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Victory in 08! or Victory in 08?

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on the staged photo-op that was the launch of Victory '08!, the Texas Republican Party's next push for electoral glory. So where's the Democrat equivalent?

"Uh, we don't really bother with one," said Amber Moon, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. The GOP launch event, which was basically some media, a lot of local party organizers, some staffers and a handful of heavy hitters, is a regular occurrence that the Dems seem to consider as a whimsical diversion, rather than a serious campaign kick-off.

What has figured on a lot of people's radar, including quite a few press at the launch, is how early it was. Well, early for the Republicans, that is. The Dems admit that they've been grassroots sewing since February, but the Republicans don't normally start for a good few months yet.

Then there's the fact that the three bigwigs present – Gov. Rick Perry, US Sen. John Cornyn and campaign chair Roger Williams – were all talking about having to build a new grassroots network of local conservative activists. Which is strange, since the Karl Rove inheritance of GOP electoral organization in Texas has reached near-mythic status. Where have they gone?

Even weirder was that Cornyn talked about how the RNC traditionally had ignored Texas because it didn't really need any external assets to stay a safe Republican stronghold. This needed to change, he added. Read More | 1 Comment »

State 10:00AM Mon. Jul. 30, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Safety at the State House

False alarm at the Capitol Saturday. Around 4pm, the state house and its grounds were evacuated over a bomb threat. Staff (the handful of staffers and maintenance personnel who are in the building on an out-of-session weekend) and tourists were ushered out by state troopers. No word yet on whether it was a phoned-in warning or a suspicious package, but either way it was all re-opened to the pubic within a couple of hours.

Yet the manner of the evacuation could raise some serious questions about emergency planning at the Capitol. There's always a balancing act between safety matters and massing an over-imposing law enforcement presence in a public place: many residents of Washington DC and New York feel that the balance has definitely slipped/been shoved far in the authoritarian direction. However, the handful of troopers on duty were trying to get everyone out of the 22-acre grounds by asking them politely, person by person. To do this, they had to leave the gates unlocked and unguarded. So while they were trying to get people to leave the grounds, others were still blithely walking in to see what the fuss was about. Read More | 1 Comment »

Local 10:14PM Sat. Jul. 28, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Live-Blogging the FY 2008 Budget

UPDATE: You can find the city's proposed budget online here.

There's no one in City Hall chambers for the budget presentation! No one! Where's Debbie Russell?

Alright, more folks have filtered in. Toby Futrell, clad in an intense purple, seems a little subdued, having just returned from the Executive Session where they discussed her replacement.

Description of how the forecast gap was closed: Ooooh, pray tell!

Staff only have four or five months of data on the financial forecast, says Futrell. "This year we closed a $27.5 million shortfall going from forecast to budget … essentially in line with the past gaps," she says. That 4% of your gross revenue is a real bitch, huh?

An extra $10.9 million from going at the higher rollback rate eats up the share of the "gap."

In summary, the '08 budget is balanced, at the rollback rate, says Futrell.

PowerPoint graphics in budget officer Greg Canally's presentation are mildly vexing, like a half-assed acid flashback. His description of the budget documents is supposed to make things clearer to us, but I find myself buried under an avalanche of wonktitude.

FYI, official title, theme of the budget: "Building a Sustainable Community." These summer sequels sure are boring …

"Community Priorities" inform the budget, Futrell says: 1) transportation mobility issues, 2) growth management, 3) affordable housing, 4) crime, et. al. Another "survey dimension" is "Customer Priorities:" there, police services rank No. 1.

Blog continues below the fold … Read More | 1 Comment »

City Hall Hustle 2:37PM Thu. Jul. 26, 2007, Wells Dunbar

Could Harriet and Alberto Represent You?

So now Harriet Miers might face contempt charges before the full Congress, and Democrat senators are demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate possible perjury by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

What’s the real connecting factor here? They’re both Texas lawyers. Miers and Gonzales both still hold their license to practice law with the State Bar of Texas. So, if they did end up on the business-end of legal proceedings up on Capitol Hill, could they still practice Lone Star State law?

