Oregon labor group launches end run around effort to curb political donations, shed light on dark money

Gun Rights

A political nonprofit long led by Oregon’s powerful public employee unions filed two ballot measure proposals last week that contain an end-run strategy aimed at killing a proposal that campaign finance reformers have been working to qualify for the ballot for more than a year to cap contributions and shed light on dark money.

The two measures that Our Oregon filed to get on the ballot in 2024 would similarly cap the size of political donations, but they would allow unions, business associations and other membership organizations to continue sending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to candidates.

Kate Titus, executive director of good government group Common Cause Oregon, said that Our Oregon’s initiatives are “clearly an effort to try to derail (the proposal for stricter limits) and offer a different alternative.”

“I’m pleased that there’s a proactive movement toward campaign finance reform and more players are looking for ways to do this,” said Titus, who gave input on the development of the reform advocates’ proposal but whose organization has yet to endorse any measure for 2024. “Unfortunately, some of the changes that they’ve made … do appear on the surface to be highly problematic.”

You Might Like

Oregon is one of five states without any limits on political donations and the state is awash in campaign cash, with unions, wealthy donors and other interests spending more than $70 million on the governor’s race last year.

Advocates for campaign finance reform have been trying for years to set statewide limits and they’re currently on track to qualify an initiative for the ballot in 2024. They received a final ballot title in April after a lengthy challenge process that went all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court, and the campaign is now cleared to collect the 112,020 voter signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. The deadline to turn in signatures is July 5, 2024.

Our Oregon is seeking to circumvent that effort, by making its own proposals to voters for comparatively looser spending limits and tucking in a provision that would nullify all of the campaign finance advocates’ contribution limits and dark money transparency requirements, in the event that voters approve two or more proposals next year and Our Oregon’s plan prevails by as little as one vote.

“That competing measure shall be deemed repealed in its entirety by passage of this act,” the language filed by union-backed Our Oregon reads.

Michele Ruffin, executive director of Our Oregon, wrote in an email that “If there is more than one proposal on the ballot next year, the one that Oregon voters prefer is what will ultimately become law, as it should be.”

Beyond that, Ruffin, a former lobbyist for teachers’ union Oregon Education Association, declined to answer specific questions emailed to her by The Oregonian/OregonLive, including why Our Oregon members believe that voters who might end up passing the Our Oregon and campaign finance reform advocates’ proposals next year would want to wipe out one of the measures for which they just voted.

Ruffin also declined to answer why Our Oregon believes a competing ballot measure, with comparatively looser limits on contributions, is necessary.

Dan Meek, an elections lawyer in Portland who has drafted multiple campaign finance laws and is part of the campaign finance advocacy group pushing for more stringent reforms, said “there is no precedent” for Our Oregon’s strategy to wipe out the proposal from Honest Elections Oregon and the League of Women Voters of Oregon, Initiative Petition 9.

“Under current Oregon constitutional law doctrine, the measure with more votes does not cancel out the other measure,” Meek wrote in an email. “Instead, the court examines only places where the two measures conflict, and the measure with the most votes prevails only as to that conflict.”

For example, the proposal from Meek’s group would require specific disclosures on political ads for and against ballot measures. Our Oregon’s proposals contain no such requirement, so if voters approved both proposals, the mandate for ad disclosures would still take effect, Meek said.

One of Our Oregon’s proposals, Initiative Petition 42, would also supersede existing contribution limits in Portland and Multnomah County, effectively doubling the amounts donors could give to candidates, according to Meek, an architect of those local limits. Honest Elections is the group behind those contribution limits that voters passed in Multnomah County in 2016 and Portland in 2018.

Jason Kafoury, a member of Honest Elections and a chief petitioner on Initiative Petition 9, said that he and others involved in the effort “worked for years with lots of national experts” on campaign finance reform. Supporters believe the donor disclosure requirements for political ads would be the strongest in the nation.

Kafoury described Our Oregon’s nullification provisions as a “poison pill” aimed at Initiative Petition 9.

Members of Our Oregon have a lot at stake in what types of campaign contribution limits and political ad disclosures voters might approve next year. Oregon’s deep-pocketed public employee unions founded the political nonprofit more than a decade ago and while the organization has added representatives from other groups that tend to support Democrats in recent years, such as Planned Parenthood, farmworker union PCUN and the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, union representatives have continued to dominate its board, according to nonprofit filings.

