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Council approves bundling limits, other elections provisions

Friday, April 27, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Austin City Council gave a head start to a portion of the work done by its 2012 Charter Revision Committee with the approval of three items that will begin to change the way that city elections are conducted.


Each of the three measures – a move that will allow the city’s Ethics Review Commission to cover campaign finance violations, the creation of a comprehensive city database for campaign finance reporting, and a cap on lobbyist bundling activity – was recommended by the charter revision group.


On Thursday, Council members postponed two other elections revision suggestions in favor of taking a bit more time to work on them. These included changes to contribution reporting rules that would have candidates reporting any donation over $2,500 received nine days before the election on a special form and enhanced reporting of special campaign expenditures. Each of those items was postponed until the next Council meeting on May 24.


Both the ethics review item and the database resolution passed fairly quickly. The cap on lobbyist bundling brought some concern from Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole. “It’s not (widely) known how difficult it is, in particular in our races, to raise money,” she said from the dais.


“A lot of times you have unintended consequences,” Cole continued. She noted that only candidates with adequate funds could run for office.


Cole eventually voted for the bundling limits. Each of the items passed unanimously.


Bundling is a common election practice that finds campaign supporters collecting multiple donations on behalf of a candidate. These can become many thousands of dollars for city campaigns. Currently, the City of Austin enforces no limit on the activity.


That is now set to change on August 1. The new regulations will allow lobbyists registered with the city to solicit no more than $1,750 per candidate per election cycle. They will further limit bundling activity by any one firm to no more than $3,500 in bundling per candidate per election cycle.


The new rules, however, will continue to allow anyone in the city not registered as a lobbyist, or working with a lobbying firm, to bundle limitless amounts of cash. Attorney Fred Lewis, who served on the Charter Revision Committee told In Fact Daily that there was a quantifiable difference between the two. “A lobbyist is in a particularly unique relationship with the council: They are a paid professional; they are paid to influence the Council for their clients,” he said. “Citizens may wish to influence the Council but they are not doing it for clients and they are not doing it for commercial interests. So there is a huge difference.”


Lewis called the action “a first good step related to limiting bundling. Could the Council have done more? Yes. Could we have recommended more? Yes. But it was a good step and it got rid of what the problem is currently,” he added.


Council members could have elected to put each of these items on the November ballot, along with other key questions that will come out of the Charter Revision group’s work. Council Member Laura Morrison – who brought the items forward with Council Members Kathie Tovo and Mike Martinez was eager to move ahead before a November vote.


“Right now, the law restricts a lobbyist to a $25 contribution, but they can turn around and hand a candidate thousands of dollars of bundled money,” she told In Fact Daily via email on Tuesday. “The Charter Review Committee recommended we change that, it’s within council’s authority to do so, and we should do that sooner than later.” (See In Fact Daily, April 26, 2012).


Although people may perceive contributions from candidates as the biggest source of campaign cash, that is frequently not the case. For example, last year Tovo loaned her campaign more than $50,000; and in 2009, Mayor Lee Leffingwell loaned his campaign $100,000. At the start of this election season, the campaign still owed him about $60,000.

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