Quote of the Week
"If we're not supposed to eat animals, how come they're made out of meat?" – Late-night talk-show maestro Tom Snyder, who died July 29 at 71
•The Republican Party of Texas hammered another nail in its 2008 coffin this week, naming the once-powerful and currently obsolete Talmadge Heflin to lead the state party with his trademark conservative fist. Heflin, you may recall, is the two-time losing former state representative from Houston. (See p.17 for more.)
•Are you skittish about driving on I-35? So was state Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, until he dipped into his campaign's bank account and plopped down more than $20,000 to lease a luxurious Lexus. "It's a matter of safety," Wentworth told Capitol reporter R.G. Ratcliffe.
•Extra! Extra! The Fort Worth Star-Telegram plans to spread the gospel along with the news. The Star-Telegram is the only Texas daily, one of about a dozen nationally, in which a Christian ministry has chosen to do the lord's work by delivering New Testaments to newspaper subscribers, like so many free soap samples. The giveaway is scheduled for the last Sunday of the year.
•It seems there may be a silver lining to the rain clouds that have plagued Austin all summer. The Edwards Aquifer Authority reported last Friday that, due to consistent downpours throughout the first half of 2007, the aquifer has reached a record level for the month of July at 698 feet above mean sea level, edging out the previous record by about 3 feet. The aquifer is continuing to rise, said authority general manager Robert Potts, and its level is only 5 feet away from the all-time high set in June 1992. The effect of the rain will revitalize the aquifer in ways not seen in years, possibly causing old, forgotten, or unknown wells to spring to life, no pun intended. Also, dormant parts of the spring system, such as the San Antonio and San Pedro, will become active, Potts said. The news is cause for celebration among conservationists, who feared increasing demand from the aquifer's biggest customer, the San Antonio Water System, would place the aquifer in peril in the event of an extreme drought. Earlier this year, the state Legislature approved a water bill that massively raised pumping caps set by the legislation that formed the authority. – Justin Ward
•Local green groups Public Citizen and the Lone Star Sierra Club used the release of The Simpsons Movie last Friday to remind people that Texas is faced with the threat of seven newly proposed, noncartoon nuclear power plants. Citing the still-unsolved issue of safe nuclear-waste disposal and the staggering cost overruns common during the last nuke boom, the Sierra Club’s Cyrus Reed said in a press release, “Nuclear power is still too dangerous, too expensive, and too risky[,] and it is not the answer to our energy needs – not in the mythical world of Homer Simpson’s Springfield nor here in Texas.” Donna Hoffman of the Sierra Club noted, “Nuclear power plants cannot withstand the force of strengthened hurricanes like those we’ve experienced in recent years and like those that might develop in coming years from the warming waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf.” – Daniel Mottola
•Speaking of water, after vetting the public's concerns – adding some areas to the floodplain and pulling others out – the Federal Emergency Management Agency is soliciting nontechnical input on four new floodplain maps. After issuing preliminary maps last year, FEMA's nearly finalized maps of Fort Branch, Shoal, West Country Club (Tributary 1 and 3), and Williamson creeks are prepped and ready for public viewing, but they're asking affected property owners – anyone with land around the creeks – for their nontechnical input on things like bridge and street names and corporate boundaries. (After reviewing your comments, FEMA will then issue a letter to the city, giving it six months to implement your input.) View the maps and find out how to make comments at www.cityofaustin.org/watershed/floodplain_newmap.htm or in real life at the city's One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Rd. The comments deadline is Aug. 10. – Wells Dunbar
•Travis County Judge Samuel T. Biscoe will seek another term after all. When asked why he'd changed his mind about not running, Biscoe told the Chronicle: "My friends were saddened and would be happy if I ran again. My enemies would be happy if I stepped down. Why not make my friends happy?" It would make Biscoe happy to serve again, too. "Biscoe told me he enjoys the job. I'm not sure what that says about his mental health," former County Judge Bill Aleshire told the Chronicle. In the 2006 race, Biscoe won with 78.7% of the vote. He received his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law in 1973. Professional milestones include the following: Earl Warren Fellow, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund, 1973-74; private law practice, 1974-1983; general counsel, Texas Department of Agriculture, 1983-1988; Travis County commissioner, Precinct 1, January 1989 to December 1997; Travis County judge, December 1, 1998, to present. While county judge, Biscoe has served as chair of the Community Action Network; as a member of the city's Social Equity Commission, chairing the Affordable Housing Subcommittee; and as a member of the Capital Area Planning Council Executive Committee. – Patricia J. Ruland
•The Austin Independent School District is looking for 24 parents to help set the school calendar for the 2008-2009 school year. The Calendar Committee will be made up of two parents from each of the 11 high school attendance areas, as well as two "at-large" parents from the District Advisory Committee. Parents who want to be on the Calendar Committee must have a child in an AISD school, agree to work toward developing a calendar that meets the academic needs of AISD students, and be willing to attend at least four Thursday night meetings from August through November 2007. Applications are due by 4pm Aug. 13 and can be submitted to your child's school principal. The application is available at www.austinisd.org/inside/initiatives/calendar_planning. – Michael May
Beyond City Limits
•An investigation into the explosions at the Southwest Industrial Gases distribution facility in Dallas last week points toward a malfunction on a truck driven and operated by Western International Gas & Cylinders. The fire injured at least three people, closed down major highways, and showered debris on downtown Dallas. According to The Dallas Morning News, employees at the plant say the fire started in the truck, shortly after the driver hooked up his canisters to a valve that sends highly volatile acetylene gas into the facility. Those valves, known as pigtails, have caused similar explosions before. Dallas Fire Department officials initially said the driver was still in the cab of the truck when the fire started; they have since said they don't know how the fire started. Western International has been cited for several safety violations over the years and had a similar acetylene-caused explosion at a company plant in Bellville. – M.M.
•We're No. 1! If you thought Texas was doomed to a life of last-place (or near-last-place) finishes on all those state-ranking lists – like number of folks without health insurance, number of high school dropouts, yadda yadda yadda – you'll be happy to learn we've finally captured a numero uno: According to the Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Texas has the highest teen-birth rate in the country. (That's right, we're first!) The state-by-state ranking shows that although the state made some progress, lowering the teen birth rate by 9% between 2000 and 2004, the rate of 63 births per 1,000 teens is still well-above the national average of 41 per 1,000, reports the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "If the University of Texas football team were at the bottom or near the bottom of the national rankings every year, there would be a public outcry," Frances Deviney, director of Texas Kids Count, said in a press release. "Our high teen birth rate represents a true crisis that demands immediate and serious attention" – babies born to teen mothers are more likely to live in poverty and drop out of school, among other challenges. The Kids Count report also shows that Texas has the seventh-highest child-poverty rate – in 2005, 25% of Texas kids were living in poverty – and that Texas still ranks dead last (or, really, first, depending on how you look at it) in the number of children without health coverage, a ranking the state has held on to for nine of the last 10 years. For more info on the Kids Count project, check out www.cppp.org. – Jordan Smith
•State legislators are demanding that Gov. Rick Perry put money that he vetoed from the budget back into colleges. On July 26, in a hand-delivered letter signed by 47 House Democrats, lawmakers asked Perry to reverse his decision to slice $154 million in education funding off House Bill 1, the state budget for the next biennium. This sum was earmarked for higher-education employees' group-insurance contributions for 2009. Explaining the line-item veto in a June 15 proclamation, Perry said these funds were not supposed to come from state general revenue and accused community colleges of falsifying their budget requests to get them – a charge the Texas Association of Community Colleges has called "outrageous." On Thursday, Waco's Jim Dunnam, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, followed up the letter to Perry with one to Speaker Tom Craddick. In it, Dunnam asked Craddick, joint chair of the Legislative Budget Board with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, to put pressure on Perry to restore the cash and to do the job themselves if Perry would not. Calling the veto "ill-conceived," Dunnam told Craddick he and Dewhurst "have the authority to convene the LBB immediately and begin the budget execution process." He asked them to "do what is right for Texas' future and the hardworking students that attend Texas' public community and junior colleges." – Richard Whittaker
•The public accountability pit bulls at Texas Watch have Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht in their sights and aren't likely to take their eyes off of him anytime soon. On July 24, the nonprofit group filed formal complaints with the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis Co. District Attorney's Office, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, and the Texas Ethics Commission regarding a "possibly illegal" discount on legal fees Hecht received from the Jackson Walker law firm last year after the sitting justice hired the firm to defend him in a dispute with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission admonished Hecht for publicly promoting his buddy Harriet Miers in 2005 after she was nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, in violation of a rule prohibiting