Naked City

 Attorney Cris Feldman may have looked cheerful 
walking into the courtroom last week, but he kept his 
game face on when cross-examining witnesses in the 
campaign finance trial that pitted his clients – five 
Democrats – against Tom DeLay's powerful Texans 
for a Republican Majority. TRMPAC is the target of 
both the civil claim, and an ongoing criminal 
investigation into its use of corporate money to help 
secure a GOP majority in the state Legislature. House 
Speaker Tom Craddick, who also benefited from the 
PAC's efforts, was equally cheerful after his attorneys 
brokered a deal that kept him from having to testify. 
For more, see <a href=http://www.austinchronicle.com/
issues/dispatch/2005-03-11/pols_lege.html target=
blank>On the Lege</a> and <a href=http://
www.austinchronicle.com/issues/dispatch/2005-03-11/
pols_naked4.html>Taylor's TRMPAC 
Thunder</a>.
Attorney Cris Feldman may have looked cheerful walking into the courtroom last week, but he kept his game face on when cross-examining witnesses in the campaign finance trial that pitted his clients – five Democrats – against Tom DeLay's powerful Texans for a Republican Majority. TRMPAC is the target of both the civil claim, and an ongoing criminal investigation into its use of corporate money to help secure a GOP majority in the state Legislature. House Speaker Tom Craddick, who also benefited from the PAC's efforts, was equally cheerful after his attorneys brokered a deal that kept him from having to testify. For more, see "On the Lege" and "Taylor's TRMPAC Thunder." (Photo By Jana Birchum)


Quote of the Week

"Being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog."
– Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle, on CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday.

Headlines

• The House bills on public school finance and property taxes went to the House floor, with passage expected this week. See "Beyond City Limits."

• Austin Police Chief Stan Knee handed down punishments to 10 APD employees for inappropriate comments regarding the fire that destroyed the Midtown Live nightclub, including the now-infamous "burn baby, burn" text message. See "Police Officers Burned by Comments."

• The Austin City Council approved funding for an independent study of the Central Texas toll road plan after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization refused to do so. See "Point Austin."

• The TRMPAC campaign finance trial concluded Friday. See "On the Lege." and "Taylor's TRMPAC Thunder."

• Filings for the May 7 municipal election closed on Monday. Fourteen candidates filed for the three City Council seats up for grabs.


Austin Stories

• Too broke to hit the beach for spring break? The Texas Moratorium Network and the local chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty are holding an Anti-Death Penalty Alternative Spring Break here in Austin March 12-17. For those who need it, housing is $25 for the week, but otherwise, the event is free. Featured activities include live March 12 phone calls from a California death row inmate and 2001 Noble Peace Prize nominee Stanley "Tookie" Williams, recognized for his children's books, and his efforts to stop youth gang violence. Participants will spend part of March 15 at a rally at the Capitol, and the afternoon of March 16 protesting at the Governor's Mansion the scheduled execution of death row inmate Pablo Melendez. Workshops are scheduled throughout the week, including one with Walter Long, a leader of the recent, successful push to get rid of the death penalty for juvenile offenders. See www.texasmoratorium.org for more info. – Cheryl Smith

• The Austin City Council voted last Thursday to establish a financial incentive program for plug-in hybrid flex-fuel vehicles, which the city will begin testing in late 2006. The city wants to buy a large number of plug-ins, which can go all day on a single charge – without using any petroleum. The project, developed by Austin Energy, seeks to electrify the transportation grid and in a broader context, unify the transportation and utility sectors. In conjunction with Austin Energy's GreenChoice program, the project seeks to both reduce emissions and fuel consumption, and also take advantage of GreenChoice's peak supply of West Texas winds by plugging the vans in at night when the winds are strongest. Austin will try to influence the 50 largest cities in the country to institute similar plug-in programs in order to actually create a nationwide market for the vehicles before they hit showrooms. – Daniel Mottola

• Adding to the many reasons why it's wise to conserve water, the name of one Austinite who participated in the city's 2004 Water Conservation Program will be selected in a drawing Friday to win a brand-new 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. This is the second year in a row First Texas Honda has partnered with the city to give away a new car, an event designed to promote conscientious water use, reduce consumption, and slow the pace at which water treatment and distribution plants must be expanded or developed. Become eligible to take part in next year's drawing by participating in one of the following programs: Free Toilet Replacement, Rainbarrel Purchase, Water Wise Landscaping Rebate, or the Water Conservation Seminar, among others. See www.cityofaustin.org/watercon for more info. – D.M.

• Following in the grand tradition of rapid principal burnout, Johnston High School principal Tabita Gutierrez has announced that she'll retire at the end of the year. Although Gutierrez lasted a full two years at the troubled Eastside school, which has averaged a principal a year for more than a decade, her tenure was not exactly smooth. She was named in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a former Johnston teacher who was transferred away from the school against her will; the allegations surrounding the case suggested that Gutierrez had clashed with others on the Johnston staff. In any case, AISD's planned redesign of Johnston into three autonomous academies with separate leaders already spelled a job change in Gutierrez's future. Starting next fall, the role of principal will be replaced by a "campus academic officer" who will advise the three "academy administrators" as they develop their mini-schools; after an initial transition period, the CAO position is slated to be phased out entirely. – Rachel Proctor May


