How the City (Used To) Restrict Candidates' Fundraising Time

Jul 29, 2016

With three months to go before Election Day in November, campaign signs for local, state and presidential candidates have bloomed — despite the incessant heat and current watering restrictions — on Austin lawns. 

And whether you’ve been fixated by the past two weeks of convention speeches and endorsements and even non-endorsements (or not), there’s one element underpinning it all: money. And, in the hopes of making the inner workings of Austin's campaign finance more digestible, here's another installment of our series explaining the process

This week, we’re tackling what might be the city’s least complex campaign finance rule: the blackout period.

Blackout No More

Just last week, a federal district judge gutted the city’s blackout period, a rule limiting candidates’ campaign funding to no sooner than six months prior to Election Day. The judge said in his ruling that the six-month blackout period did little to prevent corruption:

The City, however, 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.

The ruling came after Council Member Don Zimmerman sued the city last year. 

“The only rationale for the government to limit campaign finances is if they’re targeting quid pro quo corruption,” said Jerad Najvar, Zimmerman’s lawyer. “And that only arises when you have somebody trying to buy political favors with dollars. And if you don’t have large contributions changing hands, you don’t have a threat of quid pro quo corruption.”

The City of Austin has said it is reviewing the case – and has indicated that it may simply scale back its blackout period. But Najvar said he believes the judge’s ruling is clear – and that the city should have no blackout period.

A Blackout's Beginning

The blackout period rule can be traced back through many of the same activists who successfully fought for the 10-1 council reorganization – which reconfigured the Austin City Council from a six-member, at-large council to the current 10-member council with district representation.

Linda Curtis is one of those activists.

“My moniker online is, ‘Petition Queen,'" she says. 

In the late 1990s, Curtis and others formed a political action committee they called “Austinites for a Little Less Corruption.”

As Curtis puts it, an original petition asked voters whether they'd support eliminating all corruption in local government. When would-be signers questioned whether Curtis' petition could completely rid the city of all corruption, the group began aiming a little lower.

The PAC successfully petitioned to put city campaign finance rules to a public vote, and the rules on that ballot became much of what governs city campaign finance today – including per-person contribution limits (although, the dollar amount has been raised from $100 to $350). Voters overwhelmingly supported the measure at the polls in Nov. 1997, with 72 percent supporting these campaign finance rules.

But now, the end may be near for the blackout period. It remains to be seen whether the city will change the rule or scrap it altogether.