The Austin Chronicle

The Last Boy Scout

On the Lege

April 28, 1995, News

Looking Out for the Little Guy: You won't find any special interest legislation among the bills he has filed. Unless of course, you count the sick, elderly, poor, and handicapped as special interests. Now in his third term in the Texas House, Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) says he keeps one question in mind when considering legislation: "If I file this legislation, will it have a positive impact on the low income people and Hispanics in Eagle Pass, Texas?"

A VISTA volunteer in Eagle Pass in 1967 and '68, Naishtat worked on health and human services issues in the poverty stricken border town. "I'm working on the same issues now," he says. But his job has gotten tougher this session. Politics are meaner, the attitude toward his constituents less benevolent. Naishtat says much of his time this session has been spent on the welfare reform and juvenile justice bills, trying to make them "less punitive."

Naishtat, a lawyer, works during the off-session on guardianship cases. He and Sen. John Montford (D-Lubbock) are pushing for the creation of the Guardian Resource Board, which would then create and oversee a non-profit agency to coordinate and develop guardianship services for minors and adults who are unable to care for themselves. Montford's version, SB 103, has passed the Senate. Naishtat's, HB 2705, is still in committee.

Naishtat was able to get 39 bills signed into law last session - "more than anybody else," he's quick to add. He won't pass that many this session, but several of his measures have passed the House, including HB 1659, which would allow the governor to appoint a client or parent-of-a-client to sit on the Texas Board of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

Like other members of the local delegation, Naishtat expects most of the Austin-bashing bills to pass. Speaking of Rep. Susan Combs (R-Austin), he says, "It's hard to fight off this kind of legislation when one of the main supporters is a member of the Austin delegation."

DOWN ON THE FARM: Farmworkers, agribusiness, and pesticides are the key issues for the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) as it undergoes the sunset review process.

Farmworkers contend that the agency's laissez faire attitude towards pesticides endangers them. Further, they say, TDA has a conflict of interest because it represents both agribusinesses and farmworkers. Farmworkers want the Texas Department of Health, not TDA, to be responsible for protecting them from pesticide exposure.

The sunset process provides an opportunity for farmworkers to press their claims. Every 12 years, most state agencies must go through the process to justify their continued existence. Sen. Ken Armbrister's (D-Victoria) massive agency renewal bill, SB 372, would allow TDA to continue operating. But he's opposed to transferring pesticide regulation away from the agency. "That is not going to happen," he said last week after a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on the matter.

But several groups, including Texas Rural Legal Aid (TRLA) and the Texas Center for Policy Studies (TCPS), want TDA to be more vigilant in its pesticide control practices. Bill Beardall of TRLA, who testified before the committee, pointed to a 1991 case where the TDA was placed briefly under a "corrective action plan," according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, because it had a backlog of pesticide monitoring cases.

TCPS officials contend that TDA filed "inconsistent and contradictory" numbers on EPA-required inspection reports involving highly toxic pesticides, including Compound 1080 and sodium cyanide. In a report released April 11, TCPS said that TDA's actions have been so weak that the EPA "may have to withdraw its approval of all of TDA's enforcement role for the federal pesticide laws."

Farmworkers, environmental groups, and organic growers were able to add five reform amendments to SB 372 before it passed out of the Senate committee, including one which would transfer pesticide oversight to the Department of Health. The bill now goes to the full Senate, but Armbrister has pledged to keep all pesticide responsibilities within TDA. Stay tuned. - Lee Nichols

THE CLEAN TEAM: In yet another bit of momentous legislation, Rep. Barry Telford (D-DeKalb) sponsored HR 548 last Thursday. The purpose: "Honoring Mathews Cleaners."

BULLOCK AND THE LOBBYISTS: Radio ads paid for by Better Austin Tomorrow are asking citizens to call Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. In the ads, singer Jerry Jeff Walker tells Austinites to call Bullock and encourage him to block Austin-bashing legislation. The group has also done a mailing asking citizens to send postcards to Bullock. Are they doing any good?

"I don't care," Bullock said of the campaign, a day after the Senate passed SB 1017 by Sen Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), which would prevent Austin from enforcing water quality regulations in the Barton Springs Zone. "They can call me or mail me all they want," he added.

The crusty Senate boss says only two city officials have bothered to talk to him about the Austin-bashing legislation: Mayor Bruce Todd and Councilmember Brigid Shea. "Bruce Todd came in here at the start of the session. And then he went and cried all over it," Bullock says. "You can quote me on that." Shea phoned, imploring Bullock not to do anything that would hurt the city. Bullock paid no heed. "It's the will of the Senate. And yesterday one of your own senators [Gonzalo Barrientos] was bashing the city."

The City of Austin will pay the lobby firm of Adams & Zottarelli $445,000 over the next three years to protect the city's interests at the Lege. Have they paid Bullock any visits? "They have made no attempt to contact me," Bullock says. "I haven't heard from [Don] Adams or that other fella." Angelo Zottarelli? "Yeah, that's him," he says. And what of John Hrncir, the city's chief lobbyist and director of intergovernmental relations? "Never heard of him," Bullock says.

HOME IS WHERE THE PHONE IS: Rep. Glen Maxey (D-Austin) isn't giving up on an amendment to the House telecommunications reform bill (HB 2128), which would have added a provision requiring local phone companies to provide voice mail boxes so homeless people could get telephone messages.

The idea is to make it easier for homeless people to find jobs, and eventually, homes. Such a program could be used by people who are homeless for a whole variety of reasons, including battered women and disaster victims, Maxey says. Voice mail also makes it easier for social workers to keep in touch with their clients.

Maxey's spokesperson, Hugh Strange, says that a statewide program in Texas would cost around $200,000, but would be cost effective. In Seattle, homeless people with access to voice mail boxes spend less time on welfare - two months, as compared to six for those without the service. Maxey got the idea after reading of similar programs in cities including Seattle, Toronto, San Diego, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. Strange says the Seattle program, launched in 1991, costs less than $100,000 a year. Some 68 percent of program participants find jobs within two months.

"I did talk to a Southwestern Bell lobbyist, and he thought it sounded like a good idea," Strange says. "Apparently, they've got a lot more voice mail boxes than there's a demand for, and they indicated to me that they wouldn't have a problem donating some of those non-money generating boxes."

The House voted 67-15 to table Maxey's amendment after hearing objections from Republican legislators. Maxey hopes to get an urban legislator to carry the amendment in the Senate. - Andrea Barnett

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