Eugene Weekly : News : 5.22.08

Buying Votes
Record developer money in election stirs call for reform

Developers, gravel pit, logging, land speculators and other pro-sprawl, anti-environmental interests spent a record breaking $230,000 or more on the effort to install Jim Torrey as mayor.

“I would be very supportive of campaign finance reform,” said Mayor Kitty Piercy, outspent two-to-one by Torrey.

Torrey said his big development donors also give to charity and provide jobs. “I am very proud of the people that have contributed to my campaign,” he said at the May 14, Fox TV mayoral debate.

Many of the development interests backing Torrey also contributed record-breaking amounts to Ward 7 City Council candidate John Crane. By election day Crane had reported $25,500 in contributions, outspending opponent Andrea Ortiz more than two-to-one.

The big development, gravel pit and pro-sprawl money also backed Lane County Commissioner Bobby Green’s re-election campaign. Green’s $105,000 in donations edged out the $97,000 Rob Handy raised, mostly in smaller contributions.

Piercy said she is interested in the “voter owned elections” system of public election financing now in place in Portland. Supporters say the Portland model, enacted in 2005, has transformed local elections by limiting the influence of big donors. The voluntary system requires candidates to get a small number of $5 donations before public financing of the campaign kicks in.

Lane Commissioner Peter Sorenson has proposed a similar system — also in place in Arizona, Maine and four other states — to the Legislature.

Sorenson’s plan would:

• Require candidates to gather $5 contributions and signatures from 0.6 percent of registered voters in a district (about 180 in a House race) to qualify for public financing.

• Provide $2.05 per district registered voter in public financing, about $61,500 for a state House candidate.

• Provide matching funding for qualifying candidates with opponents who outspent them using private money.

• Finance itself through a 10 percent surcharge on all civil penalties and criminal fines, by allowing taxpayers to redirect $5 of their state taxes to the system and by contributions encouraged by a tax credit.

Simply banning big donations could be cheaper than public financing, but that would likely run afoul of the state constitution. In 1997 the Oregon Supreme Court threw out contribution limits approved by voters in 1994, arguing that they violated free speech provisions in the state constitution. The ruling made Oregon one of the few states in the nation with no limits on campaign donations.

In 2006, reformers tried to get around that with a pair of ballot measures. Measure 46 would have amended the constitution to allow limits on campaign contributions. Measure 47 would have limited big contributions.

Big liberal campaign donation groups joined big conservative donors to oppose the measures, splitting reformers into angry camps. While the campaign contribution limits passed, the constitutional amend-ment did not, throwing the whole scheme in doubt.

Even if the state constitutional amend-ment had passed, the contribution limits still may have run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that limits on a wealthy candidate donating to his own campaign or limits to independent expenditures in support or opposition to a candidate are unconstitutional.

Supporters of Measures 46/47 said the high court has more recently loosened its restrictions on campaign finance reforms and could change its mind to allow Oregon’s limits.

A leading campaign finance reform group in Oregon, Democracy Reform Oregon (DRO), is taking a middle approach between the two reform strategies. The group “supports Voter-Owned Elections as well as limits on campaign contributions” through another try at a state constitutional amendment. “Ideal campaign finance reform includes both contribution limits and public financing,” DRO says.

The Eugene City Council enacted a local campaign finance reform measure five years ago, but it has been largely ineffective. The measure allowed candidates to voluntarily limit contributions to $7,500 for city council and $30,000 for mayor. The reward was that the city would run a couple of newspaper ads identifying those who participated in the limit and those who did not. Almost no candidates have used the voluntary system.

Asked if he would support campaign finance reform, Torrey said he supported the little used voluntary system passed while he was mayor. But Torrey faulted even that system for favoring incumbents. “The incumbents have such a tremendous advantage with name familiarity that if you make it an equal number of dollars that each candidate can raise, it is simply unfair.”

However, Torrey had eight years as mayor to generate name familiarity compared to Piercy’s three years.

Incumbent County Commissioner Green told the Eugene City Club in April that his big timber, real estate, gravel pit and developer money “does not mean that I’m on the take.” Green said he does not support campaign finance reform. “Not on my watch. Not while I’m running for re-election.”

Green’s opponent Handy used video of that statement in a TV ad against Green. The ad caused “quite a stir” among voters, Handy said.