"Voters are in a foul mood and highly frustrated with the inability or unwillingness of this crowd [the GOP-led Legislature] to get the job done." Democratic consultant Kelly Fero on why Democrats in Tuesday's special election took 60% of the votes in a House District (48) drawn up for an easy GOP victory
Quote of the Week
In the state House District 48 special election held Tuesday, Democrat Donna Howard and Republican Ben Bentzin are headed for a run-off, after Howard came just shy of winning the four-candidate race outright with 45.47% of the vote. Gov. Rick Perry is expected to set a run-off date some time in the next month. See "Howard Surprises Bentzin, Leads Into Run-Off."
The March primary election campaigns began to heat up, as candidates began holding kickoff parties and staking out positions, with some interesting internecine combat expected on both sides of the partisan lines. For a preview of Central Texas and selected statewide races, see "2006 State Races."
Gov. Rick Perry said he expects to call a special legislative session in April or May, after the March primaries and before the June 1 deadline set by the state Supreme Court for fixing the school finance system. Perry said he did not expect public school vouchers would be on the session agenda.
On Monday, thousands of Austinites marched and rallied in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The FBI announced it has opened an investigation into last June's fatal shooting of Daniel Rocha by an APD officer, concerning any civil rights violations that may have occurred. Rocha was shot during a struggle with two police officers, as he tried to flee a traffic stop.
Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality stamped the nation's first "ready for reuse" determination on Seaholm Power Plant. In giving the site a clean bill of health, the groups expedited Sealholm's ambitious redevelopment, which will begin this summer in the hands of Austin's Southwest Strategies. Designers want to incorporate the art deco-inspired shell of the plant in its new incarnation, yet extensive clean-up work was required on the 1950s-era plant, decommissioned in 2000. Following removal of asbestos, lead-based paint, and PCBs, Seaholm is now the country's first site designated "ready for reuse" under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act. Seaholm Power, LLC, an ad hoc design group led by Southwest Strategies, submitted the winning redesign entry out of a four-group field. Because the city solicited development concepts for the site, and not concrete proposals, Seaholm's final shape is still somewhat nebulous; but it will be a transit-oriented development, with a mix of residential and retail space, and perhaps the future home of KLRU (along with its Austin City Limits set) and the Texas Music Hall of Fame. Seaholm Power hopes to begin its work in June. Wells Dunbar
Austin Energy wants to be fair and give everyone in the city an equal opportunity to become a GreenChioce 100% renewable energy customer now that the nation's top-selling clean energy program actually costs less than the utility's conventional energy. A raffle for the approximately 1,500 residential and 200 business subscriptions, whose energy rates will remain fixed for 10 years, will begin this week and remain open through the end of February. Applicants can only enter by sending in a postcard; by Friday, AE plans to have supplies of the entry postcards at area HEB and Whole Foods Market locations, as well as at the city's 17 recreation centers and three senior centers, or send your own postcard with name, address, and electric account number to Austin Energy GreenChoice, 721 Barton Springs Rd., Austin, TX 78704. Daniel Mottola
Time to dust off those sleeping bags, AISD parents: Feb. 4 commences the annual transfer scramble, in which parents line up overnight to get their school transfer requests at the top of the teetering pile. AISD begins accepting transfer requests at 7am that Saturday morning, with priority going to students with a transferred sibling, or to students who are moving from a school where they're in the ethnic majority to one where they're in the minority. Another priority is "tracking" those students who already have transfers to the next grade. Transfers are very popular, so check www.austinisd.org to make sure you're not hoping for one of the 33 schools that are already closed to transfers for lack of space. And, do take a look at what your neighborhood school has to offer before stampeding off after the crowd. Rachel Proctor May
In other AISD news, more than 200 people packed the Carver Center for a hearing on No Child Left Behind, hosted by the Public Education Network, Austin Voices For Education and Youth, and other community groups. NCLB, which turns 5 this year, is perhaps best known for upping the stakes of standardized tests through a system of escalating interventions for schools where too many students fail their tests, and responses to it vary widely. Champions praise it as a way to force schools to meet the needs of all students; critics blame it for a mind-numbing, test-centered curriculum and suspect it as a tool to dismantle public education. Thursday's hearing was one of 10 held across the nation; testimony will be collected into a report and delivered to the White House and Congress. Missed your chance to testify? PEN is still collecting opinions online at www.givekidsgoodschools.org. R.P.M.
