Quote of the Week
"So?" – Vice President Dick Cheney, in response to ABC reporter Martha Raddatz pointing out that "two-thirds of Americans say [the Iraq war] is not worth fighting, and they're looking at the value gained versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives."
The U.S. war in Iraq passed two milestones this week: the fifth year of combat since the March 2003 invasion and the 4,000th death of an American soldier. Another 29,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded, and the Iraqi civilian deaths and casualties are in the hundreds of thousands.
The Travis Co. Democratic Party Convention (state Senate districts 14 and 25) takes place this Saturday, March 29, at the Travis Co. Exposition Center. The convention begins at 10am; doors open at 7am. Party officials anticipate many thousands of delegates.
The city of Austin had a mixed day in court Tuesday: A suit by animal and neighborhood activists against the planned move of the Town Lake Animal Center to the Eastside was dismissed, but the much-debated anti-panhandling ordinance was ruled unconstitutional. See below for more on the panhandling ordinance.
Upholding a ruling from 2005, County Court at Law Judge David Phillips ruled last week that a solicitation ban in Austin's Central Business District (Downtown to UT, bordered by Cesar Chavez and 29th, Lamar and I-35, along with two separate pockets) is unconstitutional. The state of Texas appealed a 2005 ruling in the panhandling case of John Curran, who was arrested standing at Fifth and Lamar. Municipal Judge Alfred Jenkins said the solicitation ban used to cite him, passed by City Council, was "overly broad and not narrowly tailored and is therefore unconstitutional." Judge Phillips agreed, saying, "If there is more the city wishes to forbid" than the danger solicitation poses near traffic, "the ordinance must be much more narrowly drawn than this one. The court agrees with the trial court that this ordinance is unconstitutional. ... This ordinance reaches conduct that has little or nothing to do with traffic safety and very much to do with constitutionally protected free speech." – Wells Dunbar
While not generating the same controversy it once did, plans for Water Treatment Plant No. 4 are still under way at its new location. Today, City Council Item 19 gives WTP4 planners Carollo Engineers $27.6 million for "professional engineering final design phase, bidding assistance services, and a portion of construction phase" of the plant. The amount brings Carollo's total for work on the plant to more than $42 million. A separate but related piece of business, Item 8, has the Austin Water Utility issuing $20 million in commercial paper bonds, because, as a memo from Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza puts it, "[d]ue to the additional costs associated with the new site and the backup plant site, it is necessary for the Utility to seek additional appropriation in the Fiscal Year 2007-08 Capital Budget." This won't be the last funding request for WTP4 either: Item 19's backup states, "Staff will return to Council for approval of additional funding for Carollo Engineers for the construction phase and warranty assistance phases for WTP 4 on this new site." – W.D.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo broke his brisk stride through City Hall Monday to field questions from the Chronicle about the flap over Immigration and Customs Enforcement setting up shop in the Travis County Jail in order to increase deportations. Would he grant activists' request for a meeting? Though Acevedo said he hasn't heard about the request yet, he said, "I'll talk to anyone." Activists believe the new policy contributes to racial profiling and compromises public safety because immigrants will avoid reporting crimes, and they've protested the ICE presence to Sheriff Greg Hamilton, to no avail. Acevedo noted that all foreign nationals jailed for criminal infractions must be reported to their consulates, amplifying Hamilton's position that his agency's only doing what it must. But when asked about the theory that the nationwide clampdown muffles potential informants, Acevedo said he, too, would not want to see "a chilling effect," positing the scenario that the one informant who could help police foil "another 9/11 or child abduction" might be an undocumented immigrant. For more on this, see last week's "Sheriff's Office Draws Heat for Helping ICE." – Patricia J. Ruland
Austin Independent School District students can now bring their cell phones to school, but they better not use them in the classroom. At its March 24 meeting, the AISD board of trustees voted 6-3 to allow students of all grades to bring phones, wireless devices, or MP3 players to school. The old rules, last amended in 2003, only covered high schoolers and cell phones. In an attempt to keep up with technology and after pressure from some parents, the board made the revisions. Students aren't allowed to use the devices during the instructional day, however. "It has to be in the locker or back pack, and it has to be off until the end of the school day," AISD spokesman Andy Welch said. The devices are also completely banned during testing. Any student breaking the rules will have the device confiscated, and it will only be returned to his or her parent or guardian after payment of a handling fee. Also, Welch reminded parents and students, "We're not responsible if it gets lost." – Richard Whittaker
Austin students are passing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading exam in greater numbers than ever, but they're still lagging behind Texas averages. On March 25, the district released preliminary results for the TAKS tests, administered on March 5. Pass rates for the English-language version at third (87%), fifth (79%), and eighth (90%) grades have all increased over five- and one-year measurements. However, these numbers are between 1 and 4 points lower than the state average. The gap is even broader for the Spanish-language test, with only 75% at third grade and 63% at fifth grade, compared to 82% and 70% respectively statewide. Students must pass these tests to move on to the next grade, but those who failed can retest on April 30. The district plans to provide extra in-class and afterschool tutoring before then. – R.W.
