"You know, when I was raised, I didn't have insurance, and my family did just fine." Rep. Robert Talton, R-Heartless, on why he prevented a vote to expand the Children's Health Insurance Program
Quote of the Week
At press time, The Austin Business Journal reported that the Seton Family of Hospitals one of the region's largest private employers, which operates the city-owned Brackenridge as well as hospitals under its own name plans to consolidate its administrative offices in a new $40 million, 150,000-square-foot building at the new Mueller development. For more on Mueller, see "Developing Stories."
The Texas House hiccuped on the way to expanding coverage of Children's Health Insurance Program, sending back to committee, as a point of order, a bill intended to ease CHIP enrollment; see On the Lege.
The U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to authorize subpoenas of presidential adviser Karl Rove and other White House aides, in the continuing dispute over the Bush administration's firing of eight federal prosecutors.
At press time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007, which, among other things, promises, "Public housing projects damaged by Hurricane Katrina [will] not be knocked down until the government has a plan to replace them," reports the Associated Press. "Lawmakers also approved an amendment that would extend a Federal Emergency Management Agency housing voucher program through the end of the year and transfer those eligible to other housing assistance programs when the FEMA aid ends," the AP reports.
Local and national protests against the war in Iraq resumed over the weekend, including an underreported confrontation between police and protesters at the port of Tacoma, Wash. Cops attacked protesters, who were demonstrating against weapons shipments to Iraq, with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Expect some controversy next week at Planning Commission over the proposed Fort Magruder project, which would put mixed-use buildings on 3 acres near the intersection of South Congress and Ben White. Owners have banded together to sell their land to a potential developer. But the land-use map for the Dawson Neighborhood Plan says the lots should be single family. Tuesday's meeting will be a showdown between the two groups. Kimberly Reeves
In other development news, the Planning Commission would like City Council to take a serious look at expanding the county's Conservation Development Ordinance into the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction. At a subcommittee meeting this week, PC members suggested they initiate a code amendment to study the issue. The Conservation Development Ordinance is a voluntary agreement between potential developers and the county to put aside land as conservation easements within organized subdivisions. In exchange, the county provides some modest assistance to defray taxes. K.R.
The eight-member Residential Design and Compatibility Commission will hold its first hearing on contested cases on April 11. The commission, created with the McMansions ordinance last fall, is intended to offer a hearing to those who may want to build larger-than-allowed houses on residential lots. Developers in front of this commission don't have to provide a hardship, as they would have to do before the board of adjustment. On the other hand, the commission's parameters only allow it to grant a variance of up to 25% over the allowable footprint. The board expects to hear up to six cases at its first meeting. K.R.
Austin Police say 28-year-old Jeremy Anderson and a friend were leaving the Sixth Street entertainment district on March 10 when they got into an altercation with three men in a parking lot at Seventh and San Jacinto. Anderson was struck in the head and fell to the ground; he never got up. He was taken to Brackenridge Hospital, where he died seven days later. Police are now looking for anyone who witnessed the fight including three men last seen driving a maroon four-door sedan, who came to Anderson's aid, but then left the scene. The death is being investigated as a homicide. Police are asking anyone who might have seen the fight to call the homicide tip line at 477-3588 or Crime Stoppers at 472-8477. Jordan Smith
The African American Resource Advisory Commission will hold a community forum this Saturday to discuss accomplishments, ongoing events, and future plans connected to the city's African American Quality of Life Initiative. The initiative was formed from the results of an African American Quality of Life scorecard, which was prompted by the Midtown Live fire in 2005, during which locals spied decidedly tasteless if not simply racist messages like "burn baby, burn" beaming back and forth on cop-car dispatch computers. From the scorecard came six broad categories of areas where the city needed to do more to improve quality of life for Austin's blacks: health care; police and safety; arts, culture, and entertainment; business and economic development; neighborhood sustainability; and employment and education. (The commission's annual report, detailing its achievements and future plans, is online at www.ci.austin.tx.us/aaql.) The public forum will begin at 9am Saturday, March 24, at the Austin Community College Eastview Campus student lounge at 3029 Webberville Rd. For more info, call 974-2493. J.S.
One of four city blocks designated as a public park in Edwin Waller's original 1839 town plan for Austin, Brush Square Park has languished in recent years. Thanks to a $20,000 grant from the Austin Parks Foundation, however, the Downtown park bordered by Fourth and Fifth, Neches and Trinity, is finally on the road to revitalization. The APF grant will fund a new in-ground irrigation system to keep grass alive in the summer, new plantings, and amenities such as benches and trash cans. Better yet, Saturday, March 24, the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association is hosting a design charrette and community meeting to dream up even lovelier improvements to Brush Square Park. The charrette is from 10am to noon at the Downtown Hilton Hotel, Conference Room 404 (RSVP at www.downtownaustin.org). The park is home to the O. Henry Museum, the Austin Fire Museum, Fire Station No. 1, and the historic Susanna Dickinson House, now being restored with city bond funds; the Parks and Recreation Department and the Downtown Austin Alliance are partners in the revitalization as well. Charlie McCabe of the APF said that refurbishing Brush Square Park has become pressing as the need for urban green space has increased with surrounding development. This grant was one of seven announced by APF for parks around town; others will fund new playground equipment, trail signage and accessibility improvements, invasive species removal, a picnic pavilion, and materials for It's My Park! Day (see next item). Proceeds from the 2006 Austin City Limits Festival funded the $69,910 in grants. Katherine Gregor
On a related note, the Austin Parks Foundation is looking for volunteers for It's My Park! Day on Saturday, April 14. The goal is to mobilize 1,500 volunteers to staff 40 different parks projects around the city. Participants get a T-shirt and goodie bag. To sign up to volunteer at your local park, go to www.austinparks.org/itsmypark.html. K.R.
On March 21, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin heard oral arguments in the lawsuit Gary Griffin v. Lisa Birkman, et al., which alleges that the Williamson Co. Commissioners Court violated the Texas Constitution by gutting Griffin's 2005 constable's budget after it had been adopted. District Judge James Clawson dismissed the lawsuit on July 14, 2006, stating, "I want the Court of Appeals to have to work." Undaunted, Griffin did appeal, pronouncing, "We're going to Austin." Griffin's high-profile counsel, former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire and former state Attorney General Jim Mattox, contend the case could set statewide precedent. "If the county prevails, a radical change will give county commissioners unprecedented power. Elected officials will have lost their independence," Aleshire told the Chronicle. The county did muster some energy for the case by accusing Griffin of official misconduct and arguing that Griffin just wants a "gunnysack" of money back, but they weren't enthused enough to have top WilCo dog County Attorney Jana Duty argue its appeal case. Instead, Steve Ackley, newbie assistant county attorney, did the honors. Duty defended her second-fiddle status by extolling Ackley's youth and enthusiasm, adding that she's "90 percent sure" the court will rule in the county's favor, because "the Commissioners Court has the authority to make the changes that they did, when they did." Patricia J. Ruland
Beyond City Limits
Pardoned Tulia defendant Jason Paul Fry and other similarly situated defendants snagged in the infamous 1999 Tulia drug sting and ultimately pardoned by Gov. Rick Perry may be compensated for wrongful imprisonment under state law, Attorney General Greg Abbott ruled March 19. At issue is a law covering compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned ($25,000 per year up to a max of $500,000) that excludes compensation if the convicted person is in prison serving time on another unrelated charge. In Fry's case, at the time he was locked up as part of the Tulia debacle, he was already on probation for another, unrelated drug charge. His probation was yanked when he was convicted in the Tulia sting, meaning he was essentially serving concurrent time for two different charges. In August, former state Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn asked Abbott if Fry's probation revocation precluded his compensation in the Tulia case. Abbott ruled Monday that Fry is eligible: "While it is true that the concurrent sentence in prison was served because of the unrelated crime, it is equally true that such sentence was served because of the Tulia crime," he wrote to Comptroller Susan Combs. "And even though the pardon was applicable directly to, and only to, the Tulia crime, it was applicable to both prison sentences." So, he concluded, the law "does not eliminate [Fry's] entitlement to compensation for the Tulia sentence." J.S.
Conventional wisdom in Washington seems to be that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales the man who signed off on W.'s Texas death warrants, drafted the infamous torture memo, and is currently caught in the dual crosshairs of Justice Department lies about illegal use of the PATRIOT Act, as well as the widening U.S. attorneys scandal is on the way out. This was hammered home in a statement from Sen. John Cornyn last week: "The appearances are troubling. I'm concerned," The Washington Post quoted him as saying. And then the corker: "In Texas, we believe in having a fair trial, and then we have the hanging." Looks like it's bedtime for Berto. Wells Dunbar
Pet food maker Menu Foods has announced a massive recall of more than 60 million cans of wet cat and dog foods sold under dozens of brand names from HEB's Hill Country Fare brand to Eukanuba and Iams after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration linked the food to the deaths of at least 10 animals. Menu Foods says it has "failed to identify any issues with the products in question," but the timing of the reported deaths syncs with the company's use of a new supplier of wheat gluten, which provides protein. The reported deaths have been from kidney disease. (Menu Foods' food "research" methods have also come under the scrutiny of animal-activist group PETA, which charges them with mistreating animals in their care. For more, see www.peta.org/feat/iams/menu-pain.html.) For a full list of the recalled Menu Foods, see www.menufoods.com/recall or call 866/895-2708. J.S.
Last week, Gov. Rick Perry commuted the death sentence of mentally retarded Doil Lane to life in prison. Lane was convicted in 1984 for the murder of 8-year-old Bertha Martinez in San Marcos. Five years ago, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia, ruled that the Constitution forbids executing the mentally retarded. At his trial, no one contested that Lane has mental retardation, so Lane's attorney, UT professor Bill Allison, filed a motion to reverse the sentence, but Lane has remained on death row for more than four years. Perry's order ensures that he'll be moved off death row and into the general prison population, where he will serve a life sentence. But what about the other inmates with mental retardation? According to Kathryn Kase of Texas Defender Services, there have been almost 50 cases in which the issue has been raised and the Court of Criminal Appeals has authorized further review. "Unfortunately, we have imperfect numbers about how many claims currently are in the system," in part because there's no system for tracking cases, and also because the determination of whether an inmate meets the Atkins standard was left to the states by the Supreme Court's decision. And the Texas Legislature has failed (despite a number of efforts) to set any standards or procedures to deal with these claims. So far, six inmates have received relief through CCA decisions, and two have had their sentences commuted by Perry. Other cases are still working their way through the system, and Texas taxpayers are still paying to house these inmates on death row despite the fact that they never will be executed. Rita Radostitz
President Bush found no refuge from Iraq war protesters when he visited Merida, Mexico, last Wednesday to wrap up his tour of Latin America. According to the Associated Press, "Protesters demanded 'No more war!' and called Mexican President Felipe Calderón a 'lapdog' of the U.S. They demanded the release of dozens of fellow demonstrators who were rounded up the night before during a violent clash with some 200 riot police" in Merida's central plaza. In addition to Mexico, Bush visited Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, and Guatemala from March 8 to 14. "During his stop in Brazil, police fired tear gas and sent baton charges against thousands of protesters, while scores of rioters broke shop windows and ripped computers from offices during the U.S. president's visit to Colombia," the AP reports. Cheryl Smith