Quote of the Week
"I have learned from my service over the decades that the first, last, and most important responsibility of the district attorney is to put the interests of the children first. As long as that can be done, I am confident that the [new] district attorney will be fully capable of sorting out everything and anything else that needs to occur in order to see that justice is done."
– Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who announced last week that he will not seek re-election and will retire at the end of this term
In a stunning upset, Democrats have claimed yet another seat in the Texas House. On Tuesday, Dan Barrett defeated Mark Shelton with 52% of the vote in a special election run-off to replace retiring Fort Worth Republican Anna Mowery. The Dems are now only five seats away from a majority.
Despite White House pressure and weaseling from the Democratic leadership, the attempt to expand the feds' wiretapping surveillance powers and grant retroactive immunity to telecom companies that had broken laws failed this week, as Sen. Harry Reid – facing a filibuster from Sen. Christopher Dodd and heavy public opposition – postponed the matter until next year.
Despite considerable foot-dragging by the U.S., a new international agreement to combat climate change was signed in Bali last week, with hopes it will result in significant efforts to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions – including possible mandatory reductions after the Bush administration is history in 2009.
After serving as Travis Co. district attorney for 30 years, Ronnie Earle announced Dec. 14 that he would not seek re-election next year. Before winning the top prosecutors' spot for the first time in 1977, Earle served as a municipal judge – at 26 he was then the youngest person in Texas to serve in that position – and did a three-year turn in the Texas House. Earle's retirement finally opens the field to a host of contenders and would-be contenders for the job – including several from his staff. Prosecutors Gary Cobb and Rick Reed have both filed as candidates, while prosecutor Mindy Montford and First Assistant County Attorney Randy Leavitt have both said they plan to join the race. Retiring Judge Jeanne Meurer, longtime jurist on the 98th District bench (where, handling countless juvenile cases, she earned a reputation as a tough-love judge whose laserlike stare could scare anyone straight), issued a statement saying she too was weighing whether to run for the spot. – Jordan Smith
Glen Maxey is still on the offensive in his bid to unseat 16-year Travis Co. Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears. His campaign manager, Elliott McFadden, filed a complaint with the county attorney alleging Spears failed to file required personal financial statements for 2001-2003 and filed late in 2006. "The annual filing of personal financial statements by elected officials is the law, and Ms. Spears should know it," McFadden said. The complaint alleges Spears violated Chapter 572 of the Texas Government Code, a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to $10,000 per violation. "Maxey has, once again, demonstrated his ignorance of the applicable law," replied former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire for the Spears camp. "That chapter applies only to state officials, not to any county officials." Aleshire said the Local Government Code governs Spears, with only $100 penalties – plus, the statute of limitations has expired. More importantly, Aleshire said, Spears was surprised to find her reports were not on file, has ordered copies of all her tax returns since 2000, and will make them public. "Now, we challenge Mr. Maxey to do the same. ... If Mr. Maxey believes [the public has a right to know], then he won't mind showing who's been paying him since 2000 and how much." – Lee Nichols
Former Austin Police Sgt. Michael Olsen has hired a new attorney, Tom Stribling, and the city's Civil Service Commission has granted a 60-day continuance in his case, meaning the CSC will reconvene to consider Olsen's appeal to get his job back on Feb. 18. Olsen was fired last month for his actions in the June shooting death of 25-year-old Kevin Brown. – J.S.
Capital Metro's urban commuter rail project rolled closer to reality this week – on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, the first MetroRail vehicle was tested on the tracks between the U.S. 183/Burnet Road and MoPac/Howard Lane intersections. Also, observers may have seen MetroRail stations going up – the station across Airport Boulevard from Highland Mall has been completed, and the one at Airport and North Lamar is under construction. MetroRail, which will run from Leander, through North and East Austin, and on to the Convention Center, is scheduled to begin operations in fall 2008. – L.N.
The Austin Library Commission has recommended Seaholm as the preferred site for the city's new $90 million central library. The recommendation comes mainly from the commission's desire to see a stand-alone building. If the library were to be located on the site of the soon-to-be-decommissioned Green Power Plant, then the project would likely be folded into a larger multiuse development. Under the original schedule for the bonds passed last November, the central library would be one of the last projects to be built, possibly to give the Austin Public Library Foundation and the Friends of the Austin Public Library the ability to do some additional fundraising. Council will consider a resolution to designate Green the preferred site on Jan. 10. – Kimberly Reeves
Southwest Key Programs, one of the largest nonprofits in Austin, has received a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services to create 71 jobs in East Austin. Southwest Key is opening the 30,000-square-foot East Austin Community Development Center early next year, right next to Johnston High. The nonprofit provides juvenile-justice programs, shelters for immigrant children, alternative schools, workforce development, and other programs. The federal grant will provide the capital to create Southwest Key Maintenance, which will be housed at the center. The program will create jobs and provide job training for low-income individuals, while providing maintenance, janitorial, and landscaping services at a competitive price. The center is at 6002 Jain Ln. in East Austin. – Michael May
The Austin Independent School District board of trustees has approved the 2008-2009 school calendar. The new calendar does not differ substantially from the current school year. School will begin a couple of days earlier, on Monday, Aug. 25; the fall semester will end a few days earlier, on Dec. 18; classes will resume on Jan. 6, 2009, giving families a few more vacation days over the winter break; and school will end on June 3, 2009. The fall semester will have 78 school days, and the spring semester will have 97 days. – M.M.
Beyond City Limits
In a legal battle that must have conservatives in knots, the strip joints lost the first round of their fight against the tax collectors. On Tuesday, 53rd District Judge Scott Jenkins declined to grant a temporary injunction to prevent the state comptroller from collecting the "titty tax" – a $5-per-head surcharge to be paid by businesses that provide live nude entertainment and allow customers to drink alcohol. Jenkins said the plaintiffs – the Texas Entertainment Association, which represents adult cabarets around the state, and Amarillo-based bar-management firm Karpod Inc. – had failed to prove imminent irreparable harm. Jenkins said he would take under advisement a motion to dismiss and a jurisdiction plea from the comptroller's office. Peter Nolan, an attorney for the Texas Entertainment Association, said that while this request for extraordinary relief had failed, the association will seek a permanent injunction. – Richard Whittaker
In a blow to opponents of Speaker Tom Craddick, Attorney General Greg Abbott has finally issued his opinion on the powers of the speaker, and Craddick said it backed his position "on every disputed issue." Rep. Jim Keffer requested the opinion on June 18, but Abbott waited until 9pm last Friday to issue it. Twenty-two of its 31 pages tackled whether the speaker is an officer of the state. Abbott argued that he is and could be removed by impeachment, a step that would require Senate approval of a House vote about House business. Abbott refused to give definitive answers to two questions: if or how the House could replace an ejected speaker and whether the speaker could simply refuse to recognize House members. He deferred, saying an answer would violate the separation of powers. Craddick, who was accused last session of claiming absolute power, immediately interpreted this as affirming his "position as rules arbiter." Noting Craddick and Abbott share many donors, House Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, condemned the opinion and said, "Abbott threw a lifeline to his ally." – R.W.
The record low unemployment rate in Texas means most employers in the state will get a break on their taxes next year. The Texas Workforce Commission voted last week to lower the unemployment-tax rate to 0.22% in 2008, from 0.29% in 2007. This tax feeds the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund, which provides unemployment benefits to workers who have been laid off. The fund now has a surplus, thanks to low unemployment and the fact that the bond-debt used to seed the fund in 2003 was paid off early, saving employers $270 million in taxes. – M.M.
In other economic news, BusinessWeek.com recently released findings on housing affordability that are a study in contrasts. Ranking as the nation's most expensive housing market is Beverly Hills, with an average home price of $2.21 million, which is no surprise. More intriguing is that Killeen, Texas, ranks as the most affordable market in the U.S., with a "similar home" selling for $136,725 there. The study examines 317 U.S. markets, using a single-family home with 2,220 square feet, four bedrooms, 2½ baths, a family room, and two-car garage "within a market that is typical for corporate middle-management transferees" as a benchmark. The similarity ends there, however. "You won't find ... Rodeo Drive here [in Killeen] – but you will find community events such as fairs, concerts, and high school football games ... and a pervasive sense of patriotism," according to the study. The Austin/Round Rock area also rates well, with a median home price of $186,000. In fact, the study bills the South as the place to find comfort from high prices. Regardless, some local builders are reacting with guarded pessimism to the mounting national malaise – Centex Homes recently nixed a huge subdivision on the Pearson family ranch off Parmer Lane, for instance. – Patricia J. Ruland
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is considering giving degree-granting powers to a college that teaches the Bible as literal scientific truth. On Dec. 14, the certification advisory committee considered an application from the Institute for Creation Research, a California-based fundamentalist school with a branch in Dallas, for a certificate of authority to grant a master's in science education. The certificate would last two years and is an interim step to full accreditation. The school rejects Darwinism and argues that global warming provides proof for the biblical flood. It already offers the master's and a professional-certificate program for the Creationist Worldview via the Internet. According to the Institute for Creation Research website, the course is intended to help teachers "relate science and [science] education concepts as revealed in scripture." The board will receive final recommendations in January. – R.W.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chair of the Capital Area Metro- politan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board, has sent a letter to the Texas Department of Transportation questioning the timing on state budget cuts that likely will trickle down to Central Texas soon. Only about two months ago, the region approved short-term road projects. At the time, no one at the state agency indicated funding cuts would be imminent, Watson wrote. "It was the understanding of the CAMPO board that, in addition to the funding acquired by the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA), the Department had committed to substantial funding by means of various categories through the term of the [Transportation Improvement Program]," Watson wrote. "This commitment was stated in several public meetings, as well as the October meeting. It was understood to be in the range of $500 to $700 million, and it was a critical and determinative factor in the CAMPO's board decision to approve the Department's requested projects." TxDOT declined to comment specifically on Watson's questions, saying it's working on a response to a number of questions Watson posed. – K.R.
If any native Austinite has a right to bitch about how much cooler things were before Austin's development boom, it's the Jollyville Salamander. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service issued a determination this week that the salamander warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act but said the agency must defer actually listing it as endangered in order to assist other species at greater risk. Salamanders inhabit springs, spring runs, and caves within the Jollyville Plateau area of the Edwards Aquifer in northern Travis and southern Williamson counties. They're primarily threatened by water-quality degradation from urban development runoff in the form of storm water entering their habitat. Sediment can clog a salamander's external gills, impairing its ability to avoid predators, find food, and locate mates. Were the salamander listed as endangered, any entity harming it could be prosecuted and developers would have to obtain a permit from the Fish & Wildlife Service prior to initiating a project within salamander habitat. Until then, protection efforts could include technical assistance and competitive matching grants for landowners that participate in Candidate Conservation Agreements. The service determination was based on a petition filed by the Save Our Springs Alliance and included 10-year salamander population and water-quality data from the city of Austin. – Daniel Mottola