Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"In effect, Republicans in the Senate have said there will be funding for our schools when pigs fly. It's clear now that Tom Craddick and House Republicans believe that's too soon." State Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, on the Senate version of House Bill 2, mandating that any new revenue for education will come only after property taxes are reduced
Quote of the Week
Early voting ended Tuesday for this year's municipal elections. Election day is Saturday, May 13; polls will be open 7am-7pm. See our endorsements and voting info on p.10, and more election coverage on p.24.
The special session of the Legislature on property tax reduction and education funding with much more emphasis on the former than the latter may get past its gridlock to reach a successful conclusion this week. Well, "successful" in the sense that the GOP leadership may get passage of its bills if you're a child in need of education, however, perhaps not so much. See p.30.
A series of fierce storms downed trees and knocked out power for tens of thousands of Austinites last week; many customers in West Austin did not get their electricity restored until Monday.
Two different national polls are showing President Bush's approval ratings at their lowest level yet: 31%. In a USA Today/Gallup poll, 65% said they disapprove of Bush's job performance; 63% said the same in a New York Times/CBS News poll, while 55% said they have a favorable view of the Democrats. At press time, the Democratic Party had not yet announced how it would still manage to blow it all in November.
Austin got an early taste of "open government" this week, when a memo from Will Wynn to City Manager Toby Futrell was cc'd to the city at large. At issue was the freak thunderstorm and winds of last Thursday. Many were shocked that the intense but fleeting downpour left more than 50,000 Austinites temporarily sans power, with hundreds going without electricity for upwards of three days. Tuesday, Mayor Wynn, eager to avert any further drubbing the city (or his re-election campaign) might take, released a memorandum asking Futrell to "please present a comprehensive briefing on issues surrounding the recent storm events and resulting prolonged power outages." He is also asking for details on the "city's approach to communication with impacted residents," along with more information on Austin Energy's response protocols. The sparks are scheduled to fly May 18 as council powers down this week. Wells Dunbar
The Urban Transportation Commission is growing increasingly concerned over Capital Metro's plans to require more stringent eligibility standards to use the transit agency's Special Transit Service, which serves the blind and disabled in Austin. Under the proposal being considered, qualifying for the service would go from self-certification to an interview process, in an attempt to weed out users who may have had a temporary disability, such as a broken leg, but no longer need the service. Mark Thompson, who trains the blind locally in life skills, such as accessing transit, protested the change before the UTC and blames the STS cuts on Capital Metro's desire to fund other projects. UTC Chair Andrew Clements read a statement from Capital Metro that said the STS program has grown increasingly costly; while the program transports only 2% of Capital Metro's ridership, it consumes 19% of the budget. The agency wrote that it intends to look at "possible changes to the program to better serve our riders while addressing budget issues." UTC members intend to take a position on the proposed changes next month. Kimberly Reeves
In other transportation news, state and federal legislation requires social service agencies that use federal funds to convert private transportation options such as door-to-door van service to public transit. Next week, the Capital Area Regional Transit Coordination Committee will bring everyone in the 10-county area into the same room to negotiate options for that conversion. Meetings are scheduled at Congregation Beth Israel on Monday morning and First United Methodist Church in Round Rock on Monday afternoon. Final recommendations must be presented to the Texas Transportation Commission in September. For more, contact Jennifer LeBaron at 448-4459. K.R.
Infrastructure needs not censorship will drive the future of telecommunications regulation, a panel of international experts told the audience at a session of the World Congress of Information Technology last week. Tim Finton of the State Department said the United States' position always has been to keep a neutral stance on telecommunications regulation frequently letting the market regulate itself but the increasing use of cross-platforms and new gadgets may force the feds to rethink how they move forward. Cable, telephone, and even power line providers now are offering a combination of video, phone, and Internet services. Gadgets, such as cell phones that offer television service, are eating up bandwidth. The fact that a few users are eating up a broad swath of bandwidth Yasuhiko Ito of Japan's KDDI estimated 10% of his users demand 90% of his product has led Ito and others to think that closer monitoring and tiered pricing based on use may be the only way to keep up with the demand. K.R.
Also at the tech conference, Mayor Will Wynn snatched a little national spotlight to discuss the Plug-in Partners National Campaign, an effort kicked off in Austin last August to spur automakers to build alternative fuel-compatible, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, capable of doubling the fuel economy of today's hybrids. He challenged President Bush and Congress to switch some 200,000 vehicles in the U.S Postal Service's fleet to flex-fuel plug-ins, a move that could save more than $100 million in fuel costs, he said. Twenty cities, 130 utilities, and 25 national organizations are now participating in the Plug-In Partners Campaign, which Wynn will talk up again this week in Chicago at the U.S. Conference of Mayors National Summit on Energy. Wynn was named head of the Conference's energy committee last summer. Meanwhile, local transportation reformists wish Wynn would focus less on roads and more on rails. For more, go to www.pluginpartners.org. Daniel Mottola
Speaking of cutting back on gas, Austin's Yellow Bike Project has always been about getting more people on bikes. It started out as a volunteer collective geared toward rehabbing and releasing free bikes around the city, but over the years, it has expanded to open two successful community bike shops and shifted its focus toward empowering people through education about bike maintenance offering free, hands-on instruction and even the opportunity to build a free bicycle out of YBP's massive collection of parts, in exchange for volunteer hours. Yellow Bike is currently putting the finishing touches on a shipment of 40 refurbished kids bikes, destined for Harris Elementary, located north of Yellow Bike's main shop on East 51st near Austin Studios. It will be the fourth elementary school donation YBP has made in its neighborhood. The group is getting pumped up for its Ninth birthday party, bike art show, and fundraiser, set for Sat., May 27 from 6pm to midnight at Gallery Lombardi on Third and Bowie. There's a $9 suggested donation. See www.austinyellowbike.org for more. And for more on the local bike scene, see www.austincycling.org/bike_month.html, as Bike Austin! Month is in full swing, and there are tons of cycling-related events going on around town. D.M.
