A Fistful of Pennies

Campaign Finance Law Hog-Ties Chamber

photograph by John Anderson

Way back in 1989, when the Austin Convention Center was merely an item on a ballot asking to be built, downtown business leaders knew just the trick to fending off mounting opposition to the downtown project. They called on their corporate neighbors to empty their wallets into a campaign war chest which, in the end, collected somewhere in the neighborhood of $240,000. But those days of easy money are gone. In this latest bond election, campaign finance reform was both the rule and the nemesis, as business leaders scrambled to raise individual, $100 donations in behalf of Prop. 1. The bond proposal, which passed with 58% of the vote, will increase the hotel-motel tax to fund a $110 million expansion of the Convention Center and a $25 million flood tunnel for downtown's Waller Creek. For their effort, CC supporters raised only $10,000 - a mere smidgen when compared to the cash they drummed up nearly a decade ago.

"Business people aren't accustomed to reaching into their pockets to contribute $100 to a campaign," said Glenn West, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Saturday night at Palmer Auditorium. "They're accustomed to contributing through their company."

West paused a moment as Councilmember Daryl Slusher - who opposed the Convention Center in its first life but threw his support behind Prop. 1 this time around - extended his hand to congratulate the Chamber head on the victory. At once, the air seemed thick with irony as the two men, who in the past have disagreed on countless issues, clasped hands.

"This campaign," West continued, as Slusher moved on through the crowd, "has shown us how difficult it's going to be to garner funds on issues we support. We looked at this [campaign finance reform] from a legal standpoint and thought about challenging it, but we decided against it in light of the tight timeline involved. We're hoping somebody can challenge this thing in court," West added.

But Saturday night, Chamber leaders had celebration on their minds. "We're so pleased that groups who have stereotypically been fighting each other for years came together on these ballot items," said Sandy Dochen, the Chamber's vice president of governmental affairs. "There was something in this for everyone - east, west, downtown - and we all won."

What was missing from the election night bliss? There was no contingent to cheer the 63% win for Prop. 3, which will raise residential drainage fees by 20cents a month to fund flood control measures on Walnut Creek and remove some 175 Northeast Austin households from the flood plain. Perhaps even more telling was the vote against the measure, with many of the nay votes hailing from the city's newly annexed areas. "That wasn't a vote against health and safety," observed one political junkie, "that was a vote against the mayor and the city council."

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