Sky's the Limit: Oregon's Unfettered Campaign Finance Laws

There are eleven states in the union that do not put any cap on campaign contributions from individual donors. Oregon is one of them.

Posted: Oct 25, 2018 2:55 PM
Updated: Oct 25, 2018 3:08 PM

SALEM, Ore. — By September, with the most heated month of the race still to come, campaign filings in the 2018 gubernatorial race demonstrated that this was already the most expensive in Oregon's history — rocketing past the 2010 campaign record of $17.7 million.

In September, Republican gubernatorial challenger Rep. Knute Buehler broke his own record for a single contribution with $1 million received from Nike co-founder Phil Knight — who set the first record by giving Buehler $500,000. Incumbent Governor Kate Brown took in her highest single contribution with $500,000 from EMILY's List.

But the growing number of Oregonians who feel that money should not have a such a prominent place in politics must wonder — does it have to be this way?

The answer is no. Not exactly. Of the 50 states in the union, only 11 do not have any cap on individual campaign contributions. Oregon is in the dubious company of Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Virginia — all states that do not impose contribution limits on individual donors.

Among states that do impose limits, New York has the highest cap with $50,000 allowed from a single donor for a gubernatorial campaign. Alaska has the lowest at $500 for the same type of campaign. Most of these states have different limits for the type of campaign — lower ones, generally, for state Senate or House races. Montana allows $170 donations, at the highest, for Senate and House races.

Yet even New York's "high" gubernatorial limit is a far cry from a $1 million donation like Knight's to the Buehler campaign, or even the $500,000 that EMILY's List gave to Brown.

But unfettered spending for individuals is far from the end. Oregon is one of only six states that "allow corporations to contribute an unlimited amount of money to state campaigns," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Oregon is also one of the 13 states that allow PACs (political action committees) to contribute unlimited amounts of money to state campaigns. PACs are organizations formed to pool compaign donations from various donors in order to support or oppose candidates, measures, or laws.

In some states with more robust campaign finance laws, PACs represent a way for corporations to donate more to a cause than they would be able to do on their own. In Oregon, it doesn't matter — since corporate contributions are completely unregulated.

What, if anything, is being done at the ground level to change this current state of affairs? In March of 2018, OPB reported that voters in Multnomah County had approved new limits on campaign donations for candidates running for county office — but a judge struck down the limits as unconstitutional under the state's free-speech standards.

Now that decision may be headed for the state Supreme Court after the Oregon Court of Appeals decided to pass the proverbial buck to the higher court.

Yet the trend among high courts on the role of money in politics have not been reassuring to citizens concerned with the phenomenon — the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 affirmed the idea that campaign contributions operate as a form of speech, allowing for PACs to spend unlimited amounts on broadcasts and communications related to an election as long as they stay independent of a single candidate.

The National Conference of State Legislatures also reports on a similar decision by the Supreme Court. In McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission in 2014, the court decided that it was unconstitutional for the government to regulate how much a single person can contribute during an election cycle. While a state might limit how much money an individual can spend on a single campaign (as in New York or Montana), they cannot limit how much an individual spends on many different campaigns during an election cycle. Some states that used to have these "aggregate" limits have been forced to back down.

There is currently no pending legislation in the Oregon state Senate or House regarding campaign finance laws, according to Ballotpedia.

For a poignant account of how PACs are playing a big role right here in our local elections — funding attack ads that competing candidates both disavow — check out NewsWatch 12's story from earlier this week here.

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