Quote of the Week
As usual, this president is dead certain, and dead wrong. What he seeks is war without limits – war without end ... the George Bush trillion-dollars, 15-years war. – U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Sept. 10
Yes, it's that time again – when Björk, Bob Dylan, Blonde Redhead, and a host of other musical luminaries descend on Zilker Park for a precious musical interval before the rest of the football season. Enjoy!
Anti-abortion activists don't have a lock on sanctimony, self-righteousness, and vandalism – animal rightists can do it, too! On Tuesday, the Austin Police Department busted the most visible and incompetent of the local foie gras vandals, who goes by the nom de guerre "Vegangster." See "Foie Gras..."
In the annual anticlimax, City Council adopted on Monday the fiscal year 2008 budget, at a cool $2.5 billion and amidst an e-mail flame war between City Manager Toby Futrell and Council Member Mike Martinez. See "Beside the Point."
Army Gen. David Petraeus reported to Congress this week on the success of his and the Bush administration's "surge" strategy in Iraq – and to nobody's surprise, recommended the U.S. wait until next summer before withdrawing troops to the presurge level.
Here's a tip: If you want to haul a large stash of pot from the border up to Austin, it would probably be a good idea to have a driver's license, a front license plate, and to obey the posted speed limit. Case in point: On Sept. 5, Travis Co. Sheriff's Deputy Brett Hellerud spied a black Chevy Camaro (sans front plate) speeding north on I-35. He pulled the car over only to find that 20-year-old driver Frank Gabriel Martinez didn't have a driver's license – but he did have a female passenger and a lame story to tell. According to the arrest affidavit, Martinez told Hellerud he was driving to Austin from Brownsville to see his girlfriend's suicidal brother. When Hellerud asked Martinez's female passenger (traveling with her 2-year-old child) where the two were headed, she said they were going to Houston to "just hang out." Hellerud was (understandably) suspicious, asked for permission to search the car, and in the trunk found a blue duffel bag stuffed with 14 duct-taped packages of marijuana – a total weighing more than 72 pounds. Martinez was charged with felony pot possession and booked into the Travis Co. Jail. The Travis County Sheriff's Office says Martinez was transporting the pot "for another person" in Austin, but that person has not yet been identified. Investigators determined that Martinez's female companion had no clue the pot was in the car. She and her child were both released without charge. – Jordan Smith
It's a bird! It's a plane! No, it's ... APD Detective Jarrett Crippen, aka the Defuser. That's right; on Sept. 6, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee chose Crippen – err, the Defuser – as the winner of the Sci Fi Channel's reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero, earning Crippen the title of the "world's next great superhero." Crippen, a 14-year APD veteran assigned to the department's training academy, beat out nine other contestants on the second season of the reality show hosted by Lee. The contestants created their own superheroes – including costumes and superpowers – competing against one another in a series of challenges during the seven-week summer series. The Defuser is a loner, master of gadgetry, and fights bad guys using nonlethal weapons. He has the "unique ability" to function at "110%," possessing "enhanced speed, strength, agility, reflexes, hearing, and eyesight" – believe it or not, kids, the Defuser also can see in the dark (up to 60 feet, that is). A lifelong comic-book fan, Crippen says he came up with his Defuser character in the seventh grade after hearing a story about a cop who'd shot a suspect – Crippen wanted to create a hero that didn't have to use lethal force to take down the bad guys. (His motto: "When the Defuser's around, bad guys are going down!") Crippen's character will be the star of a new comic book created by Lee and will be featured in an upcoming Sci Fi Channel movie. – J.S.
