AUSTIN (KXAN) — We’re less than a month out from the Nov. 5 election and newly filed campaign finance reports shed light on who spent money in support of and in opposition to Austin’s Proposition B.
Proposition B opposes the steps Austin City Council has taken toward expanding the city’s convention center. The city of Austin has moved in this direction with the aim of unlocking more Hotel Occupancy Tax dollars which can be used under the state tax code for things like arts and historic preservation funding.
On May 24, Council voted unanimously to approve the Pam District Master Plan, an act that included beginning the process of expanding the Austin Convention Center. On Aug. 8, Council passed an emergency ordinance for a capital improvement plan for the convention center, which enabled the city under state tax code to also increase the local portion of the Hotel Occupancy Tax from 7% to 9%. On Sept. 19, Austin City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that would allocate new Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) dollars towards live music in the city by using money from the increase in the local HOT rate.
The Political Action Committee Unconventional Austin was also successfully able to gather enough petition signatures (they gathered 24,481 valid signatures) to bring an ordinance to the ballot in November — Proposition B — which could challenge the convention center expansion.
The ordinance, which came from their PAC’s petition, would limit the convention center to receiving 34% of the total annual HOT revenue. It would also require that 15% or more of that revenue go to a historic preservation fund and 15% or more go to the cultural arts fund, with the remaining dollars going to enhance Austin’s “cultural tourism industry.”
PHAM PAC, a separate PAC formed to oppose Unconventional Austin, has said what Unconventional Austin is doing would jeopardize funds the city has already approved and vetted for arts and historic preservation. PHAM PAC also questions whether the HOT dollar allocations Unconventional calls for would be legal under the Texas Tax Code.
So far, the PHAM PAC has a total of $31,907.5 in political contributions. This PAC was created in July, so its first campaign finance reports were filed in October. Unconventional Austin was created in late May and since that time has raised a total of $153,246.86 in political contributions.
How the money is being spent
So far, PHAM PAC has spent $31,907.50. The bulk of PHAM’s spending ($25,000) went to Opinion Analysts for polling expenses. It also spent $2,000 to pay Jim Wick, who helps to lead the PAC, for consulting.
Unconventional has spent $169,483.39 so far. Most of that spending ($155,586) went towards paying for the PAC’s petition efforts. Unconventional worked with Buda-based Texas Petition Strategies and several hired employees.
Unconventional also paid $3,000 to Austin-based Vici Media, Inc. for online polls. Vici Media has created a fake Joe Biden campaign site and has been used by the Donald Trump campaign. It’s also worked with conservative groups in Texas.
PHAM PAC announced that Mark Littlefield, political consultant and board chair for the Ending Community Homelessness Coaltion, filed an ethics complaint Friday, claiming Unconventional didn’t promptly disclose its payments to Vici Media or the company’s ties to the Trump campaign.
Unconventional Austin explained in an email to KXAN that its PAC’s efforts do not align with Donald Trump or the Republican Party. Unconventional explained that its usual local pollster, Opinion Analysts, was already hired by PHAM PAC.
Both PACs tell KXAN they are continuing to fundraise.
How the PACs are reacting
Jim Wick with PHAM PAC said of Unconventional, “I think their report raises a lot of questions.”
Among his questions: “Why did they spend $3,000 for a social media firm that consults for President Trump?”
Wick recognizes that many voters may not be up to speed on the debate his PAC is embroiled in.
“The issue is very complicated and I don’t think many voters really understand that what Proposition B seeks to do is ultimately starve the convention center of funding and take all that money and put it into tourism promotion,” he said. “The proponents of Proposition B claim it will help artists and musicians — it will do no such thing.”
Attorney Fred Lewis who supports Unconventional Austin calls Wick’s questions about the use of Vici Media “a false charge” and “a smear.”
“No it’s not the Donald Trump campaign, no it’s not a Republican conspiracy,” Lewis said. “It’s a bunch of citizens who want their fellow citizens to vote before we get a … convention center.”
Individual contributors to the PACs
The largest donor to PHAM is SXSW LLC which contributed $30,000.
Mike Shea, SXSW Chief Logistics Officer, sent KXAN a statement saying:
“The Convention Center is one of Austin’s major drivers of cultural, economic and business activity. An expanded and improved center will increase the beneficial impacts and attract more events. Proposition B is designed to block the proposed Convention Center improvements and SXSW supports PHAM PAC, city government officials and other like-minded groups that oppose Proposition B.”
The largest individual contribution was from Joshua Jones-Dilworth, the CEO of Jones-Dilworth, Inc. who gave $1,030.
Below is a list of other contributors and who they are:
|Name||Who are they?||Amount|
|Eugene Sepulveda||CEO of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Central Texas||$515|
|Joshua Baer||CEO of Capital Factory||$103|
|Jason Stanford||Senior Vice President of Global Communications at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s former communications director||$103|
|Clark Heidrick||Attorney and partner at McGinnis Lochridge||$100|
|Catlin Whitington||Chair of Austin’s Tourism Commission and a planner for SXSW||$25.75|
|John Michael-Cortez||Special assistant to Austin Mayor Steve Adler||$25.75|
|Jim Wick||Political consultant and former campaign manager for Austin Mayor Steve Adler who helped launch PHAM PAC||$5|
The largest contributor to the Unconventional PAC is Save Our Springs (SOS) Alliance, an Austin-based environmental organization, which gave a total of $51,343. However, Unconventional has clarified that donation came largely from four individual donors within their organization and that only a very small part of the money came from general donations to SOS. Bill Bunch (an attorney, Austin Tourism Commissioner and SOS Executive Director) has also contributed $22,721 of his own money to this effort ($10,000 of that amount is a loan).
