Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols, Fri., March 4, 2005
Quote of the Week"It's not up to the American Cancer Society or Lance Motherfucking Armstrong to tell me how to run my business." Bar owner Chip Tait, on the proposed anti-smoking ordinance that will appear on the May 7 ballot. (At press time, a federal lawsuit had been filed to block the vote.) See "Smoking Ordinance Headed for the Ballot."
Sanity to arrive on AM talk radio liberal talk network Air America debuts in Austin in mid-March. See our interview with Air America host Al Franken.
The Supreme Court has outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, which of course has huge implications in needle-happy Texas. See "Beyond City Limits."
House Bill 2, the school finance bill, moved out of committee. See "School Finance Bill Heads for the Floor."
The TRMPAC campaign finance lawsuit finally got rolling this week. See "TRMPAC Finally Lands in Court."
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday morning from an Austin attorney trying to get a monument honoring the Ten Commandments removed from the grounds of the state Capitol. See "Beyond City Limits."
Three AISD schools that last fall received the lowest rating under the federal No Child Left Behind accountability system LBJ High, and Burnet and Fulmore middle schools have been removed from the "needs improvement" list. See "Taking the TAKS Is Hard … Understanding the Results Is Harder."
Even as students are struggling under the weight of their hefty, deregulated tuition, the University of Texas is sitting pretty on more than a hundred million unspent dollars. At least, that's how student group UT Watch saw it when their review of a comptroller's report found the Available University Fund, which collects the revenue from UT's investments, flush with $111 million that should have been spent in the 2005 fiscal year. Not so fast, says UT. First of all, part of the AUF is designated as an emergency reserve, and the rest has been spent; it's just that the bills haven't worked their way through the system to show up in reports yet. And even if there were a big pot of AUF funds to spend, big-institution budgetary voodoo requires that money to be spent only in certain ways, unlike tuition, which can be spent on anything. Rachel Proctor May
LBJ School of Public Affairs professor Michele Deitch has been named one of 18 new Open Society Institute Soros Senior Justice fellows for 2005. Deitch was selected for her proposals to curb human rights abuses in U.S. prisons and jails, according to a UT press release. She'll spend the year developing specific proposals for establishing an independent prison inspection process currently, the U.S. is the only Western country that does not have a "formal mechanism for the routine, external review of its prison facilities," Deitch said. She is also planning an April 2006 symposium to bring together international experts on prison oversight. Four other Texans have also been named 2005 OSI fellows including Kenavon Carter, an ACLU lawyer, who will work on a project to reduce racial profiling by police, and Kristi Couvillon, a lawyer and social worker with the Texas Defender Service, who will work to ensure adequate representation for indigent defendants. For a complete list of OSI fellows, see www.soros.org. Jordan Smith
On Friday, Feb. 25, Mayor Will Wynn and his wife Anne Elizabeth released a statement saying that after a separation of several months, they plan to divorce after 12 years of marriage. "It is with sadness that we announce today that we have decided to end our marriage," the couple wrote. "Our parting is very amicable and based on continued mutual support and respect. Our greatest concern is, as always, for the well being of our two cherished daughters, of whom we intend to share joint custody. We ask our many friends in Austin to help us as we help our daughters through this family transition by respecting the private and personal nature of this change in our lives." Anne Elizabeth said that she would continue to support her husband's public service, and Wynn said he looks forward to a continued friendship and the support of his wife's "great works." Michael King
Schlotzsky's has hired a Dallas advertising agency, the Ward Group, to launch the deli's first 2005 national promotion, and recast the Austin-based deli in a new light under private ownership. The formerly publicly traded sandwich chain emerged from a messy Chapter 11 bankruptcy late last year after Dallas-based Bobby Cox Cos. acquired the company at auction. Amy Smith
City Hall lobbyist Sarah Crocker could brighten the dullest zoning meetings simply by showing up. But her red hair and colorful attire were no match for her bootstrap land-use expertise on some of Austin's most complex zoning cases. Crocker closed the book on her caseload this week to pursue a semiwhimsical new life in Washington, D.C. Crocker worked her way up from gofer to independent consultant, learning the intricacies of zoning from venerable land-use queen Betty Baker, who chairs the city Zoning and Platting Commission. Unlike most development lobbyists, Crocker worked both sides of zoning cases, taking on controversial developer clients (the reviled and now dead Gotham Lofts project on Town Lake comes to mind), as well as neighborhood groups seeking to prevent certain projects. Crocker leaves Austin with her reputation that of a user-friendly lobbyist in spite of her trade still intact. A.S.
Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos has filed legislation calling for the stretch of State Highway 130 that will run through Williamson and Travis counties to be named after Willie Nelson. Willie's portion of the turnpike is scheduled to open in late 2007. Amendments we'd like to suggest: Drivers who can successfully croon all the lyrics to "On the Road Again" get their toll waived; and every gas station on 130 must carry "BioWillie" fuel (see our Jan. 28 issue). L.N.
