Should electric bills help fund Austin political campaigns?

Ask City Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria how he got into Austin politics, and he’ll proudly describe getting out the votes for the Dell Medical School when he was given just $3,000 to cover a quarter of the county.

When he decided to run a few years later for City Council, he loaned himself $1,000 to begin a campaign, but knocking on doors was always more important than fundraising, he said. He ended up in a runoff against his sister and both took a public financing option that gave them $24,000 each for the last leg of the campaign.

In a city where the mayor raised $1 million, was that enough?

“Oh my goodness,” Renteria said. “I didn’t even spend all of it.”

A proposed public finance system would target political races like the ones in Renteria’s East Austin District 3 by sending vouchers to voters to give to the candidates of their choice.

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Proponents of the idea say it would make it easier for candidates to raise the money needed to run in districts without strong donor bases. They also say it would engage more people in local politics and keep the relatively wealthy from having the most influence in city elections.

“The vast majority of money in Austin, even with the $350 (per donor limit), is coming from affluent people,” said Fred Lewis, a lawyer and activist who chaired the Charter Review Commission’s subcommittee on campaign finance. “The economic inequality in this town will just become more pronounced as a result of political inequality.”

But skeptics wonder if some aspects of the proposal — which has been tested for only one election cycle in Seattle — could backfire. Could the hurdles to qualifying for the public dollars actually make it more difficult for startup candidates? Could $1.5 million in proposed funding from electric fees be better spent? And does the proposal solve a problem that’s really a problem?

How it would work

Austin’s Charter Review Commission, a group that will recommend proposals to bring to voters in November, gave initial approval this week to move forward on a public finance voucher program modeled after Seattle’s. It would need voter approval to become law.

The proposal’s details are still tentative, but it would involve mailing publicly funded vouchers to Austin voters to spend on the candidates of their choice. Candidates would also have a choice: They could accept the vouchers or bypass the public financing and raise private donations just as they do now.

Under the draft proposal, the city would mail up to $100 in vouchers to each registered voter: $50 for a mayoral race and $50 for a City Council race. Voters could support campaigns by signing the vouchers and sending them to candidates.

Candidates who wanted to accept the vouchers would have to jump through some hoops. A candidate would have to demonstrate a base of support by collecting signatures from at least 400 people who had already donated at least $10 to the campaign.

ALSO READ: Siblings Susana Almanza, Sabino ‘Pio’ Renteria vie for City Council seat

Voucher-holding council member hopefuls could still raise money from private donors, but the per-donor limit would drop from $350 to $175.

The commission proposes funding the initiative with $1.5 million a year from Austin Energy, plus donations and grants and candidate filing fees that go to the public finance option tapped for runoffs like the one Renteria had in 2014.

Of course, that would pay for only a small fraction of Austin voters who are expected to redeem the vouchers. Controls on those numbers would be built in on the candidate side: Mayoral candidates could raise no more than $300,000 from vouchers per election and council candidates could raise no more than $75,000.

The proposal came about after council members charged the commission with evaluating whether the $350 per-donor limit was too low. The commission instead decided to suggest a shift that members said would democratize fundraising.

“This is changing the system so that not just candidates come from districts, but the fundraising (is equal),” Lewis said. “People are cynical about our democratic institutions.”

Seattle’s experience

So did democracy vouchers work in Seattle? It depends on whom you ask.

Seattle city officials called the program a raging success based on donor participation. The vouchers dramatically increased political donations from low-income households, young people and people of color, according to the Seattle Times. Residents used $1.14 million in vouchers.

But the city immediately had to deal with fraud issues. Last month, a former City Council candidate was charged with attempted theft for allegedly using her own money to fake the donations needed to qualify for the vouchers, according to the Times.

Another former council candidate who had previously supported the vouchers told media outlets, including Seattle Met magazine, that it took him so long to gather qualifying signatures that he wasn’t able to start receiving vouchers until four days before the election.

The city faced a lawsuit over the vouchers from homeowners who argued that the program violated their freedom of speech because they should have the right not to fund political campaigns they disagree with. A judge sided with the city in November and upheld the program.

It’s partially those road bumps that led two members of Austin’s Charter Review Commission, Matt Hersh and Jeff Smith, to vote against moving the proposal forward. Both said they supported public campaign finance programs in general, but wondered if vouchers are the way to do it.

Smith said he wanted to see them play out in Seattle for a while longer to see what tweaks might work better. Hersh said he worried that the system would only widen the gap between newcomer candidates and incumbents with bigger political nets to collect signatures and vouchers.

Renteria, though he doesn’t know much about the proposal yet, is initially skeptical. Door-knocking and endorsements from powerful organizations are more important than fundraising for district races, he said. Plus, he opposed funding such a program through people’s energy bills.

“I don’t know why they’d pick on Austin Energy,” he said. “Probably because they’d never get the votes to agree to a tax increase to fund it.”

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