Dan Meek: On Supreme Court Gift Ban

Oregon Supreme Court Upholds Limits On Lobbyist Gifts To Public Officials And Legislators
But The Limits Have No Practical Effect In Oregon’s Regime Of Unlimited Campaign Contributions And Virtually No Limits On How They Are Spent
By Dan Meek,

The Oregon Supreme Court today issued its opinion in Vannatta v. Oregon Government Ethics Commission, in which lobbyists challenged the constitutionality of the limits on gifts, entertainment (meals, golf, etc.), and honoraria that (1) lobbyists (or anyone with a particular economic interest in government action, including legislation) can give to public officeholders or candidates for public office or (2) public officeholders or candidates can receive.

The opinion is here:[This press release is the initial reaction of the attorneys for Amicus Curiae in the case. The opinion is not a simple one, so there may be another press release later.] Under a statute enacted in 2007, the limit on gifts from any person to any officeholder or candidate (or to their close relative) is $50 per year. Providing “entertainment” is limited to $50 per year per recipient. Honoraria (usually speaking fees) are limited to $50 per recipient per occasion. The Court upheld the limits on what public officeholders or candidates can receive as gifts, entertainment, or honoraria. The Court struck down those same limits as applied to what persons can offer to give to public officeholders or candidates. The result is that, while anyone can now offer unlimited gifts, entertainment, or honoraria, Oregon public officials and candidates cannot accept such offers which exceed the statutory limits. Thus, the offering becomes moot.

An extensive amicus brief was filed by seven individual Oregon voters, several of whom were chief petitioners on the most recent statewide campaign finance reform initiatives (in 2006). This brief is available Here

“These limits on gifts, speaking fees, gifts, and other benefits for officeholders and candidates are clearly valid,” said Dan Meek, an attorney on the amicus brief. “Nearly all states and the federal government either prohibit or have low limits on gifts to public officeholders.”
“While it is good that the Court upheld the limits, that will have little or no effect in practice,” said Meek. “As our brief in the case demonstrated, the lobbyists can provide the same benefits to public officials and candidates (gifts, entertainment, and even honoraria in the form of consulting fees) in the form of “campaign contributions,” which the Legislature has chosen not to restrict. Some of the widely-publicized legislator luxury trips to Hawaii were actually paid for with campaign contributions, and today’s Court decision will not prevent such trips in the future. “Until the Secretary of State or Attorney General starts enforcing Measure 47, enacted by the voters of Oregon in 2006, lobbyists can continue to use big money to buy influence with government.”

Oregon voters in 2006 enacted in Measure 47 the nation’s most comprehensive and strict system of limits on political campaign contributions and expenditures, including a ban on using campaign contributions for anything other than reaching voters during the campaign. But the Secretary of State and Attorney General of Oregon are refusing to enforce the limits. The Chief Petitioners on Measure 47 are suing those government officials to require them to enforce the law. That case is before the Oregon Court of Appeals. Until that law is enforced, Oregon remains effectively one of only 4 states without limits on campaign contributions, which in Oregon can be used for almost any purpose, including:

1. for any campaign-related purpose, including taking extended luxury trips to Hawaii or elsewhere to meet with potential contributors;
2. to pay “any expenses incurred in connection with the person’s duties as a holder of public office,” including unrestricted payments to friends or relatives for office work; and
3. to repay to a candidate any loan the proceeds of which were used in connection with the candidate’s campaign.
This last category means that a campaign contributions can be deposited directly into the personal bank account of the candidate or former candidate.

In addition, campaign contributions have ended up in the pockets of sitting legislators. For example:
The political action committee for the House Republicans’ caucus reported Friday that it paid Rep. Karen Minnis, a caucus member, $2,700 for campaign consulting services this month.

Minnis, R-Wood Village, donated $10,000 to the caucus’ PAC, Promote Oregon Leadership PAC, in December. She formed a consulting business, Karen Minnis and Associates, that month and the caucus committee has now paid her $15,500 for consulting services.
House Republicans Pay Minnis $2,700, Oregonian (August 23, 2008);