Brian Rodgers, an Austin Tourism Commissioner and realtor, has contributed a total of $26,200 ($20,000 of that amount was part of the SOS donation). John Kirk Mitchell, an investor, donated $20,000 as part of the SOS donation. Jenny Clark, who is retired, has donated a total of $20,000 ($10,000 of that amount was part of the SOS donation). Roger Baker, who is listed as a retired scientist, donated $1,443 (and $1,343 was part of that SOS donation).
Robert Kleinman, who is listed as an attorney, pledged to contribute $10,000 to the PAC in July. Unconventional explained to KXAN than Kleinman owns the Planet K franchise and also operates a political entity called the Foundation for Constitutional Protection, Inc. That foundation has also donated a total of $10,000 to Unconventional.
Below are other large contributions to the PAC:
|Name||Who are they?||Amount|
|Fred Lewis||Attorney who helped lead the charge against CodeNext, the city’s previous attempt to overhaul the land development code. Lewis also helped write the petition for what would become Proposition J, which sought to bring the overhaul of the land development code to a public vote. Prop J failed in November 2018.||$17,500 ($10,000 of which was a loan)|
|Frank and Mary Krasovec||Listed as working in investments at Norwood Capital||$11,000|
|Millicent Lundburg||Attorney||$10,600 ($5,000 of which was a loan)|
|John Markham Green||Listed by Bloomberg as the Interim Chief Executive of PowerOne Media, Inc.||$3,500|
|Steven “Cash” Nickerson||Resident and principal of PDS Tech, Inc.||$3,000|
|Tracy DiLeo||Partner at Killam Company who has also donated to SOS||$2,000|
|Ruth and James Pennebaker||Ruth Pennebaker is a writer and James Pennebaker is a professor at UT Austin in the Department of Psychology||$1,000|
|Mary Yancy Garwood||Psychologist||$1,000|
|Allan McMurtry||AMC Company owner||$1,000|
Michael Searle, former Austin City Council Member Ellen Troxclair’s chief of staff, gave the PAC a loan of $9,200. Searle also backed the petition for Proposition K, the unsuccessful attempt in 2018 to bring about a third-party audit of the City of Austin.
“I believe that the public ought to have the right to vote on a $1.2 billion convention center expansion and that there are higher needs in Austin for those funds than a convention center, which is a failing business model that lost $43 million last year alone,” Searle told KXAN, citing the early estimates for a possible convention center expansion as well as numbers in the city’s financial report.
Friends of the Expo Center PAC donated $1,000. Friends of the Expo PAC explained in an email to KXAN that their PAC was created in 2016 to “support the future of the Travis County Exposition Center and promote economic development in East Austin.” The City of Austin’s actions to increase hotel occupancy taxes and expand the convention center have received some opposition from Travis County leaders who are interested in exploring using a portion of the local HOT dollars to expand the Expo Center.
Five of the donors live at the same address, 98 San Jacinto Boulevard — the address of the Four Seasons Austin Hotel near where Trinity Street meets East Cesar Chavez Street. Four Seasons does offer private residences at this location.
Who supports which PAC
There are many people who’ve expressed support for these PACs whose names are not included in the campaign donations.
PHAM PAC’s supporters include: ACL Live, Antone’s, Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Austin Music Movement, Central Texas Building Trades Council, the Continental Club, ECHO (Ending Community Homeless Coalition), Empire Control Room & Garage, EQ Austin, Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Laborers International Union Local 1095, the Long Center, Mohawk, Music Venue Alliance, Red River Cultural District, Save Palm School Coalition, Saxon Pub, Southwest Laborers’ District Council, Stubb’s, SXSW LLC, UMLAUF Sculpture Garden, and the White Horse.
Unconventional Austin says their supporters include: Waterloo Records and owner John Kunz, Austin Independent Business Alliance, NAACP ‘s Austin Chapter, Save Our Springs Alliance, Planet K, the Bumper Sticker Shop, former Texas State Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, former District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, attorney and executive director of Save Our Springs Alliance Bill Bunch, Austin Tourism Commissioner John Riedie, Austin Tourism Commissioner Brian Rodgers, Austin NAACP President
Nelson Linder, UTSA Urban Policy Professor Heywood Sanders, musician
Kevin Russell, musician Bill Oliver, musician John Inmon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance Rebecca Melancon, Travis County Democratic Party precinct chair Steve Speir, the Travis County Republican Party, and Austin Community College’s director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies, Peck Young.
(Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Cosmic Coffee supports Unconventional Austin. Cosmic Coffee has since told KXAN that they “have not ever engaged [Unconventional] in any way.”)