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But Barrientos garners endorsements from teachers' groups

Wednesday, August 21, 2002 by

Republican candidate for Senate Dist. 14 Ben Bentzin told an audience of young professionals Tuesday that he supports legislation to keep property taxes from being raised by more than 2 percent per year. State law now caps property tax increases at 10 percent per year unless voters approve the change. Bentzin described the current “Robin Hood” school financing plan as “fundamentally unfair,” and promised to work on the issue if elected. Bentzin was one of seven local candidates appearing at a noon forum sponsored by the Young Women’s Association (YWA) and the Young Men’s Business League (YWBL).

Incumbent Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos was not present. His campaign manager, Brian Dupre, said that Barrientos was not available because he was attending a meeting of the Joint Committee on Natural Resource Public Interest Counsel. During his final opportunity to address the group, Bentzin told the audience that the committee began meeting at 9am and adjourned before noon.

Contacted after the meeting, Dupre said Barrientos had another commitment booked prior to his invitation to the YWA/YMBL, but that it had seemed unlikely that he would be able to attend either event. He would not say what the other commitment was. Dupre said he expected the committee hearing to last until 2pm, precluding the chance of attending either function. “Never in a million years did I expect Ben Bentzin,” to challenge the accuracy of his statement, Dupre said. He added that the organizations had asked him to sit in the audience after giving a brief opening statement. He said the campaign would write a letter to YWA and YMBL to let them know what had happened.

Bentzin also made a number of pointed comments when asked about the relationship between the Legislature and the City of Austin. He said the relationship had been “marked by divisiveness and not working together,” citing the length of time it has taken to start work on SH 130. He said the city has paid a great deal of money on lobbyists which could have been spent better elsewhere. “Your representatives are there to represent you and you don’t have to spend your taxpayer dollars,” on lobbyists, he said.

Also Tuesday, Education Austin, the Texas State Teachers Association and the Texas Federation of Teachers endorsed Barrientos. Barrientos said a teacher pay raise is essential to remedying the teacher shortage in the state. “Until the state gets serious about giving our teachers the professional respect they deserve, we risk losing the best ones, and making it almost impossible to recruit new ones. Our teachers’ salaries are thousands of dollars less than the national average—and far short of the average pay for other white-collar occupations that lure teachers away,” Barrientos said at a press conference at Sanchez Elementary School. In addition to his legislative work, Barrientos established and runs a scholarship program for high school seniors.

Others on the luncheon platform included State Rep. Ann Kitchen and her Republican opponent Todd Baxter, as well as candidates for Travis County Judge and Commissioner Pct. 2. The two are vying for the right to represent District 48, in which Kitchen is the incumbent. However, the district has been redrawn giving a Republican candidate the advantage. Both promised to work on lowering property taxes. Kitchen cited her record in sponsoring legislation to cut cost of prescriptions and Medicaid costs and Baxter cited his years working for legislators and as a county commissioner.

In response to a question from Kitchen on whether he would support school vouchers, Baxter said he would support anything that has a good chance of improving education. He added that he would support a pilot project to see if such a program would work in Texas.

Taxes, Criminal Justice Center top agendas

Democratic County Judge Sam Biscoe and Commissioner Karen Sonleitner will both face opponents this November who stress cutting taxes and criticize the current Commissioners Court as lacking leadership.

Republicans Sheri Perry Gallo and Bob Honts both came out swinging at a luncheon for the Young Women’s Alliance and Young Men’s Business League yesterday. Travis County needs to learn to cut budgets the same way taxpayers are cutting their own budgets at home, Gallo said. “We can’t spend like we once did.”. Honts told the crowd that Travis County taxpayers pay more than twice the per capita rate as the taxpayers of Dallas County.

Gallo, a local realtor and life-long resident of Austin, is challenging Sonleitner in Precinct 2. Honts, president of Bob Honts Properties, served on the Commissioners Court from 1975 to 1986. Honts is also the former chairman of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties and was city manager of White Settlement outside of Fort Worth in the late 1960s.

Biscoe told he crowd he had served on the court for 13 years and enjoyed the work because he could “do good and help people” while backing fiscal responsibility and government accountability. He served as general counsel to the Texas Department of Agriculture before he joined Commissioners Court. Sonleitner was a television reporter before she joined the Commissioners Court in 1995.

