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Barrientos announces departure from Senate

Thursday, September 8, 2005 by

Watson to announce for Senate seat

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin), the dean of the Travis County delegation for almost two decades, announced his retirement from the Texas Legislature on Wednesday. Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, rumored for months to be interested in the job, immediately indicated that he would be a candidate for the District 14 seat.

Barrientos spent 10 years in the House and almost 21 years in the Senate. On Wednesday morning — surrounded by his family, colleagues, staff and various supporters — Barrientos announced it was time to pursue his goals of championing the oppressed through other means, possibly with a career in lobbying or non-profit work.

“From a big-picture perspective, looking back, I would say that through many years in office, what I did more than anything else was follow my heart,” Barrientos said. “And now after 30 years pursuing a high calling, my heart is telling me to continue fighting for the things I believe in, but to find another way to wage that fight. I will serve out my current term, but I shall not seek another.”

During his prepared remarks, Barrientos spoke of his early years as a VISTA volunteer and opponent of the Vietnam War. During his career, Barrientos either sponsored or co-sponsored 548 pieces of legislation. He championed bills on indigent health care and dropout prevention and filibustered to prevent encroachment on the Save Our Springs Ordinance. He fought off challenges to Austin’s annexation abilities and reconstituted the Capital Metro board of directors after reports of financial irregularities.

Brad Rockwell, deputy director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, called Barrientos’ record on environmental issues mixed. While Rockwell acknowledged Barrientos’ work to protect the SOS Ordinance in the most recent session, he also questioned Barrientos’ record as the chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Committee.

“As chair of CAMPO, Senator Barrientos consistently did the bidding of big developers by supporting billions of taxpayer dollars to pay for highways in the sensitive Barton Springs watershed,” Rockwell said. “He also carried bills to give special rights and subsidies to developers for particular projects, such as the Hill Country Galleria in Bee Cave, the Lazy 9 MUD in Western Travis County and the massive PGA project in the recharge zone in San Antonio.”

The Texas Federation of Teachers was far more charitable, saying that Barrientos was an indispensable champion of school employees.

“In our analysis spanning the three decades that Senator Barrientos has served in the Texas Legislature, we cannot find a single case in which he voted against the interests of schoolchildren and classroom teachers,” said TFT President Linda Bridges. “Time after time, he also took the lead in blocking bad legislation such as the dilution of the small class-size ratio and attacks on teacher retirement benefits and contract rights.”

Barrientos will not leave office with a large campaign finance war chest. Instead, he has devoted much of his fund-raising in the last decade – about $350,000 – to scholarships for high school students. He is beholden to few, if any, in the business lobby and he and his staff rarely accepted invitations to wine and dine with lobbyists.

Watson’s desire to run for Senate had nothing to do with his decision to retire, Barrientos insisted, saying he made his plans to retire a year ago. Watson has said publicly he would not run for office if Barrientos decided to seek another term. In a brief statement released Wednesday afternoon, Watson said it was a time to thank Barrientos for his service and that, yes, he would be a candidate for Senate District 14. Watson currently is an attorney at Hughes & Luce.

Barrientos noted the rise of partisanship in the Senate but did not blame that for his exit. And while Barrientos has no formal plans yet – except, perhaps, for a Spanish-language radio talk show – he did admit that he wanted to “go out and make some money” while he still could.

Council majority backs nominal tax rate

Although members of the Austin City Council have had some disagreements along the way, a majority of the Council is poised to vote for the nominal tax rate, bringing at least $2.6 million more into city coffers than it did last year. Hurricane Katrina, which brought thousands of unwilling guests into the city, has increased the need for social service funding, said Council Member Brewster McCracken. In response to that need, the Council has apparently reached a consensus.

McCracken said yesterday he expects six or seven of the Council members to vote for the nominal tax rate when the matter comes up for a vote on Monday. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said she would be voting for the nominal rate, 44.3 cents per hundred dollars of valuation—the same rate as this year.