If record-breaking, 100-degree temperatures in April aren't enough to convince even the firmest disbelievers that global warming is not only real but affecting us now, bring them on down Friday, May 12 to the 6th Annual Environmental Defense Water Conference, this year titled "Global Warming and Texas Water," and let them hear it from an Aggie that ought to do it. Gerald North, a distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M, and co-author of The Impact of Global Warming on Texas, will be on hand, along with climate and water experts from around the state and across the country, to discuss how global warming will impact Texas water and how to design plans to meet future water needs. Attendees will also hear from California and New Mexico officials in charge of early preparedness programs. "Among all states, Texas is the largest producer of greenhouse gases," said Jim Marston, director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense. "And we stand to face significant challenges if global warming is left unabated" D.M.
Don't gripe, harmonize! Instruments for Peace will follow up on its (not quite a) Million Musician March, which happened during South by Southwest, with another contrarian cacophony. It's Sunday, May 14 at 8pm at Cafe Caffeine at Fifth and Mary Streets. The group can't stop the war on its own, so get involved. Contact Richard Bowden (751-8583) or Bill Passalacqua (203-4619) for more. Rachel Proctor May
With residential construction on tap for next year homes could be on the ground by the end of 2007 the advisory committee over redevelopment of the former Mueller municipal airport wants to make sure affordability is kept in the forefront of all discussions. At the meeting of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport's Plan Implementation Advisory Committee this week, commissioners agreed to schedule a special session on the issue of affordable housing. The point is not simply to offer affordable housing initially but to keep that housing affordable as property values rise at the 700-acre project, said Commissioner Donna Carter. One in four units at Mueller will be affordable for families with incomes at both 60% and 80% of median income. In other development news, Greg Weaver of Catellus told the commission that the UT academic health research center which must be funded with private funds is still on track and an announcement could be made this summer on the project. K.R.
In other housing news, the U.S. senate passed an Iraq War/ Gulf Coast recovery emergency spending bill last week that includes the first long-term housing assistance for poor families in the region devastated by last year's hurricanes. The bill includes a provision for 4,500 "supportive housing" apartments, which, according to a press release from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, "can be linked with treatment and support services, to provide stable housing for people with disabilities and elderly people with extremely low incomes." The legislation also includes funding for mixed-income housing developments. "It makes sense to create supportive housing in mixed income communities
Doing so will avoid the reestablishment of homelessness in the region," said NAEH President Nan Roman. The $202 million for hurricane-related rental assistance included in the Senate bill isn't in the House's version of the legislation, however, which means it's vulnerable to getting cut from the bill as negotiators work to whittle down the overall price tag even as completely unrelated earmarks and other "special-interest items" remain untouched, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "In general, the backers of the earmarks in the Senate bill have more political clout than the impoverished hurricane victims who would benefit from the housing assistance," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in the analysis. "The fear is that Congress could kill the modest low-income housing assistance to make room for more of the special-interest items." For more, see www.cbpp.org/5-9-06hous-pr.htm. C.S.
Beyond City Limits
Much of the talk around the Capitol Tuesday other than the progress on Senate negotiations over the tax-spending bill was the revised fiscal note on CSHB 1, which showed a $5 billion-a-year gap between revenues and spending on the current Republican tax cut/education-reform plan. The news actually put Democrats in the position of being outraged about too few taxes and too much spending. Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, called the plan irresponsible and one that required deficit spending. On the other hand, Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said the tax proposal is intentionally modest because the best way to guarantee future education funding is to provide tax rates that do not discourage the growth of business and, in turn, the state's tax base. K.R.
What has 185,708 acres of mangroves, marshes, open water, and coastal prairie; sits on the Texas Gulf coast; and was dedicated as reserve land in a ceremony last week? No, it's not an expanded version of Hippie Hollow for all of Texas, but rather the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve, which will serve as a living laboratory of the Gulf coast ecosystem. The UT Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Aransas and Refugio counties will manage the reserve, which is expected to attract scientists and students from across the nation. "The western Gulf of Mexico has a number of unique features, including coastal prairies, oak savannahs, and extensive seagrass and black mangrove communities that will help broaden the understanding of estuarine ecosystems nationwide," said Paul Montagna, Mission-Aransas reserve manager and professor of marine science at UTMSI. "Research and monitoring here will help coastal decision makers manage these vital resources on a foundation of sound science, and it will help to educate the next generation of marine scientists and decision makers." D.M.