Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, has wasted no time trying to fulfill an election promise by leading a newly formed campaign finance committee that may propose limiting political contributions through an Oregon constitutional amendment.
“This is long overdue for legislative attention,” Golden said. “We need to reform the ways we fund campaigns.”
Golden, a freshman Senator elected Nov. 6, 2018, was named by Senate President Peter Courtney to chair the Committee on Campaign Finance Reform as the legislative session officially started Tuesday.
In the past, the state has attempted to create campaign finance laws, only to see them shot down in the court system.
To avoid that result, Golden said, “We’re looking at creating campaign finance reform that would require a constitutional amendment.”
Golden made a vow not to accept political action committee money during his campaign to show his own efforts to curtail outside influence in his election. He did receive $2,000 from the Jackson County Democratic Party, which he acknowledged is a PAC.
Too often, the political system is hijacked by outside money, including large corporations and political groups hoping to sway politics in Oregon, Golden said.
“My sense is whoever pays for the election owns the system,” he said. “With the right kind of campaign finance reform, it will lead to healthier democracies.”
Golden said Gov. Kate Brown’s office has expressed interest in developing and backing the reform legislation and potentially putting it before voters.
Brown has called on lawmakers to tackle campaign finance reform and said it is a priority during the 2019 legislative session.
Golden said Brown is scheduled to appear at the first committee meeting to show her support.
Creating a reform package that will be acceptable to voters could be a challenge, however.
“I think this is a tough assignment,” said Courtney.
He said Golden approached him with the idea of campaign finance reform, and so Courtney decided to put Golden in charge of the committee.
But Courtney remembers the other attempts that have been shot down by the courts.
“It’s not like we haven’t tried to do something,” he said. “I don’t think we can get there without amending the Oregon Constitution. That’s a very serious matter.”
In 1994, voters approved the Oregon Campaign Contributions, Finance and Spending Limits Act, which changed state statute, not the Constitution. Before it was overturned in the courts, the measure limited contributions and adopted spending limits.
With that defeat still fresh in Courtney’s mind, he said, the only way to truly get campaign finance reform is to try to enshrine it in the Oregon Constitution.
“We’ve tried many other things that have failed,” he said.
Even though campaign finance reform is a hot topic in Salem, Courtney said it’s still unclear what kinds of reforms the committee will propose, particularly ideas that will be palatable to voters who are often loathe to change the Constitution.
Courtney said the current campaign contribution rules have given the impression that there is way too much outside influence on the political process in Oregon.
“Along with it comes the perception that you will be controlled by the money,” Courtney said.
It also leaves Oregon politicians in the position of always seeking money to win elections, and there are plenty of large donors willing to donate to both political parties, he said.
When politicians spend so much time chasing money, they spend less time reaching out to constituents, Courtney said.
He said campaign finance reform will be a tall order for Golden and his committee.
“I think we have to try,” he said.