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Coalition of business groups, community leaders say proposal is misleading

Thursday, April 25, 2002 by

Downtown business groups joined with the unions representing police officers and firefighters on Wednesday to announce their opposition to Proposition 1, the “Austin Fair Elections Act.” Speakers at the meeting said the act would have a negative impact on the city budget while giving too much power to the new city Ethics Commission that the proposal would establish if approved by voters on May 4th.

“Proposition 1 is bad for Austin from both a public policy and financial point of view,” said Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce President Mark Hazelwood. He objected to distributing city funds for political campaigns. “These funds are taxpayer dollars that are being taken away from public services at a time when the city already faces shrinking tax revenues,” he noted. The City Council has not yet selected a funding mechanism for the money that would be required by Proposition 1, but City Manager Designee Toby Futrell has suggested a tax anticipation note, which would mean another tax increase on top of the one the Council has already promised. Supporters of the plan have also proposed a fee on registered lobbyists and a “check-off” box on utility bills that would allow people to voluntarily contribute to the campaign fund. Lobbyists currently pay fees that go into city coffers to help fund run-offs for those participating in the voluntary system.

Kirk Rudy, president of the Real Estate Council of Austin, joined Hazelwood in warning of the potential impact on the city’s budget. Rudy said that if the public-financing system were in place today, all 13 candidates for City Council would qualify, resulting in $1 million in city funds being distributed to political candidates. “Would you rather pay $1 million to people running for office than pay $1 million to the childhood immunization program?” Rudy asked. Supporters of Proposition 1 counter that staff estimates of the cost of the proposal are dramatically higher than real-world examples provided by other cities and states that have adopted similar measures, including Los Angeles, New York City, Arizona, and Maine. (See In Fact Daily, April 19, 2002)

Firefighter and police union representatives continued the refrain, describing campaign money as funding that would have to be taken from public safety. “We believe that public safety should be a priority and this is not a wise use of your tax dollars,” said Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield.

Scott Toupin, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, told In Fact Daily, “The option before the voters is gong to drastically impact the budget at a time of serious revenue shortfalls. As the City Council and Manager tackle the issue of where we spend . . . we should be sure the public safety component of the budget is funded at current levels, not diminished based on a referendum.” Toupin also questioned whether the Charter amendment would have the desired effect. He said the amendment itself, which was written by Fred Lewis, president of Clean Campaigns, came to the ballot “lacking input from all the parties. All the parties should be brought to the table,” before citizens vote on the issue, he said.

The public process for getting the campaign-funding measure on the May 4th ballot also came under criticism from citizens involved in Austin’s boards and commissions. Marta Cotera, who served on the Charter Revision Committee, said she believed those who signed the petition to get the measure on the ballot had not received enough information. “I’m pretty sure I’m one of the people who signed the petition,” Cotera admitted, “and for those of you who did sign, remember that you were looking at a very short paragraph . . . not at 20 pages of small print that will, as far as I’m concerned, put us in a financial bind. I felt a little duped—there was minimal input from the community as a whole and definitely no profound review of the financial and other impacts.”

Former Chair of the Ethics Review Commission Ginny Agnew joined Cotera, saying she also felt Proposition 1 was not clearly written. She too denounced the creation of a new, more powerful Ethics Review Commission. “Not only is it an expensive proposition, but it’s a very radical and revolutionary proposal that’s being made . . . it creates a new judicial branch that has the ability to conduct its own investigations, has subpoena power and then has the ability to actually cause a forfeiture of a candidate’s seat,” Agnew said. “I don’t think that was clear to all of the people who signed those petitions.” Supporters of Proposition 1 counter that a strong independent body is needed to enforce the rules, and members of the City Council should not be trusted with the task of policing themselves.

The ad-hoc coalition against the proposition is going by the name of “Citizens for Responsible Use of Tax Dollars”. Members have not said if they’re planning television or other media campaigns in an attempt to defeat the Proposition. Supporters have launched a yard-sign campaign. As of March 25th, the “Clean Campaign” organization supporting Proposition 1 had raised nearly $21,000 and spent just over $17,000. Proposition 1 has been endorsed by a host of community and environmental groups, which are listed on the “Clean Campaigns” website at http://www.cleancampaigns.org/links.html#endorsements.

Senate could vote on new proposal today, says Mandell

Drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge may take have taken center stage in the current debate, but the Lower Colorado River Authority has its own interests to protect in the energy bill pending in the US Senate.

The House approved its version of the energy bill last session. And after two months of debate, the Senate could potentially take a vote on its own rendition of the energy bill this afternoon. Missy Mandell, executive manager of federal affairs, told the LCRA board yesterday the utility has its own agenda, even if that agenda is far less flashy than Artic drilling or renewable energy.

The Large Public Power Council has taken the lead in lobbying the Senate on issues important to the LCRA, Austin Energy and City Public Service of San Antonio. Mandell described the bill, as it is currently being negotiated, as a “good step forward.” If it passes the Senate on Thursday, it would immediately go to conference committee to be reconciled with the House version of the bill.

The LCRA has two major points in the bill it wants to protect, Mandell said. ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) currently is exempt from the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the LCRA would like to keep it that way. FERC’s jurisdiction is being broadly expanded in the bill and the public utility wants to protect some of the tax relief offered therein. The “private use” relief, Mandell said, is a step forward, although it does not go as far as the industry would like. This relates to the tax-exempt bonds that public utilities use to put up transmission lines.

