Whose Money Is Behind the Convention Center Election Battle?

Local PACs raise and spend for and against Prop. B

The 30-day out campaign finance filings for the Nov. 5 referendum election dropped this week, and the Hotel Occupancy Tax and Convention Center expansion question (Proposition B) has gathered some predictable and some surprising funders.

Austin Convention Center (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The background: Prop. B, placed on the ballot by a referendum campaign calling itself “Unconventional Austin,” would essentially block the City Council-planned redevelopment and expansion of the Austin Convention Center in the absence of a public referendum, while also proposing to re-allocate future HOT expenditures for “local tourism” and other needs that proponents say would be more equitable. Prop. B opponents (including Mayor Steve Adler and a unanimous Council) say that state law only allows a HOT increase in connection with a Convention Center expansion that would also result in increased funding to address homelessness as well as local cultural arts.

You can read the current pro and con arguments – and find lists of Prop. B supporters and opponents – here and here.

On the campaign finance front, the special purpose PAC formed by Unconventional Austin raised and spent the bulk of its money earlier this year, primarily on the paid-petitioner campaign that gathered sufficient signatures to make the ballot. The opposition group — called “PHAM PAC," an acronym for Palm School, Homelessness, Arts, and Music – formed in August, and the October filing is its first.

Unconventional Austin’s July 15 filing listed about $160,000 in contributions and loans, and spending of roughly $131,000 – the bulk of that going to Buda-based Texas Petition Strategies, which managed the signature campaign. Most of the money was raised from a handful of contributors: Save Our Springs Alliance ($51,000); SOS Director Bill Bunch ($13,000 contribution, $10,000 loan); SOS supporter Jenny Clark ($10,000); investor Brian Rodgers ($6,000); attorney Fred Lewis ($5,000 contribution, $10,000 loan), and a few others.

The latest Unconventional PAC filing shows less money raised and spent for the recent quarter, and as of the date of the filing (Oct. 7), no cash on hand. The PAC raised $27,000 and spent $38,000 – most of that ($25,000) going to Texas Petition Strategies and Vici Media ($3,000), the rest toward advertising and some employee costs (e.g., campaign manager Lucas Burdick). Vici Media promotes itself as a Republican digital media group, “kicking [Democratic] ass.”

Most of the recent contributions are small ($100 or less), with a few exceptions: the Foundation for Constitutional Protection donated $5,000 (that's a project of Planet K owner Michael Kleinman (matching its July contribution); investor Frank (and Mary) Krasovec ($9,000); architect and Board of Adjustment Chair William Burkhardt ($1,000); Friends of the Expo Center PAC ($1,000); Fred Lewis (another $2,500). Former Council member Ora Houston donated $100.

Amidst a handful of other Unconventional Austin contributions, the most interesting new loan (although not recorded as "outstanding") is $9,200 from Michael Searle, former chief of staff to ex-Council Member Ellen Troxclair, and executive director of the Austin Civic Fund – the primary driver of the 2018 Proposition K, the failed referendum that would have imposed an “efficiency audit” on city government. The “Civic Fund” was notable for refusing to disclose its donors, edging “dark money” into the city campaign conversation; a related PAC (Yes on Prop. K) paid $25,000 to Vici Media.

PHAM PAC’s 30-day out filing (dated Oct. 7) is both simpler and shorter. The group raised $32,000 and spent $27,000, and has $4,700 cash on hand. The bulk of its contributions ($30,000) came from SXSW – sponsor of the largest (and most overstuffed) Convention Center event (Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro is a SXSW co-founder and owner). Most of the PAC funds ($25,000) were spent on a poll by Austin-based Opinion Analysts, and on PHAM PAC organizer, former mayoral aide Jim Wick ($2,000).

The most notable individual contributions to PHAM PAC are from tech consultant Joshua Jones-Dilworth ($1,000); and tech consultant and Adler advisor Eugene Sepulveda ($515).

In other Prop. B news, Unconventional Austin has scheduled a public “debate” for Wednesday, Oct. 23, 6:30pm. Tourism Commissioners John Riedie and Brian Rodgers, supporters of the proposition, will be joined by Heywood Sanders, urban policy professor at UT-San Antonio and author of the 2014 book, Convention Center Follies. On Oct. 10*, Unconventional Austin invited the mayor, Council, and other opponents to participate – as of Friday, Oct. 11, there had been no response, and no announced venue for the event. (We'll update when we hear more.)

*Correction: the invitation to the "discussion and debate" was sent Oct. 10 (not 9th, as originally reported). All the Council members were copied except CM Jimmy Flannigan.

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Austin Convention Center, Election November 2019, Unconventional Austin, PHAM PAC, November 2019 Election

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