Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Oct. 10, 2003
Quote of the Week: "We're just praying the Democrats will leave again, to take the heat off all of us." -- State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, watching from the sidelines as his own party leaders embarrass and abuse each other.
As of press time: No, they haven't passed a re-redistricting map. Yes, they're probably going to have to move the primary. No, we don't know what Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst meant about the "Iranian cabdriver." Yes, Iranian-Americans have demanded an apology. And yes, Travis Co. gets chopped up. That's why we're not laughing. See On the Lege.
Meanwhile, things couldn't be more pleasant at Austin City Hall, where Mayor Will Wynn, having scared Wal-Mart off the aquifer, prepares for his next trick -- killing (or at least maiming) the smoking ordinance. For more on Wal-Mart, No Worries for Wal-Mart?.
At press time, House Speaker Tom Craddick, and his pimp Tom DeLay, were predicting a re-redistricting resolution by week's end, so legislators could head to Dallas for Texas-OU weekend.
Add one more name to UT's Nobel list: South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, who earned his Ph.D. from UT in 1969, won the literature prize last week. All the more reason, we suppose, for UT undergraduate students to accept the 27% tuition increase proposed this week by a university advisory panel. The UT regents will consider the tuition hike in November.
Is it time to kill the smoking ordinance already? The council, and particularly Mayor Will Wynn, wants to put this issue to rest ASAP. Long before the Jan. 1 effective date of the controversial measure banning smoking in nearly all indoor public places -- including bars and clubs -- the task force appointed by the City Council to come up with a more palatable solution (after it voted 4-3 to pass the ordinance) will present its findings and recommendations to the council today (Thursday) at 2pm. As also happened with the city's noise ordinance -- likewise of great interest to the music scene -- once the issue was turned over to its actual stakeholders, an outbreak of good government ensued. The task force's recommendations, in the words of one City Hall source, "aren't going to make the anti-tobacco forces happy, but they're enforceable" -- and as such acceptable to city public health leaders, who want to tighten up loopholes in the city's current smoking regs (passed in 1994) without getting further wrapped up in a moral crusade or punishing club and restaurant owners who've already invested money to comply with the current rules. -- M.C.M.
The Wal-Mart victory dance is in full swing, but a subsidiary crisis looms for City Hall -- lawyers for the actual owner of the MoPac/Slaughter tract, SR Ridge Corp., have made a broad request for information and documents from a host of city offices, presumably in preparation for a lawsuit. The tract was the subject of a 1996 development agreement between the city and the previous owner, and speculation says the current owner wants to hold the city -- which was so publicly opposed to the Wal-Mart project -- liable for interfering with Wal-Mart and Endeavor Real Estate Group's contract to buy the property. -- M.C.M.
Motorola announced this week plans to spin off its Austin-based semiconductor manufacturing business as a separate company, part of the struggling tech giant's attempt to refocus on its core consumer-electronics lines. Motorola semiconductor is the fourth-largest private employer in Travis Co., with about 6,400 employees (down from nearly 9,000 in 2001, and out of nearly 24,000 worldwide) and the largest payer of property taxes. The company plans to execute the spin-off through an IPO followed by a distribution of stock to current Motorola shareholders. The semiconductor division has lost $3.4 billion since 2000 but would probably be worth between $10 billion and $15 billion on its own, according to Wall Street analysts; it would become Austin's second-largest hometown corporation, after Dell. Motorola's shares jumped more than 10% on the announcement. -- M.C.M.
George W. Bush may be "a punk-ass chump" -- at least according to a bumper sticker fairly common in these parts -- but the University of Texas Press is not about to allow Austin authors to distribute that sentiment on its book covers. According to a Tuesday report in the Los Angeles Times, the publisher airbrushed out the slogan from the cover of Spike Gillespie's just-published book of essays, Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away): Old Cars, Found Hope, and Other Cheap Tricks. Gillespie's car is pictured on the cover with such bumper stickers as "chainstoressuck.com," but in a move the author described as "censorship," the Punk-Ass Chump sticker was removed. Editor in Chief Theresa May defended the press, saying, "We also changed the street sign and changed the color of the car. The image was manipulated and enhanced, but it had nothing to do with the fact that it was an anti-Bush statement. Spike is a political person, but the book isn't. ... We didn't foresee that it would be controversial, because we didn't think anyone would be paying attention." Responded Gillespie, "I hate to disagree with Theresa, but we're obviously in disagreement." -- Michael King
The Austin ISD board of trustees is scheduled to give its final approval Monday -- on the consent agenda -- to plans to convert Kealing Junior High School to a middle school with a sixth grade. Many parents of students at Kealing's elementary feeder schools -- particularly Lee and Maplewood elementaries -- have expressed concerns about the plan but felt their participation in a task force last winter went basically unheeded by AISD administrators. While all five feeder schools have room to keep sixth grade at their campuses, Kealing, the district's last two-year junior high, has no room to expand, and the district is famously tight on funds; trustee Rudy Montoya had last month asked the district for a detailed breakdown of the costs involved in the plan. -- M.C.M.
In less contentious news from AISD, the district announced Tuesday it would become Austin Energy's largest single Green Choice customer. Austin ISD's commitment to purchase 45 million kilowatt-hours of electricity under the city-owned power company's renewable energy program -- about 30% of the district's total energy usage -- represents a 20% increase in AE's Green Choice subscription base. The district, which like most large customers has its own contract and rate structure with Austin Energy, reports that its energy costs doubled in 2001 with spikes in natural gas prices. "For a district that's living on a fixed income, and with all the uncertainty about school finance in Texas, Green Choice is a wise investment for Austin schools," said AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione. Like other Green Choice customers, AISD is paying slightly more per kWh for its power, but is locked in at that rate until 2011 and is protected from future fuel-charge hikes. The district also noted that Green Choice helps it meet its goals for helping improve Austin air quality and with it the health of its students. -- M.C.M.
