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City Looks to Shed Light on 'Dark Money' Contributions, Revamp Lobbying Rules

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Some Austin City Council members will be up for reelection next year. That means they can start raising campaign money in May 2016.

Council members have already started talking about how to make that process more transparent – along with something else that influences city policy.

That thing is lobbying — when someone receives money to advocate for a politician’s vote on a certain issue. The City’s current rules on lobbying are about 40 years old. Council member Leslie Pool has spent the last two months negotiating an update. But she’s not quite there yet:

“I will say I am very open, as you know, and I have mentioned this in a number of venues, open for some alternative solutions and would like to see them.”

Pool’s proposing lobbyists pay a higher registration fee. She’s also asking the City to do away with its “incidental” lobbying exemption. That allows people who are not explicitly paid to lobby to avoid having to register. Opponents worry getting rid of the exemption would mean anyone who talks to a City staff member as part of their job would have to register as a lobbyist. Then there’s another transparency issue, voiced by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo:

“...also recommend a proposed comprehensive effective dark money ordinance that includes provisions such as defining political activity, setting an appropriate level of entity political activity to trigger disclosure.”

Tovo’s talking about money paid to non-profits and then used to finance campaigns. It’s called “dark money” because as a non-profit, these organizations don’t have to disclose their funders. This resolution would require City elected officials to make public campaign contributions that have been funneled through a non-profit. Both of these items are expected go in front of the full Council by the end of this year.

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