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Campaign Spending Limits Could Be Coming to Portland Ballot

Strict limits on campaign spending that voters placed on Multnomah County government in 2016 are still in legal limbo. That’s not stopping backers of the law from seeking out an even larger target.

They’re coming for the City of Portland.

On Friday afternoon, a campaign calling itself Honest Elections Portland planned to submit roughly 55,000 signatures to city officials—more than 20,000 more than the number of valid signatures required to make the November ballot.

If they’re successful, campaigners will make the same case that they did to Multnomah County voters two years ago: that Oregon’s lax campaign finance laws lead to extremely expensive campaigns, and discourage candidates who aren’t wealthy or connected from running for public office.

“We feel extremely confident that we’ve reached our goal,” said Portland attorney Jason Kafoury, a central proponent of the campaign finance rules. “The truth is, the big money in our city comes out in the City of Portland races much more than in the county races.”

Under the changes Kafoury and others are proposing to the Portland City Charter, candidates for mayor, city commissioner, or auditor could only accept up to $500 from individuals or political action committees. Deep-pocketed supporters would also be limited in the amount they could spend independently to help a candidates’ chances—say, on TV ads or mailers.

Those limits would amount to an enormous change in Portland, where front-runners for mayor and city commissioner routinely accept checks worth thousands of dollars. In a competitive race for an open city council seat this year, expenditures have so far topped $725,000, with the remaining candidates still gearing up for a bruising general election fight. 

And the spending limits have been popular with voters. In 2016, they passed overwhelmingly, with roughly 89 percent of the vote.

But their legality is still in question.

In March, a Multnomah County judge ruled against the finance limits, finding they violated state free speech protections. Earlier this week, supporters filed notice they’d appeal the decision. In the past they’ve indicated they’ll request that the matter be put before the Oregon Supreme Court.

Even with that uncertainty, Kafoury says the law has made a difference in Multnomah County elections.

“We’re changing the culture of how local races are run,” he said. “If you look at Multnomah County elections, after the voters passed it, almost every candidate followed the will of the voters and did the contribution limits.”

To gather signatures, supporters of the campaign finance limits teamed up with backers of a proposed new business tax in Portland aimed at finding money for green energy projects. To qualify, they must turn in 34,156 valid signatures by 5 pm on Friday.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting