State lawmakers push campaign contribution limits

SALEM — Oregon is among a dwindling handful of states that don't limit contributions to political candidates for state and legislative offices, and two Oregon state representatives say that should change.

A House committee heard testimony Wednesday on separate measures sponsored by Democrat Greg Matthews of Gresham and Republican Bill Kennemer of Oregon City. Both would limit the money that could be given to candidates and political committees.

But those limits can't be put into force unless voters amend the Oregon constitution's free-speech provisions, something they have refused to do. Both legislators propose to ask voters in 2012 to reconsider.

Matthews says Oregonians spend, per capita, more on campaigns than any other state, except New Jersey. He said he was embarrassed to be in a legislative race that cost, between both candidates, nearly $1 million while Gresham was scrounging for money for civic amenities.

Kennemer said the lack of controls allows the political arms of legislative caucuses to launder big contributions and has made campaigns nastier, damaging work at the Capitol.

"You can't beat the living daylights out of people and then sit down here and do business with them," he said in an interview.

The measures face an uncertain future in the Legislature, whose members won their seats under the current rules. Even the measure's backers don't hold out great hope, but they say that just getting a hearing in the House Rules Committee was a good sign.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says three other states allow unlimited contributions, Missouri, Utah and Virginia, while Illinois and New Mexico have recently adopted some limits.

Oregon's free-speech provisions are regarded as broader than even the federal Constitution's First Amendment, and the state Supreme Court has a tradition of expansive readings, including one that says campaign contributions are protected expressions.

Oregon voters have resisted tinkering with the state's free-speech provisions.

In 2006, for example, in the same election, they approved an initiated measure that would have limited contributions in races for statewide offices, but they rejected an accompanying constitutional amendment to grant authority for such restrictions. So, the law they approved has not been enforced.

Matthews proposes limiting contributions during any given election to $1,500 to a candidate and $5,000 to political committees other than a candidate committee. It wouldn't limit contributions from a political party to its candidates.

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