Are Austin campaign finance rules futile?

Seattle, the city Austin should strive to be more like in some ways (public transit) and less like in others (homelessness, weather, coffee shops without bathrooms), is in the second year of a radical democratic experiment.

Seattle’s experiment is an unprecedented campaign finance experiment that acknowledges getting big money out of politics is, for the time being, impossible. Recent Supreme Court cases like Citizens United allow wealthy individuals and corporations to funnel unlimited spending into Super PACs.

Instead, democracy vouchers attempt to fight big money by increasing the clout of small money — in Seattle’s case, by sending residents $43 million in potential campaign contributions. Voters get to direct their $100 as they like to candidates running for office in the city.

Loyal AustinPolitics.NET reader Julio Gonzalez shared some thoughts on the matter:

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No kidding. Candidate campaigns in Austin are already fueled entirely by (relatively) small dollar contributions, since the maximum you can give to a candidate is $350. Those limits make the more than $750,000 that Adler raised for his re-election all the more impressive.

But the candidates isn’t where the fat cats look when they want to throw their weight around. Hence the independent groups that we’ve seen raise gobs of money from rich folks and corporations. We’ve seen that with IndyAustin, which has raised tens of thousands from billboard companies, race track interests and sleazy student loan outfits. We’ve also seen it from the Keep Austin Affordable, the group running the campaign for the affordable housing bond, which has received hundreds of thousands from developers.

There are even ways for donors to influence elections secretly. We’ve seen that most glaringly with the Prop K campaign, whose original group, Citizens for an Accountable Austin, was funded entirely with $137,000 from a shell nonprofit, Civic Austin Fund, led by the same guy who runs Citizens for an Accountable Austin.

The deepest irony, of course, comes from the fact that Fred Lewis, the attorney/activist who has long been the face of the campaign for stricter campaign finance/ethics rules, has become one of the most prolific peddlers of dark/special interest money.

Lewis’ own group, Let Us Vote Austin, received nearly $10,000 from Save Our City Austin, another group that Lewis runs. We don’t know who provided the money to Save Our City. In addition, Let Us Vote Austin got a $10,000 in-kind contribution from Reagan Billboards, which has formed an odd alliance with anti-growth activists as part of its own scheme to change city sign regulations.

All of this is to say that, while I’m all for trying to empower the little guy and therefore reduce the influence of the fat cats, the rich and powerful will continue to play an outsized role in funding elections as long as Citizens United is the law of the land.

Given the ease with which special interests can fund an independent group that is unencumbered by contribution limits, there are reasonable questions about whether it makes sense to subject candidates to such low contribution limits. I really struggle with the question. So far, at least, the good news is that candidates have not become reliant on outside spending. The outside dollars have mostly gone into the ballot initiative campaigns. So I’m inclined to keep the low contribution limits, which encourages candidates to focus on raising money from a lot of people, rather than a few power brokers.

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