As Oregon Legislature nears end, campaign reform might be close

As the Oregon Legislature prepares to resume, the fate of campaign finance reform in Portland, Multnomah and statewide may rest on whether a constitutional amendment is approved before the Legislature shuts down.

Activists have urged Democratic leaders to deliver on months of discussions of changing the state Constitution to allow contribution limits. And as of Friday afternoon, it suddenly looked like it might happen — but it will be tight. The Senate is scheduled to vote on a referral to statewide voters on Saturday, and if it’s approved there then House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, says the House will expedite consideration of the idea.

“Even though it would be late getting to our chamber, we would expedite its review,” said a spokesman in an email.

The League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Honest Elections and OSPIRG, the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, sent out a joint statement Friday urging movement on the measure, called Senate Joint Resolution 18, which would give voters the opportunity in November 2020 to change the Oregon Constitution to clarify that contribution limits are legal.

Currently, Oregon is one of a handful of states that does not limit contributions. Later this year the Oregon Supreme Court is scheduled to decide the constitutionality of the Multnomah County reform measure approved in 2016 — and could consider the city version passed by Portland voters in 2018 as well. 

But if the Senate constitutional referral is approved by voters, it could ensure the city and county measures go into effect regardless of what the Supreme Court decides.

On Friday Senate leadership scheduled the referral for a vote on Saturday. Earlier this month, Willamette Week reported that House Speaker Tina Kotek is undecided on whether to support it. But House leaders now suggest it has good odds.

“The situation in the Senate has added a lot of uncertainty to the end of the session. We’ll be closely watching everything that the Senate is able to move in the next two days,” said a statement issued by House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson. “House Democrats are committed to serious campaign finance reform and have acted on several bills this session to begin lessening the impact of money on politics.”

Speaker Kotek issued her own comment, saying, “The Speaker is focused” on two related bills passing, and “is frustrated that the Senate will not pass a contribution limit bill (HB 2714).”

The statement noted that the Senate’s voter referral would need to go through the House’s committee process assuming it passes the Senate, but the Speaker would “expedite its review.”

Members of the board of commissioners for Multnomah had sent a letter to legislative leaders on Wednesday asking them to schedule the resolution for votes as soon as possible.

“We believe campaign finance reform directly affects voters and that they should be allowed to weigh in by considering this amendment,” the commissioners wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to Senate President Peter Courtney, Speaker Kotek, Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson.

The Portland City Council has been considering whether to send its own letter to legislative leaders, but as of mid-day Friday had not agreed on what to say.

“It is unclear at this time whether a letter will be sent,” said Tim Crail, chief of staff to Commissioner Amanda Fritz in an email late Thursday, adding that Fritz supports SJR 18. Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly have been vocal in their support of the local measures.