Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"You can say one thing for the governor and legislative leadership once they latch onto a bad idea, they stick with it." Texas Federation of Teachers President Linda Bridges on the determination of Republican leaders to change the sources of school funding without increasing it
Quote of the Week
Early voting begins Monday, May 1, in the city of Austin municipal elections, which include the mayoral race and three City Council seats, as well as seven city charter amendments and board of trustee seats for both AISD and Austin Community College. See Chronicle endorsements.
The House of the 79th Texas Legislature, third special session division, succeeded this week in passing a public school finance "reform" package that would radically cut property taxes and replace some of the revenue with a new business tax and money from the "surplus" although it would not provide any new revenues for public schools. The bills now move to the Senate; Gov. Perry has said he will not expand the session call to other matters until the tax cuts pass both houses. See "On the Lege."
Amid multiplying stories of lightning INS raids on undocumented workers and their families, reportedly in retaliation for recent and upcoming immigration-related demonstrations, local officials said they could not confirm that such raids are indeed taking place. But immigrant advocates, including PODER and the Texas Civil Rights Project, say they believe the raids are occurring and ask the public to report any incidents they witness. See "Protest Retaliation?."
UT officials announced on April 23 that an unknown and unauthorized "person or persons" hacked into McCombs School of Business computers, gaining access to nearly 200,000 electronic records of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and corporate recruiters. The security breach was discovered late on April 21; initially officials thought that only a limited number of records had been compromised, said UT President William Powers Jr. Further investigation, however, revealed that thousands of records including 106,000 Social Security numbers and individual biographical data had been accessed as early as April 11 by a number of computers in several countries in the Far East (although those computers could be masking the location of a hacker located anywhere, including in Austin). Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office has been notified, Powers said, and the university has set up a Web page and a call center (475-9020 or 866/657-9400) to provide information and help to those who may have been affected by the breach. Jordan Smith
AISD teachers called upon the district to factor a 6% pay raise into the 2006 budget. The teachers haven't received a pay raise in two years, and it's starting to show: AISD now ranks eighth in Central Texas in teacher pay. A teacher compensation task force recommended in February a 5.5% raise, as well as providing incentives for teachers in hard-to-staff areas, such as math classrooms or schools where the majority of students are low-income. Because of ballooning property values, AISD will have a property tax windfall of roughly $40 million that could easily fund the raise this year, anyway. Because of Texas' bizarre school finance situation, however, AISD will have to return that extra money to the state in 2007-08, which is the excuse the district has used in recent years to give stipends (which can be discontinued) instead of raises, which cannot be rolled back. That excuse is now wearing thin: The Legislature is currently in special session to create a new taxation regime that will likely sound the death knell for the current school-finance system. (For more on the special session, see p.24) Rachel Proctor May
Austin Police on April 20 arrested and charged 23-year-old Jason Pool with the first-degree murder of 38-year-old Channing Garin Harper, who was stabbed numerous times and found dead in a wooded parking area on Wallingwood Drive in South Austin. Police say they believe that Pool and Harper were acquainted, but have not released any additional details; anyone with info about the crime should call the homicide tip line at 477-3588. J.S.
The Historic Landmark Commission corrected a missed opportunity and declared the Austin Athletic Club on Shoal Creek Boulevard worthy of historic designation at its Monday night meeting. HLC initiated a historic zoning case on the city's first gymnasium a dilapidated all-wood structure built in 1924 that has been shuttered since 1986 seven years ago but failed to make a final recommendation in the case. The building, heavily damaged in the 1981 floods, sits in a flood plain, and city officials say that it would take upward of $3 million to actually restore the gym to any type of usable status. Other scenarios proposed by the city would be to relocate the building, at the cost of $1 million, or simply demolish it, at a price tag of about $340,000. Stuart Strong, of the Parks and Recreation Department, expressed regret at Monday night's meeting but said his department has had too many competing budget priorities to spend the money necessary to repair the building. The Historic Landmark Commission recommended historic preservation of the AAC, a recommendation that will be sent on to the Planning Commission and City Council. Commissioner Jean Mather said the situation was unfortunate, but she did not blame PARD, which she said has been under-funded for the last 50 years. Kimberly Reeves
The city and county have split on the issue of appraisal caps, a point that was underlined this week when County Auditor Susan Spataro made a presentation to county commissioners on the dangers of putting artificial limits on property values. The county relies almost entirely on property taxes for its budget, compared to the city, where only half the budget is comprised of property taxes. City Council Member Brewster McCracken and his colleagues are eager to support legislation by Rep. Dwayne Bohac and Sen. Kyle Janek, both Houston Republicans, that would give local jurisdictions the option of cutting the growth of property value appraisals in half, from 10% to 5% per year. Such a proposal could curb the fast growth of Austin's property values, McCracken said. That sounds like a good deal to property owners, Spataro said, but it actually means that owners of property with low or no growth end up footing the tax bill for their high-growth neighbors. K.R.