“Let me stress again that this is really up in the air,” said Mandell, who also told the board that the process of passing the bill had taught her quite a bit about patience. “We get very excited with our steps along the way, but the bill can change very dramatically before the vote. There are a lot of issues that are much bigger than ours.”

In other news, Mandell told the board that the LCRA and American Electric Power had hosted a successful lunch on the hill to discuss their joint development agreement to extend and upgrade transmission lines throughout the state. The two companies have combined projects and proposals for projects that now total more than $700 million. AEP is the owner of CP&L (Central Power & Light of Corpus Christi) and West Texas Utilities.

Mandell said the message at the luncheon, attended by Congressional staff members, was that the LCRA-AEP joint venture is a public-private partnership that makes sense in the newly deregulated retail electric marketplace.

Austin Energy and the LCRA may also be facing Clean Air Act issues in the near future. Mandell indicated that LPPC is handling work on revisions to the act. Those issues include the question of whether some forms of clean air controls, such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the multi-pollutant controls on plants, should be voluntary or mandatory. There is also some discussion about whether to require new pollution control equipment on existing plants.

Late endorsement news . . . The Austin Women’s Political Caucus last night voted to endorse Council Members Daryl Slusher and Jackie Goodman and challenger Brewster McCracken. There was a runoff between McCracken and Betty Dunkerley for the Place 4 seat, currently held by Beverly Griffith, and a runoff between Slusher and “no endorsement.” Slusher had not received the caucus’ questionnaire and arrived at the meeting late because he didn’t have it on his schedule . . . Saying good-bye to Garza . . . Former Mayor Kirk Watson told a receptive crowd at the Convention Center last night he hasn’t gotten used to the idea that he is a former mayor yet. But he was in the company of Bruce Todd, Roy Butler and Mayor Gus Garcia. The occasion was City Manager Jesus Garza’s going-away party. Watson said he got a note from Butler when he came into office saying, “Listen to Jesus.” At first, Watson said, he was puzzled because he didn’t think that Butler was such a religious fellow. Soon, however, he realized which Jesus Butler was referring to. Garcia said the three words that should be Garza’s legacy are: tough, tenacious and tight-fisted. Former Austin Congressman J.J. Jake Pickle praised Garza for “eight years of peace and harmony . . . You’ve got smoke rings of happiness coming out of City Hall because of Jesus Garza,” he said . . . Light moment . . . Council Member Raul Alvarez gave a rare glimpse of his sense of humor last night when he noted that the City Council sometimes reminds him of his two-year-old nephew . . . Campaign news . . . Friends and volunteers for Brewster McCracken are having a party for him tonight from 5:30-8:00pm at Nuevo Leon, 1501 E. 6th Street. McCracken, who started television advertising during the 10pm news last week, says his spots are down for now but will go back up next week. The 36-year-old attorney is competing for votes with former Assistant City Manager Betty Dunkerley and incumbent Council Member Beverly Griffith, both of whom are running TV commercials now. Kirk Mitchell, who is opposing Council Member Daryl Slusher, told us his spots started yesterday. Mitchell is having an office-warming party from 5:30-7:30p, Friday at his brand new HQ, 104B E. 31st, (31st & Speedway, next to Speedway Market). Members of the North University and Eastwoods Neighborhood Associations are hosting the party. For more information, go to www.kirkmitchell.org . . . Regional water meet . . . The boards of directors of the Lower Colorado River Authority and the Brazos River Authority have scheduled a joint meeting at LCRA Headquarters on Monday to discuss joint projects . . . More regional planning ahead . . . Williamson and Travis counties have agreed to a joint Commissioners Court meeting to discuss State Highway 130, State Highway 45 North and regional mobility authority guidelines. The tentative date of the meeting is May 21. Williamson County has proposed the meeting be held at the State Capitol . . . Gum to be banned . . . County Commissioners are taking aim against renegade gumball machines, which have begun to proliferate at county court buildings. After scraping the gum off benches and out of carpets, building maintenance personnel has proposed getting rid of all gum machines in county buildings . . . Career Fair begins today . . . The 2002 Greater AustinAtWork High School and College Career Fair begins at 9am today at the Austin Convention Center. Sponsors are expecting more than 3800 high school students and 140 businesses to participate in the program, which is designed to provide meaningful work to high school students. For more information, go online at www.catf-austin.org . . . Travis County Democrats to have office warming . . . Democrats are moving into a new office at 4201 S. Congress, Suite 302 (one block South of Ben White). The party begins at 7pm tonight . . . Firefighters express appreciation for Barrientos . . . Last night, Austin firefighters gave Austin Senator Gonzalo Barrientos their first-ever “Political Champion” award. According to firefighters, Barrientos has successfully sponsored legislation benefiting fire fighters in each of the past 5 legislative sessions. In addition, he helped secure funding for Texas Task Force One, an elite search and rescue disaster response team that assisted in the search for survivors at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks . . . Money for housing . . . The City Council got an update on funding from the Office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development during Wednesday’s work session. Council Member Raul Alvarez used the opportunity to ask about the resolution approved by the Council in the fall of 2000 to set aside an extra $3 million each year for the Austin Housing Finance Corporation. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 13, 2000) The response from City Manager-Designee Toby Futrell: “Knowing what we know now about the budget, it’s going to be very difficult.” At the time, Alvarez had proposed using bonds to acquire the additional money for the AHFC.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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