Also, AISD Superintendent Pat Forgione proposed Tuesday that the district launch three new centers for pre-K education and two new "concept" schools over the next two years. All it will cost is "repurposing" four AISD facilities that will cease to exist in their current incarnations: The early childhood centers will be housed in Becker and Oak Springs elementaries as well as the Lucy Read school, which is now used for professional development, while Porter Middle will house a Young Women's Leadership Academy and a high school focusing on global studies and foreign languages. While trustees praised the overall idea and acknowledged that AISD's many underenrolled campuses are an inefficient use of space and dollars, they criticized Forgione for not engaging more with the neighborhoods that stand to lose schools. A handful of parents from the Becker neighborhood attended Tuesday's meeting agreed and vowed to let the wrath of 78704 be known at a forum at Becker on Thursday, Jan. 19 at 6pm. The board will again take up the issue Jan. 23 and Feb. 6 before taking final action later that month. R.P.M.
One of the first, largest steps in meeting the African American Quality of Life study's health initiatives is here: This Saturday sees the opening of the Far North Community Health Center, at 928 Blackson Ave. The center's grand-opening festivities take place from 10am-1pm, and include giveaways, refreshments, a clinic-naming contest, and, most importantly, health screenings from the Health and Human Services mobile van, as well as children's Texas Health Steps exams. For little or no cost, the center is accepting new patients, as well as offering prenatal care, women's and children's health care, and more. W.D.
Starting Saturday, thousands of low-income Texas families won't have to worry about doing their taxes one of six Community Tax Centers in Central Texas can file for them. Foundation Communities, the group sponsoring the centers, expects to double the amount of refunds and credits for families using the program, expecting a haul of about $18 million money that will stay in the family. Many low-income families don't know they qualify for the earned income credit; Foundation Communities says that in Travis Co. alone, some $31.5 million in credits went unclaimed on 2004 taxes. For more info, including center location, hours, and requirements, dial the United Way's 2-1-1 help line, or visit www.communitytaxcenters.org. W.D.
Austin Habitat for Humanity announced Habitours, a new outreach program designed to highlight the affordable housing needs of the community this week, in conjunction with the Travis Co. Commissioners Court's declaration of January as Poverty Awareness Month (see "Beyond the Poverty Line"). With Habitours, the group will conduct monthly one-hour bus tours focused on the neighborhoods most in need of low-cost homes while showcasing Austin Habitat's local home-building efforts. According to the Jan. 3 declaration, 12.6% of Travis Co. residents lived in poverty in 2004; 48.5% of children in Travis Co. public schools, including 58% of AISD students, are considered economically disadvantaged; and on a typical day, nearly 800 of our community elders may not get enough to eat. For additional Habitour info, call 472-8788. D.M.
PAPA, the Political Asylum Project of Austin, received more than $8,000 in grant money from the Texas Bar Foundation to help them offer legal support and education to detained Mexican immigrants. PAPA's Pearsall Project works with immigrants in Pearsall, Texas' detainee center, providing them legal advice. PAPA also plans on using the funds to create video and text materials informing immigrants of their legal rights. In a press release, PAPA Executive Director Chris Jimmerson said, "[M]any people do not know that immigrants being held at centers such as Pearsall are not guaranteed access to legal representation and have often not committed any serious crimes." For more, visit www.papaustin.org W.D.
