The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Off the Desk:

January 1, 1999, News

Austin-area agencies that provide shelter, housing and job assistance, and help for those suffering from mental illness or drug abuse received a bit of good news for Christmas: Several local assistance programs will receive more than $3 million in federal funds. U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett and Mayor Kirk Watsonannounced last week that the money, issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be divided among several Austin/Travis County-area agencies, including the Salvation Army Passages Program, the SafePlace Supportive Housing Program, and other area agencies that provide shelter, housing and job assistance, and help for those suffering from mental illness or drug abuse.

"These monies will fund the critical case management workers who are on the frontline in our efforts to get the homeless off the cold, dangerous streets and into permanent housing and independent living situations," said Doggett. ...

The challenge of providing high-quality health care services to the poor in the face of managed-care restrictions and state and federal spending cuts is the subject of the Austin Area League of Women Voters forum Wednesday, Jan. 6. Among the scheduled guests is Margot Clarke, public affairs manager of Planned Parenthood, who will discuss the impact of budget cuts on health services for low-income, uninsured women. Joining Clarke will be health care advocate Rose Lancaster, who will examine the Seton Health Care plan to manage Travis County's public health system, which promises to increase clinic patients' access to doctors and save the county money, but would also close all but one of the county's existing clinics and fragment the current service delivery. The meeting starts at 7pm in the LCRA Board Room, 3710 Lake Austin. For more information call Carolyn Baker at 249-7012. ... L.T.

Light Rail Vote

After years of discussion, it appears that Austin voters will finally get to vote on light rail. Although no specific date has been chosen, Capital Metro officials recently made it clear they want to hold a referendum on light rail in November. During last month's Smart Growth conference, Capital Metro board chairman Lee Walker told attendees that he would meet with other members of the board in January to discuss setting a formal date for the election. In addition, the transportation agency's general manager, Karen Rae, recently told members of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce that November is the preferred time frame for the vote on light rail.

Walker and Rae were both out of town for the holidays and could not be reached for comment. But Capital Metro board member and City Councilmember Daryl Slusher confirmed that November is "the most likely date" for the light rail vote. "It definitely won't be before then." Slusher said the board wants to set up a special task force to discuss transportation issues with neighborhood leaders before setting a date for a referendum on the light rail system, which is expected to cost up to $1billion. The light rail system would be financed with bonds, which would be repaid with the proceeds from local sales tax.

Capital Metro officials are quick to point out that if voters approve light rail, sales tax rates will not be affected because Austin is currently collecting 8.25%, the maximum allowed by state law. However, Capital Metro's share of local sales tax revenue is highly controversial. In June of 1995, the Capital Metro board increased its sales tax levy from three-quarters of a cent to a full cent. The increase came amid ongoing controversy over the agency's shaky finances and management. In March of 1997, the agency's board decided to earmark the revenue from the increase for light rail. Since that time, the agency has been setting aside that revenue in anticipation of voter approval for the new transit system.

However, if Austin area voters do not approve the light rail system, Capital Metro may be forced to rescind the 1995 tax levy increase. "The referendum will be a very clear indicator on the use of that tax for light rail. If it doesn't pass then there would be no reason to keep the quarter-cent earmarked for light rail," said Slusher, who added the agency's bus system can operate with the revenue it receives from the three-quarters-of-a-cent sales tax.

The next meeting of the Capital Metro board is Jan. 25. The referendum issue is expected to be on the agenda. --R.B.

No Sunshine on Clemency

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles won a major battle Monday against a group of lawyers' demanding it open its clemency proceedings to public scrutiny, but the reprieve may prove temporary as a bill designed to end the secretive process moves forward in the Texas Legislature.

Lawyers for two death row inmates, Danny Lee Barber and Joseph Stanley Faulder, claimed that the parole board's secretive clemency procedures, in which individual board members fax in their votes without meeting or deliberating with one another beforehand, and are not required to provide reasons for granting or denying clemency, violated due process. But federal District Judge Sam Sparks denied the lawyers' motions for a temporary restraining order and injunction against the board, and withdrew the stays of execution he issued for both inmates two weeks ago.

