BLINDSIDING JUSTICE: If Congressional conservatives get their way, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) may soon be extinct. The LSC is a private, national organization that uses federal money to provide legal aid to poor people - some 10,000 in Central Texas alone last year, with another 3,000 turned away for lack of funds, according to local LSC executive director Regina Rogoff.
"Even of those 10,000 we serve, we may only give advice and brief service when actually something more is needed," Rogoff says.
The LSC is bearing the brunt of an attack in Congress to either cripple the agency's $415 million budget or defund it out of existence. Rogoff says the worst of the bills are coming from the House, forcing LSC officials to rely on a hostile Sen. Phil Gramm for hope. "There's some hope that the Senate will bring sanity to this process," Rogoff says. "Unfortunately, the Senate subcommittee on LSC is headed by Phil Gramm, who has said many times that the LSC should be defunded."
Local supporters rallied last week in front of the Travis County Courthouse, testifying to the group's successful work for people with family problems, landlord-tenant disputes, and difficulties getting such things as social security, disability, unemployment, or veteran's insurance benefits.
"If this country is going to live up to the promise of equal justice for all, then we need to have legal justice funding," said Austin City Councilmember Gus Garcia, speaking to a crowd of more than 100 people. "Otherwise, this country will plunge even deeper to being a divided country of haves and have-nots, with the haves buying all the legal justice they can afford, and the have-nots getting nothing." - A.B.
PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE TO BE HELD IN AUSTIN: Come January 18-21, expect a political event in Austin to rival the biggest of "arena era" rock shows. According to Jim Kerkhoff, Manager at the University of Texas' Bass Concert Hall, a traveling troupe of politicos will take the Bass stage and debate the issues. Not just your regular rabble of hacks, courthouse blowhards, and advance types - there'll be plenty of those - but the Big Boys and Girls running for the Big One.
It's dubbed the National Issues Convention, and one can expect President Bill Clinton and a host of jousting presidential challengers to be nationally televised over PBS' McNeil-Lehrer News Hour as 600 folks join the candidates on the stage. They will do more than watch; they will be asking questions. "They are going to be just ordinary people working with the candidates [on issues] in workshops on those dates," says Kerkhoff. Presumably, the issues will be distilled for the proper televised taste test, and Jim Lehrer will moderate.
The Kettering Foundation will moderate the smaller, untelevised workshops, says Kerkhoff, and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago will select and bring the lucky 600 to Austin. The National Issues Convention is the brainchild of UT Regents Professor of Government James Fishkin. Kerkhoff says that Fishkin has organized a similar event in Great Britain. Fishkin is out of town until August and is unavailable for comment.
While there is as yet no word on the role of minor candidates and parties, they may be shut out. That's what the itinerary for the three nights of successive telecasting suggests: a Republican theme, a Democratic theme, and a wrap-up. Regardless, the convention approaches the status of spectacle. "PBS will bring in a remote studio," Kerkhoff says. "I've seen nothing like it in my lifetime." - S.M.
BILLIONS FOR PARKING LOTS AND NOW A FEW THOUSAND FOR BICYCLE RACKS: Austin will soon have 256 new bicycle racks and lockers, primarily in the downtown area along Congress Avenue, Sixth Street, and Guadalupe, as well as in parks and neighborhood centers. Funding of $26,085 for the racks was approved by the Austin Transportation Study (ATS) for this year. Austin Bicycle Coordinator Rick Waring says that volunteers will install the racks, providing savings that will allow up to 40% more racks to be purchased. The city is asking the ATS to include funding for another 1,300 racks for 1996 when they adopt their three-year financial plan in August. Businesses can participate in the Bike Rack Program by buying a rack to donate to the city, with installation provided near their places of business if they wish. Call 480-0730 to volunteer to help with bike rack installation or to suggest a needed installation site. - N.E.
QUESTIONING AUSTIN ANTI-NUKE ACTIVISTS: For some reason, Houston Lighting and Power Company (HL&P) now seems to care what Austin anti-nuclear activists have to say about them. HL&P, the company that runs the South Texas Project (STP), nuclear plant, has subpoenaed five Austin activists to give depositions in the city's lawsuit against the company.
Paul Robbins, who wrote the Austin Environmental Directory, says HL&P has not only subpoenaed the activists to testify, but has also demanded to look at their personal papers: resumes, appointment calendars back to 1988, and correspondence regarding the STP and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, including letters to Austin City Councilmembers, President Clinton, former President Bush, and a variety of local environmental and social justice grassroots organizations.
In addition to Robbins, the other four activists subpoenaed are Tom Smith of Public Citizen, Bill Jackson of Greenpeace, Les Breeding of the Texas Nuclear Responsibility Network, and anti-nuclear activist Susan Lee. The activists are scheduled to appear on consecutive days beginning July 31 at the Austin law offices of Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody. Robbins says he has no idea why they are being questioned. "Our take on it is, we always thought some of the people running the plant must be crazy," he says. "Now they've proved it."
HL&P officials would not comment on the subpoenas. Austin and San Antonio filed suit against the power company in 1993 for alleged mismanagement of the plant. A date has not yet been set for the trial, which will be held in Houston's Harris County District Court.- A.B.
EAST AUSTIN VISION FOR THE YEAR 2000: The city's five-year, 120-page blueprint for the redevelopment of some of Austin's poorest neighborhoods - known as the Consolidated Plan - is up for council consideration this week. The first-ever plan, required by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) so the city can receive approximately $12 million in grants this coming fiscal year, provides a holistic portrait of revitalization needs for Austin's communities until the year 2000.
A combination of numerous documents previously required by HUD to receive four different grants, the plan indicates the federal mood toward the consolidation of HUD services. Bill Cook, director of the Neighborhood, Housing, and Conservation Office (NHCO), says that eventually, all four grants - Community Development Block Grants, Emergency Shelter Grants, Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS, and the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy - will likely become one package entitlement. "This [plan] encourages communication in combining resources from different grants," says Cook.
The NHCO gathered data for the plan from one public hearing in April and previous community studies, as well as 1,400 survey responses from community and health and human service organizations. A 30-day comment period ended July 26.
Some NHCO goals outlined in the plan:
* Increase "affordable and livable" rental houses by 1,056 units city-wide over the next five years. NHCO will help provide assistance in the form of amortizing or deferred/forgiveable loans to encourage investors to acquire and rehabilitate substandard housing units.
* Increase home ownership by 5,525 by the year 2000, by providing down payment and rehabilitation assistance. To alleviate barriers to affordable housing in eight low-income neighborhoods - all east of I-35, between William Cannon and Hwy. 183 - NHCO is requesting the elimination of development fees that six city departments currently assess on new or rehabilitated homes.
* Create 800 new jobs over the next five years in an area that primarily encompasses East and Southeast Austin. The city council's housing subcommittee is currently deliberating on whether to further limit the area to "get more bang for the buck," as Councilmember Eric Mitchell says.
* Seek ways to increase affordable child care. According to survey participants, affordable child care is the greatest community need.
The city must approve the plan and send it to HUD by August 16 in order to get the grant money by October 1. - A.M.