Wells Fargo Bank was the target of protests here in Austin, across Texas, and in California on Earth Day, as demonstrators urged the bank to join its competitors and institute corporate policies that would stop the alleged financing of "environmentally destructive projects and human rights abuses." Protesters descended on Wells Fargo's annual shareholders meeting on Tuesday in San Francisco, and members of the Rainforest Action Network, who organized the nationwide action, read comments and questions at the meeting. They claim the bank funds organizations engaged in "mountaintop removal coal mining, dirty power plants, oil drilling and logging on pristine public lands, and profiting from third-world debt," and unlike competitors Bank of America, Citigroup, and JP Morgan Chase, operates with no official social or environmental guidelines. Local demonstrators focused on Wells Fargo's purported $3.8 million in financial ties to energy giant TXU, which flabbergasted environmentalists last week by announcing a $10 billion investment in further expansions to its coal-fired energy production capabilities. While TXU says the move will "set a new environmental standard," Public Citizen director Tom "Smitty" Smith said the new coal-burning sites will "sear the lungs of people down wind, cook our climate, and threaten the minds of our unborn children" and will nullify the annual CO2 reductions of cities nationwide pursuing Kyoto Protocol-inspired goals. For more info, see www.dirtymoney.org and www.stopthecoalplant.org. Daniel Mottola
The Design Commission could be said to be less than enchanted with plans for the new UT Hotel and Conference Center on Martin Luther King at Whitis. A team from the university, after repeated invitations from the commission, finally presented the plans at a special-called meeting Monday night. They want the hotel to have a direct view of the tower, so the back of the building actually a fenced pool will face MLK. This is the second time that new construction at the university the Blanton Museum being the first has used MLK as an alley, rather than as an entrance, to a new campus building. Needless to say, design commissioners are far from thrilled with the proposals, but nothing requires the university to meet city-design guidelines. K.R.
Although the annual torture of tax filing has come and gone for most of us, hurricane evacuees from certain parishes in Louisiana and certain counties in Mississippi the ones hardest hit by Katrina have until August 28 to file their federal taxes. Also, Louisianians have until Dec. 31, 2008 to file state sales tax refund claims for hurricane-damaged property. (See www.revenue.louisiana.gov to file a sales tax refund claim.) With that said, any evacuees living in the area needing help with their taxes can get it from local nonprofit Foundation Communities' Community Tax Center at 3036 S. First. "We will begin scheduling appointments in June but are available to assist clients sooner if there is an emergency need," said Elizabeth Colvin, Community Tax Center program director, in an e-mail. Call 447-2026 x10 to schedule an appointment, or 2-1-1 for information about what to bring to an appointment, as well as for other details. Cheryl Smith
Bike Austin! Month 2006 has already begun, and its activities and group rides, highlighting community bicycle awareness, maintenance, and safety, couldn't come at a better time. The recent string of bicycle accidents, including the hit-and-run fatality Monday of cyclist Gay Simmons-Posey on Loop 360 near Bee Caves Road, has the bike community vocalizing frustration, but not shock, and has further emboldened the fight to improve Austin's bikeability. Michael Bluejay, who runs the Web site BicycleAustin.info, was angered that Gay's death was a hit-and-run, and was critical of paltry enforcement when motorists hit cyclists. He has compiled a long-running bicycle-vehicle accidents table, which is posted at bicycleaustin.info/justice/table.html. Local bike activist Lane Wimberley said education and awareness, on the part of cyclists and motorists, is what's most lacking. Voice your demands for better bikeways to local politicos at this Friday's annual Political Pedal group ride beginning at City Hall, as well as at the subsequent Bicyclist's Happy Hour at Tambaleo. Check out info on these and other Bike Austin! Month activities at www.austincycling.org. D.M.
