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Campaigning for the Metro bond

Our campaign finance laws can be a bit weird.

Transit officials spent the past 18 months developing a plan to add $7.5 billion in new bus lines, rebuilt transit centers and rail expansion.

They have nine weeks to sell it to voters.

“We’re in campaign mode now,” said Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman.

With election season, however, comes some complications. Patman and other officials can stump for the plan, but cannot use Metro money or staff to directly campaign in favor it.

The agency, however, is almost guaranteed to be the biggest spender during the campaign because it is allowed to educate voters on the plan to add 75 miles of rapid bus service, 16 miles of light rail and nearly $600 million in local bus system enhancements ranging from road and bus station improvements along key routes to new or restored sidewalks to bus stops.

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Metro, based on its 2020 budget, will spend $6.7 million to educate voters on the long-range plan, another $1.8 million for public engagement and $800,000 on legal expenses related to the plan.

The key distinction is Metro staff can talk about the plans for new projects and the benefits all they want: They just cannot encourage people to support them in November or spend any public money to solicit people’s vote for the ballot item in an official capacity.

“As a body, as a group, they cannot take action to in effect campaign for an issue,” Austin election lawyer Buck Wood said.

Board members, however, can campaign individually, with Patman and others already making the rounds without Metro staff in tow. Supporters started a political action committee, Moving to the Future, aimed at passing the bond. The campaign initially was led by Ed Wulfe, the Houston real estate tycoon active in local politics for the past 50 years. After Wulfe died July 28, engineer Wayne Klotz stepped in as treasurer.

I believe the same stricture exists on ISD and community college boards when they put capital bonds up for a vote. I confess, I don’t quite understand the rationale for it, but everyone seems to be able to play the game, so it’s not worth worrying about. I’ll have an interview with Carrin Patman for you to listen to next week – we talked about lots of things, from bikes to autonomous vehicles to I-45 – which I hope will help clarify the referendum a bit. As the story notes, there is no organized opposition as yet, though a couple of Mayoral candidates and one of the lesser At Large candidates are against it. Barring anything strange I expect this to pass, and the campaign for the referendum will boost overall turnout.

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