Oregon Supreme Court won’t clear way for voters to consider campaign finance limits

The Oregon Supreme Court Building (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The Oregon Supreme Court on Friday rejected a last-ditch effort to have voters decide whether to limit campaign contributions to those running for public office. 

Proponents of three proposed ballot initiatives had sought the high court’s intervention to be sure the measures got before voters in November.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan last month rejected the ballot measures that would limit how much money individuals, unions and political action committees could give candidates or political action committees, created a new public funding system and required all political advertisements to include disclaimers about who paid for them. 

Fagan said the proposed measures didn’t meet a technical requirement laid out in a 2004 court ruling that petitioners include the full text of the state law they seek to change. They could have refiled their petitions and restarted the lengthy process of getting to the ballot, but they instead asked the Supreme Court to overrule Fagan.

Proponents needed to gather more than 112,000 signatures by July 8 to make the November ballot. 

The measures were being pursued by a coalition of good government groups led by Jason Kafoury, a Portland attorney who cofounded Honest Elections Oregon; League of Women Voters President Rebecca Gladstone and James Ofsink, president of the advocacy group Portland Forward. 

In a five-page opinion, the court wrote that the petitions’ supporters could have avoided any trouble by starting earlier. 

“This is not a case in which exceptional circumstances persuade us that the issue that [the petition backers] raise is so novel and significant, and that immediate resolution is so imperative, that we should exercise our discretionary mandamus jurisdiction on an expedited basis,” the opinion said. 

Fagan praised the court’s opinion, saying that the petitioners chose to file their petition “at the eleventh hour.” 

“Whether by legislators or through the public initiative process, making law takes time, and the Constitution sets the rule of law,” she said in a statement. “There are no shortcuts.” 

Justices left the option for petitioners to ask the court to reconsider its decision by next Tuesday, March 22. Kafoury said he expects to ask the court to reconsider and then appeal in the Marion County Circuit Court if the Supreme Court stands by its decision.

Kafoury said people filing initiatives need more clarity on what they have to include. While Fagan, who took office last year, has consistently rejected petitions that don’t include the full text of all statutes affected by a petition, previous secretaries of state were not as strict. 

While waiting on the court, campaign finance reform advocates will also begin work on ballot measures for 2024 and continue pushing for action from the Legislature. 

“It’s a sad day for our local democracy,” Kafoury said. “It means millionaires, and billionaires will continue to write six- and seven-figure checks, but hopefully we’ll get this fixed in the next couple of years.” 

Oregon is one of five states with no limits on campaign contributions, and it results in some of the most expensive political races in the country. Critics say this gives large donors, including rich individuals and labor unions, too much power over elections. 

Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican opponent spent more than $40 million campaigning for governor in 2018. This year, with no incumbent running and a likely three-way general election, candidates for governor are expected to spend far more.

Money has continued to spread in Oregon’s political system. As voters and political activists started paying more attention to elected offices like school boards and district attorneys in recent years, money followed, according to Gladstone. 

For instance, two candidates for district attorney in Washington County spent more than $1 million on the race in 2018. That office is on the ballot again this year, and Gladstone said it’s likely to be just as contentious this year. 

The three initiatives proposed by Gladstone, Kafoury and Ofsink are among six campaign finance initiatives introduced late last year.

Oregon voters in 2020 overwhelmingly approved a change to the state Constitution to allow state and local governments to set campaign contribution and spending limits and otherwise regulate campaign finance. Efforts by some legislators in 2021 to limit contributions went nowhere, and a coalition of unions, advocacy groups that typically support Democratic politicians and nonpartisan good government groups spent months discussing campaign finance limits. 

By early December, Kafoury, Gladstone and Ofsink filed their proposals, planning to submit just one to voters after polling showed which was the most popular. Two weeks later, unions filed three separate proposals which would limit corporate contributions but had fewer restrictions on membership groups like unions and had less enforcement of campaign finance violations. 

Supporters of those union-backed measures have not yet collected the 1,000 signatures they need for state officials to consider the measures. Only after a proposed ballot initiative gets an initial 1,000 signatures from voters and has been vetted by the secretary of state and attorney general can petitioners begin collecting the 112,000 petition signatures required to make the ballot. 

When Fagan rejected the three initiatives during the 2022 legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, tried to replicate parts of the proposals in an amendment to a bill before the committee he chairs. That try soon fell by the wayside, and Wagner told the Oregon Capital Chronicle he still hopes to see campaign finance limits make it to the ballot in November. 

“If we don’t, then I think it’s absolutely legislators’ responsibility to get this done and to send something out to the voters,” he said. “We’ll see what happens this election cycle but we can’t give up on this. The voters are really clear that they expect reform.” 

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, likewise, said at the end of the legislative session that he intends to push for campaign finance reform in the 2023 Legislature. 

“When we got that news midway through the session, there was no way to really formulate the type of momentum that you need, and thread the needle on a topic that frankly, all 90 members have a different opinion of what that should look like,” he said. “We’ve been trying to do that for years to try and get that done.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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