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Save Our Springs backers among major supporters of anti-convention center PAC

Tuesday, July 16, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Campaign finance reports filed Monday showed that longtime members and financial supporters of the Save Our Springs Alliance have pledged the bulk of the funding that is supporting a political action committee attempting to force a public vote on the proposed expansion of the Austin Convention Center.

The report for Unconventional Austin, the PAC that last week turned in 30,000 signatures on its petition for the convention center ballot proposal, showed the recently formed group has gathered more than $147,000 in contributions, loans and pledged support. Much of that came from longtime SOS member and PAC organizer Bill Bunch, who contributed $22,625.50 in donations and loans, with SOS Alliance itself contributing $33,343 to the political group.

In a move to deflect claims that “dark money” was behind the opposition to the convention center proposal, SOS Alliance filed a separate finance report Monday that showed one-time City Council candidate John Kirk Mitchell contributed $20,000 to the springs group, in addition to separate $10,000 donations from civic activist Brian Rodgers and retired videographer Jenny Clark.

Clark and Rodgers are also listed on the PAC report with contributions of $10,000 and $6,000, respectively.

Other major loans and donations came from local attorney and activist Fred Lewis ($15,010 total), attorney Millicent Lundberg ($10,600 total), attorney and Planet K retail owner Michael Kleinman ($10,000), Kleinman’s nonprofit group the Foundation for Constitutional Protection Inc. ($5,000) and retiree Ken Smith ($5,000).

The significant involvement from Bunch backs up his ongoing objections to the convention center while serving as a member of the city’s Tourism Commission, of which Rodgers is also a member. Their resistance to the proposed expansion is based largely on the tens of millions of dollars of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue the city has to spend to support the convention center each year because the center’s business revenue doesn’t cover its operating expenses.

Bunch and others contend that tax revenue should be redirected back toward local music and arts to further grow the local tourism magnets, though there is some debate whether state laws will allow such uses.

“Now that we have filed our financial report, we look forward to a vigorous civic debate on the merits of how we should be spending our hotel tourism tax dollars and whether Austin voters should have a say in how those dollars are spent over the next 30 years,” Bunch said in a prepared statement.

“It is clear to me that if the opposition to our petition is willing to mislead people about our donors and the intent of our petition, it should come as no surprise to anyone that they are also misleading the public about other aspects of this issue, including the law, what hotel taxes can be used for, funding for arts and music, and the absence of any business case for the proposed expansion.”

Earlier this year, City Council unanimously voted to pursue a plan for downtown that includes a $1.2 billion overhaul of the convention center to add event and meeting space, open the street grid currently blocked off by the facility and potentially add retail and office space that could help generate revenue for the city.

If Unconventional Austin’s petition signatures are validated by the city clerk it would force a referendum that, if successful, would require ballot box approval of any improvements to the convention center totaling more than $20 million.

The group’s expenditures showed it paid $125,400 to Texas Petition Strategies to gather signatures for the petition.

Supporters of the proposed convention center expansion have touted the increase in funding for cultural arts and historic preservation that would result from a 2 percent increase in the HOT rate, as well as money provided for homeless services by an additional tax that the hotel and lodging industry has agreed to.

Jim Wick, former campaign manager for Mayor Steve Adler and organizer of the pro-expansion PHAM PAC, said channeling money through the SOS Alliance clouds the issue and likely involves donations to the nonprofit from members uninvolved in the convention center debate.

“I think there are people in that group who might be upset that their membership dues or other donations are being used for a purpose that has nothing to do with protecting Barton Springs,” he said, pointing to contributors who have previously tried to force ballot items over decisions made by City Council. “Looks like the usual suspects up to their usual tricks. Why run money through Save Our Springs? What’s the real agenda here?”

Photo by Joey Parsons made available through a Creative Commons license.

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