Making Democracy Work

Government

Reports on issues regarding government previously published in the Focus newsletter

Campaign Finance: Is Money Destroying Our Democracy? (April 2013)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

The League of Women Voters of Marion & Polk County presented a forum to challenge the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that unlimited political contributions constitute free speech. Sixty-two people attended the April 24th forum organized by Adrienne Pauly, Susan Gray, and Tina Calos. CCTV taped the event.

A panel of three speakers discussed campaign finance reform and how it relates to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC. The panelists:

  • Norman Williams, Willamette University Law Professor andDirector of the Center for Constitutional Government, who explained the legal complexity surrounding this decision.

  • Jeanne Atkins, State Director for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, who described congressional efforts to modify the Citizen's United decision.

  • Norman Turrill, a Board member of the U.S. LWV and past Board member of the Oregon LWV, who discussed the League's position and perspective on campaign finance reform.

The Law--Professor Williams noted that Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission was the culmination of a series of court cases that have gutted campaign finance laws and that Citizens United is not the biggest loophole. No one likes the current legal regime, but there is disagreement over what the fix should be.

Professor Williams said there are two options for controlling campaign finance--caps on contributions and caps on expenditures--and Congress limited both in early 1970's legislation. In 1976 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Buckley v. Valeo that capping contributions to a political candidate is constitutional but putting limits on expenditures is not; a person can spend money to state his views so long as his expenditures are not coordinated with a candidate's campaign.

In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978) the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations have a right under the First Amendment to spend corporate money in an attempt to influence politics. In Austin vs. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) the Court said that Michigan could require that corporate donations must be made from a segregated fund, not the corporation's treasury.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that corporations and unions have the same First Amendment rights as individuals and can use their general treasury funds for political purposes. The Court upheld disclaimer and disclosure requirements by 8-1.

Super PACs must spend their money independently, so they are good for transparency since their donors and the money given must be identified. Conversely, 501c4, 503c6, and 503c7 groups must disclose expenditures but not their donors, so wealthy individuals can now secretly spend huge amounts of money through 501c groups. (This is due to the Buckley decision.)

Congress--Jeanne Atkins said that Senator Jeff Merkley has stated that Citizens United is a threat to our democracy. Unlimited spending by unknown contributors is as detrimental as corporate spending. Candidates have to raise lots of money, but campaign contributions are not the only way to influence an elected official: gifts are another way--buying meals and other gifts. Congress has tightened the rules on gifts. Citizens United is an opportunity to look at how campaigns are financed.

LWV--Norman Turrill (in picture at far right) said that in 1906 Oregon voters passed an initiative to limit campaign contributions. In the 1970s the legislature overturned contribution limits and replaced it with limits on expenditures; that was overturned by Valeo. In the 1980s Oregon voters again passed contribution limits; that was overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court. So Oregon has no limits on either contributions or expenditures.

In 2003 or 2005 the Oregon Secretary of State's panel on campaign disclosure recommendations were ignored by the legislature until a legislator was caught using campaign funds for personal use. Then the legislature passed legislation to establish ORESTAR, which requires campaign contributions and expenditures to be filed on line every 30 days until near an election, when they must be filed every 7 days, allowing the public to see who has made contributions and for how much.

The LWVUS Campaign Finance Task Force works to try to figure how to limit campaign money. The group has looked at fourteen proposed constitutional amendments; all have problems with unintended consequences.

Suggested Solutions

Professor Williams said that very little can be done to solve the campaign finance problem because the Supreme Court has decided that all campaign money limits are unconstitutional. The options are:

  • Replace the Supreme Court--This isn't likely to happen soon, and, even if a liberal should replace a conservative justice, the Court tends to not overturn precedent, so the Court might not overturn the campaign finance rulings.

  • Amend the U.S. Constitution--This requires a 2/3 vote of both chambers of Congress (not likely with the current split between the two political parties) and then ratification by 3/4 of the state legislatures. The women's suffrage amendment took forty years, and the Equal Rights Amendment didn't get enough state ratifications. So a constitutional amendment would likely take many people working very hard for many years.

  • Congress could tighten the rules for 503c4, 6, and 7 organizations, and the IRS could strongly enforce the rules.

