PAC It Up, PAC It In: Rights of PACs in Local Elections

Aug 3, 2016

To understand political action committees, it’s useful to think of them in terms of families. For example, if a candidate for City Council or mayor were the older sibling, a PAC would be the baby – that is, it would generally have fewer rules imposed upon it.

This is the third in our series about local campaign finance. You can find a breakdown of limits here, and a deep-dive into the now-defunct blackout period here.

My Younger Sister, PAC

While PACs are treated like people when it comes to the per-person contribution limit, which the city caps at $350, they can collect and spend a limitless amount of funds on a local council election – as long as the candidate is in the dark. Or, the spending is “independent” of the candidate (in other words, buy that television ad, but don’t let me know).

Here’s how the city code boils that down:

·      The expenditure is made independently of the candidate and the candidate’s committee;

·      The expenditure is made without prior consent of the candidate; and

·      The expenditure is made without cooperation or strategic communication between the independent person making the expenditure and the candidate or the candidate’s committee.

Plus a PAC, unlike its big brothers and sisters, can receive money from corporations; but, once it does, it can no longer contribute directly to candidates for Council or mayor. Austinites witnessed this fact most notably in the recent Proposition 1 campaign, in which ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, the sole contributors, gave more than $9 million to local PAC Ridesharing Works for Austin.

Report It, Sister

But once a PAC tops out at $500 in independent spending, it’s required to report this. Here’s the official wordage:

A form identified as Schedule ATX.1 “Report of Direct Campaign Expenditures” must be filed with the City Clerk’s office by every person including political action committees other than a candidate or a candidate’s committee who make independent expenditures exceeding $500 in aggregate for the purpose of promoting the election or defeat of any candidate or ballot measure in a City election. Such form must be filed within the deadlines specified in the cited Code section.

That’s how we know a PAC calling itself Vote’m In Vote’m Out spent $972 on an ad in The Austin Chronicle two years ago for current Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. And how the Inclusive Austin PAC spent more than $5,000 on Council Member Pio Renteria’s campaign.

This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.