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Multitude of measures bite the dust today

Wednesday, May 14, 2003 by

Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday both vowed to hold their ground in the standoff over redistricting. More than 50 Democratic State Representatives, including Austin’s Elliot Naishtat, Dawnna Dukes, and Eddie Rodriguez are in Ardmore, Oklahoma in order to prevent the House of Representatives from obtaining a quorum. Their exodus blocks a vote on a GOP-sponsored redistricting plan that would split Austin into four separate Congressional districts.

In the meantime, hundreds of bills in the House are facing a deadline of midnight on Thursday if they are to have any possibility of becoming law. “If it doesn’t hit the floor by Thursday at midnight, it’s dead,” said freshman State Rep. Jack Stick, R-Travis County. “Pretty much every bill that’s on the House calendar is going to die, because there will not be time to get those people back here and voting by midnight on Thursday.” That could include HB 2327 by Rep. Naishtat, which would authorize a public vote on the creation of a Travis County Health Care District. Rep. Stick said that while not all of his concerns about the measure have been addressed, he had been ready to allow the measure to move through the House before the walkout. “I was persuaded that there is a crisis in health care in Travis County that’s critical at this point, and a health-care district is one option . . . an option that people in Travis County should have a vote to decide,” Stick said.

If both sides agreed that a bill was important and had the will to approve it, there would not be a problem. However, according to House rules, a House measure may not be brought up for vote after midnight tonight unless two-thirds of the members agree. Two-thirds of the members are not likely to agree on much of anything at this point.

While Naishtat’s bill will likely be a casualty of the redistricting battle, its companion measure in the Senate may not be. Senators Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) and Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) authored SB 1796, which has the same caption and substantially the same language as HB 2327. The full Senate has cleared SB 1796, and staff members in Barrientos’ office say it is still considered “alive” because of the different deadline for the House to consider bills originating in the other chamber. The final day for House committees to report Senate bills is May 24. May 28 is the last day that the House may consider any Senate bills or joint resolutions on third reading. Both House and Senate versions of the bill are in the House Calendar’s Committee. Since neither Stick nor fellow newcomer Rep. Todd Baxter has been supportive of the district legislation, it will be up to Rep. Terry Keel, R-Travis County, a co-author of the bill, to make sure it gets to the House floor in time for passage.

Some Democrats did return to the House on Tuesday, but not enough to create a quorum. “If congressional redistricting is taken off the calendar, our Democratic colleagues will return to this House post-haste,” said State Rep. Sylvester Turner (D-Houston). Similar comments came from Democrats in Oklahoma in a mid-afternoon news conference. But House Speaker Tom Craddick showed no sign of removing the redistricting measure, HB 3398, from the House calendar. “If we get in a situation that, every time somebody doesn’t like a bill . . . we walk out . . . I don’t think we’ve really served the State,” said Craddick. “These people need to come back to represent their constituents and work.” As for the Democrats’ mid-afternoon statement from Ardmore, carried live on some local TV and radio stations, “I didn’t listen to it,” Craddick said. “I was in a meeting with some other members.”

While lawmakers in the Oklahoma House of Representatives offered a resolution commending the Texas Democrats, Republicans here in Texas are calling for a criminal investigation. State Republican Party Chair Susan Weddington is asking Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to investigate if the Democrats are violating state open meetings requirements. While the Democrats do not constitute a quorum of the House, those House members are also members of various House Committees. “It is clear that a majority of members of several House committees are gathered together and constitute a quorum,” Weddington wrote in a letter to Earle. “If a majority of the members of a House Committee are indeed meeting in secret, without the proper posting requirements being performed, then a clear violation of the Open Meetings Laws of Texas has occurred.”

The Chair of the Texas Democratic Party had nothing but praise for the absentee lawmakers. “The Texas House Democrats showed today that they are men and women of rare courage and deep commitment,” said Molly Beth Malcolm. “They eloquently stated their case, and I think it is now abundantly clear that they will not back down to Tom Delay.” See Whispers .

Most high priority bills already passed House or waiting in Senate

Democratic stall tactics in the Texas House are not likely to impact the priority issues on Travis County’ s legislative agenda, county lobbyists told commissioners yesterday. The House is in a holding pattern but the good news is that most of the county’s top priority bills have passed through the House or are awaiting Senate approval, lobbyist Chris Shields said.