Quick answer from the State Bar: maybe yes, maybe no. It would all depend on interpretations of the disciplinary rules. The problem is that this is all uncharted territory, so there’s no precedent to follow. And beware, there’s legalese ahead. Read More | Comment »

National 1:09PM Thu. Jul. 26, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Chronic Invades MSNBC

Yup, your fearless Chronic scribe, staff writer and City Council columnist Wells Dunbar will be on MSNBC today. Well, his voice at least, doing phone interviews regarding Austin's local government serving as a model for Iraq. (Seriously, the jokes write themselves.)

I should be doing four hits, at 10:22am, 11:37am, 12:10pm and 3:30pm. Tune in!

UPDATE: Lame – the bomb scare at the Long Beach airport is bumping your boy from his 12:10. If I do the 3:30, it'll have to be in-between presentations of the FY 2008 budget – which is being unveiled at City Hall at 1pm. Read More | 4 Comments »

Local 9:37AM Thu. Jul. 26, 2007, Wells Dunbar

Are They Talking About the Same Place?

Time to connect the ink dots:

July 19 – The US Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration issues citations British Petroleum for one willful and four serious violations of safety codes at their Texas City plant. This is the same Texas City plant at which 15 people died and 170 were injured during a massive and avoidable accident in March 2005. In the press release, OSHA's Dallas chief Dean McDaniel said, "The citations issued today are based on the identification of hazardous conditions similar to those that led to the tragic March 2005 explosion."

July 24 – British Petroleum releases their second quarter 2007 results. In the report, the company refers in buoyant terms to the "planned maintenance" and "ongoing recommissioning at the Texas City refinery." Read More | Comment »

State 5:04PM Wed. Jul. 25, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Just Because You're Paranoid …

… doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Austin ACLU leader Debbie Russell shares this bon mot regarding Austin's new red light cameras at 11th St. and I-35:

One of the two red light cameras put up just happen to be at the closest major intersection to the ACLU-TX offices. This has not gone unnoticed by the staff (to which I wonder if my name gets mumbled in vain when passing thru).

But don't worry – they're just testing them out! Right? Right? Read More | 2 Comments »

Local 4:08PM Wed. Jul. 25, 2007, Wells Dunbar

More Bad News for Miers, Bolten, and Bush

So the refusal of former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten to give evidence in the US attorney firing scandal just moved them closer to a court date.

In a straight 21-17 party-line vote, the House Judiciary Committee this morning has said that the Dallas lawyer and the Kissinger acolyte should be cited for contempt of Congress. Chair John Conyers, D-MI, told members they had two days to make any further submissions. Conyers had written to Watergate veteran and White House counsel Fred Fielding last Thursday, saying the committee had rejected his claim that Bolten was covered by executive privilege, so it was no surprise that the committee made this new decision.

It also does not bode well for the Republican National Committee: even though Conyers had extended their deadline to comply with the subpoena for their files in matter until July 31, he's already called their attempts to be covered by executive privilege unacceptable.

The next step is that the committee may refer their report to the full House: if they vote it out, then it will go to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who would empanel a grand jury. Then the question will be, will fellow Texan lawyer, fellow loyal Bushy and fellow House Judiciary Committee witness Attorney General Alberto Gonzales enforce any further rulings. Read More | Comment »

National 1:56PM Wed. Jul. 25, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Colbert Takes on the Pot Lobby

Check it: Our friends over at the Marijuana Policy Project just dropped a line with the 411 that Aaron Houston, the MPP's Capitol Hill lobbyist – and the only full-time pot policy lobbyist in D.C. – will be appearing on The Colbert Report tomorrow night, Thursday, July 26. (That's 10:30pm Central Time on Comedy Central, for those of you in the 512.) Read More | Comment »

Reefer Madness 1:46PM Wed. Jul. 25, 2007, Jordan Smith

There's Nothing Like a Real Coal Fire

Thought the future of electricity was wind, solar, and trying to reduce your consumption? Think again. At yesterday's meeting of the Texas Public Power Association, Public Utility Commission member Barry Smitherman gave electricity industry insiders the official line on how they'll be keeping the lights on. Seems the policy is coal, coal, and more coal.

