Headlines and happenings from Austin and beyond
"America is a Christian nation.
We pledge to exert our influence toward a return to the original intent of the First Amendment and dispel the myth of the separation of church and state." Texas Republican Party platform, adopted June 3 in San Antonio
Quote of the Weak
The Republicans' desperate, cynical attempt to shore up their base a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage got shot down Wednesday morning in the U.S. Senate. Forty-nine senators voted for the amendment, well short of the 60 needed to get the amendment process rolling.
The Texas Republican Party completed its convention in San Antonio, calling for an end to all illegal immigration, the building of a border wall, and "No amnesty. No How. No Way." The latter is apparently an example of the "American English" also called for in the platform as a national language.
City Council meets today (Thursday) with a lengthy agenda, including a decision on the November bond package and ballot; an interminable list of consent items, zoning cases, and neighborhood plans; hearings on water supply strategies and taco stand regs; and what promises to be a lively consideration of the anti-McMansion rules duly proposed by a citizens task force. See "Beside the Point."
Legendary UT softball pitcher Cat Osterman ended her glittering career on the road in Oklahoma City, with a 2-0 Saturday loss to UCLA in the NCAA World Series. Osterman competed in the Olympics, and her record at UT included 136 wins, 85 shutouts, an NCAA record 2,256 strikeouts, and an amazing 20 no-hitters.
Travis County turned a shade bluer Wednesday as District Court Judge Julie Kocurek officially retired her Republican spurs and declared herself a Democrat. "I have to be honest with myself and choose which political party most honestly reflects who I am," said Kocurek, the day before making a formal declaration at a Downtown reception. "My principles are much more in alignment with the principles of the Democratic Party." Kocurek, who is pro-choice, said she is most concerned about the Republican Party's stances on education, stem-cell research, and mental-health issues. For Democrats, the switch is wonderfully symbolic because Kocurek was a 1999 judicial appointee of former Gov. George W. Bush. Still, the former prosecutor went on to win the seat in 2000, with bipartisan support and the help of her prominent family name; her husband Kelly Kocurek hails from a long line of civic boosters. Her reputation for fairness on the bench carried her effortlessly through another election in 2004, when she ran unopposed. She said she will seek re-election in 2008. Political consultant David Butts said he and other Democrats had courted Kocurek off and on over the years, encouraging her to cross over. When he talked to her again two weeks ago, he said, "She said she had decided she was going to switch and she asked me to help her." Of course, he gleefully accepted. "We've captured the only countywide Republican office," he said, "without firing a shot." Amy Smith
A visiting Travis County judge abused his discretion in sanctioning Save Our Springs Alliance chief Bill Bunch for filing a "frivolous" lawsuit against a municipal utility district, the 6th Court of Appeals in Texarkana ruled last week. But the court upheld the lower court's order that SOS must pay attorneys fees totalling nearly $300,000 to the Lazy 9 MUD, the utility outfit that will serve the controversial Sweetwater development of 1,800 homes planned west of Austin. The environmental group had hoped to win on all counts, but the mixed ruling provides some consolation because it relieves Bunch of the $5,000 fine assessed by Judge Bill Bender of Seguin, who presided over the December 2004 trial. The news is doubly favorable for Sweetwater, as it follows closely behind county commissioners' final approval of the mega development on deck for the Hill Country. A.S.
Detectives with the Austin Police Department's Northeast Area Command on May 30 seized more than 5,000 counterfeited and/or pirated items including CDs, DVDs, and Nike sneakers from Tu Disco Latino on Westminster Drive. The investigation began with complaints about defective CDs made to the Recording Industry Association of America, which determined that the Northeast Austin business was not an authorized seller; undercover detectives working with the RIAA purchased the questionable CDs and determined they were counterfeit copies. According to APD, detectives seized more than 4,500 counterfeit CDs (at an average cost of $14.80 per copy), nearly 300 counterfeit DVDs (an average cost of $19.80 per copy), and more than 300 pairs of counterfeit Nike shoes (at a cost of up to $250 per pair). APD is working with the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office on filing charges; at press time, no names of the accused pirate vendors had been released. Jordan Smith
In other APD news, police have charged 25-year-old Armando Torres with perjury in connection to claims he made that police had "roughed" him up during his arrest in March. Torres was originally arrested on March 7 for theft and aggravated assault on a police officer after he allegedly dragged and then ran over Officer Brenda Bermudez while driving a stolen car through an HEB parking lot on East Riverside Drive. Torres told Bermudez he didn't have any identification on him, but Bermudez recognized him from a February 2005 burglary investigation during which Torres allegedly knocked Bermudez over into a stack of milk crates and recognized the green Subaru he was driving as a car that had been reported stolen the day before, on March 6. While waiting for backup to assist with Torres' arrest, a struggle ensued and Torres tried to drive away with Bermudez trapped inside the car; Bermudez finally broke free but was subsequently struck by the Subaru as Torres tried to flee. According to APD, Torres later told detectives he'd been thrown between two patrol cars and was roughed up and "jawed" after being arrested. After an "intensive investigation" into the allegation, police reported June 6 that his accusations were false and that video and audio recordings made by in-car cameras prove Torres was not assaulted. J.S.