As a 501(c)4 nonprofit, a type of entity often referred to as a dark money group, Our Oregon does not have to disclose its donors. Its current board membership is not listed on its website and Ruffin did not respond on Friday to a request for an updated board membership list. One longtime member, SEIU 503, boasts 72,000 union members including roughly half of state government employees, and is a major political donor in the state. It spent more than $3 million to elect Democrat Tina Kotek as governor last year, according to state records.

Notable proposals in Our Oregon’s Initiative Petition 42 and Initiative Petition 43 would:

· Allow a type of political action committee called a “small donor committee” to give potentially hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to a candidate, by setting its contribution limit at $50 multiplied by the number of people who donated to the committee. So a small donor committee that received donations from 10,000 people could give $500,000 to a candidate.

· Allow membership organizations, such as unions, business groups and the National Rifle Association, to fund the equivalent of three full-time staff on every statewide candidate’s campaign for one year.

· Establish a state-level public match for campaigns that meet thresholds for small donor fundraising, including up to $8 million per candidate for governor, $1 million per candidate for all other statewide offices, such as treasurer and labor commissioner, and $500,000 per candidate for state senator and representative. It would be paid for out of the state general fund, which is largely income taxes.

The campaign finance advocates’ plan would also allow certain entities to donate staff time to candidates’ campaigns and it would allow small donor committees to give larger amounts than individuals, but the plan would set much lower limits. For example, the donation cap for a small donor committee would be $20,000 for candidates for statewide office.

The only state that currently allows small donor committees is Colorado, Kafoury and Meek said. In Colorado, those committees can donate up to only $7,825 to candidates for governor.

Our Oregon’s proposals contain the same limits for individuals — $2,000 to a candidate for statewide office — as the campaign finance advocates’ plan, a nod to Democrats’ frustration in recent years at the huge donations by Nike co-founder Phil Knight to Republican candidates for governor and legislative seats. However, Meek noted that Our Oregon’s proposals could actually be business friendly, as they do not contain the prohibition on political donations by foreign nationals and corporations contained in Initiative Petition 9 and they offer opportunities for continued big spending by entities other than just unions.

Ruffin, with Our Oregon, suggested that The Oregonian/OregonLive contact supporters of the group’s two initiative proposals to answer the questions emailed to Ruffin. A spokesperson for Oregon’s largest farmworker union, PCUN, did not respond to the emailed questions. But the group’s field director, April Alvarez, a chief petitioner on the two proposed initiatives, said in a written statement that the proposals “will end the corrupting influence of secret money and bring transparency to political spending in Oregon.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive attempted to reach another group listed as a supporter of the proposals, the Ebony Collective Coalition. But a phone number listed on the group’s website had been disconnected and corporation records at the Secretary of State’s office showed that the entity was dissolved on Aug. 10. A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Justice confirmed the group is not registered as a charity in the state. The Oregonian/OregonLive called two people listed in corporation records for the coalition but did not hear back regarding the organization’s status and its reasons for supporting Our Oregon’s contribution limits proposals.

Oregon lawmakers have repeatedly failed to pass contribution limits, most recently earlier this year. Even when they did spend time seriously considering contribution caps, top legislators allowed political interests to extensively shape the proposals. Advocates for limits tried to get an initiative on the ballot last year, but their proposals were invalidated by former Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat who narrowly won her 2020 primary on a huge wave of public employee union spending. Fagan cited a 2004 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that initiatives must include the complete text of the law at issue, not just the sections that would be changed by the initiative. Previous secretaries of state had only required ballot initiatives to include the word-for-word portion of a law that would be amended, not the sections of it that would be left unchanged.

Oregon voters have repeatedly approved contribution limits, most recently in 2006. However, courts ruled the limits could not take effect because they violated the state constitution. The Oregon Supreme Court reversed that precedent in 2020 but Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and three secretaries of state, including current Secretary LaVonne Griffin-Valade, concluded that the high court’s ruling did not revive the 2006 voter-approved limits, for reasons those officials have refused to describe publicly.

Titus, with Common Cause, said she looks forward to voters weighing in.

“The thing to remember is a loophole for one is a loophole for all,” said Titus. “Letting money rule the day is never going to get us to the type of governing we need, and we should all have a stake in that.”

— Hillary Borrud; hborrud@oregonian.com; 503-294-4034; @hborrud

You Might Like

Articles You May Like

How to Get More Sparks from Flint and Steel
I Wanted To Hate It, ThruNite TH10 V2 Headlamp Review
BangGood Spliced Cushion Sleeping Pad Review – The Outdoor Gear Review
Tactical Pens for Survival & Everyday Use
Gun violence is fueling national trauma, surgeon general warns

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *