"We cannot continue to have what we had these past few years. We need to hold hands and get along." Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, as he withdrew his challenge to Tom Craddick for speaker of the Texas House
Quote of the Week
The 80th Texas Legislature convened Tuesday, with the much-belabored House speaker's race ending with an elongated victory for incumbent Tom Craddick. For our "On the Lege" preview of the session, see "In Search of a New Agenda."
City Council reconvenes today (Thursday), with the cloud of the proposed Northcross Wal-Mart hovering over the dais, as well as some hopeful movement on affordable housing initiatives, east and west. See "Beside the Point."
The 100th U.S. Congress opened last week, with a solid Democratic majority in the House and a slim and precarious one in the Senate. The "100-hour" agenda featured new rules, ethics reforms, an increase in the federal minimum wage which the House passed Wednesday afternoon and maybe (just maybe) an attempt to restrain the Bush administration's escalation of the war on Iraq.
Responsible Growth for Northcross, the coalition of neighbors opposing the new 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter planned for Northcross Mall, is still stinging and frustrated by the breaking of a pledge by developer Lincoln Property Co. to stop work on the project and reach out to the neighborhood for input. Neither part of that promise has been observed. On Dec. 14, Lincoln and City Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Betty Dunkerley had jointly announced an agreement that development activity on the site would be suspended for 60 days. Dunkerley said then that the period was intended "to allow time for meaningful discussions with the neighborhoods." Yet just five days later, on Dec. 19, Lincoln filed another building permit continuing with the very development activity it had just foresworn and soon after, the city of Austin responded with comments. "Lincoln's so-called commitment to the City Council is nothing more than a charade intended to cool the political heat and divert public attention," stated RG4N in a press release. "It appears that City Council was duped, or they were in on the duping although we hope neither is true," added RG4N representative Jason Meeker. The group has called upon Lincoln to honor its commitment to Austin citizens and upon the city to "reset the clock and require a true 60 days suspension of development activity" to date, unsuccessfully. On Jan. 3, city staff met with RG4N and other stakeholders about facilitating negotiations with Lincoln. But Lincoln and Wal-Mart have yet to come to the table, despite numerous requests by RG4N members and the city. Meanwhile, RG4N is proactively conducting a neighborhood survey and gathering priorities from surrounding neighborhood associations to develop a detailed vision for a more desirable mall redevelopment. Katherine Gregor
As of Jan. 1, Austin Energy's electricity rates have dropped, thanks to an 8% decrease in AE's fuel charge. The change should save the average 1,000-kilowatt-hour-per-month customer about $2.91 a month, or $35 this year. The fuel charge drop is based on receding natural gas prices, which spiked following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Fuel charges decreased from 3.63 cents per kwh to 3.34, which doesn't approach rates prior to AE's hike last January, when fuel cost 2.80 cents per kwh. Spokesman Ed Clark blamed the continuing high cost on unreliable shipments of coal to AE's Fayette coal plant in La Grange, which provides 36% of the city's power. The fuel charge is a direct pass-through to customers, according to a statement. Subscribers to the GreenChoice renewable-energy program (the most successful in the nation), which bases its fuel charge primarily on fixed 10-year wind farm contracts, won't be affected by the changes; Clark noted that conventional customers are now paying less than those on the latest, fourth batch of GreenChoice contracts, auctioned off last January with much fanfare, though all other GreenChoicers are indeed paying less now than those on brown power. Daniel Mottola
A recent Austin Independent School District report evaluated how well the district is educating students who are learning English, and found that, in general, the district's English-language learners are performing worse than others across the state. This is troublesome news, because in the last five years the number of ELLs in AISD has increased by around 40.8%, or 5,616 students. ELLs now make up almost a quarter of the student population, with the majority concentrated in elementary schools. The good news is that AISD seems to be doing a better job with recent arrivals. A full 94% of third-grade ELLs passed the TAKS reading test, which is 3% more than the statewide average. But disparities grow after fifth grade. For instance, only 40% of AISD ELLs passed the sixth-grade math test, compared with 54% statewide. The district's improvement record is also spotty. The number of ELLs passing the 10th-grade reading test jumped 15%, but the number passing 11th-grade science dropped 15%. The report recommends that AISD provide ELLs with more academic support, especially at the middle and high school levels. Michael May
At their Jan. 9 meeting, Travis Co. commissioners tentatively set another Chapter 26 hearing on the Cortaña tract. Commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Sarah Eckhardt both moved to put the item on the county agenda. Kimberly Reeves
In other county business, Reimers-Peacock Road in Southwest Travis Co. a source of some debate during the last county bond issue will be the subject of a county meeting on Jan. 18. The road, which some neighbors claimed was unneeded, will connect SH 71 and Hamilton Pool Road. Engineers have prepared alternate alignments for public comment. Next week's meeting will be held at Bee Cave City Hall, 13333-A Hwy. 71, at 6pm. K.R.