Think you know how Downtown Austin should look 20 years from now? Think anyone cares? Sure, they do. A new survey, posted at www.downtownaustinplan.org, poses multiple questions of local residents, aimed at helping city leaders and their consultant, ROMA Design Group, plan for all things Downtown – from brick-and-mortar issues to design standards to heights of buildings. The area of particular interest is bounded by Lamar and I-35 and Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The city will post the survey results later this year. Then we wait. – Amy Smith
City Council Member Brewster McCracken will appoint Chris Ewen to the vacancy left by Chris Riley on the Planning Commission. McCracken was impressed by Ewen, president of theSouthwood Neighborhood Association, as they worked together on the neighborhood opt-in/opt-out process for vertical mixed-use projects. McCracken'sinitially proposed PC appointee, Richard Weiss, will remain on the Design Commission. – Katherine Gregor
The Texas Legislature passed a law last session that requires school districts to spend no more than 10% of class time on standardized tests and test prep. And now Education Austin, the local teacher's union, aims to hold the Austin Independent School District to that standard. It may be difficult. The school year has hardly begun, and students already are taking the district's benchmark tests. "We just got the TAKS scores from the spring," says Louis Malfaro, president of Education Austin. "We know how students are doing, so let's use the data we have in a better way. Instead, we are giving students a test on things they haven't learned yet and telling them the test scores don't count. It's demoralizing." The district gives three such benchmark tests, and most schools also give standardized tests every six or nine weeks, depending on the grade. Education Austin is asking teachers to keep a log of how much time they spend on testing. If it's more than 10% of the year, the union plans to pressure the district to follow state law. – Michael May
In other education news, a new charter school aiming to integrate students with a wide range of disabilities into classrooms with able students is opening in Northeast Austin. The school is named SAILL (Success = Academic Independence + Lifelong Learning) and is run by the nonprofit Technology and Inclusion, which promotes the use of technology to help disabled people. SAILL offers kindergarten through eighth grade and has enrolled 200 students. For more information, go to www.saill.org. – M.M.
The Austin-based Samaritan Center for Counseling and Pastoral Care is offering free counseling services to military personal who are struggling with mental-health issues after serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. The services are also available to their family members. There's evidence that these services are badly needed. The American Psychological Association estimates that 30% of returning soldiers have significant mental-health issues. "Unaddressed problems can lead to divorce, family problems, substance abuse, and depression," said Nancy Blaich, executive director of the Samaritan Center. "Yet these problems can be prevented with access to early intervention and treatment." Applicants must live in Central Texas, including Austin, Cedar Park, Leander, and Bastrop. For more info, call 451-7337. – M.M.
Beyond City Limits
Results are in for Texas Democrats' first presidential ePrimary straw poll, with former Sen. John Edwards winning by a sizable margin. Sponsored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, the nonbinding and admittedly unscientific online poll, released Monday, showed Edwards winning with 3,050 votes, 38% of the 8,101 total votes cast. Barack Obama polled second with 21%, while Hillary Clinton came in a close third at 20%. Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, present at the Texas Democratic Party headquarters in Austin for the announcement, said she believed he could transfer this result into primary votes. "John understands and reflects the needs of voters in Texas," said Edwards, "and he has a rural policy that is sorely missing from other candidates." While admitting that the poll wasn't totally accurate, TDP Chair Boyd Richie said it was far more accurate than the Texas Republicans' straw poll, conducted on Sept. 1 and won by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter with 41% of the 1,299 votes cast. Noting that the GOP poll was limited only to former State Convention delegates prepared to pay $50 and drive to Fort Worth to vote, Richie condemned it as unrepresentative. "If you think Duncan Hunter is going to be the nominee for the Republican Party," he said, "I've got to talk to you about a bridge." For more on the straw polls, see "@ Chronic: Straw Pollsters." – Richard Whittaker
With the uniform election set for Nov. 6, the House Research Organization has released the full list of 16 constitutional amendments that will be on the ballot. Three measures up for approval are intended to cut back on property-tax increases. Proposition 3 would limit tax appraisals to a 10% increase per annum, Proposition 5 would allow municipalities with less than 10,000 residents to freeze property taxes for five years while applying for certain development grants, and Proposition 9 would exempt totally disabled veterans from paying taxes on their homes. The ballot will also include $9.25 billion in new non-self-supporting general obligation bonds, to be spent on construction, highway improvement, cancer research, and water services in economically distressed districts. There also will be a proposal for $500 million in bonds to finance student loans, which would not count as part of the state debt limit. The ballot also could see the end of the inspector of hides and animals, a county office created in 1871 but basically moribund since the 78th Legislature stripped it of almost all its roles and powers. – R.W.
Gov. Rick Perry and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got into a war of words last weekend over the future direction of the GOP. Perry, invited to address the California Republican Party State Convention on Friday evening, followed a speech in which Schwarzenegger warned the party that it had to move back to the center, to avoid marginalizing independent voters. Perry, in response, condemned what he called "the scourge of liberalism" and attacked the "secular humanist" assault on conservative values. Calling the California Republicans "the party of Ronald Reagan" and Texas the "most pro-life, pro-family state in the nation," he went on to single out several targets for Republican ire, including Iran, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and even his host, Schwarzenegger. In what appeared to be a direct attack on the California governor, Perry told the convention that "a candidate who wants to tax like a Democrat, regulate like a Democrat, and educate like a Democrat, they should not have the honor of being called a Republican." Schwarzenegger has faced criticism within the GOP for backing stem-cell research and the expansion of California's Medi-Cal health-care system while staying quiet on internally divisive issues like abortion and gay rights. – R.W.
The good times may have ended for student lenders Friday, when Congress overwhelmingly passed higher-education legislation, which aims to rein in the scandal-racked industry, among other things. The bill, approved 79-12 in the Senate, will slash subsidies to lenders by $20 billion over the next five years and redirect that money to the Pell Grant Program. The money saved from cutting subsidies will be used to raise Pell Grant maximums from $4,310 to $5,400. On the bright side, however, lenders can save money by cutting martini lunches with financial-aid directors out of their budgets, thanks to one section, which mandates a code of conduct to curb the kind of payola that cost UT Financial Aid Director Larry Burt his job. The bill also provides relief to student borrowers struggling to meet their monthly loan payments by capping payments at 15% of the borrower's income. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings advised President Bush to reconsider his earlier threat to veto the bill. Even if he goes against Spelling, Bush could be vetoing in vain, given the bill garnered well over the two-thirds required to override a veto. – Justin Ward
FEMA recently announced it will provide relocation-reimbursement assistance of up to $4,000 for Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees. The expenses must have been accumulated between Feb. 1, 2006, and Feb. 29, 2008, says a FEMA press release, and assistance is "limited to travel costs including airfare, train, bus and/or a rental vehicle. Furniture transportation expenses also are eligible, including commercially rented equipment for hauling and commercially purchased moving materials or moving services." For more info, see www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=39214; to apply for assistance, call 800/621-FEMA or 800/462-7585 for the hearing impaired. – Cheryl Smith
Medical insurers no longer can say some sorts of unpaid insurance claims are the federal government's responsibility. On Aug. 31, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that five Texas hospitals can sue health-care-benefits provider Aetna Inc. directly – without having to go through a complicated appeals process. The hospitals claimed Aetna tried avoiding being sued under state law by using the Federal Medicare Act as a shield. The hospitals did not have a contract with Aetna but with North American Medical Management of Texas. However, Aetna's wholly owned subsidiary NYLCare paid NAMM to provide health care. When the Texas Department of Insurance placed NAMM under supervision conservatorship in August 2000, NAMM was alleged to have underpaid on 6,000 individual claims, for a total of $14 million. The hospitals sued Aetna, arguing that, under the Texas Insurance Code, Aetna was liable for NAMM's underpayment. Aetna argued that the hospitals would have to appeal each claim fully through the federal administrative system. Initially, the Harris trial court and the court of appeals both dismissed the lawsuit, finding they had no jurisdiction. Describing those judgments as turning the Medicare administrative system into a "de facto claims administrator," the Supreme Court overturned them and returned the case to the trial court. – R.W.
Nov. 6 – that's the date set by Gov. Rick Perry for the special election to replace Rep. Anna Mowery, R-Fort Worth. The 10-term Republican announced her intention to stand down in May, but rather than see out her full term, she resigned effective Aug. 13. This meant a special election had to be called, with the winner holding the seat until January 2009. Last year, Mowery held her seat by a comfortable 15% over Democrat Dan Barrett, but this was down by 8% from her 2004 victory over Nancy Stevens. She also faced a primary challenge in 2006 from Republican lawyer Robert Higgins. A dozen potential candidates from both parties – including Barrett, Stevens, and Higgins – have said they're considering a run for the vacated seat. Most surprising of these is Republican Bob Leonard, who originally held Mowery's seat from 1977 to 1988, when he stood down to become a lobbyist. – R.W.