Austin Group's 'Democracy Dollars' Proposal Draws Rebukes

Austinites for Progressive Reform pitches ambitious campaign finance laws for a May ballot but one aspect excludes a swath of the citizenry.

Via By Tony Cantu, Patch Staff Article Link AUSTIN, TX — Austin City Council on Tuesday is scheduled to listen to a presentation on the potential use of "Democracy Dollars" designed to replace local campaign finance rules — a proposal stemming from a citizen-initiated petition by a political coalition that garnered enough petition signatures to place it on the May 1 ballot. But concern has arisen over citizens who would be excluded from using the political currency — including legal permanent residents and those on parole or probation.

Austinites for Progressive Reform, a political action committee, announced in January it had submitted more than 24,000 signatures to the city clerk — some 4,000 more required by law — to place a series of sweeping proposals on the upcoming ballot.

The group also seeks to change to a mayor-council form of government — yielding a "strong mayor" format — while calling for an 11th single-member council district. The move would eliminate the city manager's role by tasking the mayor — duly elected and thus "...democratically accountable to the voters," the group notes on its website — to administer executive functions, including the police department, the transportation department, and the budget creation process.

In its proposal to replace the city manager, the group invokes the specter of the Jim Crow era. "The city manager system was not the form of government at the time of Austin’s founding," the group notes on its website. "Rather, it was adopted at the height of Jim Crow, pushed by a group of white businessmen who believed the city was failing to prioritize their interests."

Austinites for Progressive Reform was founded by Austin entrepreneurs and political activists Eugene Sepulveda, Laura Hernandez, Andrew Allison and Jim Wick. The aim of the group's proposals, the group describes on its website, is to bolster ideals of democracy. Impeding such democratic ideals is the city's campaign finance system in which nearly 70 percent of all contributions to the city council originate from just three council districts, the group notes on its website.

"Our answer to voter suppression must be a fortification of democracy, and we can start here in Austin," the Austinites for Progressive Reform website reads. "Right here at home, we have structural election and administration issues that impede access to and participation in our democracy..." officials continued.

But a backlash has emerged over the "Democracy Dollars" proposal that would supplant the city's existing campaign finance system. The proposal gives access to the novel currency — $25 vouchers residents would contribute to their preferred candidates — to registered voters, which effectively excludes groups that include long-term permanent residents, the incarcerated and those on probation or parole not meeting the definition of a "qualified voter" under Sec. 11.002 of the Texas Election Code.

The decision to encompass only registered voters was chosen as an approach seen as "... most palatable to Austin voters," according to an internal email obtained by Patch. Allison from Austinites for Progressive Reform later noted no specific group's were specifically mentioned in the initiative as segments to be excluded, but did acknowledge only registered voters could partake in the vouchers program.

Proponents explained how the vouchers would work during a Feb. 2 work session with city council members. Each registered voter would receive a $25 voucher to spend on mayoral and city council races by contributing it to their preferred candidates. Candidates would be able to receive the vouchers upon meeting certain conditions — agree on contribution limits, pledge to participate in debates, and the like. Voucher payouts would be limited to $300,000 for mayoral candidates and $75,000 for council hopefuls.

The idea is patterned after a similar one in Seattle, where voters in November 2015 approved a similar citizen-led initiative dubbed "Honest Elections Seattle" that enacted several campaign finance reforms. Like the Austin proposal, voucher payouts in Seattle are limited to $300,000 for mayoral candidates and $75,000 for council candidates. In passing the referendum, Seattle became the first city in the nation to try this type of public campaign financing.

Seattle voters approved a property tax of $3 million per year in 2015 to fund the Democracy Voucher Program for 10 years. Properties affected include commercial, businesses, and residential properties. The Democracy Voucher Program costs the average homeowner about $8 per year.

Yet the Seattle prototype does not preclude some groups like the Austin version would. Patch spoke to a pair of legal permanent residents who decried being excluded from the local plan who noted the irony of a system intended to heighten democratic ideals while allowing for such exclusions.

Montserrat Garibay, secretary-treasurer of the Texas AFL-CIO, suggested such participatory exclusions are at odds with a movement promoting heightened democratic ideals: "I think it is important to point out that immigrant families in Austin already face institutional racism and barriers to fully participate in our democracy, the fact that this PAC's proposal will exclude many immigrants from participating is inexcusable," she told Patch. "This PAC talks a lot about expanding democracy, but this is just another example of how they are trying to concentrate power into fewer hands."

Immigrants living in Austin who would feel the impact of such exclusion agreed.

"We would like for them to change it," Ofelia Medrano, a legal resident in Austin, told Patch in an interview conducted in Spanish. She and her husband have lived in Austin for more than 30 years — she working as a cook for 20 years at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and her husband as a painter — while paying taxes the entire time. "We pay taxes like any citizen," Medrano said. "We have never stopped working."

Ana Dimas, an immigrant from Mexico who has lived in Austin since 1998, agreed. The mother of three and grandmother to two has worked at the Austin airport food and beverage concessions area since 2004. "I don't think it's just that we are unable to participate in this program," she said in Spanish. "I work hard every day, and my migration status should not be a deciding factor if I have the same voice in our democracy."

Patch obtained an email exchange between coalition member Workers Defense Project and Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project and an Austinites for Progressive Reform member. Responding to concerns related to the excluded groups, Marziani said the proposal was structured to make passage more "palatable" for Austin voters who would weigh in on at the ballot box.

"The committee believed that a requirement that voters be already registered would be most palatable to Austin voters who lacked familiarity with the program and would be most resistant to state-level demagoguery, and the committee believed that expansions to eligibility could come after implementation, when supporters would be more numerous," Marziani wrote. "The steering committee intentionally designed the Austin program to maximize its chances of passage and minimize its chances of state-level preemption, without sacrificing its basic efficacy. The committee believed that once enacted, implemented, and demystified, the program would be popular, and further expansions would then become easier."

Patch reached out to Marziani for further explanation, but a message was not immediately returned. Andrew Allison, chair of Austinites for Progressive Reform, called back in her stead. Allison reiterated Marziani's rationale, explaining the program was designed to optimize resistance to legal challenges.

"I would describe the Democracy Dollars program differently as certainly not a restriction or exclusion but as the largest expansion of public campaign finance in the history of the City of Austin and the State of Texas," he began. "There are two reasons why our steering committee structured the proposal in the way it did. First the courts and legality. For 15 years, the Supreme Court of the United States has struck down nearly every campaign finance law and voting law that it has encountered. It has been critical for us to design a program that will withstand legal challenge, and we are confident that the program we have designed in this amendment will do that.

"The other reason is the committee wanted to design a program that would be effective and simple, and a program that could be expanded over time. We believe this program will be very successful in Austin, and over time we can expand it either in terms of financially, expand the funding, or expand its applicability. We believe if the program is successful, the council or the city can consider extending its applicability to other participants or include the funding available to all participants. And to make sure the program can be successful, our steering committee designed one that could not be overturned by the court that would succeed by day one to expand our democracy."

The council on Tuesday is scheduled to vote on ordering a special election for voters to decide whether to accept or reject the proposed changes, which would require charter amendments. Council has discretion on placing the proposals on the ballot this May or in November 2022.

The first council meeting on the matter is scheduled on Tuesday, beginning at 9 a.m. If needed, city council will revisit the issue on Wednesday and Thursday. Per state law, the council must order the proposals' placement on the May ballot by Feb. 12. View the full city council agenda here. The council meeting will be broadcast on ATXN online and by area cable providers.

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