The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit preservation organization, released the Travis County "Greenprint for Growth" Tuesday, the result of a nine-month needs assessment, to illustrate the necessity for conservation and to help prioritize strategic land-use plans. The Greenprint focused on the need for future preservation throughout the Colorado River corridor and creek corridors in the eastern portions of Travis County, infill and city parks in Central and East Austin, and aquifer recharge lands connecting existing city-owned water quality and habitat protection properties. TPL partnered with the city, county, and the University of Texas School of Architecture to conduct the study. According to a press statement, the project was completed thanks to a company that knows a thing or two about locking down ecologically-sensitive land. You guessed it AMD chipped in the fattest share of the nearly $200,000 project cost. The study's three priorities were: protecting water quality and quantity, including the Colorado River system and the Edwards Aquifer; providing equitable access to recreational opportunities and parks; and protecting sensitive environmental features, cultural resources, and local historic, scenic, and agricultural sites. Here's a suggestion: Why not make that nice Lantana site a greenspace? See www.tpl.org for more. Daniel Mottola
County commissioners held their collective nose and passed a basic development permit on the Wilder tract this week. That gives Waste Management Inc. the ability to move dirt around the tract and set up grading requirements and erosion controls in anticipation of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality's approval of WMI's landfill expansion permit. The Wilder tract is located on Springdale Road next to WMI's current landfill. Given that WMI had met all the requirements of county code, county officials had no legal basis to deny the permit, but the fear that passage could lead to the appearance of an approval of WMI's landfill expansion plans led to much hand-wringing among the commissioners. In order to close every loophole, County Judge Sam Biscoe eventually required WMI to sign a letter stating that the company understands the development permit which gives the company the right to do nothing more than prepare the site for construction is not an agreement to the landfill, just in case TCEQ is confused by the permit's approval. Kimberly Reeves
UT journalism professor Robert Jensen, the mild-mannered radical author and activist with a nose for controversy, is in hot water again, this time for his religious beliefs or lack thereof. Last December, Jensen joined St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, and later wrote about it, beginning, "I don't believe in God. I don't believe Jesus Christ was the son of a God that I don't believe in. ," and explaining, "I didn't convert in a theological sense but joined a moral and political community." The St. Andrew's congregation and its pastor, Jim Rigby no stranger to controversy himself welcomed Jensen, writing, "If politics is about how we treat each other, then [Jensen] is joining the church for the same reason the apostles did to help save our world." South Texas Mission Presbytery, the governing association of 137 regional churches, is much less enthusiastic, and at its meetings this weekend in San Antonio will consider a recommendation from a "Listening Team" that Jensen's admission to the church was "irregular and thus void." For more info, see www.mission-presbytery.org/PresMtg/Meetings.html. Michael King
Toll roads and revised revenue forecasts have shaved about $8 billion off the projected shortfall of relieving traffic congestion in Central Texas. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's Texas Metropolitan Mobility Plan, which is being shopped around the region this week, still maintains it will cost about $27 billion to relieve Central Texas' long-term traffic woes. Subtract revised revenue and toll roads, however, and the total funding for those needs now falls only $10 billion short. That's compared to the $18 billion shortfall projected only two years ago. CAMPO also has a list of short-term unfunded projects those that must be done by 2015 to alleviate current traffic tie-ups. To take a look at the plan, check out CAMPO's final meeting tonight, at the San Marcos Public Library, 6-8pm. Or take a look at CAMPO's Web site, www.campotexas.org. K.R.