The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce last Thursday held the first annual Opportunity Austin Investors meeting, where they released the 2004 progress report for the five-year Opportunity Austin campaign, initiated in 2003 to create 72,000 jobs and bring $14 billion to the area. To date, the Chamber credits the campaign with adding 6,100 jobs and a $249 million payroll boost, plus the relocation of 31 companies to the area. In addition, the Chamber unveiled its new "Do Business" Web site, providing relocation info about Austin. The event's keynote speaker, Gov. Rick Perry, announced his request that the Legislature establish a $300 million emerging technology fund, saying, "We need to be able to identify those emerging technologies being created in laboratories for us to become one of the premier states where this emerging technology needs to occur." Perry did not specify whether that meant clean energy production, which chamber President Kirk Watson has been pushing as part of the OA initiative. Daniel Mottola
The UT Student Labor Action Project (you figure out the acronym) abandoned a drive to get Taco Bell kicked out of the student union. The group, which launched a boycott of the chain in 2003, turned tail when they saw the Texas Union Board planned not to boot The Bell but to recommend a "compromise": a ban on companies that get their tomatoes from Six L's Packing Company, whose alleged mistreatment of farm workers is the cause of the boycott. Since the Taco Bell franchise at the union doesn't get its tomatoes from Six L's, the compromise would have no tangible effect and gut the whole point of targeting Taco Bell in the first place, which is to convince the corporate giant to pressure all packing companies to treat their workers better. R.P.M.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the execution of juvenile offenders; as a result, 28 offenders on Texas' death row will be transferred to other units where they will serve life sentences. (Theoretically, since Texas has no true life-without-parole option, the inmates serving commuted sentences would be eligible for parole after serving 35 years in prison. But in practice, the chances of that happening are slim at best.) In a 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority that the practice violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Texas is one of 19 states that authorized the death penalty for offenders under 18. Among those who are likely to make it off the row is Robert Springsteen IV, who was sentenced to death in Travis Co. court in connection with the infamous 1991 yogurt shop murders in North Austin. J.S.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was in Washington, D.C., on March 2 to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the state's bid to keep a monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Capitol. The high court agreed to hear an appeal brought by homeless attorney Thomas Van Orden, alongside another similar appeal from Kentucky. Van Orden has argued that the placement of the monument donated by the Fraternal Order of Eagles in 1961 on the grounds has the effect of endorsing Judaism and Christianity to the exclusion of all other faiths. On Wednesday, Abbott argued in defense of the Big 10. The state accepted the statue to commend the Eagles' work with children, Abbott said in a press release, and it was placed on the grounds to "acknowledge the Ten Commandments' historical impact on American and Texan law and culture." (For more on Van Orden's case see, "Thou Shalt Not Sue?" Dec. 6, 2002.) J.S.
A bill that seeks to limit the amount of influence one individual can have on the political process (think Houston home-builder Bob Perry) was filed this week by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, with Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama signing on as co-author. HB 1104 would establish an aggregate limit of $100,000 on the amount a person can contribute, and how much a candidate can receive, during a single election cycle. In the 2002 cycle, for example, nearly half of all political contributions came from fewer than 400 donors, according to a study conducted by Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics. "Texas is one of only 10 states that places no restrictions on how much a person can give to political candidates," Villarreal said. "So we have created a system where a handful of wealthy special-interest donors have a clear advantage in the political process." A.S.
In the game of inside baseball, gay rights activists are claiming a 6-2 lead midway through the legislative session. The Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas points to six gay-friendly bills filed to date, including three news ones, vs. two anti-gay marriage bills, one of which has legs. New legislation filed by LGRL allies in the House includes a comprehensive civil rights bill (HB 1515, by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San San Antonio); a state employment nondiscrimination bill (HB 1526, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin), and a bill prohibiting insurance companies from determining coverage based on sexual orientation or gender identity (HB 1557, Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas). In other LGRL developments, more than 70 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students from across Texas converged on the Capitol on Monday to hone their lobbying skills on legislators and urge the passage of the Dignity for All Students Act (HB 376 and SB 201). A.S.
According to a report released Feb. 23 by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the nation's publicly funded forensic crime labs ended 2002 with more than 500,000 backlogged requests for analysis a 70% increase from the beginning of the year. The study of 351 federal, state, and local labs during 2003 and 2004 is the first publicly funded census of lab operations. Together, the labs studied employ more than 9,000 employees and process nearly 2.5 million requests for forensic analysis each year including DNA, fingerprint, ballistics, and drug analyses. Not surprisingly, over one million of those requests were for analysis of controlled substances; only about 2% were for DNA analysis. For the full report, see www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/cpffcl02.htm. J.S.
UT-Austin holds its sixth annual "Explore UT: The Biggest Open House in Texas!" 11am-5pm on Saturday, March 5. More than 30,000 visitors are expected to participate in a day of free hands-on activities, performances, demonstrations, and lectures, and explore every corner of the campus. Free. Call 232-1229 or 471-7330 for info; for a complete schedule, see www.utexas.edu/events/exploreut.
Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project and a faculty member at the LBJ School, will speak to the Dripping Springs Democrats on Sunday, March 6, at 3pm on the patio of the Nutty Brown Cafe (on 290 West at Nutty Brown Road) on the topic of "Bringing Democracy Back to the People." Free, but RSVP to email@example.com. More info at assi.assi.net/dsdems.
The Multicultural Information Center and the Gender and Sexuality Center of UT will present Pam Chamberlain of Political Research Associates, on Tuesday, March 8, at 3pm, in the Student Services Building, 100 Dean Keeton. Chamberlain will present findings from a recently released report, "Deliberate Differences: Progressive and Conservative Activism on U.S. Campuses." For info, call 232-9587 or 232-4680.
Two separate conferences will explore the future of Texas water resources this weekend: On Friday, Environmental Defense will hold a conference on desalination, brush management, conservation, and other ways to create "new" water resources at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 9am-4pm, $35; details at www.texaswatermatters.org. A bit further afield, the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance is holding a three-day conference from Friday to Sunday in San Antonio. The shindig focuses on thinking and planning regionally to protect a really, really big aquifer, and includes fun social events like a picnic and a Saturday night H2O-down. For more info, visit www.aquiferalliance.org or call 389-0215 or 210/320-6294.