Contribution Limits – Comments on Oregon 2019 SJR18

To: Senate Committee on Campaign Finance, Oregon Legislative Assembly

Re: SJR18 Constitutional Amendment to Allow Laws Limiting or Prohibiting Contributions Made to Candidates

As introduced, SJR18 is narrowly crafted to grant the authority to “enact laws limiting or prohibiting contributions received by or made to candidates, or the principal campaign committees of candidates, for nomination or election to public office.” It doesn’t intrude into any areas that might be questionable under the federal constitution.

However, it’s very similar to the failed 2006 Measure 46 that voters’ feared might encroach on free speech rights. Adoption by voters may not be successful.

Further, this approach doesn’t create a settlement of the contested policy of candidate contribution limits. Instead, it opens up a new area of conflict. Incumbent legislators may combine to disadvantage challengers or a future legislative majority may seek to regulate contribution limits to its advantage.

The “-2” amendment takes a better approach by placing a specific contribution limit in the constitution. This would reduce the fears in the public that the contribution limits would be set too low, infringing on free speech rights. It also wouldn’t open up another area of conflict.

I would suggest some refinements:

1) The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the prohibition of contributions to candidates by corporations and unions. These contributions are the highest risk for corruption. They should be banned in the Oregon Constitution. Contributions from foreign nationals should be barred as well. Foreign donations aren’t common, only a few are recorded in OreStar.

2) Limiting per election is the same as at the federal level. However, it would require a change in campaign accounting to implement in Oregon. Using the annual aggregate contributions per donor that are already recorded in OreStar would be simpler and cheaper to implement.

3) The $5,000 limit is in the right range. It’s low enough to curb the enormous contributions seen recently in Oregon and it’s high enough to not interfere with candidates’ ability to run an effective campaign.

4) Indexing based on the Consumer Price Index creates a perverse incentive for elected officials to make decisions that increase the cost of living. Indexing on the Median Earnings for Workers in Oregon published annually by the U.S. Census Bureau would create a virtuous circle encouraging greater shared prosperity.

The current median earnings in Oregon is $30,442. The contribution limit could be set at one-fifth of the median earnings rounded down to the nearest $100 dollars resulting in a current aggregate annual limit of $6,000. Other fractions could also work.

https://factfinder.census.gov/bkmk/table/1.0/en/ACS/17_5YR/DP03/0400000US41

The “-3” amendment expands the measure’s scope to:

  • “regulating the use of moneys in political campaigns”
  • “disclosure of contributions or expenditures”
  • “identify[ing] the persons or entities who paid for the advertisement”
  • “use of moneys in political campaigns permitted under federal law and the Constitution of the United States”

This approach exacerbates the problems with acceptance by voters and opening up conflict. The disclosure provisions also don’t fit within the “Relating To” heading.

Expanding disclosure is potentially beneficial, but should be addressed in a separate measure to reduce the risk that the more important contribution limits would be defeated based on voter objections to the other provisions in the “-3” amendment.