Oregon High Court Upholds County Limits on Campaign Donations

A state court judge must still decide whether Multnomah County’s limits on campaign donations pass muster under the U.S. Constitution.

(AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

(CN) — Reversing a state court judge, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled Thursday that campaign contribution limits in the state’s elections are legal, paving the way for a transformation from a state with loose campaign-finance laws to one with stringent regulations on political spending. 

“This is a historic day,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “The people of Multnomah County voted to reclaim their power and voice from special interests, and we are proud to have taken decisive action to uphold their will.”

Oregon has historically been extremely permissive in terms of the amount individual donors can give to political campaigns and the amount politicians can accept, prompting concerns among Oregonians that big money has an outsize influence on how the state, counties, cities and towns in the Beaver State are run. 

In November 2016, voters in Multnomah County — the most populous county in Oregon and home to Portland, the state’s largest city — approved changes to the county charter governing campaign finance. 

In 2017, the county moved to adopt the voters’ will into an ordinance but simultaneously asked the county attorney to file papers in the state courts seeking to validate the ordinance, given that campaign contribution limits had been repeatedly and successfully challenged as an infringement on free speech rights. 

The following year, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric Bloch ruled the campaign contribution limits violated the Oregon Constitution and free speech provisions of the U.S. Constitution, rendering the ordinance moot. 

But the county appealed and the Oregon Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision Thursday overturning Bloch’s decision as it relates to the state constitution but remanding the case for Bloch to decide whether the limits infringe federal law. 

“Ultimately, we do not believe that we can have [a free-speech] approach to laws restricting campaign contributions and another for all other laws,” said Oregon Chief Justice Martha Walters on behalf of the unanimous court. 

The implications extend beyond Multnomah County, as state voters passed a measure in 2006 that substantially limited campaign contributions in both state and local races. The initiative was blocked due to free speech infringement issues. 

If the Supreme Court ruled that the legal rationale behind disallowing that measure is no longer valid, some commentators believe those restrictions should go in place immediately. 

Lobbyists in the state feel otherwise and further litigation is likely. 

Sandra McDonough, president of Oregon Business & Industry, said she would like the Legislature to explore instituting limits that are less strict than what was proposed in 2006 — a limit of $1000 for each donor in statewide races and $100 in local races. 

Oregon has historically hosted some of the most expensive statewide elections in history. In 2018, donors spent a record $40 million in the bitterly contested race for governor that saw Democrat Kate Brown prevail over Republican Knute Buehler. 

Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight gave Buehler $2.5 million in a single donation. 

The imminent race for Portland mayor has seen a fair share of high-dollar donations too, raising alarms that the voices of voters are insignificant compared to the influence of deep pockets. 

“By clearing the way for contribution limits, it allows us to limit the influence of money in Oregon politics, strengthens our democratic processes, and returns power to the voters,” said Multnomah Commissioner Susheela Jayapal. 

Apart from further litigation, the question of whether the contribution limits violate the U.S. Constitution still hovers over the case. 

The U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark Citizens United case and others that political spending is equivalent to free speech and limiting spending represents an infringement on First Amendment rights. 

The Oregon Supreme Court sidestepped the issue, saying “we need not wade into that thicket” and instead focused squarely on whether the provisions flouted the Oregon Constitution. Bloch must now decide whether the limits violate the U.S. Constitution.

That decision and the likely appeals that will ensue will decide the fate of campaign finance law in the state of Oregon. 

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