Thursday, January 29, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Ethics panel considers campaign finance reform

Now that the dust has settled after Austin’s busiest local election season to date, the city’s Ethics Review Commission is taking a hard look at Austin’s current campaign finance laws.

On Tuesday night, the Ethics Review Commission took input on the city’s Fair Campaign Finance law as well as campaign finance laws in general. Many of those who spoke expressed disappointment that Austin’s switch to single-member districts had made for at least one election that was more expensive than those in years past. All who spoke called for changes to the current system.

Garry Brown, who ran for Travis County Commissioners Court in 2014, said that this past election belied the notion that 10-1 was “of the people.”

“I was really horrified at the number of self-funders and people who wrote themselves $40,000 to $50,000 to $100,000 checks to run for the City Council,” said Brown.

Brown allowed that elections could calm down in the future. Regardless, though, he suggested that the limits on donations be increased, as $350 was “artificially low.” Instead, he said, $750 or $1,000 could give candidates who don’t have the ability to self-fund a chance to get their message out.

Frances McIntyre spoke on behalf of the Austin League of Women Voters, which supports a change in regulations. She said that they “support laws that limit excessive and inappropriate spending and promote equitable competition among candidates.”

McIntyre said that those measures would include a limit on the total amount of campaign contributions a candidate can accept, a limit on the time a candidate may accept contributions, spending limits for candidates, comparable media space for candidates who agree to limit expenditures, and requirements that campaign contributions be used only for campaign expenses. She also asked for changes to the current filing and financial disclosure system.

Genevieve Van Cleve, a political consultant, has worked on the campaigns of County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and former City Council Member Sheryl Cole. She said that she appreciated both 10-1 and spending limits, but she wasn’t thrilled about the specific limits or some of the rules governing elections.

Van Cleve said that Austin’s contribution limits should mirror those of Houston, given the growth of Austin. Houston limits contributions on mayoral races to $5,000 for individuals, $10,000 for couples and $10,000 for PACs. District Council races, she said, should be limited to receiving contributions no larger than $2,500 from individuals and $5,000 from couples and PACs.

Van Cleve also wondered why any candidate would gamble on participating in Austin’s current Fair Campaign Finance fund in order to get money for the runoff.

“It doesn’t make you more competitive, and it knocks you out, in fact, if you are in a competitive race of raising the kind of war chest that you would need to actually be competitive,” said Van Cleve.

“Also, your bundling rules are completely easy to break. Hypothetically … if I take electronic contributions, regardless of who is in the room, I don’t have to report bundling, because your rules don’t say anything about electronic contributions,” said Van Cleve. “I think the easier way to deal with this is just to get rid of bundling.

“Unfortunately, what these rules have done is invited self-funders and dark money,” Van Cleve concluded.

Ed Scruggs recently ran for the District 8 position on City Council. He said that there was a “drastic need to overhaul these regulations.”

“What are we trying to achieve with these regulations?” asked Scruggs. “Is it to keep money out of the process? Is it to keep dark money out of the process? Is it to keep corporate money out of the process? Is it to keep out-of-town money and PAC money out of the process? Because if that was the goal, we failed in all of those.”

As the rules currently stand, campaign finance limits apply to candidates who sign a contract with the city. Those candidates become eligible for possible disbursements from the Austin Fair Campaign Finance fund. In return, they agree to limit expenditures to $120,000 in the mayoral race with an additional $80,000 for the runoff, or a limit of $75,000 in Council races with an additional $50,000 for the runoff.

Mayoral candidates who sign the contract also are limited to receiving no more than $24,000 in contributions from political committees during the election and $16,000 during the runoff. Candidates for Council agree to respective limits of $15,000 and $10,000.

Additionally, the city’s campaign law limits contributions to $350 per person and $700 per couple, per election cycle. Lobbyists registered with the city are limited to contributions of $25. Those limits would have to be changed through the City Charter.

The Ethics Review Commission currently has a working group that is dedicated to looking at the issue of campaign finance and will continue to take input until the end of March through the city’s website. Commissioners expect to take up the issue again during their April meeting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin League of Women Voters: A nonpartisan group to inform voters. The league puts out voters guides for local elections.

City of Austin Ethics Review Commission: The Ethics Review Commission is charged with review of, among other issues, ethics complaints leveled against City of Austin boards and commission members. They meet quarterly.

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