Political action committees, or PACs, have dug into their wallets in recent years to support certain Leander and Cedar Park candidates who will have a say in the futures of these growing cities.

In the 2019 city election in Leander, 31% of campaign contributions given directly to candidates came from PACs, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of campaign finance reports. Similarly, in 2018 PAC contributions made up 37%  of contributions. That number is up from 9% in 2015 and 6% in 2016.

Cedar Park saw a surge of PAC donations in its 2016 elections, when 46% of candidates’ campaign contributions came from PACs. In the 2019 election in Cedar Park, 14% of contributions came from PACs.

These percentages include monetary donations and in-kind donations, which are goods or services donated to a candidate. The percentages do not include independent expenditures made by PACs without candidates’ knowledge or consent.

PACs are organizations that accept contributions and spend them to support campaigns for or against candidates, legislation or ballot measures. They serve as vehicles by which a group of people can amplify their voices by collecting and spending money in the name of an organization, according to Brian Roberts, a government professor who teaches campaign finance at The University of Texas at Austin.

“It’s a contribution from a collection of people rather than an individual,” Roberts said. “And politicians tend to take more note of collective voices rather than individual voices.”

During election season, city council and mayoral candidates are required to report campaign contributions and expenditures to their local municipality. Candidates turn in two reports, which are public information, during election season—one 30 days before the election and one eight days before.

Laura Lantrip, who lost the Leander Place 1 election to Kathryn Pantalion-Parker, has been on Leander’s Planning and Zoning Commission since 2016 and worked for the Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool for nearly 20 years. Though she has worked around government for years, Lantrip said she has never seen the presence of PACs in local elections like this before.

“It’s a very divided city right now,” Lantrip said. “The national scene is divided, too, but locally it’s not just Democrats versus Republicans. There just seems to be a real split in the city, and I don’t see that healing any time soon.”

Following the money

In the 2019 election, five PACs contributed to candidates in Leander. All candidates were supported by at least one PAC. The PAC that contributed the most money to candidates—$15,000—is the Texas Stronger PAC.

Leander resident Andy Pitts started the Texas Stronger PAC prior to the 2018 Leander City Council and mayoral elections. His son, Aaron Pitts, is listed as the PAC’s treasurer. Andy Pitts said the mission of the Texas Stronger PAC is to support candidates who want to see economic growth and have a conservative value system.

“We believe in free enterprise and less restriction,” Andy Pitts said.

All three candidates in Leander who were supported by the PAC were elected, leading their opponents by about 30 or more percentage points.

Pantalion-Parker raised the most campaign contributions during the election, raising $17,498.33 and spending $10,826.13. She received $5,333.33 from the Texas Stronger PAC and $750 total in contributions from two other PACs: the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin’s Home PAC and the Texas Association of Realtors PAC.

She said monetary donations from PACs played the same role in her campaign as any other contributions she received from individuals. While the PAC support enabled her to get more advertising materials out in public, she said it had no other influence on her campaign.

“There were no favors asked by anyone, and that’s what I expect,” Pantalion-Parker said. “I’ve given money to candidates before, and I expect nothing from them. … You support or vote for who reflects your values.”

Leander Mayor Troy Hill was supported by the Texas Stronger PAC in 2018, along with council members Christine Sederquist and Marci Cannon, as well as another mayoral candidate, Adam C. Benefield, who was not elected.

Hill said he was pleased with the results of the May 2019 election and believes they were reflective of what residents wanted.

“I really honestly don’t think [PACs] make a difference,” Hill said. “I think if there wasn’t a PAC in the last two elections, you would have seen the same result.”

This year and for the first time, Andy Pitts contributed—as an individual—to Cedar Park elections, contributing $1,203.30 each to candidates Hulyne Christopher and Rodney T. Robinson. He also contributed $5,000 to the Citizens for Cedar Park PAC, which supported candidates Tim Kelly, Christopher and Robinson, according to campaign finance reports. Kelly and Robinson were elected into office.

“I care about Cedar Park,” Andy Pitts said. “I spend a lot of my tax money there. My business is located in Cedar Park, so I certainly have a vested interest in Cedar Park doing well.”

He said the Texas Stronger PAC is looking to expand its reach to Georgetown in the future.

“We feel like we’ve had success,” Andy Pitts said. “We feel like we’re getting candidates elected that represent the values that we represent. If you can continue to duplicate that, why not?”

