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Oregon labor, business interest groups file challenges to campaign contribution limit proposals

Feb. 25, 2022 Updated Fri., Feb. 25, 2022 at 4:30 p.m.

By Hillary Borrud The Oregonian

Oregon business and labor groups on Thursday filed challenges to three proposed ballot measures that would set campaign contribution limits in the state.

The challenges were anticipated by supporters but nonetheless increase the likelihood that Oregon voters will not get to weigh in on political donation limits, a policy for which voters have repeatedly shown broad support.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, disqualified the proposed measures because she said they should have included the entire texts of laws they would amend, including sections that would be left unchanged. Fagan based her decision on a 2004 Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that previous secretaries of state generally did not follow.

Members of the Oregon League of Women Voters and Honest Elections Oregon are trying to get voters to pass one of their proposals this year, after state lawmakers repeatedly decided not to pass contribution limits. Oregon is one of just five states with no contribution limits and the most contentious legislative races typically draw more than $1 million in spending.

If not for Fagan’s disqualification and the challenges filed Thursday to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s ballot titles summarizing the proposals, supporters could have started to gather signatures on Friday. Anyone trying to get an initiative on the November ballot has until July 8 to turn in 112,020 valid signatures.

Laura Edmonds, chair of the board of the Oregon State Chamber of Commerce, and Christy Mason, interim executive director of Our Oregon, filed the ballot title challenges. Our Oregon is a political nonprofit whose members are public employee unions and other interest groups that tend to support Democrats.

Oregon’s Supreme Court decides ballot title challenges and Mason and Edmonds suggested that the high court should find that Rosenblum improperly issued ballot titles for the proposals, since Fagan had already disqualified them.

Supporters of campaign contribution limits have said that their only remaining chance of getting the issue before voters this year is for the Supreme Court to simultaneously consider their appeal of Fagan’s disqualification of the initiatives and any ballot title challenges.

Otherwise, chief petitioner Jason Kafoury has said, “we’re toast.” That is because it takes months to gather enough signatures to get an initiative on the ballot, especially if supporters do not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay professional signature gatherers, a level of funding that typically requires exactly the type of donors who oppose the contribution limits proposals.

Fagan, who announced her disqualification of the initiative proposals on Feb. 9, two months after supporters filed them, has refused to say whether she supports an expedited review of her decision by the Supreme Court.

Mason, of Our Oregon, argued that the Supreme Court should not expedite review of the proposals and instead direct campaign finance reform activists to seek a lengthier review starting in circuit court.

“Whether a proposal has popular support or whether a final appellate decision may be issued in time to gather signatures has not been, nor should it be, a basis for avoiding the normal judicial review process established by statute,” Mason’s lawyer wrote. She said the circuit court route would allow for more fleshed out court review not “hurried because of pending election deadlines or public pressure.”

Our Oregon’s opposition to the ballot titles largely focused on tweaks to the titles that Rosenblum made in response to earlier critiques from Our Oregon and the Chamber of Commerce.

Edmonds raised concerns that the ballot titles did not flag for voters that the proposals would, according to lawyer Jill Gibson, “prohibit all 501(c)(6) organizations, which are nonprofit business leagues and chambers of commerce, from contributing to campaigns.”

Although individuals and businesses could still contribute directly to candidates and political action committees up to the various limits in the proposals, the proposals would not allow chambers of commerce to make the larger donations that would be allowed for “membership organizations” such as unions and certain political nonprofits.

“This actual major effect is a significant and historic change from current law that would disallow all chambers of commerce in Oregon from financially supporting candidates while allowing labor unions and political advocacy groups to contribute,” Gibson wrote. “Failure to identify this major effect causes the caption to be underinclusive and not substantially compliant with statutory standards.”

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