In other transportation news, Central Texas cannot circumvent toll roads by using the Texas Department of Transportation's new method of "pass-through financing," a panel told county commissioners at this week's meeting. Pass-through financing, much touted by toll road opponents in recent weeks, is a new TxDOT financing method in which the state repays local jurisdictions for fronting the cost of much-needed improvements on the state road system. Under the system, a jurisdiction, such as Travis County, would tell the state it agrees to put up the cost of the road improvement, as well as agrees to complete it quickly, and the state agrees to repay the majority of that cost to the jurisdiction over time out of gas tax revenues. Consultant Mike Weaver, who is working with Hays County, said pass-through financing is limited to those roads that are not considered "toll viable," such as major farm-to-market roads. In the case of Travis County, that won't be Highway 71 or US 290, but it could be improvements to roads such as FM 1826 to Pflugerville, FM 2244 out to Bee Caves, and FM 1626 out to Hays County. K.R.
The Travis Co. Sheriff's Office is looking for dedicated volunteers to serve in its Victims Services Division, offering "healing support" to victims at the scene of a crime. Training begins August 28, and will continue two nights each week, from 6:30 to 8pm, through October 16. Volunteers must be over 21, complete all training, and submit to a background check. For more info, or to receive a volunteer packet, call 854-9709. J.S.
Mayor Will Wynn addressed the 74th annual U.S. Conference of Mayors in Las Vegas last weekend and presided over the passage of a resolution encouraging the use of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (capable of doubling today's hybrids fuel economy) "as an important step in reducing this country's reliance on foreign oil and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles," according to a statement. The now-nationwide Plug-in Partners campaign originated in Austin. Wynn said the city has met with several automakers including Toyota and Ford. "Predictably, there are some reservations," Wynn said. Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said there have been no formal announcements of commercial production, but that plug-ins are "definitely one of the technologies manufacturers are taking a good hard look at." Responding to realizations that continuing auto-centric growth is to blame for energy and environmental woes, Wynn said, "without dramatic land-use pattern changes, the rest of this becomes irrelevant." We need to "dramatically densify in a sound urbane way," and "compliment mixed use development with mass transit." He referred to his call for 25,000 housing units downtown and a desire to put before voters, as early as November, plans for a downtown/Capitol/UT/Mueller circulator rail compliment to CapMetro's "modest" commuter rail approved in 2004. "If we don't act soon, we're going to fail our children and grandchildren," Wynn said. See www.pluginpartners.org for more info. D.M.
Hardly a week goes by without Accenture drawing fire for one snafu after another as the lead player in the state's privatization experiment with public assistance services. The Houston Chronicle added a barrel of fuel to the controversy with last week's report that at least 144 applications from needy Texans mistakenly ended up at a warehouse in Seattle. The reason? Accenture, the Bermuda-based outsourcing giant on the receiving end of the $899 million contract, listed the wrong fax number when it instructed folks where to send applications for Medicaid, food stamps, children's health insurance, and other services. The documents included the applicants' personal information, such as Social Security numbers and medical histories not the sort of details you'd want to end up in the wrong hands, much less a warehouse in the Pacific Northwest. It took months before the case of the missing applicants was straightened out, meaning Accenture and the Health and Human Service Commission didn't commit to get to the bottom of the mystery until reporter Polly Ross Hughes started poking around and asking questions. In light of this latest revelation, the Texas State Employees Union has stepped up its public demands for state officials to follow the lead of several other states and yank the Accenture contract. "If state employees had compromised confidential information like this, they would be fired in a heartbeat. The same standard should apply to Accenture," said TSEU Vice-President Mike Gross. A.S.
Beyond City Limits
In other state health news, it's always a little curious when an official resigns to spend more time with family, but that's the reason Eduardo Sanchez provided this week in announcing plans to leave his commissioner's post at the Department of State Health Services in October. Sanchez notified the department's employees in writing on Monday. Gov. Rick Perry, in a statement on Tuesday, praised Sanchez's "unwavering commitment to improving public health for all Texans." Perry also commended Sanchez's role in leading the state's public health response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2004, Sanchez oversaw the consolidation of the Texas Department of Health and mental health and substance abuse agencies. Sanchez, a physician, was appointed commissioner in 2001, succeeding William "Reyn" Archer III, who resigned in 2000 amid controversy over comments he made about blacks, Hispanics, and women. A.S.
The warm and fuzzy moments of a Texas flush with new revenue are over. Only a month ago, Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn predicted Texas would see an additional $8.2 billion in revenue this biennium. That infusion of cash, however, was countered with reports of a $5 billion-per-year shortfall under the education bill passed during the special session. Only a couple of weeks after the end of the session, state agencies are being asked to make cuts twice as deep as last biennium, according to a letter sent to agency heads by the Legislative Budget Board and the Governor's Office last week. Agency heads are being asked to submit budgets that are 90% of current spending, minus the pay raise approved by the Legislature during the last regular session. The only exceptions to the cuts will be the spending necessary to maintain the caseloads of federal entitlement programs and to maintain the adult prison population, as well as the cost of debt service and the requirements for education funding, as outlined in the most recent special session. K.R.