Beyond City Limits

• Republicans in the Texas House are well on the way to pushing through the first of two school finance bills on Wednesday. House Bill 2 doesn't have a lot of money to offer, so the Republicans made sure to cut their deals early. To get the rural Republicans on board, the leadership agreed to shift transportation funding from urban to rural school districts. To get the suburban Republicans, they promised to relax the recapture cap to give property-wealthy school districts like Highland Park and Eanes the right to keep more money than the rest. And just to sweeten the deal for everyone, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, offered up a substitute amendment to pass an average $3,000 teacher pay raise that reflected more an intent to spend the bulk of new money on pay raises, rather than an actual pot of money for the pay raise. Republicans face tougher issues on HB 3, which came out of the Legislative Budget Board with a fiscal note that lower-income Texans would pay more of the burden of the proposed property-tax-cut bill. – Kimberly Reeves

• The environmentalist Hill Country Alliance is claiming a small victory after the Travis Co. Commissioners Court announced the introduction of interim rules addressing water quality in the Lake Travis watershed. Last month, the Lower Colorado River Authority released plans to extend surface water lines west of Bee Cave to the Lazy 9 Municipal Utility District, giving life to the Sweetwater Ranch development and its 3,000 proposed new homes. HCA members immediately objected to the plans, citing the LCRA's failure to include stringent environmental protections the HCA had recommended. The LCRA lines would have also pre-empted several regional planning initiatives currently establishing water quality measures for the area. The interim rules, if approved, will create greater environmental safeguards sought by the HCA, specifying water pollution controls before, during, and after development. The court will vote on the rules next Tuesday. – D.M.

• If Bee Cave residents had any remaining hope of local officials slowing the pace of development in their Hill Country village, legislation filed this week would not only dash those hopes but stick them with the tab. SB 1022, filed Monday by Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, would create a Bee Cave Development District designed to promote and maintain commerce, transportation, and tourism, among other features. The timing of the bill couldn't be better for developer Chris Milam, whose supersized Hill Country Galleria mall project gained approval Tuesday night from the local Board of Aldermen. Another Milam retail project, Shops at the Galleria, is under construction across SH 71. As part of the deal, Milam has agreed to widen a portion of the highway and make other road improvements. Both projects have met loud resistance from residents and the SOS Alliance, which opposes such large-scale developments in the Barton Springs Watershed. The proposed taxing district caught many by surprise. "It looks like Milam and company are trying to create this special developer taxing district to avoid having to pay for the new Galleria Parkway on their own," said SOS spokesman Colin Clark, referring to a bypass road that Milam will need to build between RM 620 and RM 224. – Amy Smith

• The Senate Finance Committee has rejected a $15 million funding request from the Texas AIDS Drug Assistance Program – a lifeline for thousands of low-income HIV-positive Texans. The program, administered through the Texas Department of State Health Services, provides HIV/AIDS prescription drugs to those who can least afford them. The committee's rejection of the funding request followed recent government reports showing nearly half of all infected people in the U.S. are not getting the HIV drugs they need. The same studies show that the infection rate has doubled among African-Americans in the last 10 years. A similar racial gap holds in Travis Co., where 2003 state data shows the infection rate among blacks five times greater than that of whites. Senate committee members turned down the requested funding on March 3, but the action drew little attention until the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas started making noise about it. LGRL Executive Director Randall Ellis called the decision a mistake that would cost hundreds of lives and burden counties and local taxpayers to pick up the slack. – A.S.

• Rep. Todd Baxter, R-Austin, won some Libertarian props this week with a bill that would eliminate the pesky "primary screenout" provision of the state's election code. The existing law prohibits primary election voters from signing ballot-access petitions for political parties or independent candidates. Baxter's legislation would make it easier for indie hopefuls like gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman to secure a place on the ballot in 2006. It would make Texas the last state in the U.S. to drop the provision, according to Patrick Dixon, state chair of the Libertarian Party of Texas, which collected more than 82,000 signatures in 2004 to get on the November ballot, while the Green Party, Constitution Party, and Ralph Nader failed to secure enough signatures. "When voters participated in the Republican and Democratic primaries, nobody told them that they lost their right to sign a petition," Dixon said. "We had to turn away voters that wanted to exercise their freedom of speech." HB 1721 is pending in the House Elections Committee. – A.S.

• President Bush has done a compete turnaround regarding the fate of 51 Mexican nationals on death row in Texas. Last year, the International Court of Justice ruled that the U.S. government had failed to comply with the Vienna Convention by not informing the Mexican Consulate of the inmates' death row status and ordered that Texas courts provide a new hearing to consider whether those violations impacted the trials. At the time, the Bush administration objected to both the World Court's jurisdiction and its findings. But on Monday, President Bush issued an executive order stating: "I have determined … that the United States will discharge its international obligations … by having state courts give effect to the decision." This order requires the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to grant review of each of the 51 cases regardless of any procedural hurdles that might have existed. – Rita Radostitz


Happenings

• Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas' biennial March on Austin will take place Sunday and end with a rally at the Capitol – timed to coincide with the Legislature's busiest season, when the fate of both pro- and anti-gay bills are likely to be determined in committee. The march begins at noon at Riverside and Congress and proceeds north to arrive at the south steps of the Capitol at about 1pm. The troops will return to the Capitol on Monday to lobby lawmakers on LGRL-related issues. For details, call 474-5475 or see www.lgrl.org.
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