judges from endorsing candidates for public office. Hecht hired Jackson Walker to appeal the commission's decision, which was dismissed last fall. In its complaint to the District Attorney's Office, Texas Watch argues that the Texas Penal Code prohibits judges from accepting gifts from anyone the judge knows is likely to appear before the court; the group argues to the SCJC that the break on legal fees (worth an estimated $100,000) "reflects adversely" on Hecht's impartiality and is a "possible exploitation" of his position, in violation of the Cannons of Judicial Ethics; and it alleges in its complaint to the Ethics Commission that the discount is an in-kind contribution that exceeds the campaign-contribution cap placed on law firms that donate to judges and judicial candidates. Hecht racked up about $450,000 in legal fees in connection with his battle with the SCJC. Texas Watch says Hecht solicited donations to cover his legal bills, including money from builder Bob Perry, who – surprise, surprise – has business pending before the Supreme Court. Texas Watch says Hecht voted in favor of his most generous benefactors – those contributing at least $5,000 to his legal fund – in a whopping 89% of the legal cases in which his contributors were involved. "Justice Hecht's actions merit a full and complete investigation," N. Alex Winslow, Texas Watch executive director, said in a press release last week. In a July 24 letter to Winslow, DA Ronnie Earle confirmed his office is already looking into the matter. "This matter has been under review by this office since it came to our attention through news media accounts sometime back," Earle wrote. – J.S.
•Attorney General Greg Abbott is suing firms and unions that provide private security staff at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, claiming they are enforcing a closed shop. In two separate suits filed July 24, Abbott names Deco Inc., Akal Security Inc., and their joint subsidiaries, which provide security for the ICE Service Processing Center in El Paso, and Asset Protection and Security Services, which provides security for the Los Fresnos Detention Facility in Corpus Christi. Abbott alleges these employers had collective-bargaining agreements with the International Union of Security, Police, and Fire Professionals of America that break state right-to-work laws. These agreements force employees to either join the union, pay a service fee, or pay the same amount to a charity. The suits follow a June decision by a federal administrative-law judge, saying that although the El Paso facility is run by ICE, it is not an exclusive federal enclave and not exempt from state employment law. The federal case was brought by the Virginia-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation after Juan Vielma, a security guard at the El Paso facility, was suspended. – R.W.
•Former state Rep. Talmadge Heflin is to become the next executive director of the Republican Party of Texas. In a press release, the Texas GOP lauded him as a "leader in the Texas Legislature and a businessman," but Democrats have savaged him as the man who kicked 200,000 children off the Children's Health Insurance Program and supported a tax on groceries. The 11-term Harris County legislator was chair of the House Appropriations Committee and responsible for budgets that state representatives from both parties have said left many state agencies critically underfunded. In 2004, he was narrowly removed from the House by Democrat Hubert Vo after several recounts and lost a rematch in 2006 by 6.6%. He has also been president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, made a failed bid to be executive director of the Texas Lottery Commission, and currently serves as a visiting research fellow and pundit for anti-regulation conservatives the Texas Public Policy Foundation. In this role, he has advocated that legislators should bust the spending cap to pay for property-tax cuts. In 2004, he gained notoriety after attempting to take custody of the son of Mariam Katamba, a native Ugandan who had allegedly been working illegally for the Heflins as a maid. – R.W.
•Cities considering localized anti-immigration laws have been sent a clear signal: Leave it to the feds. That's what U.S. District Judge James Munley conveyed to representatives of Hazleton, Pa., last Thursday when he told them the city's 2006 Illegal Immigration Relief Act is unconstitutional. In his decision in Lozano et al. v. Hazleton, Munley issued a permanent injunction against the law, saying it violates the concept of inherent pre-emption, which gives the federal government sole legislative control over issues like immigration and border control. Authored by Hazleton Mayor Louis J. Barletta, the act bars any firm or agency within the city from hiring illegal immigrants and prevents property owners from renting to them. If the act had gone into effect, violators would have lost their business permit, while landlords also faced fines for repeat offenses. Similar legislation has already been struck down in Texas. On May 21, a federal judge in Dallas issued an injunction against the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch. Its Ordinance 2903 forces property owners to check the immigration status of potential renters. In his decision, Judge Sam Lindsay also cited the pre-emption issue. Farmers Branch has founded a legal defense fund to fight the case, although the injunction was extended indefinitely on June 19. – R.W.