SALEM -- Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, said Monday that he plans to introduce legislation restricting so-called pay-to-play politics -- a scenario in which businesses, nonprofits or labor unions holding contracts with the state give campaign contributions to elected officials with sway over those contracts.
Buehler told The Oregonian/OregonLive during an interview at his Capitol office that some businesses or unions are "too cozy" with the elected officials who oversee their contracts. He said it's "clear" that pay-to-play "loopholes" ought to be closed.
"The practice is pretty common in Oregon, unfortunately," Buehler said. "We need to restore confidence in state government."
The introduction of Buehler's bills coincides with an opinion piece published Monday in Forbes that purports to show that, since 2012, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum accepted $805,876 worth of campaign donations from state contractors -- some of which have business agreements with the state worth billions of dollars. Chris Pair, Brown's press secretary, declined to comment.
Rosenblum spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson said the state Department of Justice doesn't spend as much with contractors as the piece implies because it listed maximum contract values rather than actual payout amounts. Edmunson said the piece made other mischaracterizations, including suggesting Oregon's justice department employs an outsized number of employees because it has more on the payroll than justice departments in some larger states. Unlike other state Justice Departments, Oregon's includes a large child support enforcement division, she said. Edmunson did not dispute that contractors made donations to Rosenblum.
Buehler, a moderate Republican and likely challenger to Brown in the 2018 gubernatorial contest, said he's been drafting the anti-pay-to-play legislation for months. He said the bills were inspired by legislation pushed in Congress by U.S. Sen Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
"This is something Wyden has been advocating for with bipartisan support," Buehler said.
Two bills will be introduced, he said. House Joint Resolution 17 would amend the Oregon Constitution -- subject to voter approval -- to outright ban corporations, nonprofits and labor unions from making contributions to candidates or political action committees. House Bill 2914 would require prospective contractors to publicly disclose the top five candidates or campaigns that the contractor has given money to.
Buehler speculated that labor unions and large contractors would be opposed to the bills. He's not wrong.
Steven Demarest, president of Service Employees International Union Local 503, the largest public-employee labor union in Oregon, said in a statement that Buehler's proposal is "shameful." The bill would make it so working-class Oregonians who pool political funds through a union can't participate, Demarest said, leaving politics to "corporations and the ultra-wealthy."
Buehler's proposals may also face legal tests if they become law.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told reporters Monday that Buehler's bill may push the limits of free speech restrictions, saying, "I do think we want to make sure that we're not inhibiting political expression."
Legislative lawyers told Buehler's staff that it's "very possible" that the resolution banning donations altogether would be challenged in court, but is likely to survive such a challenge.
-- Gordon R. Friedman
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