SALEM — Small donors underwent big scrutiny last week in the state capital.
In Oregon, a campaign donor must give a total of $100 in a calendar year to an individual candidate or committee before his or her name and address become publicly available in a database of campaign finance transactions.
One proposal lawmakers are considering would eliminate that limit, making the provenance of all donations public. Another would create a publicly-funded donation-matching system intended to incentivize small donor participation.
Both were heard by the House Committee on Rules Feb. 28.
Under the public finance proposal, sponsored by Rep. Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis), eligible candidates for office who agree to only take small donations would receive six times the amount of each contribution from state government — though the total contribution per candidate would be capped.
The proposal to remove the $100 limit before records of a donation's origin becomes public is sponsored by Rep. Julie Parrish (R-Tualatin), who says the change would promote transparency.
Secretary of State Dennis Richardson also supports that bill, according to written testimony. According to his office, the initiative may cost about $380,000 to get off the ground.
The secretary of state's office says "miscellaneous" contributions, as contributions less than $100 are classified in the public database, added up to about $7.5 million in the 2015-2016 election cycle.
Those transactions are visible and are counted toward the total donations that committees receive — but the public doesn't know where they come from. Oregon has no limits on campaign donations.
Oregon Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, opposes the proposal, according to written testimony submitted by its executive director, Gayle Attebery. She said that the requirement would disincentivize contributors from making small donations because they wouldn't want their information to be visible publicly. The database, called Orestar, is accessible to anyone with Internet access.
The public financing proposal is similar to the city of Portland's program, which was approved by the city commission and was supported by organizations such as The Bus Project and Common Cause in public testimony.
Under the proposal, beginning in the 2018 election, a candidate for governor who is eligible and opts into the program could receive up to $9.59 million in public funding. A candidate for state senator could receive up to $1.15 million and a candidate for state representative, $740,000.
Susan Mottet, state legislative director for Every Voice, an organization that advocates for public funding of campaigns, told lawmakers that public funding mechanisms for political campaigns encourages diversity in two ways. Under New York City's program, Mottet said, the city increased the number and diversity of political donors to city elections. It also saw more diversity in who chose to run for office — and who won.
However, state Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), pushed back against the proposal last week, claiming the program represented a government "subsidy" of political speech.
Oregon has a political tax credit that allows donors to campaigns to recoup up to $50 per single filer and $100 per jointly filed tax return.
Rayfield argued that the state is already sacrificing money to subsidize elections through the credit — and, he contends, most people who take advantage of it exceed the state's median income.
Under the proposal, only contributions from individuals would be matched. Donations from businesses or political action committees to participating candidates would be excluded and would be capped.
A publicly funded program may face other challengers in light of the state's $1.6 billion budget shortfall.
Several other campaign- and election-related bills are making the rounds in the Legislature:
- Senate Joint Resolution 2 would allow Oregonians to register to vote until the day before elections.
- Another proposal sponsored by Rayfield would beef up state regulation of independent expenditures — a type of spending on political communication, such as TV ads, that advocacy groups and political action committees make to promote or oppose candidates or initiatives. They're called independent expenditures because they are not technically made in coordination with candidates.