Austin campaign has been quietly lobbying for using tax funds to help mayor and council campaigns and reduce the advantages of a candidate’s personal wealth
“No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe when the legislature is in session.”
— Gideon J. Tucker
The GOP dominated Texas Legislature, now sitting in its 86th Regular Session, has again been moving to usurp local control for home-rule cities, for example with bills to overturn the City of Austin’s ordinance that requires private employers to provide sick leave for employees.
A less well known bill aims to nip in the bud any further action to address how candidates for mayor and city council finance their runs for elected office. This is important because the 2018 Charter Review Commission recommended significant changes. And while those changes were not put before voters last November, activists have been quietly lobbying for a voucher program.
SB 974, co-authored by state Senators Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Bob Hall (R-Rockwall), would prohibit the use of public money or revenue of any kind to finance a political campaign or the indirect use of public money through a voucher or similar program that provides a person with public money or revenue to finance a political campaign.
Campbell’s statement of intent for the legislation notes that “Certain political subdivisions are actively considering adopting policies that would use taxpayer dollars to fund local campaigns in the form of ‘vouchers’ that would be mailed to registered voters. In turn, the registered voters in the subdivision could then assign these ‘vouchers,’ worth around $100 each, to political candidates for the upcoming election—a mayoral or city council candidate, for example.”
Light turnout for committee hearing
The bill was filed February 21, 2019. Testimony was taken by the Senate State Affairs Committee April 4, 2019. Only four witnesses appeared at the hearing—one in favor and three opposed—and only one of them offered testimony: Joanne Richards of Austin, president of Common Ground for Texans, an all-volunteer organization that seeks to promote civil discourse and advocate for election reforms.
Richards provided a copy of the written testimony (copy linked below) in which she states: “There is a common perception throughout the country that in politics, only people with money matter. To counter this perception, many states and municipalities have implemented ‘clean elections’ programs,” she wrote.
“Local candidates who are supported under these public financing programs tend to be younger, less affluent, more diverse, most gender balanced, and more geographically diverse than in previous elections.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, she wrote, “Small donor public financing is the most powerful proven solution available to counter the overwhelming influence of wealth on our political process….
“A vote for this bill would be a vote to perpetuate the overwhelming influence of wealth on our political process.”
Her testimony fell on deaf ears. The bill was unanimously approved by the nine-member committee April 8, 2019, and recommended for the local and uncontested calendar. Even the two Democrats on the Committee, Senators Eddie Lucio Jr. (Brownsville) and Judith Zaffirini (Laredo) voted for the bill.
“They don’t like what Austin does,” Richards told The Austin Bulldog.
No companion bill has been filed in the House of Representatives. If approved in the Senate, the bill would go to the House for consideration where it could be shelved, defeated, amended, or adopted as-is. If amended it would have to be reconciled with the Senate version in a conference committee. If ultimately approved and signed into law the bill would become effective September 1, 2019.
‘Certain political subdivisions’ means Austin
One of the leading advocates of the voucher program targeted by the legislation is Anthony Gutierrez, president of Common Cause of Texas.
While Gutierrez has had conversations about a voucher program with people in other Texas cities, he said he’s not aware of any besides Austin that have actually studied the concept or proposed implementing it.
Common Cause is not only an advocate for voucher programs to assist in financing political campaigns but has taken an active part in drafting legislation that advanced the concept elsewhere.
“I think this bill is combining with attacks we’re seeing on voting rights and democracy this session to not let local governments run themselves,” Gutierrez said in a phone interview. If this bill passes, the result, he said, is “City councils won’t have the ability to participate in something getting great results in other places.”
One of those other places is Seattle, Washington, where a program called Democracy Vouchers were used for the first time in the 2017 council elections. That’s when Teresa Mosqueda, a 36-year-old Latina and labor activist virtually unknown to Seattle’s population of 705,000 people, won a council seat. She came to Austin in February 2018 to brief both the public and the Charter Review Commission how Democracy Vouchers were used.
Voters in Seattle received four $25 Democracy Vouchers in the mail in early January 2017 and could give them to candidates of their choice. To qualify to receive vouchers, candidates had to collect at least 400 signatures and a minimum donation of $10 from each signer. That was the threshold Seattle set to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money by weeding out would-be candidates who could not demonstrate enough community support to run a viable campaign. (For complete details about how Seattle’s program worked see The Austin Bulldog’s story published February 22, 2018.)
The Austin City Charter change drafted by attorney Fred Lewis was modeled on the Seattle system and was discussed and debated at length in Charter Review Commission meetings before being recommended to the City Council for the November 2018 ballot.
The 2018 Charter Review Commission conducted in-depth research about how to help reduce the advantages of personal wealth and recommended a City Charter change to permit the use of Democracy Dollars. That proposal would utilize property taxes from the City’s general fund to partially finance the election campaigns of mayoral and council candidates.
To benefit, candidates would have had to accept lower contribution limits as well as limits on self-funding and total expenditures. The proposed system would have replaced the current policy of disbursing funds to candidates who sign the campaign pledge and make it into a runoff.
The Democracy Dollars recommendation and six other recommended Charter changes got caught in a logjam of City Council business shortly before the November 2018 and never made it to the ballot.
Charter Commission support for Democracy Dollars not unanimous
Not every member of the Charter Review Commission endorsed the Democracy Dollars recommendation. One who didn’t was Roger Borgelt of Borgelt Law, a former vice chair of the Travis County Republican Party.
Commenting for this story, Borgelt said, “I’m opposed to Democracy Dollars and I’m for this bill (SB 974).”
Fred Lewis, who also was on the Charter Review Commission, said of SB 974, “I think the citizens of this city know better than the legislature how to structure their campaign finance system. And frankly the legislature with its corruption is no model for any city.
“Basically the American public—including Texans—have little faith in their government because of the impact of campaign contributions. The big money is a serious harm to our democracy. To try and preclude cities from taking steps to improve citizens trust in their government is exceedingly unwise.”
Photo credit: Eye-on-you photo by Vladislav Reshetnyak from Pexels
City of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher Program website
SB 974, an Act relating to policies and programs that permit the use of public money to financial political campaigns (1 page)
SB 974 Analysis (1 page)
SB 974 Bill Stages (1 page)
SB 974 State Affairs Committee Votes (1 page)
SB 974 Status (1 page)
Testimony in opposition to SB 974 by Joanne Richards, president, Common Ground for Texans, April 4, 2019
Related Bulldog coverage:
Charter Revisions Flushed Down the Drain: Two least substantial items on council agenda, if put on the ballot and passed, would block other charter changes for two years, June 28, 2018
Nine Charter Revisions Recommended: public financing for mayor and council candidates, an Independent Ethics Commission with teeth, more, May 8, 2018
Council Campaigns Funded by Tax Dollars? Seattle council member elected with Democracy Voucher funds briefed Austin residents and Charter Review Commission, February 22, 2018
Tax Dollars for Council Campaigns? Charter Review Commission considering public financing to boost voter participation and reduce advantages of personal wealth, January 10, 2018
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page.
Email [email protected].
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