On August 4, a divided City Council voted to set the preliminary tax rate at the nominal rate of 44.3 cents under the state’s new “Truth in Taxation” law. The preliminary rate must be advertised prior to public hearings as the highest amount at which the rate can be set. Council Member Jennifer Kim pushed to set the preliminary figure at the effective rate—43.2 centers—but only found support one colleague supporting her, Mayor Will Wynn. (See In Fact Daily, August 5, 2005)

In her policy budget, City Manager Toby Futrell proposed a rate of 43.95 cents—less than half a cent above the effective rate—but enough to generate an additional $2.6 million because of increased valuations. Asked whether the vote would be unanimous, Dunkerley said, “Well, you never do know how people are going to vote, but I think after the impact of the evacuees—even if FEMA reimburses us—I think its very prudent that we go up to the nominal. The Mayor and every Council member want to do some things. They understand now the impact that this will have on all of our social service agencies.”

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said when he was elected that he would concentrate on increasing funds for social services. He said Wednesday that his budget priorities have not changed but seeing the needs of Katrina evacuees “has reinforced my commitment to try to get a sizable increase for human services and that's definitely one of the items that's being considered right now.”

Council Member Raul Alvarez announced Tuesday that he would seek a $250,000 budget amendment to support expanded mentoring and community services for Southeast Austin young people and their families. McCracken said he believes the outlook for adding funds to help the River City Youth Foundation and the Art of Living Foundation, as proposed by Alvarez, is “very positive.”

“There is a good strong consensus on the Council to invest in job training, after-school programs and social services,” McCracken said. “The need to invest in these services has been reinforced by what we're experiencing in the community right now—in two ways. First, what New Orleans has shown is that failure to invest in people results in high levels of poverty. The second is, when you are confronted with a natural disaster, you need experienced professionals who are there to look after the community's needs. So we are investing in an infrastructure of experienced professionals who can help people out, build a better future for our community and also to be the front lines during a crisis.”

Dunkerley said she believes, ”there is a desire (on the Council) to see 100 percent of our work force brought up to 50 percent of the market.” That amount would be in addition to the 3.5 percent pay for performance raise for non-civil service employees. Futrell has proposed the raise and a 2 percent bonus for non-civil service employees in order to avoid arguments with uniformed police officers over their raises, which are pegged by contract at 2 percent above non-civil service employees’ raises.

The Council will meet Monday morning to deliberate on the budget and tax rate.

©2005 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Slusher on board . . . Former Council Member Daryl Slusher will be helping Austin Energy on a part-time basis with the city’s plug-in hybrid campaign. The nationwide campaign, which began here in Austin last month, seeks to promote the development of plug-in hybrid vehicles. Such cars would have both gasoline and electric powered engines, and could be recharged by plugging into a traditional electric socket. (See In Fact Daily, August 23, 2005.) Slusher, a long-time environmental advocate, will be working on a temporary basis as part of the campaign’s speaker’s bureau. He said Wednesday, “I'm excited to work on this. I've been saying for 30 years that there needs to be a way other than gasoline to run an automobile because Americans are not going to give up their cars. The plug-in hybrid is the closest anyone’s gotten to a viable alternative,” Slusher said. The concept, he said, has the best chance of convincing Detroit to make fuel-efficient cars. “If auto-makers do adopt the plug-in hybrid idea, This kind of car could make a dramatic difference in the American landscape,” Slusher said, “resulting in cleaner air, less dependence on foreign oil and revitalization of the American auto industry.”. . Texas Tales . . . Pull Up a Chair and Sit a Spell is the theme of the Austin Library Foundation’s Fall Fundraiser next Tuesday. The event, scheduled for Stubbs BBQ, will begin with dinner and drinks, followed by a silent auction of old-fashioned library chairs transformed by local artists. Tickets are $75. Call 542-0076 or go to http://www.austinlibrary.org. . . . Meetings . . . The Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District Board meets at 6pm at the district headquarters at 1124 Regal Row in Manchaca. . . The Round Rock City Council meets at 7pm in City Hall. The Council will consider adopting the 2005-05 budget and tax rate. . . . Lending a hand . . . There is no Austin City Council meeting today. In view of the long break between meetings—none scheduled until September 29 except for next week’s budget votes—Council aides have decided to spend their Thursdays helping Katrina evacuees. Council Member Betty Dunkerley said she spent part of her day yesterday sorting clothes for those in need. She said she plans to return to that task today.

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