Fans of limiting the influence of money in elections want Multnomah County to be the slingshot that knocks out legal rulings that block state and national reforms.

A variety of Portland-area residents and local and state organizations have come together around Multnomah County Measure 26-184, a campaign finance reform law placed on the ballot by the county’s charter review committee that convenes every six years to consider reforms.

The measure has drawn the most organized support of any of the five proposed by the charter committee. The goal is to pass a law that is challenged all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Not only do we expect it, we welcome that challenge,” says one of several residents promoting the measure, Juan Carlos Ordóñez. “It will hopefully give an opportunity to the courts to do the right thing to revisit those actions that have been detrimental to our political system.”

Ordonez, who works for the left-leaning Oregon Center for Public Policy, says he was chairing a subcommittee of the charter review panel when the idea was brought to them. It fit right into his beliefs about the corrosive impact of money in politics.

“I thought, ‘You know what? We have an opportunity here to do something of great benefit to our county and potentially to our state and nation,’ “ he says.

The measure would apply only to county candidates running for the board of commissioners, sheriff and auditor. It includes the following provisions:

- Contributions are limited to $500 from any individual or political action committee. Small-donor committees would have no limits on contributions to candidates and could accept $100 from each individual each year.

- Individuals’ independent expenditures are limited to $5,000 per race. PAC independent expenditures face limits of $10,000 per race, but can only be funded by individual contributions of $500 or less. Small-donor committee independent expenditures have no limits.

- Candidate voter communications must disclose the five largest “original” funding sources over $500.

- Entities that spend more than $750 per election must register and report funding sources.

-Violators will be fined.

Dan Meek, a lawyer and campaign finance activist who urged the committee to put the measure on the ballot, says the goal is to take on the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United, and a 1997 Oregon Supreme Court ruling, Vannatta v. Keisling.

The federal ruling blocks caps on independent expenditures, and has been faulted for creating huge new loopholes for political money to avoid limits and public disclosure.

The state ruling makes it hard to approve contribution limits, which explains why Oregon is one of only a few states to lack them.

The county charter measure faces no organized opposition, but has raised concerns.

County Commissioner Loretta Smith made an impassioned plea to the charter review committee in opposition to the measure, saying that Multnomah County races tend to be friendly toward women and minorities, and handicapping those candidates would obstruct them from successfully running for higher office.

Multnomah County Auditor Steve March, in a July 6 letter to the charter committee, called the measure “misleading and misdirected,” adding that money is not a problem in county elections, that elections enforcement would add new costs to the county, and so would the legal costs of defending the measure in court.

The rulings questioned by the measure’s backers “are worthy targets,” wrote March, formerly a Democratic lawmaker, “but the county shouldn’t be used as the tool for that fight and shoulder the cost of it.”

Supporters, who call themselves Honest Elections Multnomah County, say the measure would help the county. And Meek thinks it has a good chance of success in court.

He says the contribution limits that would go to the Oregon Supreme Court have been upheld elsewhere. On the federal level, the death of Antonin Scalia leaves the U.S. Supreme Court without its most bitter foe of contribution limits, and other turnover may soon follow.

There is one type of campaign contribution that does not offend the measure’s supporters: contributions to measure campaigns such as its own committee, which is registered with the Secretary of State’s office.

At press time the group had reported a single contribution, $20,000 from the Oregon Giving Back Fund, a nonprofit founded by the late campaign reform activist Harry Lonsdale.

Limits in the Multnomah County measure only apply to candidate races and not to measures, Meek says, adding that more sweeping limits would open a “can of worms.”

How much does the group plan to raise?

“Very little,” laughs Meek, predicting that large givers would look to other causes.

The goal ?

“Whatever is possible.”

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