Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Edited By Lee Nichols and Cheryl Smith, Fri., May 6, 2005
Quote of the Week"You can't legislate morality. This is a ridiculous bill. It's stupid and it's insulting. It's an embarrassment and indictment of this body that this kind of garbage has reached the floor of this House." Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, on a bill that would grant the Texas Education Agency power to regulate "sexually suggestive" cheerleading in public schools. The bill eventually passed, 65-56, but has no Senate sponsor.
Headlines The Willie Nelson Turnpike is dead. Austin state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos officially withdrew his bill to rename a portion of SH 130 for the Red-Headed Stranger after unpatriotic, Texas-hating Republican Sen. Jeff Wentworth opposed it on the grounds that Willie is a dope-smoking Democrat. Could we please get South Austin removed from his district?
This is it: Either you're a citizen or just a rubbernecking bystander. Municipal elections are this Saturday, May 7. For more info, see "Austin Stories," below; and The Chronicle's endorsements.
City Council candidate Lee Leffingwell announced he would return to the Place 1 campaign this week, after a week's hiatus following the April 22 death of his wife, Mary Lou McLain. See photo above.
As late money began to enter the council campaigns, charges flew over illegal or unethical contributions and the untoward influence of independent PACs. Place 4 candidate Wes Benedict filed suit against the Austin Police Association PAC and the Real Estate Council of Austin PAC, charging that RECA members were effectively "laundering" contributions by bundling them into the APA's campaign to support candidates Lee Leffingwell (Place 1), Gregg Knaupe (Place 3), and Betty Dunkerley (Place 4). See "Full Campaign Disclosure: Here Comes Late Money."
Down at the lege, campaign finance reform bit the dust once again, as a bill supported by more than 90 House members was scuttled by one of its sponsors, Austin GOP Rep. Terry Keel. Keel blamed the defeat of the bill a move to bring it out of the Elections Committee was overwhelmingly shot down on a Democratic attempt to embarrass Speaker Tom Craddick over the ongoing TRMPAC investigation. See "No Stinkin' Ethics."
President George W. Bush held his first formal press conference in more than a year. And Satan was reported to be shopping for ice skates.
Austin Stories A big spike in turnout on the last day of early voting Tuesday pushed Travis County to 5.44% turnout of registered voters for the ongoing municipal elections. Including mail-in ballots, 26,704 votes were cast early, 6,158 of them on the last day alone. Election day is Saturday, May 7; polls will be open 7am-7pm. Austin voters are deciding three City Council seats and whether to strengthen our anti-smoking ordinance to virtually all public buildings and whether to annex everything within the city limits into the Austin Community College taxing district. Go to www.traviscountytax.org/goVoters.do for a list of polling places and other info. L.N.
The endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo have more than 433 new acres of old-growth, juniper, and woodlands in which to nest. The Trust for Public Land recently acquired more property from landowner Thomas Penn, whose family had already transferred several hundred acres of their Hill Country land to the trust. The new parcel will be incorporated into the 46,000-acre Balcones National Wildlife Refuge, 30 miles northwest of Austin. Last week, TPL transferred the property over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which purchased the land with money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. The Balcones National Wildlife Refuge was specifically created in 1992 to conserve the habitat of endangered songbirds that migrate annually to the area from Mexico and Central America. Both the Golden-Cheeked Warbler and the Black-Capped Vireo are listed as endangered species, largely due to a loss of Central Texas habitat resulting from residential and commercial development. C.S.
City Council approved a resolution last Thursday to adopt a Community Preservation and Revitalization Zone Program for a large section of East Austin. Council members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas were behind the resolution as well as the program itself, which would offer property tax rebates to businesses that locate in the area between I-35, Manor Road, Riverside Drive, and U.S. 183. The area's poverty and unemployment rates are about twice as high as those of the city as a whole, Alvarez said, so the program's rebates would be partially linked to job creation within the zone, and to the amount of new commercial space within the zone being developed. The city has held several public hearings over the past few months in order to receive input from revitalization-zone residents, among others, on the plan. The resolution, which passed 7-0, directs City Manager Toby Futrell to report back to council in 90 days on affordable housing and small business development strategies for the revitalization-zone area. C.S.