Ms. Atkins said members of Congress have tried to find tweaks:
  • Disclose Act--This has passed the Senate twice with 59 votes each time, but the way the Senate currently operates, a strong majority vote isn't enough; it takes 60 votes to pass anything. The Disclose Act will be submitted again.

  • Senators Wyden and Murkowski have introduced a bill to require contributions of $1000 or more to be disclosed (modeled on ORESTAR).

  • Congress is also looking at requiring shareholder approval of corporate political expenditures, which tend to be directed toward specific policies they like, not to candidates.
Prof. Williams said that most corporations don't get involved in partisan political activity because they don't want to alienate any group of customers. The problem is that wealthy individuals can give huge amounts of money to support candidates, often using negative advertising. Removing the cap on individual contributions to candidates might result in reduced negative campaign ads since candidates tend to put out positive ads.

Mr. Turrill said that LWV advocates a multidimensional effort--statutory measures such as the Disclose Act; tightening rules on the coordination between candidates and supposedly independent committees (frequently run by former staff members of the candidate's campaign committee); tightening IRS rules on 501c4, 6, and 8 groups and enforce the rules.

The Federal Election Commission is dysfunctional; it is composed of four Democrats and four Republicans who can't agree on anything. Further, their terms have expired. President Obama should appoint new commissioners.

Mr. Turrill thinks a constitutional amendment would benefit the League even if the proposed amendment didn't make it through Congress because League efforts would attract new members. However, he reiterated that the LWV national board has not yet found an amendment it can support.

Capital Improvements Program (November 2008)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

Three people explained the Capital Improvement Program (CIP) in the Salem area at the November 2008 all-member meeting before a small attendance in Loucks Lecture Hall.

Sandra Montoya, City of Salem Treasury Manager, said the Capital Improvement Program is a 5-year planning document that includes items that will last more than five years, cost more than $50,000, and require lengthy development. Examples are infrastructure (buildings, utility lines, streets, parks) and acquisitions (land, play structures, fire truck, computer system).

Just as a family must plan and budget for major purchases, a city must plan for major repairs (such as roofs) and for expansion of infrastructure as the population increases (such as larger-diameter sewer pipes and more parkland).

The CIP planning document is developed from (1) Infrastructure Master Plans (on water, storm water, wastewater, parks, transportation, airport, fire, etc.), (2) Assessments of the condition of infrastructure and equipment, and (3) Community desires, including city council's goals/priorities, special needs (such as softball, environmental, etc.), Neighborhood Associations' goals, and citizen requests.

Each master plan goes through a lengthy evaluation process that includes public input as well as identification of funding sources. City officials prioritize projects according to their urgency and the availability of funding. Most grants from the state and federal governments are for specific types of projects and cannot be used for other types of projects. For example, funding for water projects cannot be used for street repairs.

There is always a backlog of CIP projects for which no funding is available, and the current recession will exacerbate that problem. Priorities may have to change. For example, roofs must be replaced before they deteriorate so much that water damage to the building and its contents occurs, requiring even more expensive repairs.

After public comment, the city council must approve each master plan and the Capital Improvement Program.

Ms. Montoya said that, since planning for projects is done years in advance, to have the most effect, citizens should get involved early in the process. As she put it: Come early, come often, speak loudly.

Cliff Serres, Assistant City Engineer with the City of Salem Public Works Department, supervises most of Salem's CIP projects. He handed out a sheet that listed the projects to be funded by the Streets and Bridge General Obligation Bonds approved by voters in November 2008. Projects fit into three general categories: Congestion relief Rebuilding pavements and bridges Safety improvements Construction will occur over eight years beginning in summer 2009.

In addition to population growth and normal wear and tear, CIPs are needed when environmental, health, and safety regulations are updated by state and federal governments. Sometimes the new requirements come with money and sometimes not.

The City of Salem manages water utilities for Salem, Keizer and Turner. Transportation is handled through regional cooperation. CIPs must be approved by all the jurisdictions involved. Computers now keep CIP information current and facilitate coordination with all the entities involved.

Funding availability determines how many projects can be carried out. Sources of funds are bonds, systems development charges (SDCs), and grants from state or federal government. Each funding source has requirements attached. For example, the federal government will pay for a bus, but the driver must be paid with local funds.