The Barton Springs Pool Master Plan, intended as a needs assessment for renovations and improvements to the crown jewel of Austin's park system, was initiated with the goal of "returning the site to its rightful glory where the water was cleaner and the experience was more enjoyable." A draft master plan is now complete and viewable online. The city is asking the public to have a gander and offer feedback by April 21. The huge 352-page document is mercifully broken into small, concise PDF files. Some of the plan's goals include rehabilitating the historic bathhouse, improving water quality and natural water flow, sprucing up the landscaping, and engineering a way to prevent nuisance algae and flooding, which in 2007 forced the pool to close a record 16 times. Other objectives seek to renovate the one-of-a-kind, spring-fed Sunken Garden southeast of the pool, improve pool-cleaning equipment, add more accessible entrances, and remove the long-accumulating gravel bar. Longer-term projects include possibly building a new south bathhouse, redesigning both Barton Creek dams, and renovating the amphitheatrelike Eliza Springs near the concessions stand. Check out the Special Considerations section for tidbits on sustainability considerations and art in the park. Find the full plan at www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/bspmasterplan.htm. – Daniel Mottola
Beyond City Limits
Expect to see some form of vouchers lite come out of the Texas Education Agency in the next week or so. Education Commissioner Robert Scott is expected to use his administrative powers to create a grant program to recover high school dropouts. Public and private schools likely would be given a per-student reimbursement for recovering the students. Scott has argued that such a program should not be deemed a voucher, per se, but talk is that it will be close enough to a voucher to please multimillionaire Jim Leininger, who has poured $8 million of his own money into recent elections in order to get vouchers passed. Local education groups promise a courthouse brawl if TEA bypasses the Legislature to approve any program that might open the door on vouchers. – Kimberly Reeves
When it comes to the November congressional elections, the Libertarian Party of Texas will definitely beat the Democrats in one way: number of candidates. The Libertarians are running in 29 of the 32 Texas congressional districts, while the Democrats could only muster 26 (the GOP has a full slate). In the Austin area, Travis Co. Libertarian Party Vice Chair Matt Finkel joins Democrat Larry Joe Doherty in challenging District 10 incumbent Republican Mike McCaul. Finkel's fellow executive committee member Jim Stutsman faces Democrat Lloyd Doggett in District 25, as well as Republican George Morovich. James Arthur Strohm is alone in trying to take down Lamar Smith in District 21 (the last Libertarian to challenge Smith, Jason Pratt in 2004, secured 2.99% of the vote). – R.W.