Countering Gallo’s charges of poor fiscal management, Sonleitner said taxes had been cut by 12 cents during her years on the court. She agreed that taxpayers deserved an explanation of how their taxes were spent, but added that many costly services provided by the county are mandated by the state.

It’s easier to make a campaign promise to lower a tax bill than it is to know which county services mandated by the state should be cut, Sonleitner said. The number of people in Travis County continues to grow and county commissioners have to decide how to fit all the priorities into one budget. Honts, on the other hand, said the county’s leadership had defaulted on its responsibility to balance the budget.

The exchanges grew more heated when the candidates were allowed to address questions to each other directly. Honts asked Biscoe about his testimony in the Fluor Daniel case in which he admitted he had not read briefing documents on the project. Biscoe said the monthly documents were voluminous and the court relied on a highly-paid project manager to keep the court informed of problems.

Biscoe pointed out that Honts was on the Commissioners Court when the county completed a jail project in which the cells would not lock. Honts offered his own rebuttal to Biscoe’s charges, saying the $23 million in cost overruns at the criminal justice center could hardly compare with the jail project. The county sued over the defective locks and collected almost $6 million. “It’s like comparing a Great Dane to a Chihuahua,” Honts said.

The judgment against the county, Biscoe said, had more to do with stopping payment to Fluor Daniel than it had to do with any mismanagement by Travis County, Biscoe said.

Sonleitner asked Gallo to be specific about the cuts she would make to the county’s budget. Gallo said she would start at the very top of the county’s administration, pointing out that the city has one manager, while the county has five top-level administrators. Administrative costs continue to grow as a piece of the total budget pie chart, Gallo said.

Gallo asked Sonleitner where the county would find the money to pay all the bills for the criminal justice center, noting that Sonleitner was on the court during much of the construction. Sonleitner said all bills on the building had been paid. The criminal justice project started as a four-story $21 million building, Sonleitner said. By the time the need was finally reevaluated, the county needed a 10-story building.

“If any of you can build a 10-story building for the same price, please leave your number for me,” Sonleitner told the audience.

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

In Round Rock . . . Round Rock Mayor Nyle Maxwell has set office hours to meet the public on most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons in August and September. He has opened an office on the second floor of the Griffith Public Library, 216 E. Main Street. Those interested in meeting with the mayor can call 218-5403 to schedule an appointment . . . Remembering 9/11 . . . The City of Round Rock will hold a ceremony to remember Sept. 11 at the Dell Diamond, which will include music, readings and prayer. The event, which runs from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., is free and open to the public . . . Mayor donates to land fund . . . Mayor Gus Garcia presented a check for $250 to Shudde Fath to add to the fund to buy Stratus land. Garcia made the donation on yesterday’s Daryl Slusher Show, saying that his family would later increase the donation to $1,000. Fath is treasurer of the Save Barton Creek Association and offered to oversee money as it is collected to purchase land that would otherwise be developed as office and retail. Slusher came up with the idea during negotiations with Stratus Properties. . . Chamber to hear nanotech expert . . . The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce will present Nobel Prize winner Dr. Richard E. Smalley at its Distinguished Speaker Luncheon on Thursday, September 5 at the Four Seasons Hotel. Smalley, a professor at Rice University, is a leader of a new commercial nanotechnology effort, which he will discuss. Winstead Sechrest & Minick is sponsoring the luncheon. The Chamber sees nanotechnology, applying the science of extremely small particles, as an avenue of growth for Austin’s economy. For more information, call Joanna Munson at 322-5682 or email her at jmunson@austinchamber.org . . . Registering gays and lesbians to vote . . . The Austin Lesbian/Gay Political Caucus, the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas and the Stonewall Democrats say they will launch a major effort to register members of local gay and lesbian community to vote this year. They will have the cooperation of members of the Austin Tavern Guild in registering patrons of Austin’s gay bars during the four weekends prior to the close of voter registration for the November election. “Austin’s bars are an important part of the life of our community. They are a place to relax and socialize with friends and are where many of the bonds that tie our community together are formed. It is gratifying to see these businesses step forward to help us remind our community that voting is vital to keeping Austin the gay-friendly and comfortable place it is,” said Allan Baker, ALGPC Co-Chair. For information, contact ALGPC at 474-0750 or email arbaustx @aol.com.

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

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