Richard Schmid, Council of Governments (COG), said that the Salem-Keizer Area Transportation Study (SKATS) is required to identify areas and type of congestion. SKATS uses traffic counts and travel-time studies. The cameras and detectors that tell traffic signals when there are vehicles waiting for the signal to turn green can also count those vehicles. The actual time it takes for a car to travel the major corridors in the Salem area at different times of day is measured using a global positioning system (GPS). Information collected is used to identify trends and help calibrate the computerized traffic lights in the area.

Transit: Transit ridership was up over 3% in June 2008 compared to the previous June. This increase occurred as gas prices were rising and despite a recent increase in fares and cuts in services in 2006. However, Saturday service will be cut in early 2009 due to defeat of the transit levy at the November 2008 election.

Eliminating Saturday bus service will allow the transit district to also cut out Saturday WHEELS service, which costs three times as much as buses to operate. Mr. Schmid commented that the federal government could help local transit by changing some of its rules.

However, the biggest obstacle facing the transit district is the lack of stable funding. Until the funding issue is resolved, the district will find it difficult to add transit services that will help promote and expand transit use in the Salem-Keizer area.

Bridge: The Highway 22 bridges over the Willamette River in Salem are at capacity during peak hours. To determine the most appropriate way to add river crossing capacity and reduce related congestion while minimizing adverse social and environmental impacts, a federally required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is under way.

The next major public comment opportunity will come in the fall of 2009 when the Draft EIS is released. The draft will be accompanied by open houses and a public hearing. One of the federal requirements is that, as part of the EIS process, a realistic and implementable funding mechanism be identified for funding the selected river-crossing alternative.

Survey: In spring of 2009 a Household Travel Behavior Survey will be done to gather data on trip purpose, length, destination, mode of travel, and whether the trip was combined with other trips. This information will be used to update transportation models for the area to anticipate future demand on the transportation network and identify where improvements will be needed.

However, since the gas tax has remained the same for many years while costs have increased, even with the additional state and local funds expected to be available in the next twenty years, the area's traffic system is forecast to have significantly more roadways operating at "nearing capacity" or "above capacity" during peak hours--in other words, more traffic congestion.

For more information see http://www.mwvcog.org/transportation/skats/rtsp.asp

Salem's Municipal Court (February 2014)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

Judge Jane Aiken, presiding judge of Salem's Municipal Court, spoke at the January 29, 2014, forum at the Salem Library. She said that courts are designed to solve society's disputes in a civil way. The Salem Municipal Court--which covers misdemeanors only within the Salem city limits--handles traffic, code violations, and criminal misdemeanors. She pointed out that more people are injured or killed due to traffic violations than due to criminal activity.

Quality-of-life issues, which take up half of Municipal Court time, include trespass, vagrancy, alcohol in parks and in other public places, urinating in public. Most of the people who commit these crimes are homeless. These offenders miss court dates because they have no transportation or because it's hard to keep track of court dates without a place to keep a calendar.

An additional group of people who appear before the Court are men and women home from the military. They will say they don't have PTSD, but they are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life. They exhibit anger or disorientation (such as becoming lost in traffic). 17% of Municipal Court cases involve Viet Nam veterans. Judge Aiken said that with the war in Afghanistan winding down, there will be more recent veterans in our community, so it's important to provide the help they need in the first place, rather than ignoring the problems, as happened after the Viet Nam War.

Court employees try to help connect the people with services--mental-health or alcohol/drug treatment or housing--to solve the basic problems. A person may be assigned an advocate to help him negotiate the court system. The Homeless Connect card provides a Cherriots pass for bus transportation to court. Changes in court schedules aim to make it easier to remember court dates.

Since homeless people don't have the money to pay fines, the Court often uses community service work instead of a fine or jail time (since the Marion County Jail is full). A few of the people have exhibited such good work skills that they have been given references that led to jobs. If a person from another county is assigned community service, the Court will contact that county and ask for a community service assignment for the person; the Court is then contacted by the other county when the community service has been completed.

Fines: Maximum and minimum fines for each offense are set by the City Council or the Legislature (depending on the offense). Fines may be reduced if a person has a clean record. The Court does not get any of the money from fines; fines are disbursed according to law set by the Legislature, and the portion retained by the City goes into the General Fund.

Judge Aiken said that the Court is working on a project to simplify documents into easily under-standable language and then to translate them into the various languages spoken by residents of the area.