Saralee Tiede, vice president of communications for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, will leave her job Jan. 20, to fill a similar perch at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Tiede has worked for the Chamber for nearly six years, following stints in state agencies that included gigs as press secretary and aide to former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. Like many in the mouthpiece business, Tiede started out in newspapers, covering state politics for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the late Dallas Times Herald. Her new job, as the Wildflower Center's director of communications, starts first thing Monday. Amy Smith
Fox 7, in an orange-blooded moment of irrationality, cut into the Panthers-Bears playoff game Sunday evening to show the party at Royal-Memorial Stadium honoring the national champion UT football team. Their solution? A split screen showing NFL on one, and Longhorns on the other. The result couldn't be pleasing to anyone it made the NFL game eye-strainingly small, and the only thing we got from campus were silent shots of Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry talking. Naked City stewed for about 10 minutes, decided we'd had enough, and called to complain. We got a busy signal. Hit redial. Busy again. One more time. Now a message saying "All circuits are busy." About two seconds later, without explanation, the split screen went away and the NFL took the full screen again; the Longhorns never returned. Moral of the story? If we wanted to hear Kay and Rick bloviate, we'd have gone down there ourselves. Lee Nichols
On Jan. 10, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal from e-mail spammers White Buffalo Ventures, letting stand a lower court ruling that the company's free speech rights had not been violated when UT officials blocked thousands of unsolicited e-mail messages from the company, advertising the Longhorn Singles dating service. In 2003, UT officials ordered WBV to stop sending e-mails advertising the dating service, which they said was a violation of the university's anti-solicitation policy, after finding out that the ads had been mailed to more than 50,000 university addresses. White Buffalo sued, arguing that the order to stop the mailings was illegal because the company had obtained the e-mail addresses legally, through open-records requests, and had followed federal anti-spamming laws. But federal district Judge Sam Sparks disagreed, ruling that the university's policy did not violate the company's free speech rights and that the school had no obligation to let White Buffalo send ads across the state-owned computer network, a ruling subsequently affirmed by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The high court's refusal to hear the appeal means that ruling will stand. "Every public university
should always be afforded the right to safeguard its resources by blocking a flood of unwanted e-mail spam," said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who represented UT in the case. Jordan Smith
Beyond City Limits
Dallas gay rights leader Paul Scott has been named executive director of Equality Texas, formerly the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Scott will start his new job March 6; he's currently executive director of the Resource Center of Dallas, which serves as an AIDS and health care resource base as well as a community center. Equality Texas board members praised Scott's coalition-building skills and his business savvy, pointing to the Dallas center's growth under his direction. A Mississippi native, Scott holds a law degree from the University of Georgia and began his legal career as a civil litigation attorney in Chattanooga, Tenn., before jumping to the nonprofit sector. In his new post, Scott succeeds Randall Ellis, who resigned last year. Ellis is now a lobbyist for Legacy Community Health Services Inc., in Houston. A.S.
Buda-area rock quarry and crusher operators, Austin's KBDJ LP, suffered another bump in its rocky road to full-scale operations last week amid unrelenting opposition from nearby neighbors who say the facility is too loud, too polluting to be atop the Edwards Aquifer, and brings too many 18-wheelers to the community's rural roads. Last Thursday the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District board denied a drilling permit application that would have let KBDJ drill a 1,080-foot-deep water well into the Trinity Aquifer, which runs beneath the Edwards Aquifer, to siphon large amounts of water needed for the crushing process. Board members expressed concern that the Aquifer could not be protected from pollution. KBDJ has been trucking in purchased water and the added supply would have moved the company closer to full operation, according to spokeswoman Kirsten Voinis. KBDJ hopes to meet with BSEACD commissioners and work to alleviate their concerns, said Voinis, pointing out that two of the three wells requested in the application were for groundwater monitoring purposes. She added that the denial had nothing to do with current operations and won't interrupt KBDJ's other pending permit applications required for full operation. D.M.
The EPA announced proposed "real-world" changes last week to how its fuel economy mile-per-gallon estimates are determined. The new estimates could appear on 2008 model-year vehicles. Last updated in 1985, the new estimates take into account higher speed limits and greater congestion, as well as fuel-swilling conditions such as rapid acceleration, air conditioning use, and cold weather operation. The changes are expected to cause MPG estimates to drop as much as 20% from today's labels. While the adjustments have no effect on mandated minimum fuel-economy requirements, also largely stagnant since the Eighties, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said, "By considering fuel economy, consumers save money at the pump and help protect the environment." Jason Mark, Clean Vehicles program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, "New test cycles based on a comprehensive study of real world driving patterns and fuel economy, and a plan to monitor these variables on an ongoing basis, are needed to solve this problem over the long term." Learn more and participate in a 60-day public comment period at www.epa.gov/fueleconomy. D.M.