Beyond City Limits
Reid Ryan, who with his famous father Nolan owns the Round Rock Express, has asked the city of Round Rock to kick in $1.8 million for an expansion of the Dell Diamond. The project is needed, Ryan says, to reach the 10,000-seat minimum capacity needed to win a AAA minor-league franchise. The Express is a AA affiliate of the Houston Astros; if the Ryans can bring a AAA team to Central Texas, they plan to send the existing club to Corpus Christi. Round Rock has until April 1 to give the Ryans an answer; city leaders say Round Rock has the authority to issue the necessary bonds, backed by hotel-bed tax, without voter approval. -- M.C.M.
The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to hear the court case brought against the existing "Robin Hood" school-finance plan by property-wealthy districts organized as the Texas Schools Coalition. The coalition argues that the current state cap on property tax rates in "rich" districts -- including Austin, Eanes, and Round Rock -- amounts to an unconstitutional statewide property tax. The same argument was dismissed in 2001 by then-District Judge Scott McCown, who held that only a handful of districts were nearing the cap -- but today, the coalition says, nearly 40% of the state's districts are bumping against the limit. A plan to repeal Robin Hood entirely by 2005 -- without anything to replace it -- is now before the Legislature; the Supreme Court is expected to rule next month. -- M.C.M.
As the push for "tuition deregulation" -- allowing Texas' public universities to set (and, inevitably, raise) their own tuition -- gathers steam, students are increasingly concerned. Student government at UT passed a resolution strongly opposing the idea, and Texas A&M's student-body president is under fire for being too sympathetic to the plan when talking to the Lege. The major state schools are expected to raise tuition 15% to 25% if deregulation passes. Meanwhile, the budget shortfall means Texas may renege on previous promises of a free public-college education for between 5,000 and 20,000 high schoolers, the state higher-education commissioner announced this week. -- M.C.M.
On Feb. 12, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sided with Harris Co. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal in his bid to keep jury deliberations in the capital-murder case of Cedric Harrison from being taped for the PBS documentary program Frontline. District Judge Ted Poe in December granted the Frontline request to tape the entirety of Harrison's trial, including deliberations, over Rosenthal's objections. The CCA concluded that the legal provision that deliberations should be conducted away from other "people" also refers to cameras that would, at least at some point, be operated by people. Three judges, including presiding Judge Sharon Keller, dissented, saying the court had little right to intervene against the discretion of the trial judge. Keller wrote that the statute is unclear about "whether the camera should be considered a 'person'" or whether "persons who later view the recorded deliberations can fairly be said to be 'with' the jury." -- J.S.
On Monday Gov. Rick Perry appointed Geraldine "Tincy" Miller to chair the State Board of Education, subject to Senate confirmation. Miller, a Dallas real estate broker, has served on the SBOE for nearly 20 years; her term as chair would continue until 2005. Miller is one of the Religious Right faction that dominates the SBOE, and her appointment is opposed by the anti-fundamentalist Texas Freedom Network. TFN Executive Director Samantha Smoot called the announcement "great news for those who would use public schools to promote their personal religious beliefs and political ideology." Miller's husband, Vance, a board member of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a consultant to Texans for Lawsuit Reform, is one of the plaintiffs in the anti-Robin Hood lawsuit currently before the state Supreme Court. That may pose a potential conflict of interest that could be raised in Tincy Miller's confirmation hearings. -- Michael King
On Tuesday, the Texas House approved Senate Bill 310, authored by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, the first in a series of bills addressing homeowners insurance reform. The Senate is expected to approve House amendments before a quick signature by Gov. Perry. The law will mandate that Texas insurance companies quickly supply information explaining and justifying their current rate structures to the state so that the Lege can consider regulation to address Texas homeowners insurance rates, currently the highest in the U.S. The governor earlier designated insurance reform as an "emergency" issue, allowing SB 310 to take effect immediately upon his signature. -- M.K.
On the transportation beat, all eyes were on London this week, as the British capital implemented its ambitious congestion-pricing program -- under which motorists have to pay a fee of £5 ($8) to drive into a 10-square-mile section of central London. Hundreds of license-plate cameras track motorists; scofflaws are fined £80 ($112). Similar plans have been suggested for gridlocked cities around the globe, including Austin. Implementation went fairly smoothly in London. Traffic has tapered off by as much as 25%, according to official estimates. More than 10,000 people were fined for violating the rules on the first day. -- M.C.M.