The Hill Country Alliance is alerting members to be on hand for a special-called meeting of the Lakeway City Council Friday, Jan. 12. The meeting will consider zoning changes, including the creation of a special-use permit for big-box retailers, who would likely go somewhere near the intersection of Bee Creek Road and Highway 71. The meeting is set for 9am at Lakeway City Hall, 1102 Lohmans Crossing. K.R.
January is Poverty Awareness Month, so the Basic Needs Coalition of Central Texas a collaboration between several nonprofit organizations, government agencies, faith-based groups, and community activists has scheduled a series of events to raise awareness of the trying situations in which the region's poor often find themselves and to spark discussion about ways to help. According to the most recent U.S. Census data, in 2005 nearly 16% of Travis Co. residents were living below the federal poverty line, $19,350 for a family of four. For a list of local poverty-awareness activities planned this month, see www.caction.org/basicneeds/pa_month.htm#events. Cheryl Smith
In a post-session speech after Tuesday's opening festivities, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst echoed Comptroller Susan Combs' warnings that the state is far from rolling in cash with its $14 billion surplus. Dewhurst pointed out that the state must make up the difference between the $8.5 billion in business taxes it will raise and the $14.2 billion in property taxes it has promised over the next two years. Add in budget growth not to mention the ongoing cost of property-tax relief and Dewhurst estimates that leaves the state with no more than $4 billion in new spending this biennium. Dewhurst will lay out a fuller picture of his legislative agenda, and its spending, next week. K.R.
Beyond City Limits
In other Lege news, conservative talk show host-turned-Sen. Dan Patrick went down in defeat in his effort to rid the Senate of its traditional two-thirds rule. The unwritten rule requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to bring any piece of legislation to the floor, a rather gentlemanly protocol that Patrick has frequently targeted in radio diatribes. Patrick called for a majority to bring bills to the floor in the tradition of our forefathers, he said and then was gently rebuked by Sens. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Kyle Janek, R-Houston, who told Patrick that many a lawmaker had come in with new ideas like his but that most had eventually learned that the ways of the Senate worked best for everyone. The rules passed 30-1, with Patrick in a distinct but rather vocal minority. K.R.
Also, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, raised a few eyebrows on the first day of the new session in his nomination speech of colleague and friend Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, for president pro tem of the Senate. Whitmire focused much of his speech on Gallegos' recent sobriety, which he called one of the most important victories in Gallegos' life. Whitmire, the most senior member of the Senate, went on to say that anyone who planned to challenge Gallegos in recovery and there have been rumblings of at least one possible challenger would have to take on him and the rest of Gallegos' colleagues in the Senate. That drew applause. President pro tem is a largely ceremonial role, though it would put Gallegos third in line to run Texas if Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst were out of the state. Mostly, it's a chance for senior members of the Senate to have their own "Governor for a Day" ceremony. K.R.
