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Opponents challenge Stick, Baxter to give up TRMPAC funds

Thursday, September 23, 2004 by

Strama, White say money should be given to children's hospital

Democratic state representative candidates Mark Strama and Kelly White held a press conference yesterday calling on their opponents to donate money given to them in 2002 by Texans for a Republican Majority (TRM-PAC) to the Austin Children’s Hospital. District 50 Rep. Jack Stick received more than $47,000, and District 48 Rep. Todd Baxter received about $35,000 from TRM-PAC when they were running for their respective House seats two years ago.

Three TRM-PAC fundraisers were indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally taking corporate contributions, and two of them — Jim Ellis and John Colyandro—stand accused of money laundering. However, neither Baxter nor Stick has been accused of any wrongdoing—except by their opponents—nor is there any indication that District Attorney Ronnie Earle is planning such a move.

In the joint statement released by their campaigns, the Democrats said, " Because our opponents also voted last year to strip 150,000 eligible children of their coverage under the popular Children's Health Insurance Program, we think it's particularly fitting that they donate these disputed funds to help defray the taxpayer cost of providing emergency room care to the children in Travis County.”

Strama also took the opportunity to bring up Stick’s attempt to move the District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit into the Attorney General’s Office. That was because, “Jack Stick did not want the public to know that he has received nearly $50,000 in direct contributions from ( US House Majority Leader) Tom DeLay’ s PAC, which was laundering corporate money into his campaign,” Strama said.

"It goes without saying that Stick and Todd Baxter should return the laundered corporate contributions they received from Tom DeLay's PAC. And the suggestion that they didn't know the money was illegal is belied by the fact that last year Jack Stick tried to use the power of his office to try to cut this investigation off at its knees, " said Strama. " Stick' s effort to cover up this scandal and protect his biggest contributors from criminal prosecution was as brazen and transparent as his decision to delegate his proxy to a special interest group at CAMPO meetings." The final reference was to Stick's using homebuilder lobbyist Harry Savio as his proxy at meetings of the board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Stick was defiant, calling his opponent “a liar.” The Republican attorney from North Austin denied that he had a political motivation for questioning expenditures by the public integrity unit. Stick also denied that the TRM-PAC contributions had been hidden from the public.

Stick denied, as he has in the past, that he had a pivotal role in trying to move the public integrity unit from the DA's office to the Attorney General's office. He added that he had served on a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, which looked at expenditures of numerous prosecuting agencies. He said he asked the same question of each of the agencies about how they were spending their money, and why. “With the exception of the public integrity unit, everybody answered” his query, he said. “If we don't know how a state agency is spending its money, we can’t be sure they're spending it wisely. So here my role was to question whether we spent the money wisely."

"To this day I would still like to know why that prosecutor's office takes a hundred times the amount to conduct an investigation" as others, Stick said. As to the current investigation, Stick said he had no idea how much had been spent, adding, "I don't care.” He said what he does care about is why the unit that investigates political crimes “gets $3 million a year and prosecutes a hundred cases."

Upon announcing the indictments yesterday, Earle said one reason the indictments took so long was that his office spent more than a year tussling with attorneys for the Texas Association of Business, which raised numerous objections to requests for documents and requested records from the DA's office.

Stick, like DeLay, claimed that the timing of the indictments was politically motivated. "Look, all I know is 40 days before the election, the district attorney obtained an indictment based on two years of investigation. It doesn't mean anybody was guilty.

“Down the road, if it's proved that the money was tainted, I’ll address it,” Stick continued. “I'm not going to compromise the jury trials of these people” by taking an action that would be interpreted as indicating that the trio had done anything wrong, Stick added.

White said she was feeling very positive about her race, noting that a recent poll showed Baxter with better name identification but not necessarily a positive profile with the voters of his district. She said she has raised $400,000, but “I still have a lot of go, because I fully expect money to come in (to Baxter) from the new and improved PACs” sponsored by DeLay.

Democratic campaign consultant David Butts is working to elect White. “Voters haven’t paid a lot of attention to these races yet,” he said, “but this is a very bad thing as a first signal for voters to be waking up to, in Todd Baxter’s case … he can't be happy with this, nor Jack Stick either — one, because it does cast a cloud over how they got into office in the first place—a dishonest, corrupt process that was the 2002 election.”

During that race, Baxter unseated Democrat Ann Kitchen, who faced not only a new district—with a much higher percentage of Republicans—but also a barrage of negative advertising through the mail and on television. Butts worked for Kitchen, as he has for numerous Democratic candidates over the past 20 years. He said the $35,000 Baxter received from TRM-PAC would buy about 70,000 pieces of direct mail, which is sent to the most likely voters in a district. That money could pay either for two mailings, or it could pay for about 300 gross rating points on TV. Butts explained that 100 gross rating points would buy enough advertising to guarantee a television viewer would see a candidate’s ad at least once. So, 300 gross rating points would guarantee the average viewer would see that ad three times.

