Off the Desk:
Maple Run, the neighborhood-to-be over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, flew through council approval on May 15 as well, with virtually no change in its proposed pre-S.O.S. impervious cover levels. Developers did agree to build a system of trails to encourage bike and foot traffic through both residential and commercial areas, and agreed to leave 10 additional acres undeveloped, but clearly it was Maple Run developers who won the day, not environmentalists... -- K.V.
Although there are 443 men and women sitting on death row in Texas prisons, anti-death penalty activism is very much alive in the Lone Star State. That's according to the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a group that will stage a protest against said subject at 5:30pm Wednesday, June 4 at the State Capitol, the day two convicted killers are scheduled to die by lethal injection. The deaths will bring to 20 the num-ber of prisoners executed this year. -- A.S.
All Speed, No Humps
Drivers have received the green light from city council to continue speeding through Austin neighborhoods, at least until July. The city's speed-hump program, which provides for the installation of traffic-calming humps on residential streets, is stuck in the idle position once again.
What began as a sensible plan to slow high-speed traffic through neighborhoods has become an epicenter of conflict between neighborhood groups and the city. The city first suspended the program in January 1996, and then again in March 1997. Now, councilmembers have postponed making any decision on the program until some time in July, when City Manager Jesus Garza is expected to have completed a report detailing the effects of various traffic-calming devices, including speed humps. Until then, the city plans to have police write more speeding tickets on high-traffic streets.
The program's suspension has been blamed on several factors, including the high volume of requests for speed humps, the delay in response time for emergency vehicles due to the humps (a two- to 10-second delay per hump), and the possibility that traffic will merely move to other streets to avoid the humps. Then, of course, there's the issue of funding.
Several neighborhoods have offered to pay for installation themselves, but their streets remain humpless while council lobs the political football back and forth. "It's been a red-tape war from the beginning," says Kathy Lee, a member of the South Bee Cave Woods Homeowners Association. "They keep putting us on the back burner."
Meanwhile, speeding cars continue to endanger the lives of residents throughout the city. Mark Browning, vice president of the Walsh Tarlton Neighborhood Association, told councilmembers on May 15 that neighborhoods should be able to decide if they would rather have a slight delay in EMS response time if it means having slower traffic as a result of speed humps. Browning complained to council that policy decisions are being made by city staff without adequate input from council or citizens.
For now, though, the bureaucratic brake has been put on the program. "If we put in all the speed humps which have been requested, it would take 50 or 60 years at current funding levels," said Public Works Director Peter Rieck. "The kids who are supposed to be protected by the humps would be grandparents by then." That's assuming, of course, that the kids aren't run over by speeding vehicles before they reach adulthood. More in July. -- L.H.
Following up on the May 8 city council vote approving community policing for specific parts of East and South Austin, interim Police Chief Bruce Mills came to last Wednesday's council work session to explain how the plan would be executed. Earlier, controversy had swirled around Councilmember Eric Mitchell's request that the police pool the necessary $395,000 to fund the program by looking for excess funds in the budgets of other city departments. Councilmember Daryl Slusher fought Mitchell, insisting that the money come strictly from police department overruns, and the majority of council voted in agreement.
"I apologize to the police department and the community for pushing this initiative to the point that my colleagues are asking you to go back and juggle your resources," Mitchell said last Wednesday.
At Slusher's prompting, Mills then explained that the $395,000 had come out of money the police had ferreted out in vacancy savings. "If we had not been asked to reallocate the money, it would have gone back to the general fund [in the new budget year] anyway," Mills explained.
At the next day's council meeting, East Austin's Chestnut neighborhood leader Portia Watson presented an award to the councilmember she felt had made the biggest push for community policing -- Daryl Slusher. "We respond to people who give us some action," she said, praising Slusher for meeting with area residents. "Nobody tried to do anything but councilmember Slusher," she added, while Mitchell glowered at the other end of the dias. Community policing begins June 1 with walking beats along the East 11th and 12th Street, corridor and a mobile patrol in other hot spots. -- K.V.
