By Denis C. Theriault
Staring down constitutional concerns, uncertain details and strong political headwinds, Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday urged lawmakers to pass a pair of campaign finance measures meant to "significantly curtail the role money plays in Oregon politics."
"Oregonians have time and again proven that they want campaign finance reform," Brown told a packed session of the Senate Rules Committee, pushing legislation she submitted in January as secretary of state. "It's our job as state policymakers to find the best way to accomplish it."
The governor was the star witness at a rare high-profile hearing on the issue -- long seen as popular with voters, who twice since 1994 backed measures sharply limiting contributions, but largely seen as a nonstarter in light of Oregon's strict protections on free speech. Oregon currently has no legally allowed limits on campaign donations.
"More than $23 million was spent on legislative races in 2014 alone," Brown said in her remarks, citing reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive. "To offer a bit of perspective, that is more per capita than just about any other state in the nation. No one should be able to buy a megaphone so big that it drowns out every other voice. The First Amendment was intended to protect political discourse for all Oregonians, not just those with the deepest pockets."
Senate Joint Resolution 5 -- aimed for the same 2016 ballot that could see Brown running to keep her post -- would ask voters to amend Oregon's constitution to expressly allow limits on campaign contributions. It would work around speech protections by targeting, instead, the state's rules on elections.
Senate Bill 75, provided voters said yes to amending the constitution, would then set some of those limits. Individual donors would be able to give just $2,600 to candidates, and political action committees just $5,000. Neither measure, however, would limit fundraising and independent spending by PACs.
Both measures would be seen as major victories for the new governor. But with seemingly tepid support from Democratic leaders, alongside deep skepticism from Republicans, it's not clear either will make it through this session. Several substantial amendments are in the works, and neither measure has yet to be scheduled for votes that would send them to the Senate floor.
Those doubts and questions were on full display in Tuesday's hearing, which ran nearly three hours thanks to waves of invited panelists, including lawmakers from both parties and other statewide officers, and testimony from a few dozen citizens.
Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, grilled Brown from the committee's dais with questions aimed at labor's support for Democrats, asking, "Whose big money are we talking about?"
"Is it Democrats' big money? Or is it Republicans' big money? Which color of money are we referring to?" he said, citing court decisions that rejected Oregon's previous attempts at limits and invoking the state's strict reporting requirements for political contributions.
Brown pointed out that she helped pass those transparency rules in 2005 as a top-ranking state senator. Gina Zejdlik, Brown's adviser on ethics issues, seated beside her, told lawmakers she thinks the measures are legally "defensible."
The governor also said the bills were meant as a "reasonable starting place" that would "put Oregon in company with most of the other states" in setting limits on campaign cash.
"We need to fill in the rest of the story," she said when pressed by Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, on whether she'd work to tighten any loopholes that emerge. "And I'm willing to have that conversation."
That conversation could be a long one. Brown's push was strongly backed by state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who told Rules members not to worry about the courts. "You're the ones who set public policy for the state of Oregon," he said.
But even some of the other panelists supporting Brown's goal had concerns about key elements.
Her handpicked replacement as secretary of state, Jeanne Atkins, acknowledged that efforts to get around free speech issues amounted to a "moving target" and suggested SJR 5 would be amended to reflect a free-speech-friendlier emphasis on "potential corruption."
Atkins also said she hopes lawmakers refine and pass SJR 5 first and then wait to have the more detailed discussion of limits contained in SB 75. She also recalled the fight in 2006 over Measures 46 and 47, which sought to simultaneously amend Oregon's constitution while setting limits. In that case, voters enthusiastically backed the limits but balked at directly amending Oregon's speech protections.
"Everybody's got a different way of looking at this," said Atkins, noting money flowing to lawmakers from interests including labor, business and the environmental lobby. "We want to move something successful."
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, defended both of Brown's measures but talked about substantially changing SJR 5 to allow citizen measures on campaign finance reform as well as legislative actions.
"Without SJR 5 going forward, this conversation stops," Prozanski said. "There will be nothing we can do as a Legislature."
Brown's rival in the 2012 secretary of state's race, Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, also urged his colleagues to back SJR 5, which would open the door to changes in campaign finance rules but punt on the kind of limits prescribed in SB 75.
"We would drive this money more underground because of the influence of super PACs," said Buehler, who suggested limiting political spending instead of fundraising. "When you stop the flow of money in one direction, it very often seeps through the cracks in another."
Buehler's worries about PACs were echoed by high-profile lobbyist John DiLorenzo, who helped lead the late-1990s court fight that overturned Measure 9 -- an earlier attempt to limit campaign cash.
"As states suggest that their candidates should unilaterally disarm," he warned as part of a riff that invoked the Koch brothers, PACs "will pick up the pace and they will drown out the candidates."
But some speakers warned lawmakers that any delays or attempts to soft-pedal the proposed reforms would touch off another voter rebellion.
That may be inevitable. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told reporters Monday that she supports "the constitutional discussion" but wouldn't endorse setting limits. During Tuesday's hearing, Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, also seemed tepid, merely thanking Brown for having "elevated" the issue.
Jim Kelly, the Democratic eastern Oregon rancher who financed last year's failed attempt to create an open-primary system, warned lawmakers that a ballot measure was "all but certain" to appear in 2016 and that it would be "ugly" if lawmakers seemed "too beholden to special interests to make the referral."
"You'll lose face," he said.
Sal Peralta of the Independent Party of Oregon, which qualified as a major party this year, said later that his group was already collecting signatures. He said the Legislature has been seen as "a place where campaign finance reform has come to die year in and year out."
"It has gone absolutely nowhere," he said. "I think by design."
(c)2015 The Oregonian