San Antonio City Council could soon consider doubling its self-imposed cap on campaign contributions from $500 to $1,000 for individual donors to district representatives and $1,000 to $2,000 for mayoral campaigns.

Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) submitted a council consideration request Thursday that could trigger another debate over campaign finance reform if the measure receives support from the Council’s Governance Committee.

An attempt to increase the caps to $750 and $1,500 per municipal election-cycle failed a narrow (5-5) vote by the previous City Council in 2018. The cap has gone unchanged since it was first imposed more than a decade ago.

Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) signed their support on the consideration request. Click here to download the request.

“It’s getting more and more expensive to reach the existing voter base … yet we’re still collecting the same amounts of money every year,” Pelaez told the Rivard Report.

These “antiquated” rules also stifle civic engagement, he said, because candidates spend their money on the same pool of voters.

Bigger budgets will mean a wider reach, Pelaez added. “If you want to guarantee that somebody won’t’ vote: don’t talk to them. … It’s a form of disenfranchisement.”

Campaign contribution caps vary at local, state, and federal levels. Bexar County Commissioners Court has no campaign contribution limits for individuals or entities while Bexar County judicial candidates are capped at $5,000. Houston allows $5,000 for council and $10,000 for mayoral candidates while Dallas allows $1,000 and $5,000 respectively.

Some elected officials have said that allowing more money could increase the undue influence donors have over them, but money has always played a role in politics, Pelaez said.

“Welcome to planet Earth,” he said. “The idea that increasing the amount of [contributions to $1,000 and $2,000] is suddenly going to usher in an era of corruption and grift rings hollow.”

Henry Flores, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University, agreed.

“[Elected officials are] more influenced by the last person they talked to,” Flores said. When it comes to campaign contributions, “really what you’re paying for is access [to their ears], not necessarily the influence.”

Campaign costs – and really the cost of almost everything – has increased over the years, Flores said. Printing costs for mailers and campaign signs account for a big chunk of their tabs on top of ad buys, consultant fees, block walkers, food, and other expenses, he said.

But doubling the cap may be excessive, Flores said. “An increase is okay, but I think it has to reasonable.”

In 2018, a campaign-finance task force developed the $750/$1,500 recommendation. Mayor Nirenberg, Treviño, Gonzales, Pelaez and former Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) voted in favor of that change.

Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3) Ana Sandoval (D7) John Courage (D9), Clayton Perry (D10), and former Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) voted against the change.

If there is enough member support, the Governance Committee – comprised of Nirenberg, Rocha Garcia, Gonzales, Sandoval, and Courage – could direct City staff to do more research into best practices, form another task force, have the Ethics Review Board review the proposal, or send it directly to a full Council discussion.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org