Up in Smoke
After numerous delays, and a $1 million lobbying effort by the tobacco industry, the Texas House finally passed a bill that will give Texas the strongest anti-teen smoking laws in the country. Teen-agers caught puffing on tobacco leaves will get their drivers licenses yanked and ordered to attend tobacco education classes.
The bill, SB 55 authored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), includes a 10% tax on all outdoor tobacco advertising. The revenue, estimated at up to $6 million per year, will fund anti-tobacco education efforts, and additional money will come from a fee charged tobacco retailers, and from fines levied against shopkeepers caught selling tobacco to teens.
The measure presented an interesting challenge for tobacco lobbyists wanting to put a positive spin on their activities. Two dozen lobbyists were hired by tobacco interests to deal with this and other tobacco-related bills, according to figures compiled by Texans for Public Justice. The group estimated the total cost to the industry for all those lobbyists at $935,000. Before the vote on the bill, a herd of tobacco lobbyists were outside the House chamber, telling various reporters that they were, in fact, supporting the law.
"We think the bill is good," said Mike Toomey, a lobbyist and former legislator who is being paid $100,000 to represent Philip Morris Management Corp. And he added, "Personally, I think it should be stronger." Dick Ingram, the affable lobbyist for the Smokeless Tobacco Council, told the Chronicle that his group had a few problems with the bill as it was written, including a provision discussing the display of tobacco products. But, he said, "It doesn't do us any good to sell to kids."
On Wednesday, Rep. Warren Chisum, the enigmatic super-conservative Republican from Pampa, tried to attach an amendment to the bill that would have killed the 10% tax on advertising, but he didn't have enough votes. Chisum then used a technicality to send the bill back to committee, thus delaying a vote on the bill temporarily. Chisum later said that he was actually for the bill, but he just didn't like the advertising tax provision. Regardless of Chisum's reservations, the bill went back to the House floor on Saturday and passed by a vote of 124 to 5. -- R.B.
It was one of those rare debates in which no one really wanted to address the issue. Instead, there was a lengthy discussion about what "average" means, and about entrance requirements at various state universities. The debate in the House last week over SB1419, authored by Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, was circumspect because the bill deals head on with race, education for athletes, and perhaps most importantly, football.
Carried in the House by maverick Houston Democrat Rep. Ron Wilson, the bill as introduced in the House would have required state-supported universities to use the same admissions criteria for scholarship athletes that it uses for all other students. "We are holding athletes to a lower academic standard than other students, and that's wrong," Wilson told the other members of the House. "Our colleges should not be farm teams."
The unsaid issue behind the debate was competitiveness on the playing field. The University of Texas is spending $80 million to expand its football stadium. Texas A&M is expanding its stadium. If the bill becomes law, UT, A&M, the University of Houston, Texas Tech, and the other schools that get money from state coffers may have to shut out athletes with substandard grades and test scores. Fewer talented athletes in competition mean less glory on the gridiron, a fact that few House members wanted to talk about.
Terry Keel, (an Austin Republican who is often referred to by other members as "Sheriff") offered his two cents on the bill. "I don't think it's fair to punish someone who is an athlete," Keel said. But Keel's argument didn't hold with all of the conservatives. Rep. Ric Williamson (R-Weatherford) sided with Wilson on the bill, saying that he supported it because it would institute "standards across the board."
After a lengthy floor fight, Wilson's arguments prevailed and the bill passed, 70-53. But rather than raising standards for athletes, the bill may end up "dumbing down" the entire class of new students. The only amendment added to the bill requires schools to admit all students using the average test and grade scores of the athletes that it admits. Thus, the academic performance of athletes, not the student body at large, becomes the baseline for freshman applicants. The bill was scheduled to come up in the Senate on Wednesday, as the Chronicle went to press. -- R.B.