Oregon Must Allow Campaign Contribution Limits

Oregon's Senate Joint Resolution 5 would amend the state's Constitution to allow limits on campaign contributions.

June 8, 2015
Dark money

Cross-posted on Oregon Live

Only six weeks before Election Day 2014, a startling number was reported by the secretary of state, who oversees Oregon's campaign finance law. The chairman of Nike had made a large cash contribution to Gov. John Kitzhaber's re-election campaign. The amount? A quarter million dollars. From a single contributor.

That followed an extraordinary special session of the Legislature — convened by Kitzhaber in 2012 and dubbed by The Oregonian/OregonLive as the "Nike special session" — that resulted in a special tax deal for the company. We may never know if the contribution and tax deal are connected, but the appearance of a quid pro quo is enough to shake Oregonians' confidence in government.

In the Gilded Age, when robber barons wielded large campaign contributions like catnip, ordinary citizens understood that politicians were ignoring their needs and pandering to the wealthy. Eventually, the people had enough and demanded change. Thus began the nation's first campaign finance reform movement.

The movement continues with Senate Joint Resolution 5, which amends the Oregon Constitution to allow campaign contribution limits. If approved by the legislature, SJR5 will go to the voters in 2016, giving the people a choice of whether to join the 44 states that already allow such limits.

It is a major problem that Oregon allows unlimited campaign contributions. According to publicly available information, nearly 70 percent of the funds Kitzhaber raised for his re-election were contributed by just 5 percent of his donors. Not surprisingly, small donors — ordinary Oregonians — had little voice in Kitzhaber's re-election. And the lack of limits in Oregon has allowed our elections to become absurdly expensive. The millions that Oregon candidates raised last year exceeded 33 other states, including several states that are much larger.  

These kinds of numbers can lead many citizens to conclude that they are powerless, fuelling cynicism about the political system. SJR5 gives Oregonians a chance to reclaim their voice in government. Contribution limits would protect the integrity of the democratic process by amplifying voices of ordinary Oregonians and reducing opportunities for corruption. Introduced last January by then-Secretary of State Kate Brown, SJR5 has strong support across the state and the political spectrum. Among its backers are members of the state's Democratic, Republican and Independent parties, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the AARP, the Oregon Student Association, the Sierra Club and the Main Street Alliance.

SJR5 would only allow limits. A separate bill or referendum is required to establish them. And the limits allowed by SJR5 must be reasonable. Too high and they will be ineffective; too low and they will stifle legitimate campaigning, which the Supreme Court has already said is unconstitutional. But without SJR5, Oregonians are powerless to limit contributions to state candidates.

SJR5 is no silver bullet; it will take federal action to fix the damaging effects of Citizens United. But SJR5 will help to limit how much candidates can solicit and receive from big money donors and special interests. This is an historic reform in Oregon that we can pursue now.

This reform gives the people a say in whether campaign contributions should be limited and is an important tool to fight corruption in government. We call upon the Legislature to enact this important measure, and we urge all Oregonians to make their voices heard in demanding this historic reform.

(Photo: Thinkstock)