s decision to press the amendment comes after Fagan, the state’s top elections official, ruled this week that three ballot proposals submitted by Honest Elections Oregon and other good governance groups do not failed to meet a technical requirement set forth in the state constitution. Proponents of these proposals – initiative petitions 43, 44 and 45 – say they will challenge the decision in the Oregon Supreme Court.

Two other campaign finance limit proposals, filed by unions and advocacy groups, contain the same error and are likely to be dropped, supporters said.

Wagner said Thursday morning he believed his bill could pass in the current month-long legislative session, which is expected to end in early March. “And…I’ll try,” he said in a text message.

The bill is scheduled for a public hearing Thursday afternoon before the Senate Rules Committee chaired by Wagner, alongside another bill that would create campaign finance limits.

Under his amendment, candidates for statewide positions such as governor would be limited to taking no more than $2,000 from individual donors and other candidates for a full election cycle. Committees representing political parties in each chamber could give much more – up to $50,000 per election cycle. Small Donor Committees could give up to $50 for every donor who lives, works or attends school in Oregon. Other types of committees created by the bill would have their own limitations.

Like campaign finance limits, the legislature has in the past refused to create a system that would use tax dollars to pay the campaigns of candidates who limit private donations. Under Wagner’s proposal, gubernatorial candidates could receive up to $8 million in public funds. The program’s legislative candidates would be eligible for up to $600,000 in public funds.

If Wagner is correct that his bill can pass, Oregonians would vote on campaign finance issues for the second time in as many general elections. Oregon is one of the few states that places no limit on the amount an individual or entity can donate to candidates, a fact that contributed to the explosion in campaign spending in the recent election.

But voters in Oregon have signaled they are eager to reduce the role of money in politics. A ballot measure that amended the state Constitution to formally allow limits on campaign donations passed in a landslide in 2020.

Even if SB 1526 or another bill dealing with campaign finance does not pass this session, supporters of the three ballot measures rejected by Fagan found hope on Thursday, after Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a certified voting language for their metrics. This will allow the group to challenge Fagan’s decision in the state Supreme Court, they say, while progressing to the point where they can begin collecting signatures if the justices are on their side.

In order to qualify a measure for the ballot, advocates would need to collect more than 112,000 signatures before the July deadline.

“Now we have a shot,” said Jason Kafoury, a member of Honest Elections, who had insisted in recent days that Rosenblum should release the ballot wording. “The political pressure worked.”

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