News Roundup: MLK, Chris Kyle, and the Lege

Get ready to celebrate "Chris Kyle Day"

Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in American Sniper.
Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

In this week's News Roundup: The NFL continues to face scrutiny for its domestic violence record; Molly White faces backlash for a Facebook post; the Senate tries to cut Planned Parenthood out; and more.

The Super Bowl occasioned talk once again of the NFL’s grim record on domestic violence. An anti-domestic violence PSA aired during the game; the ad time for the spot had been donated by the NFL. This wasn’t enough to stop fans from booing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as he walked on the field to present the New England Patriots with the Super Bowl trophy. For more on the NFL and domestic violence, see our recent story about the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Suspicions Thursday that vandals had taken a blow-torch to an East Austin billboard displaying two images of (and corresponding quotes from) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were quelled Friday afternoon when it was discovered that the billboard actually came down at the behest of the city. According to a manager at Dinosaur Outdoor Billboards (who did not provide his name), city workers “found one paragraph” in the billboard’s contract agreement that wasn’t in accordance with city ordinance, and ordered that it come down. “It’s pretty obvious that somebody came out there and gave it a gentle … didn’t cut it down and run,” the manager explained. “The display is still intact.” Indeed, a quick field trip to the green space just east of Springdale Road Friday afternoon indicated that one side of the two-sided display (the one currently face-first into the grass) remains intact. The structure’s still there, the manager said, because the crane used to remove such a weighty object got stuck in the mud last week: “We tried to do it [Friday], but it was still too soft.” Requests for official explanations from city staff weren’t fulfilled on Friday, but we’ll update should Dinosaur’s word be further confirmed some time this week.

Freshman Rep. Molly White learned Thursday that being a lawmaker isn’t as easy as it looks, when her Islamophobic Facebook post marking Texas Muslim Capitol Day brought her nationwide attention and condemnation. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the groups that had organized the lobby day, sent a letter to House Speaker Joe Straus asking, “Has Rep. White violated any House rules in creating such an internal office policy that is selectively being enforced to discriminate against certain religious minorities trying to meet with her or her staff? Are House members prohibited from making constituents take oaths before meeting with their elected representatives or house staff? Or, are you aware of any other ethical breaches that may have occurred because of these statements?” While Straus didn’t address the ethics question, he did issue a statement saying, "Legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated — with dignity and respect. Anything else reflects poorly on the entire body and distracts from the very important work in front of us."

Big day for fans of American Sniper: Gov. Greg Abbott has announced that he will sign a formal proclamation at noon in the Capitol, officially declaring Feb. 2 Chris Kyle Day in Texas. Odessa-born Navy SEAL Kyle has become a Rorschach test for American public opinion. While there is some unanimity over his post-military efforts to help other veterans — efforts which, tragically, seem to have led to his death at the hands of former Marine Eddie Ray Routh — everything else about his legacy has become contentious and politicized. His record-setting number of 160 confirmed kills as a sniper in Iraq has made him a near-mythical figure among some. However, the tone of his autobiography, American Sniper, on which Clint Eastwood's movie is based, has appalled others. Later events, such as Kyle's unsupported claim that he killed 30 people in New Orleans, have done little to bridge that divide in public opinion. Neither has the fact that former wrestler, ex-governor of Minnesota, and member of Underwater Demolition Team 12 (a precursor to the SEALs) Jesse Ventura successfully sued Kyle's estate for an apocryphal claim that Kyle cold-cocked him in a bar fight.

Define “Pro-Life” Again?: The Texas GOP just can’t help itself when it comes to taking any shot they can at abortion providers – even if that means curbing preventative, life-saving care – and the newly drafted Senate budget reaffirms just that. Doubling their 2011 efforts to remove state dollars from the hands of Planned Parenthood, Texas lawmakers are now aiming to alter the way Breast and Cervical Cancer Services program funds are distributed so that the abortion affiliate is pushed to the back of line when funds are doled out. The new “tiered” model would grant funding to state, local, and community and federally qualified health clinics first, then to “non-public entities” (like Planned Parenthood) last. More than 3,300 low-income, uninsured Texans relied on the life-saving preventative program last year alone, according to Planned Parenthood.

Some anti-choice senators are making no bones about the reasons for the restructuring. “There are many members that feel very strongly that the facilities that receive that funding should not be facilities that are performing abortions, so the answer is: Don’t perform abortions and you get the money,” said Chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee (and head budget writer) Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. On the flip side, pro-choice Senator, Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, shared her personal story and vocally opposed the new system. “Within the last year, I lost a niece of mine to cervical cancer. Tragically, my family and I are not alone. Too many women and families face tragedy and heartbreak from this disease,” said Garcia. "We need to make sure that women have access to crucial cancer screenings and to trusted providers of that care, like Planned Parenthood.”

The proposed Senate budget, released last Tuesday, is reminiscent of the Lege’s 2011 move to slash $74 million from family planning funds and slide Planned Parenthood to the last tier of funding, and of the state’s abortion “affiliate ban” exclusion of Planned Parenthood from the preventative Medicaid-based Women’s Health Program in 2013, which stopped 50,000 women from receiving the provider's services.

Never Do Today …: There was a whole lotta “postponed” on City Council’s Jan. 29 meeting summation, aka the “Actions Taken” list produced by city staff during and after Council meetings. As promised in the preceding work session, Council members had already decided they weren’t quite ready yet to take on zoning cases, of which there were 20 or so pending, so those were punted to Feb. 12 or beyond (including a few by staff or request of the parties). There was a touching moment when Greg Guernsey (Director of Planning and Development) was asked if there might be an upcoming meeting with a less-heavy zoning agenda – and the the unflappable staffer responded cheerfully that that is unlikely. (Zoning cases, although far less cuddly, multiply roughly at the rate of Tribbles.)

Also postponed (to March 26) was a not yet cooked noise ordinance (including music and solicitation), a briefing on land use issues (scheduled to return this Thursday), and three of the four scheduled public hearings. The members sort of backed into a public hearing on a multi-family project proposed on Springdale Road – neighborhood groups (represented Thursday by defeated District 1 candidate DeWayne Lofton) want more or different retail than the developer has promised. After nearly 90 minutes hearing Lofton and the developers’ reps, Council closed the impromptu hearing, but postponed until Feb. 26 a decision on the conditional use permit (already recommended by the Planning Commission) – in hopes that the parties might meet in the middle before then.

Council did manage a few other substantive chores. They finally approved a new committee and meeting structure, after some adjustment: There will be nine standing committees, plus an Austin Energy oversight committee of the whole. (Mayor Steve Adler will begin making appointments this week, subject to Council confirmation.) And the committee public hearing plan was adjusted to allow the possibility of more public input before the full Council. Council also established an intergovernmental Regional Affordability Committee, and a Task Force on Public Engagement, with large but fairly vague responsibilities. Debated and only tentatively approved was an Adler-driven resolution asking staff to develop an ordinance to allow shifting members’ salaries to other office expenses (e.g., additional staff) – details yet to be determined.

This Thursday (Feb. 5) will host a special-called meeting for more land use discussion (aka “deep diving”), but more urgently to consider a resolution addressing the simmering impasse between the Austin Fire Department and the Austin Firefighters Association (regarding the the U.S. Department of Justice consent decree) over cadet testing and hiring. Follow Newsdesk and this week’s print issue for more.

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