Homeland Security (April 2006)

Sandra Smith Gangle

Are we safe?

Detective Griff Holland, Domestic Terrorism Specialist with the Oregon State Police, and Detective Tyler Chapman, of the Marion County Sheriff's Department, talked on "Homeland Security in Oregon." They told a group of 18 League members and guests on April 18, 2006, that Oregon is not immune to the occurrence of terrorist-type activities. We have seen such activities in the past, and we should remain on the lookout for suspicious activities that could indicate danger is lurking once again.

The murder of Ethiopian Mulegeta Surah in Portland by skinhead white supremacists gave Oregon the reputation of a "hate-crime capital." Also, someone from the Rajneesh sprinkled salmonella poison on restaurant food in The Dalles in 1984 committing our nation's first case of bio-terrorism. In addition, arson fires and other property damage have been attributed to members of certain organizations that seek to spread their messages by means of violent tactics.

Holland said that there is a potential for future attacks on our infrastructure, such as power lines, bridges and roads. He expects that, at some point, suicide bombers may begin striking heavily populated areas.

Citizens as eyes and ears

We, as members of the public, can be the eyes and ears of law enforcement, Holland said. It was a member of the public in Snohomish County, Washington, that first reported a group of suspicious persons firing automatic weapons in a quarry, and their report ultimately led to the conviction of the Portland Seven, a terrorist group. We should let the authorities know promptly of any unusual activities we might observe that could signal violence.

A Threat Assessment Network consisting of thirty law-enforcement officers throughout our state shares information on possible dangerous activities as such reports are received. Investigations can be conducted and responsible parties apprehended.

Detective Chapman told us that, here in Marion County, some extremists are believed to be encouraging others to target businesses and construction sites where they believe the business activity is threatening animal rights or trees. While the advocacy itself may be constitutionally-protected speech, the advocates sometimes cross the line and recommend killing or eco-terrorism. That is when the police should be notified.

Report criminal activity

We should call 911 if we ever see illegal activity actually occurring. The Salem Police Department's non-emergency line should be called when other observations might need to be investigated. To obtain additional information about Homeland Security, Det. Holland's number is 503-378-6347 X286 and Det. Chapman's is 503-566-6910.

Preparedness

Holland also reminded the listeners that every family should be prepared to take care of its members for at least 72 hours in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist activity. Even if a disaster were to occur at a distant location, it could result in a loss of electric power or other interruption of services in our city.

Judicial Activism--What Does the Constitution Really Mean? (September 2010)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

Kasia Quillinan read a Proclamation from Salem Mayor Janet Taylor proclaiming September 16 as Constitution Day in Salem. Kasia then introduced Professor Ross Runkel and was moderator of the program.

Prof. Ross Runkel gave a lively and informative talk on Judicial Activism--What Does the Constitution Really Mean?

The term judicial activism has been around for decades. The term is used when the Supreme Court

  • Overturns a precedent (an earlier decision) by the Court or

  • Overturns a statute for not being consistent with the Constitution.

He cited specific court cases to illustrate.

The Constitution has many general words and phrases. The Supreme Court decides what is meant by equal protection or unreasonable search and seizure. (What is a reasonable search?)

Two views: Individual Supreme Court justices have one of two views of the Constitution, and these are in conflict.

Originalists believe the words in the Constitution mean what they meant in 1787 when the Constitution was written. These justices have old dictionaries in which to look up word meanings and histories of the nation's founders to determine what they thought.

The other group believes the Constitution is a "living document" and that current understandings and beliefs must be taken into account in deciding what the Constitution means now.

Conflicting values: Are judges using their personal values or legal values when they decide a case? Using personal values would be real judicial activism.

Overruling precedent: We want predictability in the law. However, justices make mistakes. Subsequent experience shows that a decision was wrong, so, when a similar case reaches the Supreme Court, the justices can overturn the Court's previous decision.

Overturning statutes: People find it frustrating when the Court finds a statute to be unconstitutional. After all, the majority is supposed to rule. How can nine unelected justices overturn a democratic decision? Writings by James Madison (a founding father) and by John Marshall (an early Chief Justice) said that the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution.

Judicial activism: People who don't like a particular decision will call it judicial activism. People who agree with that decision will think it's a good one.

Professor Runkel illustrated his points with specific court cases, most of them relatively recent.