Debate continues on law related to election debates

Patrick Starnes, Independent Party of Oregon nominee for governor.

Oregon Legislative Counsel and the Independent Party of Oregon are at odds over the interpretation of a 2017 campaign finance law that the IPO has used to encourage hosts to invite their gubernatorial nominee to televised debates.

House Bill 2505 requires disclosure of $750 or more of spending by individuals and nonprofit groups that reference, and effectively campaign for or against, a candidate within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary election.

The legislation specifically exempts from the requirement nonpartisan candidate debates or forums “when all major political party candidates for the state office have been invited to participate.”

IPO gubernatorial nominee Patrick Starnes said as of early Tuesday, July 31, none of the three television stations that plan to host debates have sent him an invitation. He faces incumbent Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, and Rep. Knute Buehler, a Republican, in the Nov. 6 general election.

The IPO is using the wording of the new law to argue that upcoming gubernatorial debate hosts, such as television stations, must either invite nominees from all three major parties, or report an in-kind contribution for the cost of the debate and advertising to candidates who were allowed to participate.

That differs from Legislative Counsel’s interpretation of the law.

In response to an inquiry by Sen. Brian Boquist, a co-sponsor of HB 2505, Deputy Legislative Counsel Dan Gilbert wrote that if a debate occurred within 60 days of the general election, “it would likely fall within the expanded definition of a ‘communication in support of or in opposition to a clearly identified candidate or measure’ set forth in HB 2505.”

As a result, a media outlet that chose to exclude one of the major party nominees, would “likely” have to report the value of the debate as either an independent expenditure or a contribution to the campaigns of the two participating candidates, Gilbert stated.

“However, if the hypothetical debate takes place more than 60 days before the general election … the media entity would not be required to report the debate as an independent expenditure or contribution,” he added.

The law clearly shows that candidate forums are not part of the list of communications that must occur within a 60-day window of an election, noted IPO secretary Sal Peralta. Therefore, a debate host who did not invite nominees from all three major parties would still be required to report a campaign contribution to the invitees.

“Legislative counsel appears to be telling legislative leaders what they want to hear rather than giving an accurate analysis of the plain language of the law,” Peralta said.


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