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Council mulls changes to campaign finance rules

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

Austin City Clerk Jannette Goodall has come up with a list of proposed changes to the city’s rules governing campaign finance reports. She says the changes will make electronic filing “easier and more transparent.”

Goodall and Bob Guz, who heads an effort to implement a City Council mandate to create a publicly accessible database for campaign finance reports, presented the changes to Council at a work session Tuesday.

One major change, Guz explained, would be to align the deadlines of city-required reports with those of reports required by the Texas Ethics Commission.

“It will actually create less reporting,” Guz said, and streamlining the deadlines would eliminate confusion.

Currently, Austin requires candidates, officeholders and committees to file certain reports on state deadlines, but other deadlines are “triggered by events,” Guz said, such as a candidate raising $10,000. When that occurs, candidates must file reports for each day that they raise more than $10,000, according to the code.

Goodall and Guz also described several other proposed changes, like eliminating certain city reports that are redundant with the state’s, leaving only the state-required reports, and redesigning forms as PDFs that may be filled out electronically. Council members seemed to be supportive of the changes and will vote on them Thursday.

Guz said that amending the code is the next phase of implementing a campaign finance data initiative that Council mandated last year.

“This is not a comprehensive review of Chapter 2-2,” Guz said, referring to the city code. “The proposed recommendations only apply to what we thought needed to be addressed to modify these forms to make electronic filing easier and more transparent.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen said she thought that aligning state and local deadlines was a good idea so long as it “didn’t sacrifice transparency.”

If the changes are approved, the new requirements will be in place for the next election cycle and reports will be due July 15, Guz said. Other state deadlines are Jan. 15, 30 days before an election and eight days before an election. If the item doesn’t pass Thursday, the changes will be delayed until the next cycle, Guz said.

One item staff will continue to study is the city’s reporting requirements on bundling, which traditionally refers to the practice of collecting checks for a particular candidate or issue and turning them in together.

Electronic payment has blurred the definition, Council Member Don Zimmerman said, adding, “If you send out an email and say you like a particular candidate and others should give them money, I would call that free speech, but some people would call that ‘bundling.'”

Guz said staff is waiting for a new definition of “bundling” from the Ethics Review Commission. “Since this is a moving target, our recommendation is: Let’s not change this form” at this point, Guz said.

Another challenge Council members discussed but couldn’t solve Tuesday was the state’s refusal to share locally required campaign finance data with local entities. According to Goodall, filers can use a PDF on the Texas Ethics Commission’s website for city-required filings and file those with the state, but then the filer must also fill out the city’s form so the data can be displayed online.

Goodall suggested that Council push for changing that practice in the 2017 legislative session.

Zimmerman said the state’s refusal to share the electronic data “is absolutely absurd,” adding, “This is text and numerical data. It’s nothing in terms of resources.”

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