May 4 Election Wrap-up

An anti-Prop. 1 billboard paid for by the Citizens Committee for the Proper Expenditure of Local Taxes
An anti-Prop. 1 billboard paid for by the Citizens Committee for the Proper Expenditure of Local Taxes (Photo By John Anderson)

No Props Given To Major Props

The main message Austin voters sent Saturday was, "We like our elecoral process just fine." Out of eight propositions on the ballot, only three passed. Council candidates may now file campaign finance reports electronically instead of publishing them in an Austin newspaper, and municipal court judges and other council appointees must now resign if they file to run for office when there is more than one year left in their term. Also, voters rejected the "consumer utility analyst" for Austin Energy, and approved some housecleaning clarifying the city manager's purchasing authority.

The most controversial propositions met their deaths in a variety of ways, from "down in flames" (Prop. 1) to "just barely failed" (Prop. 2). That Prop. 1 -- the "Austin Fair Elections Act" -- was a corpse was clear from the moment the city clerk released early voting totals. The act, which potentially would have provided tens of thousands of tax dollars to candidates running for mayor and City Council seats, began the evening with 32% of the vote, and eventually fell to a meager 26%. The margin of defeat was impressive, given that 26,000 people signed petitions last year placing it on the ballot. But less than two weeks before the election, an organization named the Citizens Committee for Proper Expenditure of Local Taxes -- essentially a front group for the Real Estate Council of Austin -- began flooding the city with bright yellow billboards denouncing the measure, and both the Austin American-Statesman and Austin Chronicle Editor Louis Black vociferously attacked Prop. 1 in pre-election editorials.

"My sense is a lot of people do have a philosophical problem with their tax dollars going to candidates," said council member and Prop. 1 opponent Will Wynn, who says he does support Austin's current public financing provisions for run-off candidates. "We just foresaw a bunch of unintended consequences such that it could be manipulated by large organizations." Before the election, Wynn speculated that a UT fraternity could run a candidate and use the money for beer.

Pro-Prop. 1 campaign consultant Mike Blizzard blamed the Statesman editorials and the budget crunch, which had "a huge impact," for the measure's demise. The ordinance was written prior to the economic downturn, he pointed out, which made it easier for the opposition to argue that the city couldn't afford public financing. He also blamed the ballot language. "It was clunky, very hard to understand. There were semicolons and parentheses and shit, and it included the dreaded word 'tax revenues.'... The electric utility analyst and single-member districts would have cost money, but the ballot did not say that they would have cost tax revenues."

Fred Lewis, attorney and spokesman for Prop. 1 authors Clean Campaigns of Austin, said he hasn't decided whether he'll file an ethics complaint against the Citizens Committee. Prior to the election, he said he was suspicious of how the organization could have posted its billboards so quickly after its founding, without violating state campaign finance laws (see "Billboards," below).

Prop. 1's promise of sweeping campaign finance reform may have completely distracted attention from Prop. 3, which called for dividing the council into single-member districts (SMD) and expanding it from seven to 11 members. In past attempts to implement SMD, the subject spawned major political warfare. This time, with nary a peep of discussion, 58% of voters rejected the reform -- its sixth entry in the Austin Book of Failed SMD Initiatives.

In what little public process did occur, the city's slapdash method of mapping tentative districts shortly before the election raised some concern. And racial minorities that had staunchly advocated SMD in years past worried that getting rid of the "gentleman's agreement" might actually weaken their representation, given that many minorities have moved from East Austin and spread across the city. (Currently, two council seats are unofficially reserved for one black and one Hispanic member.) City demographers were unable to create a majority-black district in their mapping attempts, and ultimately, the council refused to officially adopt a single map for presentation to the public. "The council made a mistake in not adopting a map," said community activist Lori C-Renteria, who supported SMD. "All of these options just confused people."

Council Member Daryl Slusher, a fellow SMD supporter, agrees the council could have better handled the issue, but says "the racial argument" no longer applies. SMD "might have actually diluted racial representation," he said. "There just wasn't much demand to change the system. We didn't see a group to push it. There was no campaign for it, and no opposition."

Two items, Props. 2 and 4, tried to repeal city charter requirements that have been thorns in the sides of both current and would-be council members, and maybe that's why voters kept them. Critics have derided the $100 contribution limit as the "incumbent protection act" since its 1994 implementation, because it's very hard for candidates without name ID to raise the money necessary to establish a high profile. This time around, however, an incumbent complained: Slusher, running against rich-boy challenger Kirk Mitchell (who funded his own campaign), said he couldn't keep up with his opponent's spending. (Slusher ultimately trounced Mitchell 55% to 27%.) The contribution limit avoided repeal by a mere 577 votes out of 38,793 cast.

"I think the $100 limit is ridiculous," said Slusher. "I thought the council should write an ordinance, with a tremendous amount of public input, and put it into the laws of the city rather than the city charter. McCain-Feingold (the recently passed national campaign finance legislation) wasn't a Constitutional amendment -- that was a law passed by the Congress. I felt like we should do that rather than have it in what amounts to the city's constitution."

And we'll still have term limits, which survived with 55% of the vote. Unless an incumbent can gather signatures from 5% (this year, 18,263) of registered voters to get on the ballot, as Slusher, Jackie Goodman, and Beverly Griffith all had to do this year, two terms is the limit. "I think the best limiters of the term are the people [through elections, rather than prescribed limits]," Mayor Gus Garcia said, "but the people have said the two terms should ought to stay. What we saw in this election, I didn't particularly like, where you had people doing a lot of work trying to get those signatures."

Garcia believes term limits carry "a certain appeal" for voters, but the tired candidates themselves don't see the attraction. Asked if she'd subject herself to the signature-gathering process in three years, Goodman responded, "I have no idea. I'm not champing at the bit."

"I'll serve this one more time," Slusher replied, "but I doubt I'll ever do another petition drive. I want to donate my clipboards. Do you need any clipboards?" end story

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