On the Lege

Parading in the Rain

Sorry, Honey. I've had a hard legislative session: One thing stood out amid the pomp and circumstance at last Saturday's short-lived gubernatorial inauguration of Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos - the rain. Emblematic of many of his legislative efforts this session, the rain and threatening skies forced the opening entertainment to move inside and likely kept some supporters from attending.

For Barrientos, it was another affront in a session that has seen many. In fact, considering his removal from the chair of the Nominations Committee by Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, the Senate's newfound conservatism, and the bevy of bills targeted at Austin, the 53-year-old liberal Democrat is quick to call this the most difficult session in his two decades as a legislator.

"There's so many [Austin-bashing] bills I've been trying to keep up with," he remarked last week. "I've had to spend about 50% to 75% of my time dealing with Austin, when I wish I'd spent more time concentrating on school drop-outs, education, providing money for different sectors of society which need income help, like the disabled, the elderly, and state employees."

He's also had to ward off criticism from political observers, who have berated Barrientos' low profile on highly publicized bills, many of which have already breezed past the Senate.

"I've been very involved in tort reform, welfare reform, and gun control, but the concealed weapons thing came up fairly early in the session," he says. "We were out there. We were trying to make our amendments, but we lost. We got six to eight votes, max. Well, what do you do? All right, you filibuster. It doesn't do any good at that point in the session. You're gonna wear yourself out."

Despite the setbacks, he added the most amendments (30) to Senate Bill 1, also known as the Education Code Revision Bill. Many of the amendments are aimed at increasing parental involvement in the educational process and nearly doubling funds - by $19 million - for youth support programs like Communities In Schools.

Barrientos' phased annexation bill, SB 1395, which passed the Senate unanimously on May 4, may be the most visible part of his agenda. The antidote to Rep. Susan Combs' (R-Austin) "anti-annexation" bill, Barrientos' plan will delay an area's annexation while still permitting the city to collect sales taxes from the area. Other bills filed by Barrientos would force the city to de-annex the Harris Branch Municipal Utility District (MUD) and to annex the Maple Run MUD, thus costing city taxpayers millions of dollars (see "Austin City Limited," April 7 issue of the Chronicle).

Barrientos says his best accomplishment this session was his appointment as governor for a day, an honor bestowed upon each Senate President Pro Tempore. With money raised for the inaugural gala, he awarded $40,000 worth of scholarships to several area high school students.

"In the last two sessions, I passed more legislation than any other senator. But this time, I'm having to do most [of my work] through amendments. But you can't worry about that. You deal with the hand you're dealt and then make things happen. I've tried to do that within the realm of reality."

- Alex de Marban


BIG DOGS EAT FIRST: The end of the session must be near, because activity in the lobbyists' mosh pit outside the House and Senate chambers has definitely increased. Developer Gary Bradley was at the Capitol again last week, working on yet another plan to get the public to subsidize his ventures. This time, Bradley, who owns a small part of the Houston Rockets, wants to use tax money to pay for pro sports facilities. Bradley and Texas Professional Sports Association lobbyist Cal Varner, have been virtual Siamese twins at the Capitol of late. Another frequent visitor: Dallas Cowboys boss Jerry Jones. Bradley wants a bigger arena for the Rockets. Jones wants to enlarge Texas Stadium. The pair are pushing SB 1346 by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas). The bill passed the Senate and is now being considered by the House.

Bradley also wants autonomy for his Circle C development. Under SB 1700 by Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio), Bradley's development would become an independent water district, which would remove the project from Austin's development restrictions. At a recent press conference, Austin City Councilmember Gus Garcia denounced the bill, saying, "the issue is that one greedy developer doesn't want to be controlled by anybody." The new district would have sole authority to regulate water quality standards in the 8,000 acres covered by the legislation. The bill is currently in the Senate State Affairs committee.

Another lobbyist in the pit last week was University of Texas Chancellor William ("Dollar Bill") Cunningham. Your reporter asked Cunningham about a recent report from an Australian group which alleges that the Indonesian army and Freeport-McMoRan personnel were involved in the murders of 29 local villagers near the company's gold mine in Irian Jaya. Cunningham, who sits on Freeport's board, refused to answer any questions. "You haven't been fair," was the only reason the chancellor would give.


HOW MUCH YA GOT?: No one knows how much the pending "takings" legislation could cost state taxpayers, and Attorney General Dan Morales is doing his best to avoid answering the question. Morales' agency would be in charge of defending the state against landowners seeking compensation for property value taken by state regulations. But when asked by the Texas Center for Policy Studies (TCPS) to produce documents showing how much it would cost to defend the state, Morales, who has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over endangered species regulations, refused to do so. TCPS may sue to get the info. The takings legislation, SB 14 by Sen. Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), passed the Senate, and could reach the House floor this week.


NOT SO COLOR-BLIND: By a 108-37 margin, the House on Sunday morning passed its version of the public education code - sans vouchers, but with a very permissive "home-rule" charter provision still intact. A floor amendment that would have provided for a voucher pilot program for low-income children was soundly defeated by a much wider margin than anticipated (83-63) despite some intense lobbying on the part of Gov. George W. Bush, who stumped for vouchers during the campaign.

Interestingly, support for vouchers seemed to plummet when home rule was approved. In fact, home-rule school districts may very well take center stage in conference committee instead of the well-publicized voucher issue. The fact that African American and Hispanic members of the House voted unanimously on Thursday to oppose home-rule school districts, which they believe could quietly usher in a new era of segregation and discrimination, may provide some insight as to why.

The next day, the Chronicle obtained a list that had been compiled of the 15 white lawmakers who had voted with the minorities against home rule. "This is a great target tool. It will help with governor," read a note at the bottom of the list. On the "target" list were Reps. Allen Place, Mark Stiles, and Tom Uher - none of whom is exactly a political pushover. A few hours later, the minority caucus issued its own list of white lawmakers who had voted for home rule, noting the low percentages of minorities in most of their districts. Conference committee deliberations, now underway, should prove quite interesting. - Roseana Auten


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