Since hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through gas storage facilities along the Gulf Coast and caused wild price fluctuations, the PUC has been queasy about the state's dependence on natural gas prices. Smitherman was pushing the line that what's needed is a lot more coal plants to come online as fast as possible. A noted opponent of tough regulation (and equally un-noteworthy for lacking tough views on eco-protection), he's selling the line of clean coal. (Possibly the world's greatest misnomer, since at best it could classify as cleaner coal. Between the emissions from burning and the runoff water from the production process, there's still very little clean about it. It also doesn't help that, even after an April U.S. Supreme Court decision said they could, the Environmental Protection Agency still isn't trying to regulate CO2.) Read More | Comment »

State 1:02PM Wed. Jul. 25, 2007, Richard Whittaker

The Senator Has No Clothes

Who says policy-wonk activists have no sense of humor? The folks at the Lone Star Project, a pro-Democrat group (despite their claim of being a "non-ideological PAC"), have provided a great time-waster for when you get bored at work: The John Cornyn cardboard doll dress-up game.

The LSP says on its Web site that "John Cornyn cloaks himself in predictable conservative rhetoric. An examination of facts, however, shows his words are a paper-thin veneer concealing a voting record supporting runaway deficit spending and long-term federal debt." They invite you to read their report "detailing Cornyn ignoring red ink and carrying water for failed and irresponsible Republican budgets. Then visit the Lone Star Project’s Cardboard Conservative Clubhouse and give John Cornyn attire appropriate for his record rather than his rhetoric." When you get there, you'll see Texas' junior senator stripped down to his revealing undies (see illustration), with three outfits for you to clothe him, depending on which identity he's assuming that day: Patriot, cheerleader for Karl Rove, or "Corny, the Republican Leadership Lap Dog." Have fun! Don't let the boss catch you. Read More | Comment »

State 9:31PM Tue. Jul. 24, 2007, Lee Nichols

Neo-Cons for Top Ten Percent

The Top Ten Percent admission rule looks like it's gained some very unlikely allies – the Neo-Cons.

Yes, you read that right. On Monday, the Project on Fair
Representation
announced that it had filed suit against UT Austin for going beyond the legally allowed "narrow tailoring" of admissions processes to enhance racial diversity. Calling Top Ten Percent a "race-neutral system", the project goes on to say that the system has made the school more ethnically diverse than when it had a racial component to admissions. It doesn't bother mentioning that UT Austin is still not actually as ethnically diverse as the state, but let's not split hairs.

But what is the Project on Fair Representation? It describes itself as a "not-for-profit legal defense fund designed to support litigation that challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal courts." But let's give them their full name: the Project on Fair Representation at the American Enterprise Institute. Yes, arch Neo-Cons the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, proponents of using cost-benefit analysis in business regulation, supporters of the Delay redistricting, opponents of corporate tax, and big fans of the Iraq surge.

Just to prove they don't discriminate in their anti-anti-discrimination stance, the AEI will soon be holding a conference for debunkers of the recent National Academy of Science study that found there is a glass ceiling for women that discourages them from entering the sciences. Read More | Comment »

Local 4:57PM Tue. Jul. 24, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Health Care Solutions for Small Businesses

If you’re the owner or manager of a small business in Central Texas, the Indigent Care Collaboration wants your help. The group, which includes Lone Star Circle of Care, Travis County Healthcare District, Seton Family of Hospitals, St. David’s Healthcare Network, Austin Area Research Organization, and the Shivers Cancer Foundation, are surveying small businesses for possible solutions to the expanding problem of unaffordable health care in the region – approximately 17.9% of Central Texans lack sufficient health coverage, even though the majority of them are employed, and only 52.4% of Texans have employer-sponsored health insurance, the group says. The ICC also says that of 32,000 businesses in the region, 40% are currently unable to offer insurance. “Our goal isn’t to come up with a plan and ask everyone to accept it,” says Clarke Heidrick of the Travis County Healthcare District in a press release. “We want to hear directly from small businesses about what will work for them and how the right health coverage package can help businesses and individuals succeed and be competitive in our region and beyond.” If you’re a small business owner – regardless of whether your company offers coverage – you can take the survey at www.healthcarecentraltexas.com. The deadline to complete the survey is Friday, July 27. Read More | Comment »

Local 2:17PM Tue. Jul. 24, 2007, Lee Nichols

City Council Notebook

Agenda highlights for the Thursday, July 26 City Council meeting.