Bills must be scheduled for the floor of the House by Wednesday or face imminent death, unless they are already in the Senate or can be attached to other similar bills. House committee meetings are also in limbo as Republicans and a handful of Democrats await the return of their colleagues.

“Fortunately, a high percentage of the bills you wanted filed in the House have left the House,” Shields told commissioners. “Your Senate bills are in pretty good shape. There is not a tremendous amount on your agenda that will fall victim to what has happened here.”

What is of concern to Shields and fellow lobbyist Bob Kamm is the budget. House and Senate conferees on House Bill 1 have promised to finish their deliberations by Sunday night, with the intention of putting a compromise on their respective floors next week, Shields said. But with the possible demise of the massive House Bill 2—the government reorganization bill intended to slash government waste—it will be impossible to predict how much revenue will actually be available to underwrite those expenditures.

“We have a great lack of clarity and certainty as things stand now,” Shields told commissioners. “Without having a better sense of the outcome in these other pieces of legislation, it’s impossible to have an idea of the direct impact on county budgets. We are hopeful that in a number of areas, the conference committee will follow the Senate recommendations on the budget.” The Senate budget has been far kinder to health and human service needs. If the conferees fail to come up with a budget, the issue could be pushed to a special session this summer or fall. House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) has said a special session, originally mentioned to reconsider the state’s school finance formula, would likely take place in October. However, it is possible that school funding will need attention before that, making a June special session a possibility.

“Given the last 48 hours, this may end up being a much broader special session that what was originally envisioned,” Shields said. “I think you will have the issues before you a month or two this year beyond your regular expectations.” Commissioners were especially concerned that budget talks could spill over to a fall special session. County budgets are usually set in September, and tax rates are set even earlier.

Shields and Kamm discussed three other key bills:

House Bill 3588 – Rep. Mike Krusee’s (R-Round Rock) omnibus transportation bill has passed out of the House with some amendments recommended by the county. The bill has been received in the Senate, but has yet to be referred to committee, Shields said. The lobbyists’ goal will be to protect those amendments proposed on the bill, and specifically those amendments that apply to Regional Mobility Authorities.

House Bill 1365 – The session’s Clean Air funding bill is now in conference committee. None of the conferees come from Austin, Shields said. Travis County officials prefer the Senate version. The lobbyists will urge the committee to hold onto to as much of that version as possible.

House Bill 1204 – The extra-territorial jurisdiction bill by Baxter, with a companion bill by Wentworth, is sitting in the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee. Shields said Wentworth was meeting with both sides on Monday night, trying to reconcile the two versions of the bill, trying to unify subdivision regulations and supercede House Bill 1445 on subdivision regulations. This bill has a good chance of passage, but it is not one that the county needs or wants to see approved.

The impact of the walkout is yet to be seen, but it seems likely that this session will set a new record for bills tacked onto other bills, Shields said. That could be the only way bills that died on the floor of the House will make it to a vote.

Question remains whether TIF could fund cost of tunnel, upkeep

The Waller Creek Tunnel project is making the rounds again, although the city won’t know exactly whether the numbers add up until next month.

City voters approved $25 million in bonds toward the 15-block Waller Creek tunnel project in 1998. But now, with the estimated cost of the project having doubled, the city is getting ready to turn to the county for help. Last night, the project managers from KBR presented a number of versions of the project.

The city has already released the numbers. Even a bare-bones version of the project would cost the city $40 million, and the full project as originally conceived would cost $68.3 million. It could bring another 1.2 million square feet of retail to the banks of Waller Creek. But the project managers, as well as city officials, were on hand last night to hear input about the Waller Creek project.

The current proposal the city is considering would be to create a Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district on the banks of Waller Creek. The balance of the project’s costs, beyond the bonds, would be split equally between the city and county, with both issuing general revenue bonds to cover the cost of the tunnel.

Most of the speakers were tied to the city’s downtown development community. Land owner Robert Knight encouraged the city to use the suggested “soft green edges along the creek” recommended at a charette. Charlie Betts of the Downtown Austin Alliance asked how the city arrived at a 50-50 split. KBR will present figures at the end of June that will determine just how much the TIF might generate.

Assistant City Manager John Stephens admitted he was uncertain what figures KBR would bring back to the city. It might be enough to fund half the cost of the project—and the approximately $1.5 million it will cost each year to maintain the tunnel—and it might not, Stephens told the audience.

