As it moves ahead with a taxpayer-funded $1.5 million local campaign donation program, Austin’s Charter Review Commission has scrapped a proposal to draw the money from Austin Energy customers and scheduled public hearings to sell its idea.
Should the commission stay on-track and approve the program it calls Democracy Dollars by mid-April, the Austin City Council would have until the end of the summer to consider asking voters to approve the proposal in a referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Taxpayer financing of mayoral and council campaigns was done for the first time in a major city, Seattle, last year. The goal was to get campaign donations in the hands of new and underfunded candidates.
But as The Texas Monitor recently reported, the program, whose design has been adopted by the Review Commission, favored better connected incumbents, opened itself to fraud and to a lawsuit contending the program forces all local taxpayers to support the campaigns of candidates whose views they may not agree with.
In its latest draft posted earlier this week, the Austin Democracy Dollars Program calls for the city to draw $1.5 million from the general fund in election years and issue four $25 vouchers to each registered voter to contribute in the mayor and city council races. The commission is expected to create an online system for contributions.
Candidates must register to participate in the program and are eligible only if they have collected at least $10 in other donations from 400 signed petitioners if they are running for mayor and 150 if they are running for council.
The Review Commission considered and dropped the idea of running the program with $1.5 million of Austin Energy ratepayer funds and making the vouchers and donations part of the billing process.
This latest draft is likely to be the one presented to those who attend four public hearings. The tentative schedule for those meetings are:
- 6:30 pm Wednesday, March 21, the Asian American Resource Center, 8401 Cameron Rd
- 6:30 pm Wednesday, March 28 at Anderson High School, 8403 Mesa Drive
- 6:30 pm Tuesday, April 3 at Dove Springs, 5801 Ainez Drive
- 1:00 pm Saturday, April 7 at Austin City Hall, 301 West 2nd Street.
While a majority of commission members have supported the concept and the various drafts, member Roger Borgelt has opposed it from the start.
“I cannot think of anything we should be spending taxpayer money on in this city less important than this,” Borgelt told The Texas Monitor Wednesday. “This is a feel-good thing that makes everybody think we’re increasing voter participation in elections, when we really aren’t.”
At least two City Council members have already said they do not support Democracy Dollars. Pio Renteria, whose district includes lower income residents whose candidacies could presumably benefit from the program, at first said he was opposed to the plan to take the money from Austin Energy customers. The commission did it, he said, “Probably because they’d never get the votes [on the council] to agree to a tax increase to fund it.”
The City Council will decide on the language of the proposal, but it will be voters who will decide the fate of the program. Council member Ellen Troxclair, who opposes the idea, said she fully expects a council majority to approve putting the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“It’s a completely irresponsible use of tax dollars,” Troxclair told The Texas Monitor Wednesday. “It’s a solution in search of a problem. Candidates in this city are perfectly capable of raising money for their campaigns.”
As the program moves through the bureaucratic process, expect an appeal of a ruling that came out of the Seattle voucher plan. Ethan Blevins, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation representing two local taxpayers, said he intends to press on with a suit challenging the program on Constitutional grounds.
The Legal Foundation lost its case at a superior court level, but Blevins said he is prepared to carry the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary. “It’s compelled speech,” he said, “a clear violation of speech rights.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected]