Cross-posted from The Register-Guard.
Oregon’s political leaders know they have a big money problem — there’s no limit on the amounts special interests can use to buy influence in Salem. The governor and some legislators are considering a critical fix: capping donations to state candidates. That reform would help reduce the sway corporations and other entities have over Oregon’s laws and people’s lives.
On their own, though, contribution limits wouldn’t change the culture of a state government where legislators have spent years chasing big checks. Oregon must also boost the voices of regular people to ensure they are heard, and small-donor public financing is the best way. By matching and multiplying small donations with public funds, the state would give ordinary people’s needs and concerns a fighting chance against the wealthiest few.
To be sure, contribution caps are important. Oregon is one of only five states that don’t in some way limit the amounts politicians can take. Stopping the biggest checks will reduce the likelihood that campaign cash is used for outright bribes. But in the “super PAC” era, where the courts have blocked legislatures from capping big spending so long as it’s theoretically independent from candidates, limits can’t completely stop big money from flowing in politics.
To truly ensure that politicians are accountable to constituents rather than special interests, the state needs a comprehensive reform package. Along with contribution caps, the state should enact small-donor public financing to fundamentally reshape the way campaigns are financed. This program would allow qualified candidates to raise small contributions from constituents in order to earn public grants that match and multiply those small donations. That would give candidates the option of running without seeking special interest money or dialing for dollars from wealthy individuals.
Small-donor public financing has been successful for more than two decades in New York City, where participating candidates primarily fund their campaigns with small donations and the public match. The system encourages broader and more diverse participation by donors and candidates. Candidates and officeholders report that they can focus on connecting with ordinary constituents. All of this helps prevent corruption and improves public confidence.
Across the country, leaders are turning to public financing to satisfy the popular demand for solutions in an era of skyrocketing campaign donations from the wealthiest interests. In the past few years, eight local governments have established new programs on this model. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an omnibus bill that included small donor public financing. Three weeks ago, New York State created a commission to craft a program for state elections. Oregon could be the first state to create comprehensive statewide small-donor public financing system.
On April 25, concerned Oregonians went to Salem to demand comprehensive campaign finance reform and present petition signatures. The Legislature should listen. Oregon is currently one of the worst states in terms of regulating big money in politics, but it has the chance to lead the nation with reform that would make politics work for everyone.