Tuesday, October 11, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Dark money law keeps PACs busy

Move Austin Forward, the political action committee supporting the city’s $720 million bond proposition on the Nov. 8 ballot, has raised about $680,000, according to Jim Wick, manager of the pro-bond campaign. He said the campaign has spent about half of the money it has raised so far.

Mike Levy, who opposes Proposition 1, has personally spent nearly $20,000 of his own funds on signs urging people to vote no. According to records at the Office of the City Clerk, Levy contributes the signs to his PAC, Sensible Transportation Solutions for Austin.

Pam Keller, Levy’s assistant, said Levy writes a check out of his own account to pay for the expenditures, so that’s why the PAC report shows $19,962.20 for political contributions but no expenditures. He has not collected funds from anyone else, according to the filing. That makes his report very simple.

For Move Austin Forward, filings are very complicated because of Austin’s new dark money ordinance, which went into effect on Sept. 1. Since then, the campaign has filed six reports of direct campaign expenditures, with multiple pages detailing both expenditures and contributions.

Today is the deadline for all candidates and all political action committees that do not file monthly to file contribution and expenditure reports, so Move Austin Forward will be filing that report today, Wick said.

He explained that the campaign must file a report of direct campaign expenditures each time the PAC spends $500. The report must be made within two days of the expenditure, Wick said, in accordance with the ordinance.

A much smaller organization, the Texas Vote Environment PAC – run by David Foster, executive director of Clean Water Action – was also required to file a report of direct campaign expenditures. Texas Vote Environment reported that it received $5,100 from the Move Austin Forward PAC. It’s not clear from the filing in the clerk’s office exactly how those funds were to be spent.

Foster told the Austin Monitor that his group will be mailing postcards and distributing fliers in support of the road bonds, which could be a cause for dispute among donors who support some or all of Clean Water Action’s endorsed candidates but may not be in favor of the Go Big proposition.

“There is a peculiarity in the (dark money) ordinance that requires you to list your top five donors” on each piece of literature, “even if the donor might not be supporting every candidate or ballot initiative,” Foster said.

The organization is supporting incumbent City Council members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Delia Garza. It is also supporting Jimmy Flannigan, who is running against Council Member Don Zimmerman. The group has yet to endorse in the District 10 race, although Foster said he expects it will do so.

Foster said one of his large contributors was specifically giving money to support one of the incumbents but was still undecided about the bond election. It would be unfair to the contributor to list his or her name on pro-bond literature, and it could also be detrimental to the PAC’s fundraising efforts, he said.

Foster said he discussed the matter with attorney Fred Lewis, who drafted the ordinance, “and he thinks that’s not necessarily the case” that every donor’s name be put on all the literature.

Foster said he would have to write something to a donor who might be opposed or undecided on the bond election. That message would say, “‘Just to be clear, your contribution is only supporting these candidates and not the bonds,'” said Foster. “‘And then we should be OK with not listing you on the literature for bonds.'”

Foster and Wick both said they support transparency and the intent of the ordinance but that it is taking considerable work to keep up with its requirements.

Another PAC involved in the bond election is Apartment PAC Austin, which reported donating $15,000 to the Move Austin Forward PAC. The most recent filing by the group shows that it made donations of $350 each to District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman and to the District 7 challenger, Natalie Gauldin. Kristan Arrona, the campaign treasurer for the PAC, said that her group had already contributed $350 to Council Member Sheri Gallo and that the contribution was reported on an earlier campaign finance report.

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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Campaign Finance

November 2016 elections

Political Action Committees: An organization that raises money privately to influence elections and/or legislation.

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