Austin weighs $1.5 million Democracy Dollars voucher program

Austin is considering a program that would allow more residents to contribute to local candidates in elections.

Austin is considering a program that would allow more residents to contribute to local candidates in elections.

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Democracy Dollars
The city of Austin is considering a Democracy Dollars program that would provide eligible residents up to four $25 vouchers each election cycle, according to a May 7 report to City Council by the Charter Review Commission.

The “Democracy Dollars” could then be donated to the resident’s City Council and mayoral candidates of choice.

The program is based on the city of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, which it enacted in 2015.

In 2017, Austin City Council resolved to establish a Charter Review Commission designed to provide council with recommendations on ways to “improve and enhance transparency and the general functions of city government,” according to the ordinance.

The commission made a total of seven recommendations, the first of which was the creation of a Democracy Dollars program through an amendment to the city charter.

It also recommended the creation of an Ethics Review Commission—which would administer the Democracy Dollars program and enforce city laws related to campaign finance, disclosures and other regulations—and the hiring of a city budget and efficiency officer.

“For us, this is about equity,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas, a grassroots advocacy group that has campaigned for the Democracy Dollars program. “The fact that a person has more money shouldn’t mean that they have a bigger voice in our democracy, but right now it does.”

The city charter currently caps campaign contributions to council and mayoral candidates at $350.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., political contributions vary substantially across Central Austin ZIP codes.

This year, political contributions in the 78703 ZIP code, which includes Tarrytown and Clarksville, have totaled $2,095,783, about 31 times the national average. In the 78722 ZIP code, which is east of I-35 and includes Cherrywood, political contributions have totaled $76,879, slightly above average.

“If you’re not someone who has that money to give typically, this [program] is your way to back a candidate you believe in,” said Gina McCool, vice president of the League of Women Voters’ Austin chapter.

But not everyone agrees that the ends justifies its means.

“The why is good, but the how is not,” said Jacob Asmussen, Central Texas bureau chief for Empower Texans, a nonprofit that advocates for free-market principles and fiscal responsibility.

The program “will tax our residents more when they’re already facing a huge affordability crisis,” he said.

The commission projects the program would cost $400,000 to launch and around $1.55 million annually to cover voucher and administrative costs, with the funds coming primarily from the city’s general fund, per the report.

A nearly $2 million increase to the city’s budget, which was recently approved at $4.1 billion for the 2018-19 fiscal year, would result in an approximately 63-cent increase to the average property tax bill.

In 2015, Seattle voters approved a property tax increase to cover its Democracy Vouchers program for 10 years at a cost of $3 million per year.

The commission recommends the Democracy Dollars program be implemented as a charter amendment, which requires voter approval, in time for the 2022 elections.

Joseph Fishkin, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, believes that, if implemented, the program will be able to withstand legal challenges such as from state officials.

“My bottom line is this: If the Council decides to make this investment in local democracy, courts will uphold it if challenged, and it is likely to have positive downstream consequences for the quality of campaigns, political participation, and political representation,” Fishkin wrote in an April 10 letter to the commission.