Mayor Ron Nirenberg has formed a task force to consider higher campaign finance contribution limits and City Councilman John Courage’s proposal for a higher degree of contributor disclosure.
The appointed task force members announced Wednesday include chair Mike Beldon, chairman of Beldon Enterprises; Adriana Garcia, chair of the City’s Ethics Review Board (ERB); Mari Aguirre Rodriguez, former District 7 councilwoman; Melissa Cabello Havrda, an attorney and former City Council candidate; Christy Kaupert, a political science professor at San Antonio College; Lauren Sides, San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo communications and public relations manager; and Micah Salinas, Frost Bank vice president.
The task force is taking up issues reviewed in recent months by the Ethics Review Board (ERB) regarding potential campaign finance reform. The task force will make recommendations to the City Council’s Governance Committee, but the mayor has not yet laid out a timetable for the task force to do its job.
A document prepared by the City auditor’s office shows that San Antonio’s contribution limits are set at $500 per election cycle for Council candidates, and $1,000 for mayoral contestants.
Nirenberg cited research conducted by the ERB showing that San Antonio’s political contribution limits are significantly lower than comparable cities. Houston has a limit of $5,000 each for mayoral candidates and Council candidates per election cycle. Dallas has a limit of $1,000 for Council contestants, and $5,000 for mayoral candidates.
Garcia sent a memo in February to Nirenberg and Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) in which she recommended the formation of a committee to revisit campaign contribution limits.
Then-Mayor Ed Garza in 2002 created the Mayor’s Committee on Integrity and Trust in Local Government, which produced a campaign finance subcommittee. That panel came up with the City’s current contribution limits. The City tried addressing the issue again in 2009, Garcia wrote, adding that no action resulted from meetings that year.
“Like the previous [mayor’s] committee, at the heart of our work is a desire for transparency, accountability, and ultimately, a gain in public trust,” Garcia wrote.
The task force also will explore Courage’s proposal that municipal candidates be required to divulge the job title and employer of anyone who contributes $100 or more to their campaign. The District 9 coucilman had filed a Council Consideration Request (CCR) with that proposal last year. In its slate of proposed revisions to the City’s campaign finance and ethics codes, the ERB voted not to include recommending Courage’s CCR.
Garcia told the Rivard Report on Thursday that she and other ERB members have heard from some residents that such a requirement, if approved, could affect contributions in future City elections because of privacy concerns.
Courage met with the ERB last August to explain the rationale for his idea. He said raising the level of campaign contribution disclosure could increase transparency by allowing the public to see who is contributing to which local campaigns.
“I support enhanced disclosure, and my office’s findings seem to counter a lot of the evidence that formed the basis of the ERB’s original recommendation on my CCR,” Courage said via email Thursday.
The ERB had been working with Raymond Baird, a retired psychology professor from the University of Texas at San Antonio, on the campaign finance research.
“Our researcher, Dr. Baird, has provided notes and thoughts for and against disclosure,” Garcia said. “We’ve been presented with both sides of the issue.”
However, Garcia pointed out one potential pitfall of requiring more contributor disclosure: Would an employee who contributes to a particular candidate face repercussions from a supervisor or employer who holds opposing views?
“How’s that going to make me look to my boss?” she said.
Christian Anderson, a local campaign consultant and strategist, said raising contribution limits would make it easier for local candidates, especially those who may not start their campaign with widespread name recognition or a large campaign war chest, to raise more money.
“Being able to raise funds gives you the ability to contact many voters,” Anderson said. “From that standpoint, raising campaign contribution limits is helpful.”
Courage said that he looks forward to the task force’s findings.
“I think it is a positive move to go ahead and separate this particular issue from the rest of the work that the ERB is tasked with,” Courage said.
“It is such a critical issue, campaign financing. I was part of the group that brought about the original contribution limits, but I certainly understand if my colleagues are interested in a re-evaluation. Personally, I stand by the current limits.”