Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
Quote of the Week"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the [Intelligent Design] Policy. ... The breathtaking inanity of the board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."
U.S. District Judge John E. Jones in last week's ruling on Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District
Headlines With much of the city still on holiday, City Council not scheduled to meet again until Jan. 12, and hundreds of movers and shakers heading to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, local attention is focused on football and First Night, beginning Saturday afternoon and running 'til midnight.
UT's Christmas stocking held only a lump of coal from the U.S. Department of Energy, as the incumbent University of California, partnering with Bechtel Corp., was chosen over the team of UT/Lockheed Martin Corp. to run the Los Alamos National Nuclear Lab. The lab has been plagued with security, safety, and morale problems in recent years. UT Chancellor Mark Yudof wished the winners the best of luck, but U.S. Rep. Joe Barton scowled and demanded a Congressional review. See below in "Beyond City Limits."
The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals rejected U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's request for a speedy trial on money laundering charges in the Texans for a Republican Majority indictments brought by Travis Co. DA Ronnie Earle. The trial has been delayed by Earle's appeal of a lower court dismissal of one conspiracy count against DeLay. At press time, DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin was appealing to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, hoping for either a speedy resolution or else an outright dismissal of all charges.
While Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spent the Christmas holiday feeding steak, lobster tail, and photo ops to U.S. troops, the Bush administration continued to defend its unwarranted spying on American telephones and the "I" word impeachment was dimly heard throughout the land. The New Year brings congressional hearings on the National Security Agency eavesdropping, Senate hearings on the Supreme Court appointment of Judge Samuel Alito, and continuing hostilities in Iraq, with a small cutback in U.S. troops and an increasing emphasis on bombing attacks. See "Bringing the War Home."
Naked City You almost need a program to keep up with the House District 48 campaigns leading up to a special election Jan. 17. No sooner had Republican Robert Reynolds filed his candidacy last week than he dropped out of the race all in a span of two days. Reynolds told the Statesman that he opted out of the race for family reasons, but a persistent buzz held that the GOP power brokers either sweet-talked or strong-armed Reynolds off the playing field to give their choice candidate, former Dell executive Ben Bentzin, a clearer shot at winning. Still, the field is just crowded enough to give Bentzin a run for his money and force him into a run-off with one of two Democrats Donna Howard or Kathy Rider. Of the two, Howard appears to be in the lead in terms of fundraising and support from notable local yokels. The added presence of Libertarian candidate Ben Easton could also shake things up a bit, at least from a vote-getting perspective. Early voting runs Jan. 3-13. Polling locations (not yet posted at press time) can be found at www.co.travis.tx.us. Amy Smith
Judge Jim Coronado, the Travis County criminal district court magistrate, has filed as a Democratic candidate for the Place 2 post on the 3rd Court of Criminal Appeals. Coronado is a director of the State Bar of Texas, where he sits on the executive committee. He was a founding member and president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas and national vice president of the Hispanic National Bar Association. The Place 2 seat on the appeals court was previously held by Justice Mack Kidd, a Democrat, who died earlier this year. In August, Gov. Rick Perry appointed Alan Waldrop to serve out the remainder of Kidd's term. Waldrop hopes to keep the seat and filed his candidacy last week with the state Republican Party. Until his appointment, Waldrop had been a lobbyist with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the deep-pocketed group that led the state's tort reform measure. A.S.
Beyond City Limits In what could be one of the highest turnover rates for legislators in recent memory, another veteran lawmaker is hanging up his spurs. Senior Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, announced last week that he would not seek re-election in 2006. Armbrister had been rumored to be retiring from the state Senate seat he first won in 1986, after serving two terms in the House. The conservative Democrat chairs the Texas Senate's Natural Resources Committee and has carried a number of Austin-bashing bills on behalf of developers looking to skirt local environmental laws. While fewer lawmakers are opting out of seeking re-election on the Senate side, more than a dozen House members many of them powerful committee chairs have said they would bail out once their terms end next year. In the House particularly, Republicans and Democrats alike bemoan that making sausage just isn't fun anymore, now that partisan politics has become a blood sport under the current GOP leadership. Armbrister has not said what he will do after leaving office. A.S.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has appointed nine state senators to serve on a select committee on school finance. The panel of six Republicans and three Democrats will make recommendations to the full Senate on a plan that ideally would add resources to classrooms, cut property taxes, and close business tax loopholes. The committee will act independently of another panel assembled by Gov. Rick Perry to study tax structure changes. The Senate and House initially planned to form a joint committee on school finance, but House Speaker Tom Craddick changed his mind after a Texas Supreme Court ruling on the state's long-running school finance case. Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, will lead the Senate committee, which includes Sens. Kip Averitt, R-McGregor; Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville; Steve Ogden, R-Bryan; Royce West, D-Dallas; and Tommy Williams, R-the Woodlands. Perry is expected to call a special session on school finance after the March primary elections. A.S.
