AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the 1990’s, former city council member and current Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea helped set Austin’s campaign finance limitations. The premise was to keep special interest groups from “buying” elections with a flood of contributions. Even with the city’s growth, Shea still believes that premise holds true.
“I think we have to do everything we can, to the greatest possible extent, to limit the special interest money and restore the process to the people,” said Shea.
Right now, current city council member Don Zimmerman is challenging the campaign finance limitations in federal court. He says the $350 cap on contributions violate First Amendment rights. He is also challenging the $36,000 cap on total contributions outside the city of Austin as well as the “blackout” period when fundraising is not allowed.
Shea said the new 10-1 system was designed to help candidates be closer to the district they serve and challenging the limit on fundraising outside the city is hard for her to understand.
“It strikes me as weird that a member of the council would want to get campaign contributions from all over the country. How do you represent your local district if you are being funded from people all over the country?”
But former council member and mayoral candidate Mike Martinez said he understands both sides of the limits.
“It makes it difficult when it is capped and you are not a well-known individual,” said Martinez. “Up until 10-1, the only successful candidates were those who substantially invested in their own campaigns.”
Martinez said he still owes $100,000 to his campaign funds and does not believe removing the caps would lead to elections being bought.
“I get why people want limits. They think somehow it levels the playing field,” he said. “But to say it has undue influence or it can corrupt government is a pretty broad statement.”
Zimmerman could have a lot to gain by eliminating the cap on contributions outside the city according to Martinez. He notes Zimmerman’s conservative politics and how likeminded supporters from across the state could lend their support.
“If he is successful in his lawsuit, I dare say he will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars outside of Austin because of his popularity in those circles. I can see why folks would have issue with that and I also see why he would want to lift that limit.”
Judge Lee Yeakel is expected to rule on the campaign finance issue in the coming weeks.