Items 2-4: Austin Energy rebates to AMD, Samsung and Applied Materials. Why not?

Item 16: Adopting the Austin Music Memorial Guidelines. About as "rock & roll" as it sounds.

Items 18, 21: Nearly $200K in legal fees for LCRA/TCEQ water negotiations (bringing the total to $1.7 million! Who the hell else are they gonna sell that water to?), and $100K more for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 legal fees.

Item 22: A grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve a 1936 Chamber of Commerce Film named – honest to God – "When Grandad Fought the Indians." All punch lines rendered obsolete.

Item 25: $248K to bring Zach Scott Theater into ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) compliance.

Items 42-71: Mammoth Purchasing Office spend-a-thon.

Item 78: Renaming Town Lake for Lady Bird Johnson.

Items 80, 81: Waiving the prohibition against lobbyists (cough – Gus Garcia – cough) sitting on the Charter Revision Committee, and extending its deadline to bring back recommendations.

Item 84: Appointing five council members (everyone except Sheryl Cole and Jennifer Kim) to a Local Fare Approval Committee to examine Capital Metro fees and fares. How about doing something on how the 1L smells? Read More | Comment »

City Hall Hustle 9:56AM Tue. Jul. 24, 2007, Wells Dunbar

Marshalling Forces and Strange Bedfellows

The argument about whether the speaker of the House can or can't basically ignore who they want could be steaming back to a legislature near you.

At the end of the last session, the smart money was that Speaker Tom Craddick would be laying low, praying for no special session. But, as noted earlier today, that may not be his choice any more. There may be a special session before Attorney General Greg Abbott can render his opinion, so it could just come down to a floor vote for a new speaker – at which point, party loyalties could mean nothing.

On one side, Craddick and his supporters. First and foremost of these is Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, chair of the House appropriations committee and one of the speaker's most powerful allies (in part because his budget-building committee can help deliver on financial promises that could crudely be called pork). In his own letter to Abbott (so much his own work that Craddick sent it out as part of his own press release) Chisum deployed an aw-shucks coyness, saying he's a rancher and not an attorney, but still and all, they should just let the speaker do what he wants.

On the other side are Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and complaint co-signatoree Byron Cook, R-Corsicana. It's probably a safe bet to include almost all of the six other challengers to Craddick's post, although they shouldn't count on Craddick-D-in-chief Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has made it a point of principal to block Craddick at every turn. Then there's a whole bunch of Republicans, like El Paso's Pat Haggerty and Richardson's Fred Hill, who made no-turning-back style stands against the speaker before sine die.

So here's the real question: If there is a special session, who can muster more forces and more votes? Read More | 1 Comment »

State 4:05PM Mon. Jul. 23, 2007, Richard Whittaker

TXU Faces Fines

The Pubic Utility Commission has handed down a $5 million fine against TXU Energy Retail Company LP. It's part of a settlement over locking commercial customers into long-term contracts without telling them.

Since the beginning of the year, most Texans have been in a deregulated electricity market, able to change suppliers for the best price or the greenest sources. While homeowners have been slow to switch, businesses have been more willing to move between companies. If a firm doesn't renew its contract with an electric company, the company is supposed to send out a renewal notice. If the customer doesn't respond, then the electric firm is supposed to automatically renew them for 31 days. Instead, TXU was signing them back up for a whole year.

The PUC found TXU had re-signed 4,000 small businesses like this. Now they have five days to pay up. Read More | Comment »

State 3:19PM Mon. Jul. 23, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Speaker on the Scales of Justice

The war over the powers of the House speaker has moved into the realm of legal deliberation. Now Attorney General Greg Abbott has been given the evidence by both sides over whether Speaker Tom Craddick violated the Texas constitution to stay in office.

Back on June 18, Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, asked Abbott for a formal advisory on the limits of Craddick's powers. Abbott then gave all interested parties until July 20 to make any submissions. Basically, this gave Craddick a month to make his written defense.

