A Multnomah County judge heard hours of what he said were “illuminating” arguments Tuesday for why new political campaign spending limits should be allowed or overturned.
Multnomah voters overwhelmingly approved new limits on campaign contributions last year. But the Oregon Supreme Court, citing the state constitution’s strong free speech protections, has largely said no, no, no.
Oregon remains one of just six states with no limits on campaign donations and spending. State law also allows individuals and groups to pay for political ads without disclosing that they are the source.
Debate over the voter-approved contribution caps and disclosure requirements has pitted the county and a group of activists against a slew of business groups — the Portland Business Alliance, Taxpayer Association of Oregon, Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, and Oregon Business and Industry.
Proponents of the limits argued Tuesday that money can corrupt elections and the limits voters approved aren’t absolute. Opponents, however, said giving money to political campaigns is tightly intertwined with an individual’s — or a corporation’s — ability to engage in protected political speech.
The measure passed last year restricts political giving to candidates for Multnomah County office by individuals and political action committees to $500 per year. Individuals and groups can still make so-called “independent expenditures” — spending on ads not approved by the candidate or made in coordination with them — of up to $5,000 and $10,000 respectively.
The new law also requires political ads to display names of the top five donors that paid for the ad.
Assistant County Attorney Katherine Thomas said the county’s goal is to “uphold the will” of the voters, who approved the spending limits with an 89 percent “yes” vote. She acknowledged the “complex constitutional issues” at hand, but said courts have “shown tolerance for these types of restrictions” and asked Multnomah County District Judge Eric Bloch to uphold the contribution limits.
“There’s no overall limit on the amount of money that a candidate can receive,” Thomas said in defense of the new law, noting that campaigns can line up many, many small donors. “And the contribution limit doesn’t put any restriction on how that money can be spent.”
Attorney Owen Yeates, representing the Taypayer Association of Oregon, countered: “It doesn’t matter if 89 or 99 percent of the voters agree to something if it tramples on the rights of voters and of speakers in the county,” he said.
“We have to protect the ability of people to make meaningful communications to the public. And here, that costs money,” said Yeates, of the Center for Competitive Politics, a Virginia-based group that has argued against campaign finance limits.
Bloch, the judge, promised to provide as a ruling “as quickly as I possibly can.” That’s expected to be before September 1, when the new campaign spending limits take effect.
He said his decision will likely not be the final one, given that both sides have indicated their openness to appeals.
“I understand that there may be some additional courts that weight in,” Bloch said, “regardless of how I rule here.”
— Gordon R. Friedman