newsdesk

Comptroller's Cupboard Not Bare

Remember the state employee pay raise the Lege passed last session? Well, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief, because State Comptroller Susan Combs has worked out that there’s actually the money to pay for it.

Today, Combs has said her office has finally certified the 2008-09 Biennial Revenue Estimate, confirming the budget estimate. This means the people she glowingly called “one of Texas’ most valuable resources” will get their 4% wage hike. Only it’s not really 4%, and it’s not all in one go. Instead, it’s 2% this September, 2% in September 2008, which actually works out at 4.04% by the end of the biennium, but only 2% for the first year. Which means the pay for those “valuable resources” will not even keep track with inflation estimates.

The sum is also short of what unions had hoped for. The Texas Public Employees Association had asked for 2.5% per annum over the biennium, with a minimum raise of $75 a month. The Texas State Employees Union was lobbying for a more dramatic 8% in 2008 and 7.5% in 2009. They argued this would bring pay back to traditional levels, putting the average state employee on $41,800 pre-tax income for 2009. As is, the approved pay raise would put that average employee at $36,720 in 2008 and $37,454 in 2009. Read More | Comment »

On the Lege 4:10PM Tue. Jul. 10, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Who Steals a Faucet?

So Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston, has probably inadvertently picked up a few votes for shooting some guy who was stealing copper plumbing supplies from the house he's renovating.

Seems that's become a big business – copper theft, that is, not gun-toting state reps. Copper prices have been soaring for the last couple of years, mainly because of a global rise in construction. Even though the U.S. housing market is slowing, there's still huge demand down here in the fastest growing state in the union. Thieves have been breaking into building sites and making off with copper pipes and wiring, or stealing air-conditioning units straight out of houses and business, to sell for scrap. There's even been more than a few instances of potential robbers breaking into electricity substations and getting fried for their pains.

Miles is already talking about introducing new copper-sales legislation next House session, possibly based on rigorous new ordinances introduced in Houston. That could be a bit redundant, since there's already strict rules classifying copper as a regulated metal. As of Sept. 1, recyclers and scrap-metal dealers have to inform the Texas Department of Public Safety about any large purchases and keep authenticated purchase records. It hands down jail time for repeat offenders, whether sellers or buyers. Miles should know this – he voted for the bill. Read More | Comment »

On the Lege 11:15AM Tue. Jul. 10, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Toby: Part II

What do you think the Statesman's editorial boardroom looks like? I've always imagined it to be opulent, but lately I've envisioned it as something out of the Hostel franchise, likely with some floor drains to collect the blood and gristle once they're done.

Yesterday we marveled at how Arnold Garcia and company had "resisted piling on the original story with a hand-wringing editorial." Well this morning the other shoe fell, and hard.

The bloodletting is here. As my editor put it, "They spent as many words on Toby as The New York Times did Sunday on Iraq." Read More | 1 Comment »

Local 10:25AM Tue. Jul. 10, 2007, Wells Dunbar

The Long Awaited Toby Futrell Post

What can you really say about the news over the weekend regarding Toby Futrell – the allegation her brother-in-law got hired at Austin Energy thanks to her?

As countless political scandals have shown us, it's not the crime but the maneuvering behind the scenes that spins out of control. Futrell's quick to point out the hiring wasn't illegal under city nepotism rules (although her "we're not related" defense is pretty lame) – more damaging is the perception created by city e-mails that the hiring was a fait accompli the moment Futrell brought it to bear, that blowback would ensue if the hire wasn't made. But what's far more astonishing – and practically unparalleled – are the quotes from current Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza ("The expectation is that it was something we do pretty quickly") and Austin Energy general manager Juan Garza (recalling former AE Vice President Al Lujan felt pressured to hire Futrell's kin.) Instead of soft-pedaling the accusations – Futrell compares it to some municipal version of the telephone game, where she makes a suggestion that's read as a dictate by the time it winds down the food chain – Rudy and Juan practically go out of their way to finger her, the latter dragging in an outside figure (Lujan) to make her look bad when he couldn't give Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski the goods himself. It has the hallmarks of a cover-your-ass operation; wary that the info would get out making them look bad, they freely admit they felt pressured by Futrell. Read More | 6 Comments »

Local 4:02PM Mon. Jul. 9, 2007, Wells Dunbar

From the Snake Oil Files

Bad business, bad religion, and bad science may be about to take a pummeling in the Texas courts in a bizarre and disturbing case.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is going after a marketing scheme that he says uses questionable research and religiosity to shift nutritional supplements. He filed charges Thursday in Travis County against Mannatech Inc., MannaRelief Ministries, the Fisher Institute for Medical Research, Mannatech CEO/MannaRelief founder Sam Caster, and MannaRelief medical director Dr. Reg McDaniel. He's charging them with multiple violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, with fines of $20,000 per violation. Abbott and the Texas Department of State Health Services are also after Mannatech for breaking the Texas Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, with fines of $25,000 per day per violation.

