As the Chronicle went to press, the 6pm Jan. 2 filing deadline arrived for the March 4 party primaries. Among a smattering of local intra-party races are four candidates for the job of retiring District Attorney Ronnie Earle and three for Travis Co. Constable Precinct 1 – including former Austin City Council Member Danny Thomas.
The search for a new Austin city manager reaches full speed this week, as City Council will review outside candidates Jan. 3 and 4 and interview leading candidates Jan. 8 and 9, with the selection to be formalized and announced at council's Jan. 17 meeting.
Legendary political bulldog, Gov. Perry crony, and state road warrior Ric Williamson, 55, died Dec. 30 of a heart attack. Williamson had been chair of the Transportation Commission since 2004 and a lightning rod for criticism as the frontman on toll roads and the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Iowa voters readied for the Thursday night caucuses this week, where they will finally pick small-town preferences among a brace of Democratic candidates and a herd of Republicans. Or maybe not.
Two Democrats have filed to run for judge for the newly established County Court at Law No. 8, a criminal court handling class A and B misdemeanor cases. Carlos H. Barrera was a prosecuting attorney for six years in Laredo, before returning to Austin in 1990 to become a criminal-defense attorney. John Lipscombe, assistant county attorney for Travis County criminal misdemeanor courts and a former Amalgamated Transit Union organizer, stresses rehabilitation over punishment for nonviolent offenders. He proposes using an evening docket to meet with young and repeat alcohol-/substance-abuse offenders on probation to ensure they keep up with their rehab programs. – Richard Whittaker
Expect to hear a lot less of the MetroRail cars when testing resumes on the commuter-rail line this month. Capital Metro is attempting to rework some of the railroad crossings in order to keep the overnight test runs a bit quieter for neighbors. Until the crossing arms are reinforced – and the so-called "quiet zones" are created – the cars must still blow their horns at crossings. Otherwise, the test runs went well, said spokesman Adam Shaivitz. The agency put about 200 miles on each of the first two MetroRail cars. The second two will be tested sometime next month. The 32-mile commuter-rail line – which Capital Metro has dubbed the Red Line – will begin service next fall. – Kimberly Reeves
There are just a few days left to say what features you want on the official city of Austin website. Partly in response to last year's defeated Open Government Online amendment, in 2008 the city plans on redesigning the Austin City Connection website (www.cityofaustin.org) in a more open and useful fashion. (Hopefully.) To that end, the city has created the Austin GO initiative to ask members of the public what info or services they want to access online. Want a heads-up on neighborhood development? Big Public Works projects? City Council initiatives? Visit www.austingo.org by Jan. 4 to take the survey in English or Spanish. It's your website – give your opinion! – Wells Dunbar
Around the Chronicle newsroom, where no run is "fun" and exercise is a four-letter word, I arched my eyebrows (requiring no small amount of effort) at a press release trumpeting the Mayor's Fitness Council event for Thursday, Jan. 3 – the same day City Council is scheduled to pore over the master list of applicants angling to become Austin's next city manager. While we appreciate the allure of rock-hard abs and calves the size of old-growth-forest trees as much as anybody (well, probably not as much as Will Wynn and his Fitness Council chair-cum-campaign point man Paul Carrozza), surely some things – like deciding who keeps the lights on at City Hall for the next half-decade or so – take precedence. But then I slowly exhaled: The Fitness Council event is scheduled for 9am, while council doesn't convene the city manager search until 1pm that day – providing even the mayor enough time to hit the showers. After all, you gotta be in shape to run, run away from those out-of-town city manager applicants! – W.D.
The Salvation Army is thankful for a $730,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but that money won't go toward the gap in funding created by the Capital Area United Way's new community investment strategy. Maj. Stephen Ellis said the grant, announced this week by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, is restricted to the stand-alone Passages program, a six-agency collaborative intended to get families in shelters back on their feet. The $270,000 lost in United Way funding, on the other hand, was unrestricted funding the organization used to provide counseling and job-search services to those who use the Salvation Army's Downtown shelter. Ellis said his agency's staff and board will begin meeting this week to talk about how to address the anticipated cuts in funding. – K.R.
Beyond City Limits
Eleven hospitals and health-care clinics in Texas will share a $4.5 million settlement from a more-than-a-decade-old lawsuit between the Texas attorney general and BlueCross BlueShield of Texas. The litigation began in 1996, when the AG's office opposed the merging of BlueCross BlueShield of Texas and BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois. (The AG argued the Texas branch was a charity, while the Illinois branch was not.) The settlement must be spent on indigent care, and a portion of the money will go to the Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas in Austin. – Justin Ward
Speaking of moola, millions of dollars in lottery prizes are left behind each year, according to the Texas Lottery Commission. The commission estimates nearly half a billion dollars in prizes have gone unclaimed since it began keeping track in 1995. Though the majority of the money is small sums, there have been five jackpot winners worth a combined $46 million. In Texas, lottery players have 180 days to claim their winnings, with an exception for military personnel on active duty. The prizes are split between the state general fund and a program for indigent health care. – J.W.
