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Uber, Lyft spending now at $8.1 million in Prop. 1 race

There’s been no stop to the gusher of ride-hailing service money backing Proposition 1, as Uber and Lyft have spent an estimated $8.1 million backing the measure, new campaign finance filings released Friday show.

The report from Ridesharing Works for Austin, a political action committee that is wholly underwritten by the two companies, is without precedent in Austin politics and rivals amounts sometimes seen in statewide races.

The report shows that Ridesharing Works received $4.9 million in donations and in-kind support from the two ride-hailing firms and spent $4.6 million over a month-long period, from March 29 through April 27. All of that is in addition to the $2.2 million the group reported raising and spending on its previous campaign finance report.

“Wow,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. “If this were just about Austin, it would seem like $7 million is a lot of money,” he added, “but they’re operating at a much bigger scale than Prop 1 in Austin.”

Additionally, Ridesharing Works notified the city that Uber gave it an additional $1 million and it purchased an additional $532,000 in advertising Thursday, after the close of the reporting period for the campaign finance report — ensuring the media blitz will continue until the May 7 election day.

Evidence of the big spending is everywhere: Ridesharing Works has stuffed mailboxes full of glossy union-printed fliers and blanketed the airwaves with advertisements, including in pricey prime-time TV, with messages that that critics contend are misleading.

According to the campaign finance report and notices released Friday, Ridesharing Works has spent $2.9 million on media buys so far, plus $791,000 for field operations, $337,000 on direct mail and $109,000 on voter registration calls. Former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who is the chairman of the Ridesharing Works campaign effort, took home $25,000 on April 11, with another $25,000 to come for “campaign consulting.”

The amount of money the two firms have spent to strike the City Council’s fingerprinting requirement from law is more than six times the previous record for city elections, which was held by Mayor Steve Adler’s $1.2 million campaign in 2014. And the Prop 1 election is still a week away.

“The ballot language crafted by the City Council is incredibly misleading, which is why we are determined to help voters understand what’s really at stake with Proposition 1,” Ridesharing Works spokesman Travis Considine said in a statement Friday. “The resources dedicated to educating voters between now and May 7 will reflect how committed our coalition is to protecting the livelihood of thousands of drivers in our community and access to a safe, reliable means of transportation in Austin.”

Approval of Prop 1 would put into the Austin City Code a new ride-hailing service ordinance written by Uber and Lyft that, among other provisions, would prohibit the city from mandating fingerprint-based criminal background checks for ride-hailing service drivers. If Prop 1 passes, it would repeal an existing city law, passed by the Austin City Council in December, that required fingerprinting for their drivers.

Officials with Uber and Lyft, and their political arm Ridesharing Works, contend that the name-based background checks they obtain through third-party companies are just as effective as fingerprint-based checks in terms of weeding out bad actors from their driver applicant pool. The anti-Prop 1 side disputes that, and it has also made the election something of a referendum on Uber’s and Lyft’s aggressive and big-spending ways.

“This is not just about Austin, this is about how they assert themselves in regulatory markets in every market they’re in,” Henson added.

The ride-hailing firms’ campaign to overturn Austin’s fingerprinting rules comes as other cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, consider similar measures. Earlier this week, Uber threatened to leave Houston, which has stricter rules, including fingerprinting, than the ones in Austin that Prop 1 would overturn.

The anti-Prop 1 campaign, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, meanwhile, managed their first fundraising success, bringing in $88,000 over the same reporting period. That’s on top of the $12,000 it raised during the last reporting period.

The group, while it raised almost $52,000 from 381 individual contributors, also got a $29,000 boost in larger donations from labor unions and a handful of cab and limousine businesses. The group’s major contributors include Council Members Delia Garza and Ora Houston, as well as Tom Hurt, the husband of Council Member Kathie Tovo, who gave a combined $1,450.

While that amounts to just a small fraction of what the ride-hailing firms have spent, it means the group finally has the financial resources to get on the airwaves. But it won’t be able to go toe-to-toe with Ridesharing Works in terms of volume, Our City’s political consultant David Butts acknowledged.

“It isn’t so much the buy, but what it says,” said Butts, who loaned the anti-Prop 1 campaign $10,000 last month. “It will be a searing hot poker going through their thin tissue of lies.”

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