And finally, Tyler Republican Leo Berman started the 80th off with his panties in a wad over that nervy 14th Amendment, the one that guarantees citizenship to people born on American soil. (What else is there? The Mayflower?) Berman proposed doing away with birthright citizenship with HB 28, which would preclude children born to undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. from ever collecting food stamps, public housing assistance, or unemployment benefits. (He later explained to anyone who would listen that the amendment was only created to protect the children of slaves, anyway.) Berman followed that with HB 29, which would take a cut from U.S. money wired south of the border (and nowhere else) in order to offset the cost of indigent health care (i.e., people with no insurance) in Texas hospitals. Diana Welch
In no doubt further panty-wadding news for some, as of last week, Pizza Patrón, the Dallas-based chain restaurant that prides itself as the "premiere Latino pizza brand," had made all 59 of its locations' cash registers open to Mexican pesos (at the slightly inflated exchange rate of 12-1), in addition to the American dollar. Pizza Patron's president, Antonio Swad, expressed alarm at the numerous e-mails the company had received since going public with the announcement, in which people angrily tied the currency expansion to illegal immigration and patriotism instead of the more obvious inspirations one would imagine in the business of selling pizza, like marketing or, say, profit. D.W.
Oil giant ExxonMobil has engaged in tobacco-industry-style deception tactics to confuse the public about global warming, according to a report released last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The report claims Exxon piped $16 million to a network of 43 advocacy organizations between 1998 and 2005 which relied on an overlapping cast of staffers, board members, and scientific advisors with the intention of clouding scientific understanding of climate change and delaying action to stop it. "The paper trail shows that ExxonMobil has built a vast echo chamber of seemingly independent groups with the express purpose of spreading disinformation about global warming," said report author Seth Shulman. The report claims Exxon portrayed its opposition to action as a quest for "sound science" rather than business self-interest and used its Bush administration access to block federal policies and shape government communications. Exxon called the report "deeply offensive and wrong," saying its support of various policy organizations is transparent, adding, "while there is more to learn on climate science, what is clear today is that greenhouse gas emissions are one of the factors that contribute to climate change, and that the use of fossil fuels is a major source of these emissions." See www.ucsusa.org for the full report. D.M.
A federal bill designed to end animal fighting was reintroduced last week on Congress' first day in session. The bill faltered last year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, but with supporters now in key roles on the House Judiciary Committee, including Austin Rep. Lamar Smith (an original co-sponsor), and with a parallel bill filed in the Senate, the measure seems poised to pass. The bill establishes a felony-level penalty (up to three years jail time) for any interstate or foreign transport of animals for fighting purposes, upgrading the current law's misdemeanor penalty. It also makes it a crime to move cockfighting implements in interstate or foreign commerce. The Humane Society says 48 states have felony penalties for dog fighting, while 33 make cockfighting a felony. They say animal fighting is an interstate industry often associated with other crimes including illegal gambling, drug trafficking, and acts of human violence not to mention the spread of bird flu. In November, when cops busted a 20-pound-per-month meth smuggling operation in Luling, they found a large cockfighting ring and 400-500 roosters. D.M.
The Catholic-as-hell city of San Antonio made headlines this week, with reports that the city was home to the nation's first-ever human embryo bank. That's right, for a fee half of what a typical adoption costs would-be parents can select human embryos (with specific characteristics, such as race, educational background, personality and appearance, among other qualities) for adoption. Jennalee Ryan, director of the Abraham Center of Life adoption agency for more than 20 years now, sees the addition of the new embryo bank as a way to "help people have babies," she told The Washington Post. "For me, that's what this is all about: helping make babies." The center's embryos are created from sperm and egg donations and because they're created from unrelated donors, notes Ryan, there is "no emotional attachment from the donors." "We are excited to be able to offer infertile families a cost-effective, highly successful option to infertility," Ryan wrote in June. "God bless you in your journey." Jordan Smith