Debate surrounding PACs

States and local municipalities can set restrictions on how much money PACs can contribute to individual campaigns. While on the federal level, PACs can only receive contributions of $5,000 or less and make contributions of $5,000 or less, in Texas, there are no limits.

States and local municipalities cannot limit independent expenditures, which are expenditures people or PACs do not coordinate with candidates, such as political advertisements, according to Roberts.

Money in politics has long been connected to speech, Roberts said. The famous Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 played a role in this link.

“What the court did there was, for the first time, explicitly link money with speech,” Roberts said. “They basically … said if you’re going to engage in mass political communication, it’s going to cost you a lot of money. Therefore, limiting money in politics limits the ability to speak politically.”

However, Roberts said, the Supreme Court did rule that contribution limits were legal because they may mitigate corruption—real or apparent.

“Limits on contributions [are] okay because when I write a check to a politician, that could be interpreted as effectively a form of bribery, or what the court called ‘quid pro quo corruption,’” Roberts said. “They said because contributions come close or have the potential for quid pro quo corruption, [the court is] going to allow limits on contributions.”

The city of Austin has capped individual contributions for council and mayoral candidates at $350, a limit that applies to people and PACs. The cities of Cedar Park and Leander do not cap campaign contributions.

Not everyone believes political contributions lead to bribery. Leander City Council Members Jason Shaw and Chris Czernek, who were both supported by PACs including the Texas Stronger PAC, said they do not feel indebted to PACs.

Andy Pitts said he sees PACs as a way to remove the illusion of corruption. If a person such as a developer wants to contribute to a candidate, for example, but does not want to appear to be bribing the candidate to make choices in his or her favor, the developer can give to a PAC, and the PAC can then distribute money as it sees fit, Pitts said.

“[People] want to say that maybe a PAC somehow controls candidates,” Andy Pitts said. “It is actually the best way for that not to happen.”

The names of individuals who contributed to PACs are available in campaign finance reports. PACs, however, may be required to submit campaign finance reports on a different schedule than candidates must report theirs and to different entities, depending on the type of PAC they are.

“You have to dig a little bit deeper to get at where did the PAC get the money from,” Roberts said. “So that’s not as immediately obvious, but that information is there, but it’s not as readily obtainable.”

Role in nonpartisan elections

Local elections in Leander and Cedar Park are nonpartisan races, meaning candidates file directly for the ballot. Political parties do not choose nominees to appear on the ballot.

In a nonpartisan election, PACs may become a way to demonstrate partisan leanings.

“Because [PACs] are a means by which one can speak collectively, it is a way in which one can amplify what you might call partisan leanings,” Roberts said.

Andy Pitts said one of the benefits of PACs is they allow residents who may not have the time to get to know local candidates a platform to identify with.

“If they know me, for example … they know that they identify with my value system and my political beliefs, then they’re going to trust me,” Andy Pitts said. “If I say this candidate reflects the same value systems, they’re going to go, ‘Great, I think I want to support that candidate.’”

Leander Planning and Zoning Commissioner Becki Ross, who lost the Place 3 Leander City Council race, said she worries having almost all candidates on council supported by the same PAC could lead to “groupthink.”

“If all [elected] candidates are backed by the same PAC funds, then it’s not necessarily an absolute, but it makes one think whether or not there will be outside thought or ideas that come into play, or if it will become a one-minded organization,” Ross said.

Future of local campaign funding

Jeff Seiler, an incumbent who lost the Place 5 Leander City Council election in May, said the presence of PACs is a new phenomenon in Leander. He said typically it costs between $3,000-$5,000 to run a campaign in Leander.

In May, Seiler garnered $5,376.57 in campaign contributions, 23% percent of which came from PACs. His opponent, Czernek, raised $17,189.33, 31% percent of which came from PACs. When he was elected in 2016, Seiler received $2,996.80 in contributions.

Lantrip said she thinks the cost of running a campaign in Leander is going to discourage qualified people from seeking office.

“You have to have money to get your message out, and if someone says something you want to rebut, and they do it last-minute, you may not have the money to address that,” Lantrip said.

Ross said she fundamentally does not have an issue with PACs but believes they can lead to disparities.

“When you have thousands upon thousands of dollars funneling through, it makes an uneven playing field,” Ross said. “It skews things.”

Shaw, who was elected to Place 3 and received $16,868.44 in campaign contributions, said having more funds enabled him to do more marketing during his campaign, but that is simply how the system works.

“The game was set up,” Shaw said. “I didn’t make the rules.”