In 2020, Oregon voters will decide whether the state needs campaign finance reform.
That’s because one of about 100 last-minute bills rushed through the Senate last weekend, after the Republican walkout ended, was Senate Joint Resolution 18. SJR 18 is a referral to voters asking whether they want a state constitutional amendment that allows legislators to set limits on campaign donations.
SJR 18 won broad bipartisan support in the legislature, including “yes” votes from Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Winston, and Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg.
Patrick Starnes, former independent gubernatorial candidate, made campaign finance reform a key issue in his campaign and continued to push for it even after dropping out of the race.
Starnes lauded the legislature’s decision.
“We’re pretty excited about the victory in the 25th hour after eight months of working on this,” he said Tuesday.
However, Starnes said the battle isn’t over. Oregonians can expect the same big-money interests that pour cash into campaign coffers to blitz the state with ads opposing the ballot measure, he said.
The impact of dark money on future elections may be slightly lessened by two other bills that passed the legislature last weekend. One requires that political ads include a tagline listing top donors. The other requires organizations donating significant funding to campaigns list their own top donors.
Starnes said his goal is to ensure that either the money’s taken out of elections, or at the very least, the source of the money is exposed.
“That’s what we want is a people-powered election, rather than a corporate or special interest election,” he said.
Starnes said campaign donors influence decisions legislators make. He cited oil company money fueling the walkout against climate reform, real estate developers influencing housing legislation, and tobacco and pharmaceutical company dollars influencing health care bills.
Large donors are more powerful in some districts than others, Starnes said. Legislators who need less money for their campaigns, such as those in heavily red or blue districts that match their party affiliation, are less susceptible to influence, he said.
The Oregonian/OregonLive recently reported on their analysis of state campaign contribution data. In their listing of the percentage of corporate contributions to overall campaign cash each legislator received, Leif and Heard fell in about the middle of the pack, each with about 50 percent of their funding coming from corporations. Heard balanced that with one of the largest percentages of funding from individual voters, coming in seventh place.
Both have pretty small campaign coffers compared to the war chests of some of their fellow legislators. In 2018, for example, Oregon Secretary of State records show Heard collected about $88,000 in total campaign donations from all sources and Leif $56,000. By comparison, Democratic Senate President Peter Courtney collected $424,000 in 2018; House Republican Leader Mike McLane collected $565,000; and Democratic Rep. Caddy McKeown, covering a purple district including Coos County, collected $981,000.
Heard said Tuesday that both large corporate interests and big labor play a detrimental role in politics when their contributions are uncapped. That winds up affecting the middle class and freedoms and rights affecting all Oregonians, he said.
He said he voted for SJR 18 because he thinks the people should choose whether to set limits on those contributions.
“I want the people to be able to make those decisions. The politicians are not very good at regulating themselves when it comes to this kind of stuff,” he said.