Here's the gist of the case: Coppell-based nutritional supplement firm Mannatech touts the benefits of what they call "glyconutrients, or plant-based 'health sugars.'" They use "educational" materials, mostly written by McDaniel, from the Fisher Institute (whose medical director happens to be McDaniel's wife, Candace). MannaRelief, also based in Grand Rapids, then takes donations to provide Mannatech products to children in developing nations. However, Abbott's arguing that the firm and its cohorts have knowingly made false claims that their pills and potions will relieve or cure everything from cancer to AIDS to Down’s syndrome. Read More | Comment »

Local 10:31AM Mon. Jul. 9, 2007, Richard Whittaker

More Places to Splash Around

More good news for water lovers: The Lower Colorado River Authority has announced that Lake Marble Falls is scheduled to re-open for recreational boating Sunday Morning.

For those of you keeping track, here's highlights of what will be open and what's closed on the river system as of 8am Sunday:

Open: Lake Marble Falls (provisionally), Inks Lake, Lake Buchanan and Lake LBJ, plus Barton Springs Pool.

Closed: Lake Travis, Lake Austin, Town Lake, and the Colorado River below Longhorn Dam, plus Bob Wentz at Windy Point, Cypress Creek, Hippie Hollow, Pace Bend, Turkey Bend, Shaffer Bend, Grelle, Gloster Bend, and Muleshoe Bend and Narrows.

However, the LCRA remind any boat users, water skiers or swimmers to be aware of debris, pollution, and raised bacteria levels. Read More | Comment »

Local 4:08PM Sat. Jul. 7, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Now Where Do We Know That Name ...

There's a Nixon back in the news, and it's not just because (alleged) presidential hopeful Fred Thompson was leaking Watergate inquiry secrets to Tricky Dicky.

No, former Republican Carthage Sen. Drew Nixon has been indicted by a Panola County grand jury for the serious crime of abuse of office. His offense? Trying to manipulate an election. However, there's no DeLay-style plan for a thousand-year statewide Republican majority here. Nixon was caught trying to rig the ballot for the Panola County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1. While serving as the board's accountant and self-appointed election officer, he came up with the ingenious technique of telling potential challengers to the incumbents that they weren't allowed to file their paperwork. Which, after recent GOP attempts to manipulate the democratic process on a grand scale, seems a little amateur night.

Of course, Austinites may recall Nixon better for his little run in with the law back in 1997. That's when he got busted for trying to get some late-night action off an undercover cop on South Congress and carrying a gun in his car. That got him 60 days in the slammer out of a six-month sentence, but this time he could be looking at a $4,000 fine and up to a year of jail time. Read More | Comment »

State 3:38PM Sat. Jul. 7, 2007, Richard Whittaker

More Proof Homeland Security is Trash

Here's one for the Infowarriors and "truthers" in the comments section to wrap their heads around (please, Louis; don't feed them any more!): In the Pink tips us to the fact that KXAN found federal homeland security plans for a border-crossing stationin their Dumpster.

First conspiracy theory tying in Jim Spencer's weather-controlling machine gets a free T-shirt. Read More | Comment »

Local 3:22PM Fri. Jul. 6, 2007, Wells Dunbar

Healthcare District Report

Despite some early distractions, the 2007 legislative session was declared fairly healthy for the Travis County Healthcare District, lobbyist Marsha Jones told the district’s board of managers last Thursday night. Overall, funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program is up, as well as hospital reimbursement rates for Medicaid. Most significant to the district, however, was the district’s local legislation, Senate Bill 1107, which did a number of things: addressed retirement benefits for district employees, authorized regional affiliations and entities, and authorized the collection of revenue anticipation notes, among other things. The board of managers has been especially interested in creating some type of regional health-care insurance product, so the cost burden of the growing uninsured population, particularly those who take advantage of Brackenridge Hospital’s trauma services, can be shared with surrounding counties. Read More | Comment »

Local 1:53PM Fri. Jul. 6, 2007, Kimberly Reeves

Break Out the Paddles

Finally, some good news from the Lower Colorado River Authority on the floods.

Lake LBJ and Inks Lake will reopen for recreational use at 8am on Saturday morning. That makes three big bodies of water open this weekend (Lake Buchanan stayed open throughout).