So, at the very last moment on Friday, Craddick made his submission, authored by his new parliamentarian Terry Keel. More than a few lege-watchers had wondered why the speaker had appointed the Austin-based ex-rep and criminal attorney to a position normally held by a career civil servant, but this document makes it clear. If you're going to defend a radical interpretation of House rules, it's probably a good idea if you keep the author of that interpretation on-staff to explain it.

However, Abbott's opinion could still take months and, as noted earlier today, Gov. Rick Perry is threatening a special session. Depending if and when he calls it, the House could return with this pivotal issue unresolved. Read More | Comment »

State 2:00PM Mon. Jul. 23, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Star Dreck

We'd be remiss not to share this city e-mail highlighting the Employees' Choice Awards. When Toby Futrell first wheeled out the much-mocked Star Trek analogy in relation to the city budget (abridged version: all the development we're seeing is putting staff into full-on Scotty, "She can't take any mooooooooore!" mode), she tried to pin it on Brewster McCracken (who, growing up in Corpus Christi in-betwixt what was most likely killer waves and bong rips galore, almost certainly followed the Enterprise's adventures). But as the e-mail bearing Toby's imprint makes clear, once you go Trek, you never go back. There's no tying this back to Brewster:

The countdown isn’t over yet! There’s still two weeks left for you to seek out and recognize Austin City employees who deliver service, quality, and satisfaction to the people of Austin.

If your crewmember or captain is working at warp speed, transmit an Employees’ Choice Award nomination to ACE by Aug. 3.

For more information and a nomination form, program the following coordinates into your Web browser: inside.ci.austin.tx.us/ace/eca.cfm. There you will discover more information and a nomination form that will let you identify the brightest star in you sector.

And remember — I want everyone to beam up to the gala awards ceremony and breakfast to publicly honor these employees on Oct. 23.

Live long and prosper,

Toby


Also, check the Trek insignia above. Wow. And as the author of "Beside the Point," I thought I knew something about beating a metaphor to death! Read More | Comment »

Local 1:34PM Mon. Jul. 23, 2007, Wells Dunbar

Bug Watch '07

There's good news and bad news for entomologists (that's bug watchers to the rest of us). With the warm, wet summer, there's lot of insects around.

Good News: There's bumper populations of dragon flies to see in the day, and fireflies at night. Also, the moisture means lots of late-blooming flowers, which means lots of butterflies.

Bad News: The dank and moist weather is ideal for mosquitoes, and some of them carry West Nile Virus. So the city of Austin is advocating the four D's:
Dusk to Dawn - try to stay indoors during daylight, when mosquitoes are most likely to be out and biting.
Dress - try to stay covered up.
DEET - apply insect repellent with DEET in it.
Drain - try not to have any still or stagnant water around. That's where mosquitoes like to make more mosquitoes.

Good News: Only 1% of mosquitoes tested in the state carry West Nile Virus, and only 1% of bites from infected mosquitoes result in infections.

Bad News: Mosquito bites still really itch. Read More | Comment »

Local 1:28PM Mon. Jul. 23, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Perry vs. Ahmadinejad

With roads crumbling, schools underfunded, and border and immigration issues far from being settled to anyone's satisfaction, there are rumors Gov. Rick Perry might be calling a special session.

What's the burning topic? Investments in Iran.

The question of whether to engage or ring-fence Iran (or any other country) has always been a thorny one, especially when it comes to business contracts. Ten states, including Texas, have considered Iran divestment laws this year alone. The governor has said he'll see whether he has the power to order the Employees Retirement System and Teacher Retirement System to get rid of any investments in companies doing business in Iran. If he can't, then he might be forced to call the Lege back to get the job done.

But a special session? After the infighting that characterized the end of the last regular session, it will be interesting to see whether besieged Speaker Tom Craddick is in favor of that. There's also the question of what other legislation might crop up in a special session. Is there something more to Perry's sudden interest in international affairs, especially after his trips to Israel and the Bilderberg group meeting in Turkey? As Ed Sills, director of communications for the Texas AFL-CIO, puts it, "Does this sound like a man not interested in the vice presidency or the U.S. Senate?" Read More | Comment »

State 12:53PM Mon. Jul. 23, 2007, Richard Whittaker

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