Developer Perry Lorenz told the city not to scale back its plans until it understood the full impact of the retail development on the area. The city might be able to cover the cost of the full project. Under a limited plan, development may end up turning its back on Waller Creek, Lorenz said.

“All you have to do is look at San Antonio to know the magic of what water can do,” Lorenz said. “It’s very important for it to be an amenity, rather than a control when sometimes it floods.”

The city is considering three options on the 5,000-foot project:

• A full-scale project that mitigates the full impact of a hundred-year flood – The project would cost $68.3 million and $1.6 million each year in maintenance. The project would include pedestrian walkways on both ends of the project, and an amphitheater across from the outlet of the tunnel into Town Lake. This version of the project had intermittent flood abatement measures.

• A modified project that did not include the additional flood abatement measures along the way. The project would cost $57.1 million, with an annual maintenance cost of $1.5 million.

• A scaled-down project to install a smaller pipe that would abate only a portion of the hundred-year flood plain. This project would cost $49.7 million if it included no flood abatements and a pipe that is only 15.5 feet in diameter, as opposed to 22 feet in diameter.

KBR has made some choices on the project. The inlet for the pipeline, known as the “morning glory site,” is at Red River and 12th Street, at Waterloo Park. Water pouring into the tunnel would go through a trash rack, where water and trash would be segregated. The outlet for the tunnel project, where the pipe would pour from Waller Creek into Town Lake, would be located in a full amphitheater across from the Mexican-American Cultural Center .

Slusher questions Domain deal . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher met with representatives of Endeavor Real Estate yesterday, but the conversation did not convince him that the city should take the $25 million deal offered for the Domain mixed-use project. Slusher told In Fact Daily, “I don’t want to give them a subsidy when they’re polluting the aquifer,” by selling another tract of land to Wal-Mart. In addition to that, he said, he is “not sure we should do it before we adopt the policy,” relating to new economic development policies for the city. The project “addresses a real problem,” the city’s eroding tax base, “but I’m not sure this is the best way to address it,” he concluded. Endeavor is hoping to get a positive answer from the Council at this Thursday’s meeting . . . Yeller Dawgs meet . . . Sieg Heil Tom DeLay said a sign welcoming the South Austin Democrats (SAD) to their monthly meeting at Rosie’s Tamale House. SAD invited former State Rep. to speak about the state of the current legislative session. Maxey told SAD, “Our people for the first time were organized.” Now a lobbyist, Maxey regaled the crowd with tales of “the Killer D’s,” currently in Oklahoma. National Public Radio announced yesterday that Oklahoma’s Democratically-controlled Legislature has invited the group to Oklahoma City for “a hero’s welcome” . . . More Killer D action . . . Republicans are amusing themselves with card decks showing pictures of the missing Killer D’s. Meanwhile, some enterprising Democrats will be selling Killer D T-shirts tomorrow at AFL-CIO Headquarters on 11th Street. The caption: The Killer D’s: Fighting for truth, justice and fair play in the 78th Texas Legislature. The Democratic party scheduled for 5pm tonight has been moved from Shady Grove to Threadgill’s on Barton Springs Road. Attendees are encouraged to bring canned food for the needy . . . . . . The conservative Austin Review filed an open records request with the Attorney General’s office for any records produced by the fugitive Democrat Texas state legislators while in Oklahoma. (A click on the link above will take the reader to a web site with wanted dead or alive posters of the Democrats.) The publication also asked that the “fugitive legislators allow us to place an embedded reporter within their ranks to provide the same objective, independent coverage that the U.S. military permitted in Iraq” . . . Budget session today . . . The City Council will begin meeting at 10am today to hear more about the city’s budget situation. Council members hope to get out by mid-afternoon, but the agenda will not be over by lunch, as are most work sessions . . . Planning Commission meeting . . . The city’s Planning Commission is scheduled to discuss a number of controversial issues, including the historic zoning for the Hyde Park A&P Grocery, which is expected to be considered by the Council on Thursday. The item has also spurred some legislation that would prevent cities from zoning church-owned property as historic . . . Free concerts return . . . The Austin Symphony Orchestra’ s free summer Sunday concerts return June 19 at 7:30 pm. Catch the concerts at, 9th and Guadalupe, through August 17. Concert-goers are encouraged to pack a picnic basket.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights

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