Lake Travis remains closed, partially because it's still so high (even the flood pools are 20 feet deep), fast, and debris-filled and partially because the wake from speeding boats could damage submerged homes and docks. The city of Austin is also keeping Lake Austin, Town Lake, and the Colorado River below Longhorn Dam closed until the floodgates on Mansfield and Tom Miller dams close. Bad news there: The LCRA says they may be keeping them open for several weeks and may have to open more with no or little warning.

On the newly opened lakes, the LCRA does warn boaters and water-skiers to keep an eye out for any potential floating debris and reminds swimmers that the bacteria levels in the water are way elevated. So no speeding and no drinking the lake water. Read More | Comment »

Local 12:36PM Fri. Jul. 6, 2007, Richard Whittaker

From Owners Bench to Park Bench

In the latest edition of "news from the shameless," Gov. Rick Perry has appointed Peter M. Holt, chairman and principal owner of the San Antonio Spurs, to become presiding officer of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.

However, environmentalists may blanch a little at Holt's day job. He's chief executive officer of Holt Cat, the biggest U.S. Caterpillar dealership. That means he makes his money selling earthmoving vehicles like backhoes and excavators.

The commission is supposed to set policies for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Holt currently serves as an ordinary member for the nine-member commission and will replace outgoing chair and wildlife rancher Joseph B.C. Fitzsimons.

The beleaguered agency briefly became a cause celebre for the Lege last session when it became clear that many parks and historic sites were crumbling due to a decade of woeful underfunding. But since Fitzsimons' term actually finished on Jan. 31, and Holt's appointment is just a desk-swap, it doesn't seem the governor really put much thought into a major talent search. Read More | Comment »

State 2:07PM Thu. Jul. 5, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Arrest in Morales Beating Death

Press release from the Austin Police Department's Public Information Office regarding the arrest of Kurtiss Colvin in the beating death of David Morales, big news that, being out over the Fourth, we missed:

SUSPECT ARRESTED IN THOMPSON STREET HOMICIDE

Austin Police Department Homicide detectives have filed charges against a suspect in connection to the homicide that occurred on Tuesday, June 19th, at 900 Thompson Street. Kurtiss Colvin, 20 (DOB: 07-28-86) has been charged with Manslaughter, a second degree felony; Theft from Person, a state jail felony; and Assault with Injury, a class A misdemeanor. Bond was set at $215,000 for all three charges.

At approximately 9:31 p.m. Central East patrol officers responded to a person down call at 900 Thompson Street. Upon arrival officers located David Rivas Morales, 40 (DOB: 04-09-67) who was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced dead. According to the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office, the cause of death was due to injuries received during the assault.

The on-going investigation indicates there was an auto pedestrian collision in the parking lot of 900 Thompson Street. Michael Hosea, Jr., 2 (DOB: 11-28-04) was accidentally struck by a Ford Taurus. Hosea was transported by private vehicle to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
Read More | 2 Comments »

Local 12:10PM Thu. Jul. 5, 2007, Wells Dunbar

Move Wal-Mart Into the Bat Cave

Even under editorial impresario Arnold Garcia's tortured, contorted reign, the Statesman's Important Screed today in defense of the new, "radically alter(ed)" Wal-Mart at Northcross is awful. Just godawful, an overflowing drool-cup of know-nothing, pseudo-centrist dribble that applauds the little people surrounding the mall for having made their positions oh so very clear – Wal-Mart even took away the gas station and lube center (although who in their right mind wouldn't want one of those in the neighborhood?) – but it's time for the grownups to get down to the business of commerce; you've had your word, and we've rewarded you with "a more pedestrian-friendly look," so, uhh, get lost: "Northcross gets a face-lift, Wal-Mart gets a more central location, shoppers get more choices and the city gets higher sales and property taxes. In short, the process worked to the benefit of most – though not all – involved." Your public process has "bettered" Wal-Mart, so please shut the hell up!

Under the guise of this craptastic third-way, a surfeit of weasel words: There are "probably" just as many in support of the project as not, we learn. They also glaze over the very real problem of conflicting traffic-impact reports by saying the increase "shouldn't" cause streets to fail, completely disregarding the pervasive history of underreporting and controversy on the subject. And while the whole fantastically flaccid affair manages to mention the lawsuits brought against the project, they stop far short of actually, you know, saying anything about it. If it's such a win-win at Northcross, why not condemn the two suits?

