Amid legal challenge, Austin may craft new campaign fundraising limits

More than a year after a judge threw out limits on when candidates for the Austin City Council may raise campaign cash, council members are looking at establishing a wider fundraising window they hope will survive challenges.

The council on Thursday will consider an ordinance that would allow candidates for city office to accept campaign contributions only during a “campaign period” of a year before an election.

Previous city rules allowed campaign fundraising only within six months of an election. Former City Council Member Don Zimmerman sued to challenge that provision and won. The city’s appeal of that decision remains pending.

RELATED: ‘Two to go,’ Zimmerman says on partial overturn of Austin campaign rules

In the meantime, Council Member Leslie Pool said she thought a new time period might stick.

“We were thinking a year is … twice as long,” Pool said. “It’s unseemly for people to be raising money when they’re also passing judgments on issues that have very real consequences to the community. The blackout period saves us from the perception or the reality of being in someone’s pocket.”

The City Council, of course, meets year-round, so it is always passing judgments on such issues, Pool acknowledged. But its very low campaign contribution limits — $350 per individual donor — help lessen that influence, she said.

In addition to the fundraising period, Zimmerman’s 2015 lawsuit challenged that donor limit, as well as the $36,000 cap on total contributions from donors outside city limits and a dissolution rule that elected officials could keep only $20,000 of leftover campaign money for officeholder expenses.

Voters first approved the campaign finance rules in 1997 with a 72 percent majority. In 2006, voters approved adjusting the contribution limits for inflation and shifting the requirements for the use of campaign dollars after the election.

A federal judge sided partially with Zimmerman last year, finding that the fundraising period and dissolution requirements violated Zimmerman’s freedom of speech and association. But the judge upheld the per-donor and out-of-Austin contribution limits. Both Austin and Zimmerman appealed the outcome. The city has spent at least $255,000 so far to fight the case.

WHO IS DON ZIMMERMAN? An interactive timeline

“The City … did not present evidence or argument to show how a contribution made seven months before election day presents a different threat of quid pro quo corruption than a contribution made three months before election day,” said the ruling from U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel.

No appeals court ruling has been made, and that kept Pool from bringing back the proposed new ordinance in May. But by now, all briefs have been submitted to the court so “nothing we do now will help or hurt anyone’s position,” she said this week.

Zimmerman, who lost his re-election bid last fall to Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, said the new ordinance up for consideration “underscores how lawless our city has become” and called current city leaders arrogant for trying again on a fundraising time limit. He couldn’t say what his next move would be if the ordinance passes.

“They already lost. They have no right to pass these calendar restrictions,” he said. “They know people have limited budgets, limited courage to fight a lawless city government, so the city will pass laws it knows are illegal and sit back and see if you challenge it. That’s the way the game is played.”

But he vowed that if the ordinance is passed Thursday, he and his wife on Friday will donate $700 — their combined maximum — to lone conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who is up for re-election in November 2018.

For her part, Troxclair said she wouldn’t support the ordinance and, if it passes, would support another legal challenge. But she said she’d abide by whatever is passed.

ALSO READ: Troxclair making her mark as council’s remaining conservative

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