A recently released letter revealed the UT System won't be divesting from Sudan anytime soon, despite calls from students and politicians for UT to cut ties with the nation for its human-rights record. The system's investment company, known as UTIMCO, is prevented by its own investment policies from "social investment," according to the letter from UTIMCO CEO Bruce Zimmerman to UT System Board of Regents Chairman H. Scott Caven. Furthermore, the letter said, even if UTIMCO wanted to divest, it would be difficult to achieve, since the company farms out much of the portfolio management to other firms. UTIMCO estimates $27.6 million – one-tenth of 1% of the total portfolio – is invested directly or indirectly in companies identified by the state divestment task force. Almost 80% of that money is invested in China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. and PetroChina, two of the Sudanese government's biggest partners. Although other state-managed funds, such as public employee pension funds, are required by a state law to divest, UTIMCO is exempt. – J.W.
Citizens annoyed about cars illegally parked in spaces reserved for drivers with disabilities can do something polite about it. The Governor's Committee on People With Disabilities is issuing courtesy reminders to be placed on windshields of cars blocking access. The nonbinding notices are intended to educate drivers parked in a reserved space, on an access aisle, or across a ramp. Any citizen can request one from the state and place them on windshields of offending vehicles. No formal training is necessary; however, "to protect the safety of all concerned," the committee wisely notes, "use of the reminders is recommended only when a vehicle is not occupied." – R.W.
The U.S. Senate recently confirmed demographics professor Steve Murdock as the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau. A Texas native, Murdock is a professor of sociology at Rice University and director of the Texas State Data Center. Murdock was the first official state demographer of Texas, and Texas Monthly named him among "The 25 Most Powerful Texans" in 2005. "Demography is a divine calling," said Murdock in an online article. "We know it is because there is a book of Numbers in the Bible, and it's all about the census." – J.W.
The Texas Education Agency is opening seven new high schools that will specifically recruit low-income, minority students and prepare them for college, as well as three new Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math academies. The new schools are part of the $261 million private-public Texas High School Project, funded by the state, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Communities Foundation of Texas. The project funds new models of high schools in order to increase graduation rates and promote a college-going culture. The new high schools will be in the Cedar Hill, Edgewood, Frenship, Houston, and Mercedes school districts, and the math and science academies will be in the Fruitvale, Galveston, and Houston school districts. The project has funded a total of 91 high schools. – Michael May
The state's electricity grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, reported recently that supplies of reserve power, which ward off blackouts during extreme weather or major outages, will be sufficient until 2011 – adding two years to a May 2007 estimate. ERCOT credits a 255-megawatt natural-gas power plant and two large coal plants being built by Energy Future Holdings (formerly TXU), set to come online in 2009 and 2010, adding 2,291 megawatts of power. ERCOT's previous estimate, that power reserves would fall short by 2009, was used as a major justification for the controversial CO2-belching coal plants. Modest state energy-conservation mandates were implemented in 2007, but energy experts say much more energy savings are possible statewide. Texas has been the top wind-energy producer in the nation for two years and in 2007 became the first state to add 1,000 megawatts of wind power in a single year. Newly approved power lines could deliver up to 25,000 megawatts of new electricity by 2012. ERCOT says power reserve estimates could become increasingly tight after 2011 but that it is tracking projects capable of adding tens of thousands of megawatts to the grid by 2013. – Daniel Mottola
Austin is renowned for trying to emulate Portland, Ore., in many aspects of urban design, but after Responsible Growth for Northcross' recent court loss, we might now be ahead of our Northwestern mentors in one respect. Of his new hometown, Portland Trail Blazers rookie superstar Greg Oden complained to The Indianapolis Star: "The only thing is, they don't have any Wal-Marts near my house. I go to Best Buy or Target, but those places are pretty expensive." – Lee Nichols
Newspapers continue to retrench as they attempt to adjust to the Digital Age. The latest move comes from the San Antonio Express-News, which at the end of the year stopped home delivery and single-copy sales to Austin, as well as to several parts of South Texas, including McAllen, Brownsville, and Corpus Christi. "It's purely and simply a cost-cutting move," Publisher Tom Stephenson told the Associated Press. "In some parts of the state, we were operating at a very significant loss." In October, the Hearst-owned paper announced plans to cut 40 to 50 jobs through buybacks and attrition. The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle have also cut staff in the last year. At one point, expanding distribution and coverage beyond core areas was seen as the key growth industry for newspapers, as they cast a wider net for readers. But papers around the country, unable to gain traction in outlying communities, have been cutting back on zoned editions and broad distribution. "The State Desk mission remains the same because we cover South Texas primarily for the benefit of our readers in San Antonio and the surrounding counties," Express-News Editor Robert Rivard told the AP. – Kevin Brass
Former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove will receive a reported $1.5 million for his autobiography from Threshold Editions, a right-wing imprint at Simon & Schuster. Run by Mary Matalin, a former assistant to President George W. Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, it has become the memoir outlet of choice for a series of Bushies, including Mary and Lynne Cheney, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, former Governor of Iraq L. Paul Bremer III, White House counselor Ed Gillespie, and Alfred S. Regnery of arch-conservative press Regnery Publishing, the company responsible for the John Kerry-bashing Unfit for Command. – R.W.
The old winning combo of an oral citizenship declaration and not looking like a menace to the nation will no longer cut it for United States, Canadian, and Bermudian citizens coming into the U.S. via official land and sea entry points. According to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection press release, "effective January 31, 2008, all travelers will be expected to present documents proving citizenship, such as a birth certificate, and government-issued documents proving identity, such as a driver's license, when entering the United States." The new rule is a product of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004's Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, one of the federal government's many post-9/11 attempts to strengthen border security. For more info on the initiative, see www.travel.state.gov/travel/cbpmc/cbpmc_2223.html. – Cheryl Smith