The Year in Politics
The Top Ten Political Stories of 1997
2) Welfare Reform. Bill Clinton may have put his John Hancock to the welfare reform bill in 1996, but the law -- which required states to engineer their own money-saving public assistance plans -- didn't start making its impact until 1997. And boy, did it ever. Clinton's vow to "end welfare as we know it" meant lean and mean times for some Texans, including many right here in Travis County. Little surprise that after 60 years of bolstering the incomes of our nation's poor, the backlash has hit home in a state where bootstrap-pulling is a point of honor. Some of the most significant "reforms" that the Chronicle covered in 1997 included changes to the food stamp program whereby local food providers became stretched to the limit when the rules for eligibility were changed to lower the number of people on food stamps. Even sex education was affected by welfare reform, with the Feds dangling a money carrot to states that promised to teach pure abstinence outside of marriage. (And we thought the government was trying to cut back on useless, expensive programs.) Immigrants, and we're talking legal here, may have gotten the shortest end of the welfare reform stick when they faced the threat of food stamps, supplemental security benefits, and Medicaid all being taken away with few exceptions. Many local organizations, such as El Buen Samaritano, launched education campaigns in a mad scramble to get foreign-born Austinites naturalized. Advocates for the poor did heave one sigh of relief in 1997 when the welfare system privatization dreams of Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas Lege were dashed last spring; the Feds determined that it's illegal to allow private industry to decide who is eligible for welfare benefits.
4) Capital Metro Rollover. 1997 will mark the year that heads rolled almost as frequently as the buses at Capital Metro. The year began with questions about the transit authority's bidding and accounting procedures -- and ended with the firing of General Manager Justin Augustine. In the months in between, a series of pink slips were issued: Gov. George Bush fired the board of directors, Augustine fired purchasing manager Irie Turner, and the Feds slapped the transit agency with two subpoenas. On Dec. 12, Turner's supervisor, Alan Pegg, resigned after some heavy-duty questioning from outside auditors. Two days later, the board fired Augustine. Environmentalists and urban planners agree that a viable mass transit system through light rail would keep Austin one of the world's truly great cities and relieve our dangerously overcrowded highways. But with the mess that is Capital Metro management, will rail ever see the light of day?
5) Taken for a ride. Many observers may call 1997 the Year of the Roads -- Travis County voters pledged millions last fall to build not one, but two state highway bond proposals, one of which will pave the way for road construction over the Edwards Aquifer. Yet 1997 could also be called the Year of the Bike. After all, Austin bike advocates pedaled their way into local politics this past year like never before. Maybe what spurred them to action was that annoying Bruce Todd-inspired helmet law that slapped $50 fines on everything on two wheels. The law added insult to injury (okay, maybe not head injury), according to many bike advocates who had for years watched more roads being built while plans for bike lanes languished, all while politicians gave lip service to the concept of clean air alternatives to car culture. Surely this helmet law was too much, they cried, week after week before council, filling the citizen participation time with their pleas. The law was eventually amended to match rules in other progressive cities that demand only minors and children don protective gear. Bikers also took their activism to the campaign trail, throwing their collective weight behind candidates who were willing to vow the overthrow of the helmet law; little-known Place 5 contender Karen Hadden saw herself buoyed to third place from the sweat of the bikers. And the yellow bike program spread like, well, like a yellow bike left on campus on a weekday. Advocates made strides with the Austin Bike Plan with the announcement of Phase II, and its designs for new bike routes and lanes. Can we please enact this plan in our lifetime? The future of our city may be riding on it.
6) A gay old time. The Advocate and Girlfriends magazines each named Austin among the best cities for gays and lesbians to reside, due in large measure to the community's growth in numbers and political clout. In the face of this growth, the G&L issues of the day become all the more significant. In 1997 we saw a proposal to fortify the state's hate crime laws flame out in the Texas Legislature, despite statistics showing an increase in hate-related crimes. At the same time, activists were cheered by the defeat of a bill that would have formally banned same-sex marriages in Texas. Locally, the controversy over bath houses took center stage in the debate over whether they contribute to unsafe sex practices. Meanwhile, the Texas Triangle, Austin's premier gay and lesbian publication, experienced turbulent times, and financial straits threatened the closing of the Cornerstone Gay & Lesbian Community Center. The center's leaders regrouped, put a new board together and managed to keep the doors open through the year, but Cornerstone is not out of the woods yet.