In what is hopefully not an omen of things to come in Pasadena, Texas, lost to California this week, when the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the $512 million contract to manage the Los Alamos National Laboratory to the University of California at Berkeley. Berkeley had been running the show at the nation's nuclear lab for 60 years, but this year Congress decided that six decades without a competitive bid was just long enough. Over the protests of burnt-orange peaceniks who wanted to keep the university nuke-free, and after much backing and forthing about whether or not it would go ahead with the bid, UT finally teemed up with Lockheed Martin, the Bethesda, Md.-based weapons contractor, to write its ultimately losing bid. Nonproliferation watchdogs welcomed the decision. Opponents of the bid liked the decision as well, but raised concerns over Berkeley's partnering with San Francisco-based Bechtel, a private corporation the nation's nuclear lab, they say, is no place for a profit motive and over what we're doing stockpiling nukes anymore, anyway. Rachel Proctor May
The city of Tomball has adopted a new nondiscrimination policy and has agreed to have groups that rent city property for public events sign a "contract of nondiscrimination" as conditions of settling a federal civil rights suit brought by three activists and the Texas Civil Rights Project. The agreement brings to end a lawsuit filed earlier this year after members of the KKK on June 11 refused to allow Corey Irving and Chris O'Toole, who are black, and Rona Smith, who is Jewish, into a KKK event at the city-owned Tomball Community Center because of their race and religion. "We stood up for our rights and won," O'Toole said. "Now everybody can be treated fairly and equally and the KKK won't get away with legalized segregation." Jordan Smith
What's the difference between finding a pebble in your soup and a turd in your eggs? Nothing, if you're a Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate. At least that appears to be the opinion of federal Magistrate Judge Judith Guthrie, who ruled Dec. 8 that David Trevino, an inmate at TDCJ's Michael Unit, could not bring a federal civil rights case against the prison based on "the deprivation of a single meal because it purportedly contained feces," she wrote. According to paperwork filed by Trevino, correction officers at the prison tainted his food with feces as part of a series of ongoing harassing incidents. In dismissing Trevino's case, Guthrie acknowledged that the law provides that the prison system must "furnish its prisoners with reasonably adequate food," that is "well balanced and containing nutritional value to preserve health." However, she noted further, the fact that food "occasionally contains foreign objects" does not amount to a "constitutional deprivation." In short, she said that, if the guards had indeed put feces in Trevino's food, and, presumably, even if he could prove it which he couldn't, because he didn't save the evidence "the allegations can be viewed as an isolated prank" and thus merely an "isolated incident of non-remarkable proportions." J.S.
Gov. Rick Perry granted two pardons for innocence on Dec. 22 after DNA testing proved the two individuals were not guilty. Perry granted the pardons for Keith Edward Turner and Entre Nax Karage based upon the Board of Pardons and Paroles' unanimous recommendations. Turner was convicted in 1983 for a Dallas County rape and sentenced to 20 years in prison; DNA testing was not available at the time of his conviction. Karage was convicted in 1997 for the murder in Dallas of his 14-year-old girlfriend and was sentenced to life in prison. The Dallas Co. trial court ordered his release from prison in March 2004, however, after DNA found on the girlfriend's body matched that of a convicted sex offender. J.S.