Texas, like every other state in the nation, continues to grapple with federal requirements to put a teacher deemed "highly qualified" into every classroom, a requirement under the No Child Left Behind Act. The Department of Education has set strict guidelines on full compliance with the standard by the end of the next school year has and asked Texas to resubmit its plan to meet the "highly qualified" requirement, which means every teacher must demonstrate subject-area mastery in each subject taught and pass certification tests. It does not require any particular training for teachers or any mastery of pedagogy, such as classroom management, which many teacher groups consider to be suspect. Two early issues have emerged in discussions: Texas can no longer use alternative assessments, such as classroom experience, to substitute for veteran teachers taking certification tests. And school districts now are asking whether teachers who refuse, or fail, to complete the requirements after proper notice can be fired. The vast majority of Texas teachers, about 94%, do meet the federal "highly qualified" standard. Texas must submit its revised plan to the Department of Education next month. K.R.
On May 30 in Houston, U.S. District Judge David Hittner declined to issue a temporary restraining order against the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prevent the government from going forward with plans to cut off more than 17,000 hurricane evacuee families nationwide from public rent and utility assistance on May 31. The restraining order was requested as part of class-action suit Watson v. FEMA, filed May 19. Although people across the country lost their assistance at the end of May, FEMA granted an extension through at least June 30 to the 215 evacuee families in Austin who were slated for cutoff, along with evacuees in Bell County and 9 other Texas cities. Hittner ordered the notoriously bureaucratic agency to respond more quickly to requests of local governments asking for deadline extensions. For more info, see www.femaanswers.org. Cheryl Smith
With last week's release of Al Gore's new film An Inconvenient Truth, which re-affirms global warming's roots in human-produced carbon emissions, the Texas Clean Air, Cool Energy Campaign, a coalition of 10 environmental and social advocacy groups, is demanding action on the main source of heat-trapping CO2 emissions in Texas' coal-fired power plants. Texas leads the nation in power-plant carbon emissions. And to make matters much worse, "fifteen additional coal-fired plants planned for our state will pump 100 million tons more CO2 into our air each year for the next 50 years," said Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition. SEED notes that none of the 15 plants plan to employ the oft-mentioned "clean-coal technology," set to be used in 24 planned plants elsewhere nationwide, and the campaign condemned Governor Perry's executive order to fast track the new plants' permitting, circumventing the public input process. "Scientists tell us we have 10 years to put plans into motion to save the planet," said Public Citizen researcher Samantha Hechman. "We urge every Texan to demand that all candidates for Governor produce a strong plan to reduce global warming and explain it clearly on the campaign trail." For more, see www.climatecrisis.net and www.stopthecoalplant.org. D.M.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced Tuesday that it will become the first state agency to offer live webcasting of its twice-monthly meetings also placing online monthly work sessions and a six-month archive of previous meetings, searchable by specific agenda item. This is good news for anyone who's ever attended a TCEQ meeting, which can drift from all-out pandering sessions with the state's various industries to oratory delves into scientific minutia that could seemingly induce coma. Now, however, you can follow your midmeeting urges to reach for a stiff drink and/or blurt out obscenities, all in the privacy of your own home. "This means it will be easier for people to track issues they are interested in and to follow cases they may be involved in, and it will foster open government," said TCEQ Commissioner Larry Soward in a statement. TexasAdmin.com is making the webcasts available at no cost to the agency or the state, utilizing PBS-style underwriting. The webcast will be available at www.texasadmin.com/cgi-bin/tnrcc.cgi and at www.tceq.state.tx.us. D.M.
The Texas Department of Transportation kicks off its first Texas Transportation Forum this week under the auspices of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the federal highway system, with high-profile speeches from Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta and Gov. Rick Perry. Obviously, a forum in Austin is nothing unusual. What has transportation insiders talking is the fact that TxDOT's forum is a clear pre-emption of the 9th Annual Transportation Summit in Irving in August, sponsored by Dallas-based Dean International. Dean International has been on the "outs" with TxDOT since it backed some anti-TTC-35 maneuvering by the City of Dallas. At the time, Texas Transportation Commission Chair Ric Williamson publicly rebuked Dean International and instructed TxDOT staff to stop attending Dean-backed functions. The Irving summit is considered the biggest event of its kind in the nation and often includes keynote speeches from notable transportation experts and key federal lawmakers. K.R.