7) Goodbye Betsy, Hello Knee. What a wacky tour of duty it was for Police Chief Elizabeth Watson. After a tumultuous five-year stint, she announced last January that she was turning in her badge for a cushy gig with the Justice Department. Those officers with "no confidence" in her were glad to see her go, but imagine our surprise when a month later the long-awaited APD audit was released with the revelation that (Gasp!) Watson was right in her contention that it was community policing -- not merely more bodies in blue -- that was needed to answer our public safety prayers. Oh well, Betsy wasn't the leader to pull it off anyway, so with the audit in mind, the city mounted a national search for a new chief -- a haphazard process that they scrapped midway through to cast a wider net for more candidates. In the meantime, departmental unrest continued -- mostly in the form of whistleblower lawsuits. Our newest chief -- low-key Stan Knee -- moved to town from California this past fall and almost managed to make it through what was left of the year without public controversy -- until the Dec. 6 accidental police shooting of an APD officer and a sheriff's deputy. Now the spotlight's on Knee in a big way and, as of this writing, the chief has yet to go public with details of the shooting.
8) Graglia Imbroglio. University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia rattled the halls of justice in September when he imparted his belief that cultural shortcomings prevented blacks and Mexicans from ranking high on the academic achievement scale. Graglia's musings, which he has espoused for many years, captured the media spotlight this time because the Hopwood ruling was still fresh on everyone's minds. Graglia survived the ordeal, however, with his job security only temporarily shaken.
9) BFI was a BFD. For all of its trendiness, recycling fell out of favor in a big way in 1997 when the BFI recycling plant wore out its welcome with its Bolm Road neighbors in East Austin. Well, it wasn't really a "welcome" to begin with. No thanks to city zoning laws, neighborhoods east of I-35 have long been the designated sites for industrial plants and the like, including the Bolm Road facility, which had been there for years before BFI took up residence and began processing newspapers, bottles, and cans for the City of Austin. And thanks to the city campaign that encourages residents to recycle, the locals dutifully intensified their recycling habits in their quest to do the right thing for the environment. This enthusiasm, of course, upped the workload for BFI and, as such, infuriated the Eastside neighbors who were forced to endure increased traffic, noise, and litter. But it wasn't until a fire broke out at the BFI plant in 1996 that city officials began taking neighbors' complaints seriously. City planning commissioners -- led by former commissioner Cathy Vasquez-Revilla -- decided it was time to make an example of BFI. Commissioners, in a move that the city council finalized last summer, downzoned the property from industrial to office use, effectively rendering it worthless, at least from a real estate perspective. The rollback represented a huge victory for East Austin, and rightly so. Still, there was something unsettling about the debate. BFI and white West Austin environmentalists were deemed the bad guys -- BFI for being a corporate monster that was ruining a neighborhood, and the enviros for not stepping in and fighting the good fight on behalf of East Austin. The city, meanwhile, wanted to be the hero in this drama and took drastic measures to distance itself from BFI. Never mind that the city had contracted with BFI because it was the only company capable of handling the massive amounts of stuff the city was encouraging residents to recycle. In the end, city officials decided against doing business with BFI in the future, opting instead to negotiate a new 30-year recycling contract with Waste Management, Inc.
10) The Budget. Steady as a bulldozer, our staid city manager (would you really want him any other way?), pushed forward his budget agenda with an ingenious strategy: make suggestions for cuts in city departments and services based on what other cities are doing. Garza started this compare-and-review process, called Affordability 2000, two years ago; problem is, the grumbling began in 1997 that Garza was paying too much attention to benchmarking and not enough to public input. Those complaining included neighborhood library advocates who watched the Riverside Library get the ax last budget season -- reflecting Garza's belief in "regional" rather than "neighborhood" libraries -- only to later see Riverside hold on by a thread. Other potential budget victims included the Austin Music Network, which managed a last minute reprieve and held on in the "World's Live Music Capital," and the prenatal programs at the city's besieged public health clinics, which made the cut as well. But with Garza's penchant for cost-cutting measures like outsourcing and privatization, the clinics -- along with the electric utility, solid waste services, and other city departments -- better tread softly in 1998.