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Both sides satisfied as campaign finance trial ends

Wednesday, December 16, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Federal Judge Lee Yeakel gave no indication of how he might rule at the end of the trial on Tuesday. But he told the lawyers involved in City Council Member Don Zimmerman’s lawsuit against the city of Austin over its campaign finance laws that, regardless of his ruling, it was unlikely to be the last word on the case.

Yeakel said he has “an abiding suspicion the train” would not stop in Austin but would move on to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and possibly to the Supreme Court, regardless of how he rules.

Zimmerman is challenging not only the $350-per-person limit on donations for City Council races but also the six-month window for raising contributions and the $36,000 cap on contributions from people who live outside Austin and surrounding ZIP Codes.

Additionally, he is challenging a city regulation that prevents a winning Council member from keeping any contributions he does not spend in a campaign war chest, a practice in other jurisdictions. Austin’s rules provide that a Council member may keep $20,000 for his or her own officeholder account but must give back the rest to donors or an appropriate charity.

For the court on Monday, Zimmerman’s attorney, Jerad Najvar, led Zimmerman through the process of running for election and reelection, emphasizing the difficulties of dealing with what they believe is an overly restrictive limit on both per-person donations and donations from outside the city and surrounding areas. In addition, he stressed the difficulty of raising enough money during the six months before an election.

On Tuesday, the city’s lawyer, Renea Hicks, presented his expert witness, Jonathan Krasno, who is a professor of political science at Binghamton University. Krasno testified about a study he did on Austin’s campaign finance rules, using both legal precedent and statistical analysis to show that Austin’s rules help to discourage the perception that the City Council is corrupt.

Krasno compared Austin to the other nine largest cities in Texas but concentrated his analysis on Fort Worth, which is similar to Austin in population but has no limits on individual campaign contributions, no fundraising window and no limits on the war chest individual Council members may keep.

According to the study, more Fort Worth campaign donors gave contributions between $50 and $350 than any other funding category between 2005 and 2015. Those 3,643 Fort Worth donors gave a total of $594,431. Only 10 people gave more than $10,000, as reported by the candidates. However, turnout for municipal elections is considerably lower in Fort Worth than in Austin.

Krasno’s study says, “(T)he 20 higher spending candidates spent virtually the same amount of money in total ($2.043 million in Austin v. $1.290 million in Forth Worth). It is worth remembering, too, that candidates in Austin cannot keep leftover cash in their campaign accounts, so they literally spend what they raise and raise what they spend. The same is not true in Fort Worth where a dozen candidates finished their campaigns with more than $50,000 in their accounts.”

After his testimony, Krasno responded to a question from the Austin Monitor about the four years a Council member will spend in office, compared to the six months spent raising money. He said, “The Austin law is unusual – there’s no question it’s unusual. I haven’t seen it (elsewhere).” He added, “I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I think it’s a good idea.”

Krasno said he thinks the short time frame for raising money and the prohibition on keeping a war chest help to “level the playing field” between incumbents and challengers.

Krasno also found that Austin elections are considerably more competitive than those in Fort Worth. Part of the reason for greater turnout here, of course, is having an election in November versus May, he noted.

But that’s not all there is to it. The study says, “On November 4, 2014 in Austin there were 166,367 votes cast for City Council candidates in all 10 districts versus May 9, 2015 in Fort Worth where there were only 9,254 votes cast for Council candidates in five districts. This is not completely a result of timing because six weeks later in Austin, on December 14, 2014, 58,917 votes were cast in the runoff elections for the seven seats that were not decided on Election Day.”

The study continues, “And, in its previous election held on May 12, 2012, a total of 21,243 people voted for at-large City Council candidates in Austin – a relatively unimpressive number except in comparison to Fort Worth,” Krasno wrote.

Also testifying about their experiences with Austin’s campaign finance system on Tuesday were political consultant David Butts, former Council Member Laura Morrison and attorney Fred Lewis, all of whom support contribution limits as well as the other aspects of the campaign finance law that were the subject of the lawsuit.

At the end of the day on Tuesday, Yeakel told the parties he expects to receive their briefs on Dec. 23. He urged them to focus on the law, as he did during the trial, noting that deciding the law is his job, not deciding policy. He also said that they could submit responding legal arguments in January but cautioned the lawyers that he might make a decision before receiving that second round of documents.

Both sides expressed satisfaction at the end of the trial. Zimmerman said, “I think our legal team did a really good job, and I think the city worked very hard to defend the rules. So I’m pretty happy with the way it went.”

Hicks said, “I think the law’s on our side,” but he said he had no idea who would win the case.

Federal Courthouse, Austin, TX IMG 6339

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