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Wentworth amendment keeps hope alive for district

Thursday, May 29, 2003 by

Austin’s hope of having a bill tailor-made to meet the city’s requirements in a health care district proposal was revived last night by a skillful maneuver which put the bill’s language into CSHB2292, the omnibus health and human services reorganization bill. Senator Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) added the amendment. The Senate approved that bill after Senator Gonzalo Barrientos announced that he would not filibuster—which would have killed not only the reorganization measure, but also the hospital district and numerous other proposals that linger as amendments to the bill. Barrientos opposes the main reorganization measure because it would eliminate numerous state jobs. Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) filed legislation to create the Central Texas Health Care District, but Rep. Todd Baxter (R-Austin) opposed it, which kept it from moving swiftly from the House to the Senate. If the bill is finally approved, Travis County voters would be asked to bless the district at the ballot box. The district would not operate the hospital itself, but would instead contract that service out as the City of Austin has done with Brackenridge and the Seton Healthcare Network.

Armbrister offers amendment to protect city in second measure

Fearing the worst case scenario, city lobbyists and environmentalists worked behind the scenes yesterday to eliminate the threat to city water quality regulations—particularly the SOS Ordinance—as Senator Gonzalo Barrientos mobilized to fight the same threatening language in another bill governing groundwater districts. Tuesday, city officials were alarmed to see the passage of House Bill 2877 on final reading of the Senate. That bill is still awaiting a hearing on amendments in the House. On Wednesday, Senate Bill 3035, viewed by city officials as potentially just as problematic, moved to the Senate floor.

Sen. Ken Armbrister’s (D-Victoria) amendment to HB 2877 is intended to clarify the role of groundwater districts in drawing up development regulations, and specifically the powers being sought by the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA) to regulate water quality. The EAA has jurisdiction over groundwater pumping in the southern portion of the aquifer, which covers an eight-county area, including all of Uvalde, Medina and Bexar counties . Its sole purpose is regulate the amount of water being pumped, according to Armbrister, who authored the legislation creating the EAA 10 years ago. But those who have read the amendment are afraid it could pose a viable threat to Austin’s SOS Ordinance. (See In Fact Daily May 28, 2003)

Armbrister and his staff are convinced the amendment has nothing to do with cities. Still, Barrientos was ready with his own amendment when SB 3035 was brought to the Senate floor. SB 3035 is Armbrister’s stand-alone bill about the governance of groundwater districts. Barrientos’ amendment was intended to ensure that the bill would not affect the city’s authority to regulate water quality.

Barrientos offered to pull down his amendment when Armbrister offered language to protect the city’s authority over water quality. Armbrister said his new amendment would “insure that we are not affecting any municipality or their authority to regulate water quality in the entire State of Texas.”

Armbrister said he wanted to make sure that the bill would confer jurisdiction for water quality on TCEQ as well as municipalities, but that groundwater districts would have no rulemaking powers in the water quality arena. His floor amendment, he noted “insures that no municipality is affected by the previous statement about who has the primary function of water quality policing within a groundwater district. Also, it specifies very clearly that it does not affect any municipality to enforce within their boundaries or their ETJ their own water quality standards.”

And if the motions by Barrientos were not a strong enough message, Austin environmentalists have been bombarding the office of Rep. Jack Stick (R-Austin) with the message that Austin’s SOS ordinance must be protected. An environmental coalition logged more than 80 calls to Stick’s office Wednesday afternoon. Stick, who was on the floor of the House for most of the day, could not be reached for comment.

An e-mail sent out by the SOS Alliance says, “The original HB 2877 was a bad bill for the environment but the amendment makes it particularly horrible. The amendment language is broad enough to be interpreted to eliminate the SOS ordinance and all water quality regulations by cities – thereby eliminating the one type of regulation that so far has been effective in protecting Barton Springs. At the very least HB 2877 deprives groundwater districts of the ability to regulate water quality.”

The SOS Alliance is unlikely to get Armbrister to budge on his conclusion that groundwater districts were never given the authority to regulate water quality. Armbrister has been involved in water legislation for seven sessions now and drafted many of the groundwater district bills.

Austin lobbyist John Hrncir said House Bill 2877 is likely to head to conference committee, where it could be amended by Armbrister or House sponsor Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton). Hrncir said it is too early to hazard a guess as to the final fate of the bill.

Rep. Krusee, Sen. Ogden at odds over authority's tools

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority may have to settle for a watered-down version of Rep. Mike Krusee’s (R-Round Rock) transportation omnibus bill, which could delay construction and drive up costs on proposed transportation projects.

