Matt Bors

State Representative Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) and Portland attorney Dan Meek agree on two things: Corporate contributions to political campaigns are corrupting democracy, and something should be done to fix the problem. But when it comes to designing a system that accomplishes the latter, they—and their supporters—could hardly agree less. And their conflict of ideas could very well fracture the state's progressive community.

But it wasn't always so. In late summer of 2004, Buckley and Meek began working on legislation that would limit contributions to candidates by corporations and unions, as well as limit independent expenditures (campaign activity by outside organizations) and personal spending by candidates. Like most of the bills debated in last year's legislative session, their reform died a quiet death.

So they did what many other disappointed legislators have done: took it to the voters through the initiative process.

The reform is split into two parts. Initiative Petition 8 is a constitutional amendment allowing for restrictions to campaign contributions (currently, all contributions are considered free speech and protected from limitations—one of the reasons why Oregon is one of only a handful of states with no campaign limits). A second initiative, the 16-page Petition 37, lays out the specific regulations—like forbidding contributions from unions and corporations, and forcing political organizations to only give money through "small donor committees" funded by donations of $50 or less.

But when the petitions were approved by the state and began gathering signatures, unions (like the Oregon AFL-CIO) and a handful of lefty groups (Our Oregon and the local chapters of Planned Parenthood and NARAL, etc.) began criticizing the plan, saying it would effectively shut them out of the elections process. Specifically, it would mean that these groups could no longer donate money directly to campaigns, and would have to create small donor committees to bundle smaller donations. At the same time, some conservative groups, like Oregon Right to Life, which already receive most of their funding from donations of $50 or less, wouldn't have to change their procedures—thereby giving them the advantage in influencing elections.

Additionally, Buckley told the Mercury that numerous legal experts advised him that at least two elements of Petition 37 (limiting independent expenditures and personal spending by candidates) would be struck down by the state Supreme Court.

"We have a Supreme Court that upholds pole dancing as free speech," Buckley said. "I have every reason to believe that they'll uphold someone funding their own campaign."

By late 2005, Buckley pulled his support—although he is technically still a co-chief petitioner. Then, last week, he filed his own far less complex measure—Petition 150—a constitutional amendment that would only forbid campaign contributions from corporations and unions. Organizations and political action committees (PACs) would still be able to contribute, without any rules on how much—or how little—money their members can contribute. The measure would also forbid individuals from spending any more than a total of $15,000 for all statewide races.

Almost immediately, Meek began blasting away at Buckley's proposal.

"[My] first critique, of course, is that it's not serious," Meek said in an email. "If anyone challenges the ballot title to the Oregon Supreme Court, then he cannot start collecting signatures until probably mid-May, leaving only six to seven weeks to collect 101,000 valid signatures, or about 140,000 raw signatures. It's quite likely to be impossible."

Further, Meek argues, Buckley's proposed amendment is ineffective because it leaves too many gaps, like allowing political organizations to make independent expenditures (i.e., running their own ads for or against candidates) and not limiting wealthy candidates from using their own money—effectively "reserving important public offices for those wealthy enough to personally fund their own campaigns," according to literature from Meek's FairElections Oregon, the organization behind the initiatives.

Even though Buckley's ballot measure could still be weeks away from even gathering signatures, the split between the two sides is already starting to surface. Buckley's proposal hasn't yet been officially endorsed by any groups, but observers can expect Meek's opponents (unions, Planned Parenthood, et al.) to get behind the less far-reaching reform. Supporting Meek's FairElections group are groups like the Pacific Green Party and Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG).

Of course, opposing both groups will be corporate interests and wealthy donors who want to maintain the status quo. If progressives split down the middle with competing reforms, the corporations just might get their wish.