Whiskers kitty kitty, here Whiskers Whiskers! If, like many a cat owner, kitty never comes unless she hears a can opener or decides she's in the mood to let you stroke her lustrous fur, there's hope out there. At least according to cat behaviorist Trisha Yeager, who is offering free cat-training classes Sundays from 3-5pm May 7 through June 11 at the Town Lake Animal Center. "Cat owners will receive the training necessary to teach their cats to sit, stay, walk on a leash, and perhaps even use the toilet," promises a press release from Yeager, who has written four books, the latest of which is Potty Talk By Toast; Train Your Cat to Use the Toilet. Toast was her cat, who died a couple of days after Christmas, according to the press release (which doesn't reveal if Toast was accidentally sacrificed to the great porcelain god in the sky, but we'll assume no). "Cats aren't really hard to train, providing you learn to think like a cat. Unlike dogs, cats aren't especially interested in pleasing their owners. They are very interested, however, in pleasing themselves. All we do is make them think they're the ones training us," said Yeager in the release. If she got Toast to use the toilet, she must be pedalin' more than snake oil. The big question, however, is can she train a cat to use toilet paper for wiping, rather than for "decorating" the house? See for yourself. Call 892-3346, or shoot an e-mail to email@example.com to sign up for a class. C.S.
Senate leaders have vowed to do what House members couldn't add education improvements to the package of tax bills that they'll begin considering early next week. But first, the Senate Finance Committee will take a crack at three of the bills, beginning at 10am Friday, and is expected to work through the weekend to have a final product delivered to the full Senate by Monday or Tuesday. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst praised the House's work on the tax package but said he intends to add language providing for teacher pay raises, incentives, and increased accountability. House Republicans irked Democrats and public school advocates with their refusal to allow education-related amendments to be added to the tax package passed earlier this week. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
Attorney Boyd Richie has been elected interim chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, succeeding Charles Soechting, who served more than two years before leaving to pursue new opportunities with his law firm. The 64-member State Democratic Executive Committee elected fellow SDEC member Richie in a special election April 22 in Austin. The interim post presumably gives Richie a leg up for the job when the party elects a permanent chair at its statewide convention in June. Former Austin Rep. Glen Maxey and San Antonio lawyer Charlie Urbina Jones are also running for the top seat, although Maxey had said he was not interested in the interim post. Richie, the county attorney for Young Co. in north central Texas, has won endorsements from key Democratic House leaders, including Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco and Rep. Garnet Coleman of Houston, and also from gubernatorial hopeful Chris Bell. A.S.
Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn has asked the state attorney general for a formal opinion on Gov. Rick Perry's tax-swap proposal, to determine if the plan's key component a business tax translates to an income tax. In a press conference last Friday, Strayhorn said the tax wouldn't be enforceable without statewide voter approval, as mandated by the Texas Constitution. She isn't alone in her belief that the tax proposal, assuming it passes both chambers of the Legislature, could ultimately be determined by the courts. And it's her belief that the courts will agree with her. "It appears that Gov. Perry's tax plan includes an income tax, pure and simple," she said. Perry's spokeswoman, Kathy Walt, dismissed Strayhorn's concerns as a politically motivated attempt to derail the special session on school finance to bolster her independent run for governor against Perry. "Instead of trying to usurp the authority of the attorney general by offering baseless legal opinions, Carole Strayhorn should concentrate on giving accurate revenue projections instead of the wildly fluctuating numbers she has produced in advance of this legislative session." Walt was referring to Strayhorn's surprise announcement last week that the state had an $8.2 billion surplus. A.S.
Texans for No New Taxes the über-conservative group backed by Harris Co. political kingmaker Steven Hotze lost its toehold in the House during the vote on the business tax on Monday but vows to mount a renewed campaign in the Senate. Hotze and his group, co-chaired by Norman Adams, put strong pressure on Harris Co. Republicans to support the Republican Party's "no new taxes" platform and back off the business tax crafted by the Texas Tax Reform Commission. When the vote came down on the new business tax, however, 12 Republicans cast votes against the tax, and nine Dems voted for it, providing a final vote of 80-69. "Despite this betrayal by House Republicans, the fight is not over, and we are confident that we can win this struggle in the Senate," Adams said. "The members of the Senate understand that a state income tax, which this would be, is illegal and that this revision of the franchise tax would maim our economy. We are particularly hopeful that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst will not support this cockeyed proposal." Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that the group formed to back the Perry-Sharp tax plan Texans for Taxpayer Relief plans its first blitz for the Houston media market, home to both Hotze and tax critic Dan Patrick, the radio talk show host who also has been a keen critic of the Perry-Sharp plan and will soon be the likely successor to Sen. Jon Lindsay (R-Houston). K.R.