Gov. Rick Perry has criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not doing more to help fight wildfires that have consumed almost a million acres in Texas since Jan. 1. Perry had asked that FEMA issue a Major Disaster Declaration, but instead it issued a lesser Emergency Declaration. This only pays for 75% of federal firefighting costs, does not reimburse any of the $20.5 million already spent by state and local agencies, and does not include any long-term federal recovery programs. Calling FEMA's approach "fundamentally flawed," Perry said in a March 20 press statement that "it discourages state and local entities from taking steps to prevent the loss of lives and property by refusing to assist in the preventive efforts." As of March 25, 151 counties have burn bans in effect, while the Texas Forest Service classifies much of the state as being at moderate to high risk of fire. The service has committed all available firefighting resources, as well as aircraft from the Texas Air National Guard. – R.W.
Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is leading a delegation of Central Texas lawmakers and business leaders urging support for a federal study of the cumulative impacts of new coal-fired power plants on ozone levels across the state. Right now, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality does not consider cumulative effects, specifically, how a coal-fired plant in one part of the state might impact air quality in another part. That's particularly onerous in Central Texas, which is on the cusp of nonattainment under the Clean Air Act and downwind of a newly permitted coal-fired plant. Nonattainment would bring all sorts of sanctions with it, including limitations on federal highway funds, Watson said in a news conference last week. He hopes the federal study will provide lawmakers with a new tool to use next session when shaping the state's own permitting standards for air quality. For related news, see "Can Austin Meet New Air Rules? Don't Hold Your Breath." – K.R.
More news on the "Frankenfence" front: An additional Democratic precinct in Presidio County approved during the March 4 Texas primary a resolution opposing the feds' planned fence-wall hybrid for the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, about a half-dozen Republican precincts in El Paso County approved an identical resolution in favor of some kind of a wall, whether it be a partial physical divider or partial virtual divider, said David Thackston, Resolutions Committee chair for the county's GOP. (Interestingly, the city of El Paso contradicted this pro-wall sentiment sharply on March 18, when its City Council voted to deny the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers access to a road on city property, preventing work on an already standing piece of federal fence.) Texas will hold its county and district conventions on Saturday, at which point precinct delegates will vote on the resolutions. The ones that pass will go to the Democratic and Republican state conventions, where they could get incorporated into the parties' state platforms. For a rundown of other precincts that passed anti-wall resolutions during the caucuses and conventions, see "Cross-Border Craziness," March 21, and "Frontera Residents Blast 'Frankenfence'," March 14. – Cheryl Smith
Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank is drafting legislation that would decriminalize adult use and possession of up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana. Frank announced his intention to file the legislation – the first federal pot-decrim measure filed in 24 years – during a March 21 appearance on the HBO talk show Real Time With Bill Maher. "It's time for the politicians to catch up with the public" on the pot issue, Frank said. Indeed, 12 states have pot-decrim laws on the books, and in a recent CNN/Time magazine poll, 76% of adults said they favor decriminalizing marijuana for responsible adult users. Frank's legislative proposal is based on the March 1972 recommendations of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (aka the Shafer Commission), which concluded the criminal law is "too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage [pot] use," in part because it "implies an overwhelming indictment of a behavior which we believe is not appropriate," reads the commission report. "The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior." – Jordan Smith
The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of guest workers from India who claim they were forced to work against their wills in Gulf Coast shipyards, then detained like "pigs in a cage" when they tried to complain. Mary Bauer, director of the SPLC Immigrant Justice Project, states on the SPLC website that the case against Signal International LLC, a Mississippi and Texas fabrication company and subcontractor for global defense firm Northrop Grumman Corp., "illustrates everything that's wrong with our guest worker program." According to the SPLC, Signal imported welders, pipe-fitters, and ship-fitters after Hurricane Katrina decimated its workforce. Hundreds of Indian men took out loans and sold everything to pay recruiters $20,000 in travel and visa fees. For all their sacrifices, however, the men were given only 10-month guest-worker visas, rather than the green cards promised them. Each worker had to pay $1,050 to board with up to 23 other men per trailer, and housing camps were located in the middle of nowhere, fenced, and guarded. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleges that defendants engaged in forced labor, human-trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and civil rights violations. – P.J.R.