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How the city (used to) restrict candidates’ fundraising time

Friday, July 29, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

With three months to go before Election Day in November, campaign signs for local, state and presidential candidates have bloomed – despite the incessant heat and current watering restrictions – on Austin lawns.

Whether or not you’ve been fixated by the past two weeks of convention speeches, endorsements and nonendorsements, there’s one element underpinning it all: money. In the hopes of making the inner workings of Austin’s campaign finance more digestible, here’s another installment of our series explaining the process.

This week, we’re tackling what might be the city’s least complex campaign finance rule: the blackout period.

Blackout No More

Just last week, a federal district judge gutted the city’s blackout period, a rule limiting candidates’ campaign funding to no earlier than six months prior to Election Day. The judge said in his ruling that the blackout period did little to meet its intended goal of preventing corruption:

The city, however, did not present evidence or argument to show how a contribution made seven months before election day presents a different threat of quid pro quo corruption than a contribution made three months before election day.

The ruling was issued as part of a lawsuit brought by City Council Member Don Zimmerman against the city. “The only rationale for the government to limit campaign finances is if they’re targeting quid pro quo corruption,” said Jerad Najvar, Zimmerman’s lawyer. “And that only arises when you have somebody trying to buy political favors with dollars. And if you don’t have large contributions changing hands, you don’t have a threat of quid pro quo corruption.”

The city of Austin has said it is reviewing the case and has indicated that it may simply scale back its blackout period. But Najvar said he believes the judge’s ruling is clear: The city should have no blackout period at all.

A Blackout’s Beginning

The blackout period rule can be traced back to many of the same activists who successfully fought for the 10-1 City Council system, which reconfigured Council from a six-member, at-large body to the current 10-member Council with district representation.

Linda Curtis is one of those activists.

“My moniker online is ‘Petition Queen,'” she said.

In the late 1990s, Curtis and others formed a political action committee they called “Austinites for a Little Less Corruption.”

As Curtis puts it, an original petition asked voters whether they would support eliminating all corruption in local government. When would-be signers questioned whether Curtis’ effort could completely rid the city of all corruption, the group began aiming a little lower.

The PAC successfully petitioned to put city campaign finance rules to a public vote, and the rules on that ballot became much of what governs city campaign finance today, including per-person contribution limits (although the dollar amount has been increased from $100 to $350). Voters overwhelmingly supported the measure at the polls in November 1997, with 72 percent supporting the campaign finance rules, including the blackout period.

But, now, the end may be near for the blackout period. It remains to be seen whether the city will change the rule or scrap it altogether.

Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

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