PORTLAND – A Portland advocate for limits on political donations has filed a complaint with the Oregon Secretary of State’s office seeking to enforce a 2006 voter-approved campaign finance law that capped donations from any one individual at $100 for most races.
Ron Buel’s complaint focuses on a recent $150 donation by May 2020 Portland City Council candidate Seth Woolley to Woolley’s own political action committee, but the complaint could have vast implications.
Voters in 2006 approved Measure 47, which capped donations at $500 for statewide office and $100 for legislative and local government races. That statute, however, remained dormant due to Oregon Supreme Court rulings that political money limits would violate broad free speech guarantees in the state constitution.
Then in April, the state Supreme Court flipped decades of legal precedent and ruled campaign contribution limits are allowed under the Oregon constitution. The court decision was in a case dealing with local campaign finance limits that Multnomah County voters approved in 2016.
The question was whether Measure 2006 and its state level donation limits took effect upon the 2020 state Supreme Court ruling.
Buel insists in Thursday’s complaint that it did. He asked the state to find Woolley’s political action committee violated state law.
But in the wake of the high-court ruling, Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno and Democratic Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum decided it didn’t bring the voter-approved limits to life. They concluded that the 2006 contribution limits did not take effect upon the Supreme Court’s ruling, although they have refused to share their reasoning with the public and Rosenblum’s office only provided a verbal opinion to Clarno.
With Clarno and Rosenblum’s decision, huge campaign contributions have continued to pour into campaigns this election year. Democratic secretary of state candidate Sen. Shemia Fagan, of the Portland area, has pulled in $418,000 from the state’s largest public employee union SEIU 503 and $279,000 from the public employee union AFSCME, according to state data. Republican secretary of state candidate Sen. Kim Thatcher, of the Salem area, recently received a $100,000 donation from southern Oregon resident named Francis E. Fowler IV, whom OPB reported might be the grandson of a liquor magnate.
Dan Meek, a lawyer who wrote Measure 47, designed it with the goal that constitutional portions of the statute could take effect while any provisions that are not constitutional would remain dormant. Meek and Buel have collaborated on efforts to get campaign contributions at the local and state level in Oregon, including a proposed 2020 ballot initiative that they ultimately dropped when lawmakers referred a similar measure, now known as Measure 107, to voters this fall. Measure 107 would only allow recent campaign finance laws to take effect, not the 2006 voter approved law.
Buel’s challenge matters because Oregon elected officials and other political insiders generally want to write their own campaign contribution and spending limits, rather than be forced to abide by the low $100 and $500 limits Meek proposed and voters approved more than a decade ago.
At least one public employee union leader and lawmakers including Fagan, the Democratic secretary of state candidate, say there should be an exemption from campaign finance limits for political groups such as the unions that bundle donations from members.
Buel said in an interview Friday that if lawmakers pass campaign finance limits next year, he anticipates the legislation would be tailored to preserve some elements of Oregon’s current political money and power ecosystem.
“The Legislature, it can’t reform itself,” Buel said. “What’s gonna happen is not about limits. It’s gonna be about these side issues and how the system works.”