The Austin Chronicle

Campaign Finance Reports Shed Light on Prop 1 PAC Spending

Ridesharing Works coffer dwarfs rivals

By Mac McCann, April 15, 2016, News

Last week, the Chronicle reported that both sides of the Proposition 1 debate were accusing the other of being bought out ("Prop 1 Campaign Switches Into High Gear," April 8). But now that campaign finance reports from Jan. 1 to March 28 have been released, it'll be much harder for the pro-Prop 1 crowd to accuse their opponents of buying support, given the enormous difference in funding between the two sides.

Ridesharing Works for Austin, the pro-Prop 1 PAC, raised over $2.1 million total, with $788,750 in cash and $1.38 million in in-kind contributions. Notably, RWA did not receive a single donation other than corporate donations from Uber (which contributed $387,750 in cash and around $905,000 in in-kind contributions) and Lyft ($401,000 in cash and almost $475,000 in in-kind contributions). The report says that RWA has spent over $780,000 so far. And there are still a few weeks before the May 7 election – giving the TNCs time to pour even more money into the campaign. (The Chronicle received four payments of $1,845 each from RWA for political print advertisements.)

On the other side, the main anti-Prop 1 PAC, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, raised a little over $12,000. That came from 51 donations, averaging $241 per donation. (Disclosure: Susan Moffat, wife of Chronicle co-publisher Nick Barbaro, contributed $500 to the PAC.) Consultants David Butts and Dean Rindy also provided Our City with $8,560 in loans. So far, the PAC has spent less than $15,000. Butts told the Austin American-Statesman that he hopes to raise $100,000 by May 7 – which, even if achieved, would be less than 5% of what RWA has already spent. (The Chronicle received three payments, one for $1,546.75 and two for $2,121.75, from Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice for advertisements.)

With the attacks coming from all sides and with the money, well, only really coming from one side, there's still a lot of confusion surrounding Prop 1. RWA seems to be taking advantage of the confusion, pushing for their framing of the debate to become the main version. One commercial released by RWA, "Safety We Can Count On," has especially been criticized for being misleading. While most of the one-minute ad is accurate, it ends with the narrator saying, "On May 7, vote for Prop 1 to require Uber and Lyft to keep doing criminal background checks." If Prop 1 fails, and the TNCs choose to stay (they claim they won't), there would still be background checks, including fingerprinting, so the ad is blatantly confusing, if not flat-out deceptive. However, Travis Considine of RWA told the Chronicle that "the ad is accurate," since "a vote for Prop 1 keeps things the way they are today," with Uber and Lyft currently conducting their own background checks through a third party. If Prop 1 fails, Considine argued, the city would take over the background checks for TNC drivers (and no longer requiring "Uber and Lyft to keep doing criminal background checks" of their own) so the ad is not misleading or inaccurate. [Ed. note: City officials say it is "flat out not true" that the city will take over background checks; those are and would remain the responsibility of the TNC or an agreed-upon third party. See an update in the April 22 issue.]

Additionally, RWA and its campaigners have been framing the debate as a question of whether or not voters want to "save" Uber and Lyft from being "kicked out" of the city. For example, on April 7, RWA was registering voters for the May 7 election, asking students if they "want to help save Uber and Lyft," according to KUT's Audrey McGlinchy. Once she identified herself as media, McGlinchy tweeted, the "student signing others up to vote was told to change his pitch to 'Want to register to vote?'" In my own experience, RWA workers in West Campus have also – misleadingly – framed the vote as a way to prevent the city from forcing Uber and Lyft out of Austin.

Uber and Lyft have been dogged in their efforts regarding Austin's Prop 1 and their involvement with RWA. RWA ads in support of Prop 1 have been sent directly to Lyft users, and also show up on Uber's email receipts and when you open the Uber app.

However, some Austinites question the link between the TNCs and RWA – especially regarding the recent discounts being offered by both Lyft and Uber. For months now, both Uber and Lyft have constantly offered discounts to users, especially college students, such as Lyft's 30% off up to six rides for students and Uber's 50% off for students using UberPOOL, which pairs up customers going in similar directions for a lower fare. The Uber email receipts from these discounted rides, as with all Uber email receipts for Austin users (discounted or not), include the RWA ad.

For critics, the TNCs are "trying to influence the outcome of the election through your pricing," as Buck Wood told the States­man. But Uber says that similar discounts (in general as well as specifically for POOL) are being offered around the country, in an attempt "to incentivize riders to try out new products."

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