On the Lege

Dumb and Dumber

How dumb is Ron Wilson's HB1871, designed to keep Robert Mueller Municipal Airport open even after Austin-Bergstrom International is operational? Not as dumb as his HJR 64, proposing that Austin become the state-run District of Travis, but pretty bad. Here's just a few of the reasons:

  • Back in 1989, the Legislature passed a bill telling Austin it had to close Mueller or spend millions soundproofing surrounding neighborhoods. The intent of this legislation, authored by former Dist. 50 Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, was to get Mueller shut down sooner rather than later. Need it be pointed out that Wilson voted for the Delco bill? If the state changes the rules now, the Travis County Courthouse will be clogged with litigants.
  • Between its own staff time and its consultant services, the state has already spent somewhere in the $1 million range planning its 282-acre portion of the Mueller redevelopment. (The city has spent close to $2 million on its part of the project.) That's not counting the time and money -- including an assumed $8 million of Austin's money, which the state has already budgeted -- that's already being spent to move the state's own aviation facilities, the state Aircraft Pooling Board, and Texas Air Guard, to Bergstrom. And it's clearly not counting the money -- many millions over 20 years -- that the state will save by consolidating its currently dispersed leased-space offices into the Mueller site.
  • Wilson's bill would only go into effect if a commercial airline currently serving Mueller decides it wants to stay there. Yet the chances that the Federal Aviation Administration will allow both Mueller and Bergstrom to remain open to commercial traffic is slim to none. And all the current commercial gateholders have spent tons of funds moving their facilities to Bergstrom.

So even if Wilson's bill somehow doesn't die in committee, and is passed and signed before Mueller closes to commercial aviation on May 3, it would end up costing -- not saving -- Texans' hard-earned tax money, would almost certainly provoke a lawsuit, and would most likely be shot down by the Feds. So what is Ron Wilson thinking? Well, "Ron Wilson" and "thinking" don't always find themselves in the same sentence, so it's possible that HB 1871, like HJR 64, is merely an attention-grabbing device. But a prediction: If there are fingerprints on this bill, they belong not to commercial aviation, but to private pilots and their fearsome, NRA-style lobby, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which has strong-armed other cities into keeping unsafe airports open for the pleasure and convenience of aviation hobbyists and the bona fide jet set. --M.C.M.

Do Better, or Else

Teacher shortage? What teacher shortage? State Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander and Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, don't seem to think there's any problem. Shapiro, prompted by suggestions in the comptroller's latest Texas Performance Review, has filed legislation that would "solve" the problem of chronically low-performing schools, not by allocating more funds to the campuses to train teachers and reduce class size, but by firing their teachers and principal.

This latest stroke of genius from the "tough-love" school of educational thinking contains no provisions for providing additional resources for schools that are repeatedly ranked "low-performing," nor does it suggest exploring the reasons for which students at a school might continue to fail, apart from a requirement that the school seek assistance on its own "from the appropriate regional education service center." Instead, SB 876 would give the state education commissioner the authority to immediately revoke the certification of the principal at such a school and reassign some or all of its teachers at his discretion.

The policy would mark quite a turnabout from the gospel of "local control" that has long been preached from the hilltops by Republicans throughout the state. And in light of improved TAAS scores and an ongoing shortage of certified teachers statewide, there has never been a worse time to take away school districts' local authority, according to Louis Malfaro, director of the Austin Federation of Teachers.

The problem, Malfaro says, isn't that teachers and principals are "sitting there twiddling their thumbs" while their schools are failing. The problem is there are no incentives for the best teachers and administrators to move to low-performing schools. "The schools in Austin that have come uplow-performing are schools that need to have strong development and a focus on resources," Malfaro says. "If we want high-quality principals and teachers, we don't need to threaten them with the loss of their jobs; we need to give them an incentive" like improved benefits or pay. According to a recent study by researchers at Texas A&M, Texas teachers have the lowest combined pay and benefits in the nation, ranking dead last behind 49 states and the District of Columbia. --E.C.B.

Tough on Crime Bills

A bill that would remove video and audio taping from police interrogations is among pending legislation the Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is keeping an eye on, says attorney Keith Hampton, CDLA member and attorney for 14-year-old Lacresha Murray. SB 460, sponsored by Kenneth Armbrister, D-Victoria, takes on a special concern for Hampton as it ties into the pending appeal of his client, who was interrogated for two and a half hours by APD in May of 1996 in connection with the beating death of 2-year-old Jayla Belton. Tape recordings of the interrogation make up much of the evidence for her appeal. "If that case is reversed, it will be in large part because of that tape," Hampton said during a recent forum sponsored by the First Unitarian Universalist Church. "This bill provides for secret police interrogations," Hampton said. "Police can then interrogate without taping or without anything written, and then it's just what the officers recollect when they're on the stand."

Hampton says the CDLA is fighting several other proposed bills, including SB 733, also sponsored by Armbrister, which would eliminatethe accomplice-witness rule and allow suspects to be convicted on the testimony of an accomplice alone, and Austin Rep. Terry Keel's HB 1320, which would alter certain rules of evidence. Hampton says that HB 1320 would open the door to ordinary citizens gathering evidence by illegal means, including breaking and entering. For example: You suspect your neighbor of doing something illegal. You break into the house and, lo and behold, find marijuana. Though you broke into your neighbor's house, the evidence you gathered could be permissible in court. "I don't know what we'd use our police for after that," said Hampton. "Because there would be free reign with private patrols. And anyone could say, 'I'm a crime fighter.' " --J.S.

Bills! Bills! Bills!

State agencies giddy with the thrill of "savings" earned by firing workers and privatizing state functions would have their glee dampened slightly by SB 810 filed by Austin's Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos last week.It would require agenciesto win approval from the Legislative Budget Board before spending their newfound riches. ...

Rep. Carlos Uresti, R-San Antonio, may be new to the Texas House, but he's already proficient in the language of bad ideas. Two Uresti bills would further restrict minors' limited rights: HB 2097 requires minors to take a drug test as a condition of getting a driver's license; HB 2099 requires them to apply to college before graduating high school, regardless of career plans or school record. ...

El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh's SB 745 is another volley fired in the war over "English-only" requirements. The bill would prohibit employers from forcing their workers to speak English exclusively at the workplace. --E.C.B.

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