Bob Breunig, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, will be leaving his post by year's end to become director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, the center announced Tuesday. In his seven years at the Wildflower Center, Breunig -- who came to Austin from the Arizona museum -- not only oversaw the center's expansion but played a visible role in growth politics in its Southwest Austin environs, most notably in the Stratus Properties deal last summer; players on both sides (and Lady Bird Johnson) commend Breunig's ethics and vision and say he will be missed. -- M.C.M.
Word on the Democratic street has Austin SafePlace Executive Director Kelly White stepping down to run for state representative in District 48 (currently held by Republican incumbent Todd Baxter), and former legislative aide and cybervote maven Mark Strama is seriously considering Jack Stick's District 50 seat. White didn't deny the rumor, but told Naked City that her tenure with SafePlace runs through Nov. 21 -- "That's what I'm focused on." Strama was traveling and could not be reached at press time, but Elliott McFadden, Travis Co. Democratic Party executive director, said that Strama has indicated he's pretty certain that he'll run. Of course, the way things are going at the Capitol, the primary campaign may not actually get under way until next August. -- M.K.
Beyond City Limits
Even before the start of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2003-04 session, which began Oct. 6, the justices had already set hearing dates for a number of high-profile cases, including oral arguments on Dec. 8 for the Texas death row appeal of Delma Banks. In March the court issued a last-minute stay of Banks' execution, just 10 minutes before he was slated to die -- it was Banks' 15th execution date since his 1980 murder conviction -- and subsequently announced that they would review Banks' case in full. Banks contends that his capital conviction was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct -- including suppression of exculpatory evidence -- as well as by ineffective assistance of defense counsel and race-based jury selection. (See "Supreme Court Ponders Banks' Death Row Case," March 21.) -- Jordan Smith
Another date to watch the Supremes: Dec. 10, when the court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Vieth et al. v. Jubilirer, a congressional redistricting case from Pennsylvania. (The plaintiffs are aggrieved Keystone State Dems; Robert Jubilirer is Pennsylvania's Republican lieutenant governor.) In past decisions, including last term's Georgia v. Ashcroft, the Supremes have ruled on redistricting through the lens of the federal Voting Rights Act -- that is, on racial grounds. But not since 1986's Davis v. Bandemeier (from Indiana) has the court considered whether a purely partisan gerrymander can warrant constitutional concern. The Supremes narrowly split on the issue in Davis, and since then have signaled that as long as race isn't the only issue, even the most bizarrely partisan plans can pass muster -- which makes it intriguing, in light of events in Texas and elsewhere, that the court agreed to take this case now. Pennsylvania's statewide D-R voter breakdown is even closer than in Texas, but the GOP-controlled legislature drew a map that gave Republicans 19 out of 26 U.S. House seats. The Texas House Democratic Caucus is one of many third parties to file briefs in the case. -- M.C.M.
American Bar Association President Dennis Archer on Oct. 6 announced the formation of a 14-member commission charged with reviewing and addressing "inadequacies" and "injustices" in the nation's criminal justice system, highlighted by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy during his speech at the ABA's annual meeting in August. Most notably, Kennedy (a Reagan appointee) called for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing -- sentencing guidelines legislated by Congress, which curtail a judge's ability to use discretion when sentencing criminal defendants. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Stephen Breyer have previously criticized the stifling sentencing guidelines, yet Attorney General John Ashcroft is both pushing federal prosecutors and (implicitly) shaming judges to be even more "tough" and inflexible. The ABA commission will hold public hearings in November and present policy recommendations next August during the ABA's annual meeting. -- J.S.
The Democratic presidential field shrunk slightly this week, as Florida Sen. Bob Graham announced his withdrawal in a Monday appearance on CNN's Larry King Live. Graham, first elected in 1986, said that his late start had made it hard to find campaign funding and popular support. "I have made the judgment," Graham told King, "I cannot be elected." His departure had been rumored for several days, and immediately fueled speculation that he would be considered as a vice-presidential nominee. Graham, former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, voted against the 2002 authorization for war against Iraq. -- M.K.
A musical benefit for the local broadcast of Democracy Now! (see interview with Amy Goodman in our Green Festival coverage, p.32) will be held at Texas Mist, 1115 Old Bastrop Hwy. (map online at www.austintexasmist.com/map.html) at 9pm Saturday, Oct. 11, featuring the Earthtone Players, NoHoodoo, Lost in South Austin, and FreakOphonics. Admission is $5.
TreeFolks Inc., a Central Texas nonprofit urban forestry organization, will be giving away free tree saplings for planting this month. Get your trees at 4pm Sunday, Oct. 12, at the Green Festival at the Austin Convention Center; Wednesday, Oct. 15, at the northwest corner of Fourth and Congress, noon-1pm; Saturday, Oct. 18 at the Festival de las Plantas in Roy Guerrero Park, noon-5pm; Wednesday, Oct. 29 at the southwest corner of Ninth and Congress and at the Cedar Park City Hall (600 N. Bell), noon-1pm; or Saturday, Nov. 1 at 4005 Airport, in conjunction with the city of Austin's rain-barrel sale, 9am-noon.
Public hearings on the proposed UT tuition increase will be held at 4pm the next two Thursdays, Oct. 9 and 16, in Hogg Auditorium. Using the proposal of the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee and information gained at the public hearings, President Larry Faulkner will make a proposal for the UT System board of regents to consider on Nov. 18.