Groups Put Their Voices And Dollars To Work Ahead Of Transit Referendum In Austin
Austin voters are deciding whether to raise property taxes to help pay for new train and bus lines, and third-party groups have taken the charge of trying to persuade them.
The groups fall into two categories: political action committees, which can advocate for or against candidates and ballot measures, and nonprofit organizations, which cannot.
“[Nonprofits] typically are allowed to educate people about the nature of issues. They can provide background. They can provide pros and cons,” said Don Kettl, the Sid Richardson Professor at UT Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. “Typically, there is a line between this educational process and advocacy of a particular point of view. But, of course, that fine line is one that is very hard sometimes to draw.”
Yasmine Smith, co-chair of the nonprofit PUMA or People United for Mobility Action, seemed to recognize the dilemma during a news conference on the first day of early voting.
“And though I am proud of the work we have done, I am more excited for the work we have yet to do,” said Smith, who is also director of development for the Austin Area Urban League. “And this is as far as I can take you in my PUMA hat, right? Educating and telling you to continue to be a part of this process and engage.”
The nonprofit Voices of Austin, meanwhile, has faced criticism for its role in the debate over the Project Connect ballot measure. You might have seen its digital ads criticizing city leaders about transportation, crime and the debate over a new land development code. Occasionally, the group has crossed the line into advocacy, including at a news conference about concerns over the potential tax implications.
“That's why Voices of Austin is so opposed to what the City Council and Capital Metro now call an ‘initial investment’ in an urban rail system for our city on the ballot as Proposition A,” co-chair Jan Lehman said.
Executive Director Peck Young later apologized for the statement and others.
“Well, that was a mistake in the wording. We are a 501(c)(4). .... We should not have said we want you to oppose it,” Young said. “We are asking people to understand how this system would work, and we are asking people to make their own judgment. We misspoke and we said you should not vote for it.”
While groups classified as 501(c)(4) nonprofits like Voices of Austin are not required to file reports listing their donors and expenditures, political action committees are. The leading PAC opposing Proposition A is Our Mobility Our Future. According to the last report, it has raised close to $300,000. Its big backers are Mike Levy, founder of Texas Monthly; Spicewood businessman John McCall; and people tied to car dealerships like Lexus of Austin, Charles Maund Toyota and Roger Beasley Mazda.
Mobility for All is the leading PAC in support of Proposition A. As of the latest report, it has raised almost a million dollars. Its big donors include Austin FC, the new Major League Soccer team; the development firm Brandywine, which is behind the Broadmoor development near the Domain; and engineering firm HNTB. Cap Metro is planning new Red Line stations that will serve the Austin FC stadium and Broadmoor.
The Austin American-Statesman first reported that both Voices of Austin and Our Mobility Our Future are facing ethics complaints that accuse the groups of failing to properly disclose certain expenditures or donors. Both organizations told KUT the complaints are politically motivated because they came from a consultant, Mark Littlefield, who is tied to the pro-Prop A effort.
Young with Voices of Austin cited concerns about potential political retaliation when asked if the organization would ever reveal who is donating to the group.
“[Littlefield's] complaint saying that we didn't file our top contributors and then some of our stuff, which we would do if we were a PAC, is simply an attempt to apply a city ordinance, which we are not under. We're not a political action committee,” he said in a phone interview. “He is trying to find out who our contributors are, which under federal law, he has no right to know."
He called the charges "nonsense.”
Meanwhile, Our Mobility Our Future has reported a $5,000 donation to Voices of Austin.
Despite calling the complaints a “media stunt,” a spokesperson for Our Mobility Our Future said the PAC had updated required disclosures in response.
“One of the key reasons we structured our organization [as a special-purpose political action committee] is due to the rigid and transparent reporting requirements – we never wanted to hide our donors behind C3/C4s and other 'dark money' schemes. In fact, quite the opposite: transparency has been one of our guiding lights,” Tori Moreland, a consultant for the group, said in a statement.
“However, in the interest of time and resources, we have decided to acquiesce to the complaints and have updated our disclaimer and paperwork accordingly," Moreland continued. "There are now not one, but two ways, in which our donors and expenditures are listed publicly with the City of Austin for anyone to access at any time."
A spokesman for Transit Now, the effort to get Prop A passed, said it’s up to the Austin Ethics Review Commission to decide whether the complaints are just politics.
“We're just trying to defend Austin values from groups that are kind of out of step and trying to play fast and loose with the rules,” Caleb Pritchard said. “So whether or not that's political – I suppose, you know what? The Ethics Commission will figure that out.”
Kettl with the LBJ School believes transparency should be a key objective because the efforts of groups on both sides have taken on outsized importance this election cycle. That’s because the pandemic and its effects, along with an intense presidential race, have taken up much of the public's focus and attention.
“That then makes it so much easier for third parties to come in to try to shape the outcome by making big contributions one way or another," he said. “But I suspect that there are a significant number of people going to the polls who may not even know that these issues are on the ballot.”
The other referendum is Proposition B, which would allow the city to borrow money to pay for infrastructure improvements like sidewalks, bikeway and street repairs. It has not seen the kind of attention or interest from political action committees that Proposition A has.
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