This was no ordinary legislative session for democracy reform!
Right out of the gate, Gov. Kitzhaber resigned suddenly amid charges of ethics violations. The scandal made government ethics the hot issue of the day.
Stepping into the governor’s seat, Secretary of State Kate Brown responded to the crisis by proposing several ethics reforms which the legislature eventually passed.
The bills clarified that the governor’s spouse or partner is in fact considered a public official, strengthened the state ethics commission, and improved public records laws.
Such dramatic beginnings may have engendered a “seize the day” mindset among legislators, especially Democrats, already emboldened by election wins that increased their majority.
In fact, early on, it looked like legislators might provide bold leadership on a number of fronts, and they began moving bills rapidly.
Common Cause achieved a major early victory with passage of the “New Motor Voter” bill, landmark legislation to modernize voter registration!
This reform, championed by Gov. Brown, pioneers a path toward universal suffrage, and is likely to cut nearly in half the number of eligible voters who end up unable to vote.
Common Cause went on to win passage of important legislation that increases transparency and public input in the state redistricting process!
This is critical, because the redrawing of political districts every 10 years to reflect population shifts can have enormous impact on the relative voting strength of whole communities.
There was a moment of fun and levity when Rep. Paul Evans (D-Salem) introduced a bill to allow corporations to serve jury duty.
Rep. Evans’ proposal was an artful attempt to highlight serious problems with the legal concept of “corporate personhood,” and Common Cause contributed testimony to bolster his case.
But the 2015 legislature ultimately failed to address the critical issue of money in politics, letting bills on campaign contribution limits, disclosure of contributions, and the selection of judges die in committee.
Common Cause lined up the votes for game-changing legislation on contribution limits, a referral to voters that would have overturned our state’s own Citizens United-like court decision.
We also secured support for comprehensive disclosure reform, including Gov. Brown’s bill to speed up disclosure of large contributions in the final weeks of an election.
And we pushed for an honest discussion about how we select Oregon judges, and how best to insulate the process from backroom insider appointments and big money elections.
But the legislature refused to act on these bills.
Legislative leadership also blocked bills to end prison-based gerrymandering and to fix our broken presidential election system so that all voters matter, not just those in swing states.
Even so, Common Causers can take heart that we’ve just used this legislative session to advance the case for reining in money in politics.
First, we’ve revived an opportunity for meaningful state-level campaign finance reform, changing the narrative from “no longer possible” to “necessary, urgent, and increasingly likely.”
Second, we’ve begun rebuilding the campaign coalition and infrastructure necessary to win real reform. These are critical strategic advances.
Now it’s on us to use this moment wisely.
Even as money in politics rages out of control – surpassing the worst of the robber baron era of the late 1800s and the Watergate scandal of the 1970s – there’s still opportunity.
In the coming months, Common Cause and our allies will be further developing leadership and infrastructure to enable voters to take measures into our own hands to win reform.
I urge all of us to step up to this challenge, as we’re able. Even small, online actions are essential. For those who can get more involved, I welcome you to contact us at Common Cause.
In the words of Bill Moyers: “Democracy belongs to those who exercise it.”