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Why a little line on campaign websites might make a candidate look like a cheater

Friday, July 8, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Natalie Gauldin’s backyard plays by its own rules. The grass tickles our calves and her almost 3-year-old daughter has left some toys scattered around. Dogs bark at us from inside her house in Austin’s District 7. But all these distractions, we tune out. We’re here to talk about one sentence on her campaign website.

“‘This candidate does not comply with the Austin Fair Campaign Finance Ordinance,’” says Gauldin, who’s running against two-year-term City Council Member Leslie Pool in the upcoming District 7 race. (Five districts in Austin will hold elections for Council members this November: Districts 2, 4, 6, 7 and 10.) “Does that sound right?”

Close enough. The full sentence on the bottom of Gauldin’s site reads: “This campaign has not agreed to comply with the contribution and expenditure limits of the Austin Fair Campaign Ordinance.” And while Gauldin says she has heard from friends that this line makes it sound like she is not following campaign rules, she’s well within her rights. The clause refers to a voluntary contract between the city and any candidate for mayor or Council.

“The whole goal of it was to try and limit the role of special interest money in campaigns,” said Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea. Shea served as a Council member in the mid-1990s and sponsored the Fair Campaign Ordinance.

According to city code, for those who agree, the contract sets expenditure and contribution limits on candidates. Council candidates can spend no more than $75,000 during the general election and cannot accept more than $15,000 from political action committees. (The limits are higher for mayoral candidates.) If a candidate chooses not to sign, expenditures are limitless — and though, outside of this contract, there are no limits on the number of political action committees that can contribute, each can only give up to $350.

Candidates who sign the contract are also required to participate in city-run forums.

So what does the city have to contribute? Should a candidate’s election go to a runoff, he or she will receive allotted city funds to help finance those additional weeks of campaigning. The funds are made up of lobbyist registration fees and other fees associated with elections.

But, Shea said, it’s not working as she had hoped.

“Initially, it did,” she said. “People complied, and I thought it worked well. But I’ve been a little surprised that so few people have complied with it recently, and I don’t fully understand why.”

In the 2014 Council elections, only two of the current 11 members, including the mayor, signed the contract. Because of this, when their elections went to a runoff, Council members Leslie Pool and Pio Renteria got a cut of city funds to finance their extended campaigns: $27,988.58 each.

Local attorney and election expert Fred Lewis said that in his experience, candidates don’t sign because they don’t understand the law. Gauldin, who has never run for Council before, agrees.

“I’ve read the code over and over again, but it’s difficult,” she said. “It can be difficult because it’s complicated.”

And while the contract is voluntary, it can become even more complex depending on what a candidate’s opponent decides to do. According to city code, if a candidate signs the contract but his or her opponent does not — or signs it but violates it — the candidate who opted in is no longer subject to the contract’s expenditure and contribution limits. However, he or she remains eligible for runoff funds from the city.

“You don’t want the candidate who agrees to the contract to be bound by the restrictions when their opponents aren’t,” said Lewis, who says he advises candidates to sign the contract. “It’s not a loophole. It was designed that way.”

All campaign websites are required to designate whether a candidate has signed the contract; signature or none, the game’s still being played by the rules. Fairness is up to the observer.

This story is a result of a partnership between the Austin Monitor and KUT News.

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