We hear rumors that, as a cost-saving measure, the Statesman's going to shrink by 2 inches. We know what section to start with. Read More | 5 Comments »

Local 10:54AM Thu. Jul. 5, 2007, Wells Dunbar

City Says Stay out of the Springs

More rain-related news: Barton Springs Pool will be closed today and until further notice, due to flooding.

It's not all bad news: The Austin Parks and Recreation Department Aquatic Division has announced that Deep Eddy Pool will be open 6am-9pm (that's an extra hour in the morning and half-hour at night), and there will be free admission 6am-8am.

For those hoping to bask on its shores today, there's these photos of the springs in warmer days, and an interview with the artist behind them, Will van Overbeek, might help a bit; or you can check out these pictures and more down at Austin Museum of Art on Congress until Aug. 12. Read More | Comment »

Local 11:53AM Wed. Jul. 4, 2007, Richard Whittaker

Local Conservation Programs Get Big Bucks

Two local conservation programs will get six-figure boosts from the federal government in the near future, thanks to some old fashioned pork-barrelin’ from Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. The Senate Committee on Appropriations last week approved $275,000 to expand the 22,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge and awarded $300,000 to the Austin Clean Water Program for a sewage management project. “This funding will ensure that the city of Austin has essential infrastructure to serve its citizens,” Hutchison said. Read More | Comment »

Local 4:38PM Tue. Jul. 3, 2007, Justin Ward

City Capital-Improvement Projects Under Discussion

A subcommittee of the Planning Commission met Monday night to discuss recommendations on the city’s capital-improvement projects, including those funded in the recent bond election. Recommendations going to the full Planning Commission next week will include moving more of the affordable-housing bonds to the front end of the bond program, tweaking priorities in sidewalk building, and making sure utility extensions follow Envision Central Texas' principles of avoiding sprawl. Chair Dave Sullivan also suggested looking for a way to tie parkland dedication and sidewalk fees to neighborhood-plan goals, so neighborhoods can see more results from their planning. Read More | Comment »

Local 4:25PM Tue. Jul. 3, 2007, Kimberly Reeves

Car Collision Kills Bicyclist in Northeast Austin

Bicyclist Mandi Terese Boswell, 28, was hit by a car Monday and killed in Northeast Austin. According to the Austin Police Department, the vehicle was traveling westbound on Highway 290 East and collided with Boswell, who was wearing a helmet, at the Springdale Road intersection. The driver remained at the scene. Boswell was transported to Brackenridge Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. The case is still under investigation, and the exact circumstances of the accident still aren’t clear. Detectives are asking anyone who may have witnessed the collision to call 974-4724. This is the 34th traffic fatality of 2007. Read More | Comment »

Local 4:05PM Tue. Jul. 3, 2007, Daniel Mottola

Town Lake Folk Festival

Here's local folkie Bill Oliver doing his thing for SaveTownLake.org, cramming more developer jargon in to a three-minute ballad than should be humanly possible:


New Town Lake towers 200 feet high
Like adding three Hyatts … side by side by side
Crowding the river and the hiking path
If they have to build it, make ‘em set back


Lyrics continue after the jump … Read More | 1 Comment »

Local 3:11PM Tue. Jul. 3, 2007, Wells Dunbar

First Damp Squib Announced

Fireworks and rain don't mix, so it's not too big a surprise that the city of Round Rock has just canceled tomorrow's big fireworks display at Old Settlers Park due to weather conditions. Don't worry; all those rockets and screaming mimis won't go to waste: They'll be lit at 8pm on Friday, July 13, as part of the Movies in Your Park family film series.

So far they're still expecting the Frontier Days Fourth of July parade at 10am tomorrow morning to go on, but they recommend that visitors check their website for updates. Read More | Comment »

Local 1:46PM Tue. Jul. 3, 2007, Richard Whittaker

No Relief Upstream

After the city's earlier announcement, here comes a bleak update from the Lower Colorado River Authority:

There is no recreational boating on lakes Travis, LBJ, Marble Falls, and Inks until further notice. All public boating ramps operated by the LCRA and Travis County have been closed for safety reasons. Floodgates will continue to operate, so the LCRA is hoping to keep Lake Travis, the area's main flood control, at its current level of 701 feet above mean sea level (still a good 10 feet shy of the record).

Seriously, don't risk it on the closed lakes. Not only can these waters be deadly (not just for you, but for rescuers – the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department already sadly lost game one warden, Teyran "Ty" Patterson, during a floodwater search less than a month ago), but if you're caught, it's a class C misdemeanor with a $500 fine, and your boat can be impounded. Read More | Comment »

Local 1:22PM Tue. Jul. 3, 2007, Richard Whittaker

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