The Austin Chronicle

On The Lege

Stopping the Train

February 12, 1999, News

It was Pete Laney's first major defeat of the season. Seated in a section of die-hard Texas Tech fans, wearing his brightest red shirt, the House Speaker was at the Erwin Center Saturday night to see the Red Raiders women's basketball team fall to the underdog Lady Longhorns, 74 -70. Laney, never one for emotional outbursts, remained the picture of calm throughout the nailbiter of a game. But while his team lost last Saturday, Laney doesn't plan on losing when it comes to campaign finance reform. Last week, Laney hinted that his plans for cleaning up the system may include eliminating the fundraising period right after elections. Currently, politicians can raise money up until 30 days before the Legislature convenes, but Laney is looking at the earlier cutoff to eliminate what's known as the "late train." The late train was controversial this year due to allegations that Lt. Gov. Rick Perry supporters told lobbyists who backed John Sharp they needed to make substantial contributions to Perry's campaign. The Perry camp was in a big hurry to pay off a $1.1 million loan it received from James Leininger, the conservative multimillionaire from San Antonio, and two other businessmen. "Every time there's a late train story, that reflects on the process, because there's more of a perception" that money is tainting the process, said Laney. --R.B.

Lege 101

For a group that legally can't lobby or even try to influence legislation, the University Staff Association has been especially busy in the early weeks of the Legislature's 76th session. After getting off to a slow and shaky start, USA began hammering out its legislative priorities last Tuesday at a "Legislature 101" session. USA president and head cheerleader Peg Kramer says that although neither the staff association nor the university is technically allowed to lobby, UT perennially skirts that requirement by hiring a legislative liaison to serve as a broker at the Capitol for its wish list. Following UT's example, USA has formed a legislative panel of a dozen members to formulate strategies for promoting the group's priorities, which include a wage increase, improvements in the retirement plan, and staff representation on UT panels. "Legally, we can't craft legislation and we can't lobby, but we can educate," Kramer said. Kramer says USA's number-one priority is to "educate" legislators about the need for an across-the-board wage increase for UT staff. Although state auditors have suggested a 3.9% increase, Kramer said that would be barely enough to keep up with inflation. "Our point is, we're already 17% below market. That doesn't help us a bit."

USA has already demonstrated it has some clout outside the Capitol. With fewer than 200 members and a nominal operating budget, the group drew well over 1,000 protesters for its "March for Fair Wages" last spring. USA's next action will be a "virtual walkout" March 10. Although administrators are assured university business will go on as usual, members will post signs around campus stating what would not be done if staff did not report to work.The protest will be valuable as a symbol of what staff contribute to the university, Kramer says. "We should walk out, but because it's illegal, we can't," she said. "We run the place, and yet we are treated without dignity." --E.C.B.

Quick Change

Blink and you missed it. That was about the only consensus surrounding the 15-minute public meeting called by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles last Friday at 8am in Huntsville, at which the board's six-member policy division voted swiftly -- and unanimously -- to change the deadline for filing petitions for commutation or reprieve to 25 days before the scheduled execution. For years, the deadline has been five days before the execution date. Parole board chairman Victor Rodriguez said the move would give board members more time to deliberate a prisoner's petition before deciding whether to recommend clemency. Court testimony late last year indicated that board members -- who review inmate files privately and do not confer with one another before making their decisions -- often spend only a few hours deciding if an inmate will live or die.

But attorney Maurie Levin, who made the three-hour drive from Austin only to miss the board meeting completely by a few minutes, said she was disappointed by both the brevity and the limited scope of the board's decision. Levin says the proposed rule change will do little except make the process more difficult for prisoners. "I don't think it addresses any of the concerns raised by the state and federal court litigation" that has been going on for months, she said. "It points clearly to the board's unawareness of the rest of the process." Because federal appeals are typically just being filed a month before a scheduled execution date, Levin said, the rule will make it harder for prisoners to file petitions for clemency, and will do nothing to improve public confidence in a process that has long been shrouded in secrecy.

Although board members had hinted at the possibility of other modifications, such as requiring that one member interview a condemned inmate before the board could review his petition, no further changes were suggested or discussed. And comments made by Rodriguez after the meeting suggested that the omission of more substantive changes was no accident. "We will continue to reserve the options that we currently reserve," Rodriguez said. "I'm not for giving these condemned people any more rights than they already have. ... We're a long way from any substantive change at this time." In particular, Rodriguez said, the board would not consider changing its rules to require open meetings, in spite of ongoing litigation and legislation (HB 397 by Elliott Naishtat, currently pending in the House).

Levin said that she and another Austin attorney, Phil Durst, will appeal a January court decision in which state District Judge Scott McCown ruled that the board's procedures did not violate Texas law. A new ruling in the case, which will go before the Third Court of Appeals, would likely postpone the execution of Danny Lee Barber, whose latest execution date is expected to be announced this week. --E.C.B.

Bills! Bills! Bills!

The Don Quixote Award for this week goes to Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, whose last-ditch legislation (HB 1106) attempts to overturn some of the nastier effects of the Hopwood decision by legislative mandate. The bill would allow public universities like UT to consider "African-American race and Mexican-American national origin as a factor" in admissions, scholarship, and recruitment -- something former attorney gen. Dan Morales and several appeals courts have said schools no longer can consider...

Okay, so it didn't work for cigarettes. Still, Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, thinks warning labels might deter folks from using a less-notorious cancer-causing vice: tanning salons. His HB 1155 would require that parlors post warnings around the tanning area, including color photos of "magnified lesions" of carcinoma in various stages. In addition, the bill would keep minors out of tanning salons completely, adding another venue to the list of places (bars, abortion clinics, piercing facilities) state reps would like to keep teens out of this session...

Joe Crabb, R-Houston, has filed HB 1200 to allow MUD residents who think they have been unfairly annexed to hold an election to de-annex the area, as long as they didn't vote to join the city in the first place. The election would be determined by a simple majority, and the annexing party would have to pay for the election. --E.C.B.

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