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Ethics Review Commission weighs campaign finance proposal

Friday, March 10, 2017 by Jack Craver

Members of the city’s Ethics Review Commission are considering a number of potential changes to Austin’s campaign finance rules in the wake of a federal court ruling that blocked enforcement of certain restrictions on candidate fundraising.

In a ruling last year prompted by a lawsuit by former City Council Member Don Zimmerman, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel determined that a key provision of the city’s campaign ordinance was likely an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech and association. His ruling struck down the city’s “blackout period,” which restricts candidates to fundraising only during the six months preceding Election Day.

The city is currently appealing the ruling, but in the meantime it is barred from enforcing the provision that Yeakel ruled against. As a result, candidates are currently allowed to raise money nonstop.

In response, some campaign finance regulation advocates are pushing a new ordinance that they hope will be able to withstand the type of legal challenge that may have doomed the regulations that are currently on the books.

The proposed ordinance, crafted by Council Member Leslie Pool, would allow candidates to raise money for a full year before the election. It would also allow them to continue fundraising for a period of time after the election for up to six months for the purpose of paying campaign debts.

“It’s unseemly for Council members to be raising money 365 days a year,” said Pool in an interview with the Austin Monitor on Thursday. “I don’t think that the public likes thinking that we are.”

Under the rules set by her proposal, Council members who were elected in the fall would be able to continue fundraising until April in order to pay off debt. They would then be unable to begin fundraising again until fall 2019, a year before they are up for re-election in the fall of 2020.

Pool, the only member of Council who has twice signed the Fair Campaign contract, said that she would like to see a much more dramatic reform of campaign finance laws but acknowledged that that vision is unlikely to be realized in the near future, given the hostility courts have shown in recent years to restrictions.

Indeed, some commission members expressed concern that even Pool’s proposal would thrust the city into another legal battle with conservative anti-regulation activists.

“If Council moves forward on this, we have another expensive endeavor on our hands,” said Commissioner Matthew Lamon.

Commissioner Ben Stratmann similarly wondered what the city’s defense would be against a challenge to the proposed one-year limit on fundraising.

“Are we going to have people push and say if it’s one year, why isn’t it two years?” he asked. “What’s our counter-argument?”

Commissioner Brian Thompson, himself a veteran trial attorney, conceded that there was no concrete legal standard for reasonable blackout periods but expressed confidence that the one-year limit would pass legal muster. “There’s no magic formula,” he said.

Commissioner Debra Danburg also suggested that trying to avoid legal battles was a fool’s errand. Opponents of campaign finance regulation would challenge no matter what, she said.

“They’re the Citizens United people; they’re there for a cause, and their cause is every dollar should have a vote,” she said. “We’re here to do what is right and ethical and what the people of Austin think is right and ethical.”

After a brief debate over whether to recommend the draft ordinance right away, the commission decided to refer the proposal to a working group to review it between now and the commission’s next meeting in April. Commission Chair Peter Einhorn said he hoped the commission would be able to make a recommendation so that Council can act on the proposal by June.

Photo by John Flynn.

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