Unlikely Allies Thwart Privacy Threat in Oregon

April 24, 2024 | Alex Baiocco

In an effort to ward off a ballot petition that would have imported Arizona’s disastrous nonprofit donor disclosure law to Oregon, lawmakers worked with a broad coalition of advocacy organizations to advance compromise legislation that led to the withdrawal of the petition.

The threat arose in 2022, when activists with ties to the backers of Arizona’s draconian Proposition 211 began working to bring the same anti-privacy and speech-chilling laws to Oregon via Initiative Petition 9 (IP 9). Concerned by the Prop 211 copycat’s threat to effective advocacy in Oregon, labor organizations in the state proposed a competing ballot initiative that retained many of IP 9’s changes to Oregon’s campaign finance regulations while avoiding some of the most severe restrictions on civic engagement.

Eventually, a cross-ideological and bipartisan coalition formed to ensure that anti-privacy activists’ IP 9 would not become law. Groups frequently on opposing sides of controversial issues came together in support of everyone’s ability to participate in policy debates. Labor unions, the business community, and nonprofits with views across the spectrum began working with Democratic and Republican lawmakers on legislation that they hoped would convince the backers of IP 9 to withdraw their ballot petition.

The end result of these negotiations, H.B. 4024, was signed into law by Governor Tina Kotek on March 20. Unsurprisingly, given lawmakers’ desire to satisfy the backers of IP 9, the enacted version of H.B. 4024 still contains many problematic disclosure requirements. When the requirements harmful to nonprofit advocacy were first introduced via an amendment in late February, People United for Privacy, along with Americans for Tax Reform and Philanthropy Roundtable, sent a letter to lawmakers warning of several constitutional issues that would significantly burden the free speech and privacy rights of Oregonians and the nonprofit causes they support. While this initial amendment failed to pass, many concerning provisions found their way into the final version of the bill signed into law by Governor Kotek.

However, Oregon already had some of the most repressive disclosure laws in the country. As a result, H.B. 4024 only marginally worsens Oregon’s privacy-invasive mandates for nonprofits engaged in policy discussions. In a few areas, H.B. 4024 actually improves on existing law, however modestly. For example, Oregon law already required a top-funder disclaimer on communications subjectively regarded as supporting or opposing candidates. H.B. 4024 revises that mandate slightly, requiring the top-four donors to be listed in the disclaimer instead of the top-five donors as required by existing law. Additionally, the legislation repeals a broad donor disclosure requirement triggered by a wide range of policy communications, including speech about ballot measures, and replaces it with a slightly narrower mandate that does not apply to measure-related communications. While other provisions of the recently adopted legislation exacerbate harms to speech and privacy rights, compared with the threat of IP 9, H.B. 4024 is less damaging to the nonprofit community in Oregon.

Most importantly, the enactment of H.B. 4024 by the Legislative Assembly leaves room for improving the law in future legislative sessions. If IP 9 had become law via ballot initiative, lawmakers would have had little ability to respond to the concerns of nonprofits – and their members and supporters – struggling to navigate its onerous, complex, and privacy-invasive requirements.

While compromise enabled defenders of nonprofit speech and privacy rights to avoid the worst possible outcome this year, the stage has been set for future legislative battles. The well-funded backers of IP 9 are prepared to continue pushing for extreme privacy incursions aimed squarely at nonprofits and their supporters. As one disgruntled anti-privacy operative said shortly before the adoption of H.B. 4024, “We, in good faith, will support a legislative compromise for substantive reform during these last days of session,” but, she warned, “work must continue.”

Fortunately, members of the coalition that worked to neutralize the IP 9 threat are clear-eyed about the ongoing threat to civic engagement in Oregon. On the day H.B. 4024 was signed, Angela Wilhelms, the President and CEO of Oregon Business & Industry, which collaborated with labor organizations and the nonprofit community throughout the legislative session, said, “There will inevitably come a time when someone somewhere looks to manipulate what we’ve done on (this bill) for their own political benefit, and we cannot let that happen.”

Oregon remains an incredibly hostile environment for nonprofit advocacy organizations. H.B. 4024, though preferable to IP 9, leaves ample room for improvement before Oregonians can freely exercise their speech, association, and privacy rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The broad coalition that joined together this legislative session to prevent a repeat in Oregon of the Prop 211 disaster in Arizona lends hope to future efforts to remove the many roadblocks to nonprofit freedom in the Beaver State.