Social service providers are worried that the Health and Human Services Commission's refusal, so far, to seek a federal waiver on processing applications through its new call centers could mean an unwarranted delay in the processing of food stamp applications. Under federal law, a food stamp application is valid the moment it is signed, but that validity is in limbo until a signature or, in the case of the application over the Internet, an e-signature is affixed to the form. The state's new application process, which will rely heavily on phone calls to call centers, won't have that luxury. The agency says it is still working out the details with the US Department of Agriculture to approve "telephonic signatures" and, signature or not, the overall processing of food stamp applications will be quicker for needy families under the new system. Social service providers, led by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, say the state has turned down an easy waiver being offered by USDA and that any delay in the date the application is "stamped" as signed means a delay in the effective date and cuts to family benefits. The state's new call centers, which will roll out across regions of the state over the first 11 months of 2006, will begin operation in Austin-San Marcos in January. Kimberly Reeves
Congress took more than three months to pass an education funding package in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The $1.6 billion package, which addresses both K-12 and post-secondary education, will fund up to $6,000 per displaced student in public, private, and parochial schools. That voucherlike component sending federal dollars directly to private and parochial schools is a first for the federal government and was vehemently opposed by many in the public education lobby. Public education lobbyists, including the American Federation of Teachers, also protested the fact that private schools were given an edge in federal restart dollars. Instead of divvying up funding based upon the number of students or amount of devastation the original language of the Senate version of the bill funding will be divided strictly based upon the number of schools, regardless of how few students are enrolled in the school. In a statement after the bill's passage last week, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pledged to disburse the funding as quickly as possible. K.R.
Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a ruling last week that struck down a provision in recent legislation to designate legitimate low-cost Canadian pharmacies. An amendment to Senate Bill 410, passed last session by Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, would have empowered the state's pharmacy board to designate legitimate, versus fraudulent, Canadian pharmacies. Abbott's ruling said such a task would be facilitating the importation of drugs across the border, a violation of federal law. While the Texas Pharmacy Association applauded the move, saying it supported safe drugs, Hochberg called the ruling bad news for senior citizens. "Senior citizens are not going to wait for a permission slip from the Attorney General before they shop for prescription drugs they can afford," Hochberg said. "Our amendment to SB 410, which passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate and was signed by the Governor, helps seniors protect themselves from dangerous fraudulent suppliers." K.R.
In other AG news, the deficit-reduction bill just passed by Congress means Abbott's child-support division will lose almost a third of its funding starting in 2007, a measure that will most certainly mean agency job cuts if the state doesn't step up to fill in the gap. Cuts to state funding are estimated to be $70 million a year over the next three budget years, against an annual division budget of $230 million. Specifically, the cuts come from the elimination of federal match funds for incentive pay. That means the better a state performs its child support duties, the more cuts it faces. That especially irked Republican Abbott, who sent out a statement saying the new federal policy punished Texas for its success. The state agency will explore every possible option before turning to job cuts to handle the federal funding shortfall, spokeswoman Janece Rolfe said. K.R.
The Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute has named a new crop of directors to its board. They include Oliver Bell, CEO of Global Labor & Employment Strategies Inc., and member of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice; Jeff Bonham, lobbyist for CenterPoint Energy; Tim Dunn, CEO of Midland-based Crownquest Oil & Gas, LLC; Lisa Elledge, lobbyist for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; state Rep. Bill Keffer, R-Dallas; Diane Rath, chair, Texas Workforce Commission; John Riley, environmental lawyer (representing industry) with Vinson & Elkins, LLP; and Jared Wolfe, executive director of the Texas Association of Health Plans, an HMO lobbying group. The TCCRI promotes less government, free enterprise, and so-called traditional values. A.S.
What does Texans for Public Justice's Craig McDonald have in common with Mick Jagger and Cindy Sheehan? All three appear on Rolling Stone magazine's year-end list of 15 Mavericks of 2005 McDonald for mining mountains of documents and setting into motion the criminal investigation that led to the indictment of former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. "Craig is an extraordinarily determined investigator," Ralph Nader told Rolling Stone. McDonald prefers to share the credit with other campaign finance watchdogs who also brought the peculiar paper trail forward. "It takes a village to slay a dragon," he told the magazine. A.S.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett filed for re-election Tuesday at Texas Democratic Party headquarters for what will be the Austin Democrat's seventh term. Unlike his last run as a target of Tom DeLay's redistricting maneuvers, Doggett this time has a clear, easy shot at returning to his post in the oddly shaped 25th Congressional district. That's not to say he won't have a Republican opponent. First-time candidate and noninsider Edward Mokrzycki has filed to run for the seat. A.S.