Oregon is the Wild West when it comes to campaign contributions, and there's a bill shooting through the Legislature that would make a bad situation worse.
Oregon is one of only four states that let any person or group funnel unlimited donations to a candidate or cause.
Fortunately for the public, Oregon also has one of the nation's most transparent campaign finance reporting systems. The ORESTAR system, maintained by the Elections Division of the Secretary of State's Office, provides easy searching and robust records. Any candidate, measure campaign or independent expenditure effort must disclose the source of any contribution exceeding $100 within a month of receipt (that deadline gets shorter as Election Day approaches). In 2008, a UCLA study rated ORESTAR the nation's best electronic filing program and rated Oregon's campaign disclosure law second best.
But Senate Bill 270a, which passed the Senate unanimously March 2, threatens the public's ability to see who is giving what to whom.
That's because a provision in the bill awaiting a House work session reduces the penalty for nondisclosure from 10 percent of the amount a committee failed to report to a maximum of $5,000 per month.
In essence, that would create a temptation for campaigns to pay the $5,000 as a cost of doing business and never report donations because the $5,000 limit is potentially far less than prospective current penalties.
"[The bill] would eviscerate the Oregon campaign finance reporting system, leaving well-funded campaigns the option of not reporting their contributions at all," says Dan Meek, a public-interest lawyer with Fair Elections Oregon.
Meek, a longtime advocate for campaign finance limits, testified against the provision in a House Rules Committee hearing March 28.
"For large campaigns, it may well cost more than $5,000 in some months just to comply with existing ORESTAR requirements," Meek said. "So it would be cheaper simply not to report contributions at all for such months."
The change is aimed at reducing the liability of campaign treasurers, most notably Kevin Neely of the company C&E Systems, which serves as treasurer for many Democratic campaigns. In legislative testimony, Neely told lawmakers he and other treasurers are on the hook when campaigns employing them fail to file disclosures or file them on time.
In recent election cycles, legislative races have topped a combined $1 million in expenditures for one seat. And the 2010 governor's race saw Republican Chris Dudley and Democrat John Kitzhaber spend nearly $20 million combined. Ballot measure campaigns also regularly spend in the millions of dollars.
In such races, money tends to flow to candidates more heavily as Election Day looms. Information about who is supporting whom and how much is important as voters weigh their choices.
Meek and his ally, Sal Peralta of the Independent Party of Oregon, have testified about the strategic and financial motivations of campaigns skipping reporting requirements and simply paying $5,000.
But their concerns have been ignored so far in Salem.
After seeing the bill get 29-0 approval in the Senate, Meek sharpened the point of his testimony in the House.
"The Secretary of State's Director of Elections testified at the Senate Rules Committee that the Secretary of State [Brown] is neutral on this bill," Meek said. "We call upon the Secretary to take a stand and demand the removal of [the $5,000 maximum fine].â
But neither Stephen Trout, the elections director, nor Brown has taken that stand.
âWe are neutral on the bill,â Trout told WW, repeating the position he established in legislative testimony. âIf the Legislature feels itâs OK, itâs OK with us.â
Meek is unhappy with that response. "This bill creates a giant loophole," he says. "It's ridiculous."
FACT: The Elections Division has levied eight fines in excess of $5,000 since 2008. The largest, $37,000, fell in 2008 on the Coalition for a Healthy Oregon, which supported a cigarette tax increase.