RMA Chair Bob Tesch will be presenting an status report on the authority to the Travis County Commissioners this afternoon. At Wednesday’s board meeting, consultant Mike Weaver and attorney Brian Cassidy provided an overview of the RMA’s progress, as well as an update on current local and federal legislation.

The most important goals for the RMA—gaining the power of eminent domain and the authority to issue bonds—have been accomplished under two stand-alone bills filed by Krusee early in the session. The Senate rejected a broader array of powers provided under House Bill 3588, deleting many tools provided by Krusee’s bill.

“This doesn’t mean you can’t do business,” Cassidy told the board yesterday. “But it really does cause significant problems.”

Those problems will mean some projects will take longer to complete and others may not be completed at all if the obstacles are too great. Weaver also expects the price of projects to go up if some of the powers are stripped from Krusee’s bill.

Most importantly, the Senate version of House Bill 3588 takes away the RMA’s authority to turn free roadways into toll roads to generate revenue. That tool was part of the Central Texas RMA’s plan to generate revenue. But Tesch told his colleagues he was still hopeful that something can be worked out in a conference committee.

The funding – and defunding – of Rep. Diane Delisi’s (R-Temple) Bad Driver program has been the focus of much of the recent media attention on House Bill 3588. But there is still the question of whether Krusee and Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan) can reconcile what have become two entirely different versions of the same transportation bill in the few days that remain of the session.

Krusee had every intention of giving the Texas Department of Transportation and the newly created Regional Mobility Authorities the tools to speed up construction of transportation projects across the state. But Ogden and the Senate, worried that the bill broke too much new ground and granted too much authority, have rolled back many of Krusee’s proposed provisions.

Krusee, who spent significant time this session both crafting and amending HB 3588 with the various stakeholder groups, has said he will not concur to the Senate version of the bill. Ogden has been quoted saying he would not take HB 3588 to conference committee. Now the two sides must decide if there is room to negotiate.

Describing what the Senate won’t let RMAs do is the easiest way to tell the difference between the two versions of HB 3588. Under the Senate plan, RMAs won’t be able to build anything but roads. Rail, air and public utility facilities are excluded. RMAs won’t be able to turn free roads into toll roads in order to build income. They won’t be given the right to negotiate Exclusive Development Agreements or design-build projects. And they won’t be able to do construction projects that are outside the geographic region of the RMA, even if those projects could impact regional traffic.

The Senate version of HB 3588 also won’t give “quick take” authority to RMAs. The “quick take” is that rarely used power to force quick closure on eminent domain cases. That authority both speeds up the project and makes the RMA’s bonds more attractive to the capital market.

The Senate version of the bill also caps state highway funds disbursed to Trans Texas corridor projects; limits pooling or system financing within two adjacent TxDOT districts; puts a $25 million per year cap on non-highway facilities; and caps toll equity at $800 million per year.

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos stripped the Senate substitute of HB 3588 of a provision that would have given the state the authority to purchase aircraft pooling board property at the former Mueller airport site in Austin. The City of Austin and Catellus Properties are currently in the process of redeveloping the 700-acre site.

Early vote mounting . . . As of last night, 6,651 voters had cast ballots to decide whether Brewster McCracken or Margot Clarke will be the newest member of the City Council. The polling locations attracting the most voters continue to be Northcross Mall and Randall’s on Research. Yesterday, however, the mobile voting booths at three state office buildings recorded the preferences of 408 voters—considerably more than any of the other locations on any day so far.Three more state office buildings—the Winters Building, the LBJ Building and the Travis Building—will host mobile voting machines today. Early voting continues through June 3. Election Day is June 7 . . . Sierra Club has ideas about Domain . . . Karin Ascot Bongiorni and Dick Kallerman of the Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club have written to ask the City Council to make the Domain a mass transit-oriented place. They say “We are fortunate that our City Councils have worked on the Triangle and Mueller projects and understand proper urban design, but a rare opportunity is slipping through our fingers. We urge the City Council to hire an urban planner, like Peter Calthorpe or Roma, and reopen negotiations with Domain ( Endeavor Real Estate) to get Austin’s first transit-oriented, true urban village.” They do not mention how the city would pay for such planning . . . No City Council meeting today . . . The Council will return next Thursday to consider the smoking ordinance on third reading, as well as other important matters . . . Bikers to take over Congress Avenue . . . The 2003 Republic of Texas Biker Rally will head down Congress Avenue beginning around 7:30pm Friday. But parked cars must be removed from the avenue by 4pm. Any vehicles in parking spots on Congress after that time will be towed and the street will begin closing to traffic around 6pm. Streets will also be closed one block to the east and one block to the west of Congress and will remain so throughout Friday night. Drivers trying to cross town from either MoPac or I-35 are advised to use 15th Street.

© 2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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