Adam Davis: Voters support fixing campaign finance potholes

Posted on: July 6th, 2015 by dhm-research

Adam Davis—July 2, 2015
Portland Tribune

You think they would want to start filling the potholes. “They” being the Oregon Legislature, and the “potholes” being the gaps in trust Oregonians have for their state government, not in our roads and highways. Sorry gas tax advocates, this isn’t about you. This is about campaign finance reform.

Not surprising, Oregonians are not giving high marks to their state officials these days, and voters are increasingly feeling that state government is in need of a major repaving job. A majority of Oregonians either have an unfavorable or neutral opinion about the state Legislature and the number feeling “very favorable” is in single digits.

In a recently conducted statewide survey, when asked about their satisfaction with the attention the Oregon Legislature is giving to the important issues we’re facing today, 17 percent of voters were very dissatisfied compared to 7 percent who were very satisfied.

The rest were divided in their assessment. And in focus groups, we hear voters say the Legislature is wasteful and inefficient and not to be trusted to make good decisions.

Underlying these attitudes about the Oregon Legislature are a number of things including a lack of knowledge about what is going on in Salem and the transference of feelings about Washington, D.C., to Salem. But the bottom line is that Oregonians have either negative or neutral feelings (more “I don’t really care”) about the Legislature.

So, wouldn’t you think the Legislature might want to do something about it, like making it constitutionally possible to limit political campaign contributions, which a strong majority of Oregonians support? In a recent statewide survey, 63 percent of Oregon voters said they would vote for, or lean toward voting for, a measure that would amend the Oregon constitution to allow limits on campaign contributions by individuals and organizations.

Oregon is one of six states in the nation that has no limit on political campaign contributions.

It’s not that Oregonians have not made their feelings known. In 1994 and again in 2006 with Measure 47, Oregon voters endorsed campaign limits.

However, Oregon courts have ruled that limiting contributions will require an Oregon constitutional amendment.

A bill to rein-in unlimited campaign contributions (SJR5) was sent to the Legislature by Secretary of State Kate Brown before she became governor. Intended as a very basic referral to the voters, SJR 5 simply authorizes constitutional permission to the Legislature or the electorate to set campaign contribution limits. It doesn’t set limits, just allows them to be set via statutory law.

Key legislators, fearful that the public might set limits too low or fearful that any actual limitation won’t pass constitutional muster or result in independent (dark money) becoming a more potent element of the equation, have bottled up SJR5.

SJR5 is not a heavy lift. Baby steps, please. Time is running out. Don’t miss this opportunity to do something Oregonians support. Clear the way for those contribution limits to be set and enforced.

Then the Legislature can engage Gov. Brown’s proposal for a 15-member task force to recommend what specific statutory changes should be made to Oregon’s campaign finance system. One thing the task force may want to consider is putting limits on ballot measure campaigns in light of voter sentiment.

Why is all this important? There are two more reasons Oregon voters feel negative about state government and don’t trust their legislators.

One is they feel their vote doesn’t count. They pass measures, like they did in 1994 and 2006 for campaign finance reform, and they’re aren’t enforced. And perhaps the biggest reason for their negativity is the belief that big business and the unions are controlling things in Salem with campaign contributions, and instead of the voters, big donors are shaping our state’s future.

Referring an amendment to voters to allow limits on campaign contributions would send a message to Oregonians that the Legislature is listening and, with their support, wants to do business differently. The action would be good pothole repair and help repave voter trust in state government, something very much needed in light of the economic, environmental and social challenges Oregonians see facing our state.

Adam Davis, who has been conducting opinion research in Oregon for more than 35 years, is a founding principal in DHM Research, an independent, nonpartisan firm.

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