Baxter did not return calls seeking comment on his opponents' charges. However, he released a statement, which read in part: "My campaign operates with the utmost integrity. My campaign has never received any corporate money, and is in complete compliance with the law . . . This is clearly a political ploy by my opponent to avoid discussing the real issues facing our district, such as reforming the Robin Hood school finance plan and working to lower property taxes."

Transportation pros explain plans to voter group

Representatives of the big three players in Central Texas pushing for new avenues of transportation were together this week answering questions before the Austin Area League of Women Voters. And though they covered no new ground, presentations from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority (CTRMA) and Capital Metro, taken as a whole, did give a clearer picture of the mobility issues facing the region and plans to deal with them.

Those speaking at the meeting included Michael Aulick, executive director of CAMPO; Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of CTRMA; and John Almond, passenger rail project director for Capital Metro. Also attending and speaking briefly was Lowell Lebermann, CTRMA vice-chairman. The trio of speakers each outlined the role his organization plays in transportation: Aulick discussed CAMPO’s role in planning and funding transportation projects; Heiligenstein talked about CTRMA’s role in design and construction of roads and operation of toll roads; and Almond elaborated on Capital Metro’s role in developing mass transit options.

Much of the discussion centered on the reasons for a “mobility crisis,” and the rationale behind solutions such as toll roads and fixed rail systems. Aulick explained how transportation funding has changed in the past two decades, shifting from state and federal highway fund grants to a more local model. “Only 59 percent of the money collected from the current gasoline tax goes for transportation in Texas,” he said. “Half of that is dedicated to just maintaining the roads we already have, which doesn’t leave much for solving future problems.”

Heiligenstein discussed the causes of traffic congestion, and factors such as population density and land use. “The Texas Traffic Institute at Texas A&M reports that Austin is the most congested medium-sized city in the country,” he noted. “We failed to build needed roadways in the past 30 years, and now we are having to play catch-up.”

The audience of about 30 was asked to submit written questions, possibly to avoid a threatened confrontation between the panel and some toll road opponents. Earlier in the day, anti-toll road activist Sal Costello sent e-mails calling for people against the plan to attend and ask “tough” questions. There were no disruptions, but one member of austintollparty.com was asked to stop handing out leaflets during the meeting. Those same leaflets were found later on car windshields in the parking lot.

The bulk of the questions involved how the Austin area came to be so congested, why toll roads are required to solve the problems, and why gasoline taxes cannot be increased to build more roads.

For his part, Almond spent most of his time outlining Capital Metro's ballot initiative to build a fixed rail system from Leander to Downtown Austin as part of a package of mass transit improvements. “The fixed rail project will run on tracks that are already owned by Capital Metro,” he said. “That means no new taxes or bonds.”

Perhaps the toughest questions asked of the three panelists was this: How do you get people to give up their cars and use alternative forms of transportation? All three said, in essence, that people won’t give up the freedom of individual modes of transportation until the cost of traveling becomes too high, or congestion makes it impractical.

Oops! . . . Yesterday In Fact Daily mistakenly reported that the vote on authorizing an employee health clinic plan for Travis County was 4-1, with Commissioner Margaret Gómez voting no. However, Commissioner Karen Sonleitner sent us an e-mail to say she did not vote on that matter because she was attending a memorial service for Kathy Gieselman, the wife of Joe Gieselman. Sonleitner went on to say that she would have voted no had she been there. Her reason, she explained, was that “I really tried to stick to a list of priorities based on the presentations I got from departments—this did not make the cut. This fell below the line. I look forward to this getting my vote in the future, if indeed it works. I wasn't convinced they could meet the goals of dollars saved, but I would be thrilled to be proven wrong!”. . . In Fact Daily wants to extend our condolences to County Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Manager Joe Gieselman, who lost his wife of many years on September 5. The family asked that memorial contributions be made to TreeFolks, Attn: Kathy Gieselman Memorial Grove, P.O. 704, Austin, Texas 78767 . . . Brief public hearing . . . Travis County Commissioners held a public hearing on the county’s proposed budget last night that lasted less than 10 minutes. Jimmy Castro and Probate Judge Guy Herman were the only members of the public who signed up to speak. "I want to thank the Court for your efforts over the last three to four weeks to resolve the Hospital District reserve dispute," Judge Herman said. "I think your positions, and the strengths you've shown in your positions, have caused that matter to be resolved." . . . Today’s events . . . The Council Telecommunications Infrastructure Committee is scheduled to meet at City Hall at 3:30pm. They will have to make a decision about the future of Channel 15—at least a temporary recommendation—for the City Council to take action next week . . . The Board of Adjustment is scheduled to meet at 5:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . Ballot proofing . . . Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir announced yesterday her office will conduct a public ballot proofing on the county’s eSlate voting system that will be used during the Early Voting period and on Election Day for the Joint General and Special Elections. The County Clerk's proofing test of the eSlate ballot will take place Friday, beginning at 9am at 5501 Airport Boulevard. The test is expected to last most of the day. Representatives of candidates and parties are invited to watch the process.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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