The decision came after 12 members of Texas' 18-member Board of Pardons and Paroles defended their clemency procedures in federal court last week, in an often contentious and heated environment. In his decision, Sparks wrote that although "it is abundantly clear the Texas clemency procedure is extremely poor and certainly minimal," it did not violate the standards of "minimal due process" set out in a Supreme Court decision called Woodard earlier this year. However, Sparks said in the ruling, the board would likely be subjected to continuing judicial scrutiny unless it agrees to hold hearings on clemency decisions or provide reasons for its actions as part of the public record.

Board Chairman Victor Rodriguez declined to provide any such reasons in his testimony, arguing that "whichever reason we give, it would be taken to task by each and every attorney on this case" and used by defense attorneys as fodder for future court appeals.

Other board members were more forthcoming on the second afternoon of the hearing. Several board members mentioned the severity of the crime, whether a defendant had proper access to the courts, and whether public safety would be affected if a prisoner's life were spared as factors in their clemency determinations. All of the state's witnesses testified that they did not determine their votes on clemency by flipping a coin, or for any other inadmissible reason, such as race, gender, or ethnicity.

And that, Sparks ruled a week after the two-day hearing, is enough to constitute due process under the current law. Although attorneys for the

two death row inmates asserted there is no way to know whether the board's decisions are based on the evidence provided or, as Faulder's attorney Sandra Babcock said, "on the basis of a flip of a coin," Sparks said in his opinion that clearly members do not flip a coin when making

their votes, because "it is elemental a flip of the coin would be more merciful" than board members' recent decisions, which have not resulted in a single approval of clemency except for that of Henry Lee Lucas this April.

Meanwhile, legislation proposed by State Rep. Elliott Naishtat would require that the board both conduct a closed meeting (rather than vote by fax), which an inmate and his lawyer would be entitled to attend. According to Naishtat's bill, the board would be required to provide reasons for its decisions to the public. "The process is arbitrary because they don't deliberate and because there's no way their decisions are not made in a few minutes," Naishtat said. "The Board of Pardons and Paroles in its work clearly does not comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act, the Texas Constitution, and the U.S. Constitution." --E.C.B.

Rough Road Ahead

The 76th Texas Legislature convenes Jan. 12, but it already looks as if this session will be a busy one for the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Two bills were recently filed that would forbid gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from serving as foster parents or adopting a child. Last month, State Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, filed House Bill 415, which targets foster parents, and will require children already under the care of homosexual or bisexual foster parents to be removed from their care, even if the foster child is a relative. The same week, State Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, filed House Bill 382, which would ban homosexuals or bisexuals from becoming adoptive parents under any circumstance.

Both bills call for inquiry by the state to determine the sexual orientation of potential parents before placement of a child, a potentially costly endeavor, according to the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, which reports the cost of these investigations to be approximately $10 million the first year and $40 million over five years.

"These witch hunts are a waste of millions of valuable tax dollars," says Dianne Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the LGRL of Texas. Hardy-Garcia pointed to research by the Child Welfare League of America and the American Psychological Association that states sexual orientation does not affect a parent's ability to raise a child.

"The money could more importantly be spent on 44,000 children in Texas that are victims of child abuse and need stable foster homes. None of these anti-gay family bills are proposed in the best interest of the children of Texas. They are simply right-wing political extremism at its worst."

Meanwhile, the LGRL is also keeping its eye on House Bill 337, filed by State Rep. Debra Danburg, D- Houston, to repeal Texas'
119-year-old sodomy statute.

The long-standing effort to strike the antiquated state law -- which makes oral and anal sex a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 -- received a boost in late November when the Georgia Supreme Court -- by no means known to be liberal or gay-friendly -- threw out that state's sodomy law finding it "manifestly infringes upon a constitutional provision ... which guarantees to the citizens of Georgia the right of privacy."

In September, two Houston men were caught having sex in their home and charged with "homosexual conduct." The deputies were responding to a false report of an armed intruder. In November, the men pleaded no contest to sodomy charges and then appealed the case.

In 1992, a Texas appeals court found the sodomy law unconstitutional. But that ruling eventually was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court. Given the conservative bent of the state courts, Danberg says legislative efforts are necessary to "protect the private lives of individuals, and to grant equal protection to all Texas citizens." --L.T.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.