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PAC it up, PAC it in: PACs in local elections

Wednesday, August 3, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

To understand political action committees, it’s useful to think of them in terms of families. For example, if a candidate for City Council or mayor were the older sibling, a PAC would be the baby – that is, it would generally have fewer rules imposed upon it.

This is the third installment in our series about local campaign finance. You can find a breakdown of contribution limits here, and a deep dive into the now-defunct blackout period here.

My Younger Sister, PAC

Although PACs are treated like people when it comes to the per-person contribution limit, which the city caps at $350, they can collect and spend a limitless amount of funds on a local Council election – as long as the candidate is in the dark. Or, the spending is “independent” of the candidate (in other words, “Buy that television ad, but don’t let me know”).

Here’s how the city code boils that down:

· The expenditure is made independently of the candidate and the candidate’s committee;
· The expenditure is made without prior consent of the candidate; and
· The expenditure is made without cooperation or strategic communication between the independent person making the expenditure and the candidate or the candidate’s committee.

Plus a PAC, unlike its big brothers and sisters, can receive money from corporations (whereas candidates for Council or mayor cannot). Austinites witnessed this fact most notably in the recent Proposition 1 campaign, in which ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, the sole contributors, gave more than $9 million to local PAC Ridesharing Works for Austin.

Clarification: PACs can only accept corporate money when they are not directly contributing to a campaign. Otherwise, if a PAC is only advocating for a ballot measure or working independently of a campaign, it can accept money from corporations.

Report It, Sister

But once a PAC tops out at $500 in independent spending, it is required to report this. Here’s the official wordage:

A form identified as Schedule ATX.1 “Report of Direct Campaign Expenditures” must be filed with the City Clerk’s office by every person including political action committees other than a candidate or a candidate’s committee who make independent expenditures exceeding $500 in aggregate for the purpose of promoting the election or defeat of any candidate or ballot measure in a City election. Such form must be filed within the deadlines specified in the cited Code section.

That’s how we know a PAC calling itself Vote’m In Vote’m Out spent $972 on an ad in The Austin Chronicle two years ago for current Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. And how the Inclusive Austin PAC spent more than $5,000 on Council Member Pio Renteria’s campaign.

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./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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