Ron Oliveira didn't stay out of the TV news game for long. Two months after leaving KVUE, Oliveira, 49, one of the most recognizable faces on local television, has signed up with CBS affiliate KEYE, where he will join former KVUE anchors Fred Cantú and Judy Maggio in an all-star lineup of veteran local news readers. "To make a championship team, you need great players, and adding Ron gives us the opportunity to win championships," said KEYE general manager Mike Reed. Oliveira likely won't appear on the air for KEYE until March 2006, due to a one-year no-compete clause in his KVUE contract, although stranger things have happened in the TV news game. No-compete clauses are often challenged. It's also unclear what his role will be, considering Cantú and Maggio currently team for the main newscasts. There is speculation that Cantú may be moved to mornings, where he was successful at KVUE. "Right now we don't know what the configuration will be," Reed said. Kevin Brass
AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione offered a compromise to the debate over whether the prevailing wage scale the district adopts for contracted workers on bond-funded construction projects should include money for benefits. Forgione proposed the district spend $9.8 million of the bond's $50 million contingency fund to pay an extra $1.36 to every worker, which they could use to buy a basic HMO package. The survey of wages and benefits the district used to put together the wage scale but which they now say could eat up most or all of the contingency fund and potentially cause the district to run out of money with schools unfinished included much higher benefit packages, however, so several workers were skeptical of the $1.36 figure. "I'm not sure what type of coverage it will buy," said electrician David Abramson. His health insurance, to cover his whole family, works out to $3.65 an hour. Ironworker Ira Crofford said benefits should mean more than just health insurance, like apprenticeship programs that teach high school grads skilled trades. "To heck with that kid who didn't go to college, that's what Dr. Forgione said tonight," Crofford said. Rachel Proctor May
The Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District has hired Kirk Holland as its new general manager and chief operating officer. The Austinite is a professional hydrogeologist, environmental scientist, and management specialist who was associated with the environmental services company Radian International for 24 years, 15 as a corporate vice-president. He holds a B.S. in geology from the University of Tennessee and a masters from UT, specializing in the karst geology typical of the Texas Hill Country. L.N.
In a fairly anticlimactic moment, the City Council authorized staff to "negotiate" (but not yet execute) contracts covering the sale of Block 21 and the hiring of a development team to work with the city on the transformation of the Seaholm tract, both part of the Second Street revitalization plan (rechristened here by Council Member Brewster McCracken as Austin's potential answer to San Francisco's "Embarcadero District"). As anticipated, Block 21 will go to a team led by Stratus Corp., which offered $15 million ($6 million higher than any of the competing teams), although the price drops to $10 million if a subsidized nonprofit entity is included in the plans, as the city prefers. The Seaholm project went to the Seaholm Power group, headed by Southwest Strategies both projects will return to the council after further work between the bidders and city staff. Michael King
In the unofficial opening of the budget process, city staff delivered a preliminary budget forecast to the City Council last Thursday, sounding generally optimistic about rising income from sales and property taxes, less so about certain "cost drivers" such as public safety expenses and increases in employee wages and health insurance. The city manager expects to propose an initial budget still several million in the red, but with hopes of being able to find funds to restore some of the previously reduced library hours as well as certain social services. M.K.
Happenings On Friday, May 6, a conference will be held at UT, 9am-4pm, on race and politics in Britain and the U.S. Diasporic Dialogues: Race and Politics Across the Black Atlantic. Caryl Phillips, Gary Younge, and Jayne Ifekwunigwe are the featured guests. The conference is being held at the Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletics Center (immediately south of Royal-Memorial Stadium), Rm. 1.210. 471-4413 or www.thirdcoastactivist.org for more info.
A community forum, Viviendo Saludablemente (Healthy Living), will be held Saturday, May 7, 11:30am-3pm in conjunction with the Cinco de Mayo music festival at the Fiesta Gardens Plaza, 2101 Bergman Avenue. Free and open to the public. Mr. Natural will offer an assortment of free, healthy snacks; the UT Health Sciences Center at San Antonio will conduct activities for children; the Austin Health Connection will offer free health screenings for blood sugar, blood pressure, and pregnancy, as well as childhood immunizations (parent or guardian must be present with an immunization card); and the Clinical Laboratory Science Program of Texas State University and Austin Community College will offer screenings for anemia. Call 237-9547 for more info.
It's Cover the Uninsured Week! (And Women's Health Week and National Foster Care Month!) Health care advocates and medical professionals have spent the week fundraising, praying, and caring for our uninsured brothers and sisters. On Saturday, Seton Healthcare Network's Insure-a-Kid staff will conduct free health care eligibility screenings for uninsured families who may be able to get medical assistance or join another type of health insurance program. "Here in Texas, 5.4 million people are without adequate health care coverage," said Sister Helen Brewer, a Seton advocacy consultant. "It is our hope that this week will give us the opportunity to not only raise awareness of the issue but also to build support for finding solutions to this problem." The screenings are 10am-2pm at Fiesta Mart at 38th and I-35. 324-2447 for more info.
Tom Mast, author of Over a Barrel: A Simple Guide to the Oil Shortage, will talk about why alternatives to oil are so important May 7, 2pm at Barnes & Noble Round Rock, I-35 and FM 1325. 600-0114 or www.overabarrelbook.com for more info.
Spiritual and financial supporters of People's Community Clinic will celebrate the clinic's 35 years of service at a fundraiser/luncheon on Monday, May 9, at the Renaissance Austin Hotel, 9721 Arboretum Blvd. The clinic, one of the oldest independent facilities of its kind in the nation, provides health care to low-income and uninsured children and adults. Texas Monthly Editor Evan Smith will emcee the event; Austin writer Sarah Bird will offer a former patient's perspective; former Mayor Kirk Watson will deliver the keynote address, and Clarke Heidrick, chair of the Travis Co. Hospital District Board of Managers, will present the 2005 W. Neal Kocurek Award for Healthcare Advocacy. Tickets are $100. 322-5135 x610 or www.pcclinic.org for more info.