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Campaign finance limits crafted by major donors will now go before Oregon lawmakers

FILE: Oregon Capitol building in May 2021.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
FILE: Oregon Capitol building in May 2021.

Some of Oregon’s most influential political donors say they’ve crafted a viable system for limiting campaign contributions in the state — and they’re hopeful lawmakers they’ve supported over the years will pass it in the next 16 days.

Following weeks of negotiations, the state’s largest labor unions and business coalitions unveiled a proposal Thursday they say walks a fine line.

The bill would limit how much businesses, political committees, interest groups, labor unions and everyday Oregonians could donate to campaigns and causes beginning in 2026. But those limits are high enough, backers contend, that the state will not see a rush of “independent expenditures,” political ads funded by outside groups without the knowledge of the political candidate they are helping.

“There’s something in this for everybody to hate, but at the end of the day, we are trying to come up with a system that works,” said Preston Mann, political affairs director for Oregon Business & Industry, the state’s largest business coalition.

Mann discussed the proposal in an interview alongside representatives from public-sector labor unions and advocacy organizations that businesses often oppose in policy and political matters. The two sides have been thrust together, they say, because of strict finance limits put forward by good government groups that could go before voters in November.

Business and labor groups are trying to get ahead of that proposal by passing something through the Legislature instead. They’ve been working to shop their idea to top Democrats and Republicans in recent days.

The bill was introduced as an amendment to House Bill 4024. The negotiated proposal was put forward by House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, whose has made clear she would like to pass a bill this year. The House Rules Committee Fahey chairs took it up on Friday.

“We think the current system, frankly, works just fine,” Mann said, speaking for Oregon Business & Industry. “But we’re responding to a reality where campaign finance reform is coming. The days of the current system are over.”

The union and business proposal was already being criticized Thursday by Honest Elections Oregon, one of the groups putting forward the proposed ballot measure, currently known as Initiative Petition 9. The group was circulating a detailed list of flaws it sees in the labor and business proposal, suggesting the bill contains broad loopholes, weak enforcement provisions and lax disclosure rules that will allow big money to continue to flow to candidates.

“As drafted, good government advocates have serious concerns that the limits will still allow Oregon’s biggest spenders to write huge six-figure checks,” said Jason Kafoury, a member of the group. “We hope the Legislature listens to feedback from national experts and campaign finance reform advocates and is willing to make substantial changes.”

Oregon is one of just five states with no limits on political giving. Labor unions and business interests have long used the permissive system to their own ends, often backing opposing political candidates. Lawmakers have debated campaign finance limits for years, but always failed to act.

“The Legislature is great at kicking hard things down the road,” said Phil Bentley, president and CEO of the Oregon Health Care Association and one of the people who negotiated the bill. “If they don’t have to make a hard decision, sometimes they won’t. But once they feel like they have to, I think they have the capacity and the interest and the desire to do it.”

In general terms, the business and labor proposal creates a complex series of limits for a wide range of groups and committees that might give to a candidate or cause. Those limits would kick in at the beginning of 2026, a provision that would allow candidates and political action committees to amass a war chest all next year, diminishing the impact of limits for the 2026 midterm elections.

Under the bill, any “person” would be limited to giving $3,300 to a state or local candidate. That’s on par with federal contribution limits and, like federal limits, the amount would rise with inflation.

Critics point out that “person” has a broad meaning in legal terms, and can apply to anything from an individual to a multinational corporation. The same “persons” could give up to $10,000 a year to political committees and an unlimited amount to “membership organizations,” each of which have their own giving limits.

The proposal would offer its highest giving limits to “small-donor committees,” political groups that could accept no more than $250 from any given person, and which are expected to be used extensively by labor unions. Under the proposal, any such committee could give $33,000 to a candidate every election, for every 2,500 individual donors it has. That means a committee that attracts 5,000 donors could give a candidate $132,000 between a primary and general election.

Another entity that would have higher giving limits is what the bill calls “membership organizations” — nonprofit organizations formed by business interests, advocacy groups, or any other interested party. They could accept unlimited donations, give candidates up to $16,500 every election — up to $33,000 an election cycle — and also pay for staffing costs for campaigns that critics say could equate to hundreds of thousands of additional dollars.

Business and labor groups say they were able to achieve agreement on the system, in part, because of the looser limits it grants these membership groups and small-donor committees.

“This is a system where there’s some equality and reflects the different organizational interests,” Bentley said.

The proposal also would create a new system for forcing disclosure of “independent expenditures,” money that is spent in support of a candidate without the candidate’s knowledge or blessing. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such spending amounts to free speech, and cannot be limited.

Under the bill, any group that spent at least $50,000 on independent political spending in a single election cycle would be forced to report large donors of more than $5,000 to the Oregon Secretary of State. The Secretary of State’s Office would create a new online database to display that information for voters.

The bill’s backers say the disclosure idea is an attempt to address the concerns of good government groups, who say “dark money” spending that can’t be legally capped should at least be forced to unveil its donors.

“We definitely agree … that there is need to be transparent, especially around independent expenditures where there isn’t as much transparency,” said Louis De Sitter of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Whether or not the proposal can win over Democrats and Republicans, who have shown stark disagreements over campaign finance in the past, is unclear. But the fact that labor unions — major Democratic benefactors — are finding agreement with business groups that overwhelmingly support Republicans suggests a compromise is possible.

Even if lawmakers do pass limits, however, voters could still see a proposal on the ballot. The groups backing Initiative Petition 9 showed no sign Thursday they would be willing to abandon the effort.

“We would love to see the legislature accomplish this critical issue for our democracy,” Common Cause Oregon, one of the ballot measure’s backers, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the current proposal does not serve the goals we support.”

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for KLCC. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.