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Bentzin campaign nixes broadcast of forum

Tuesday, January 10, 2006 by

Other District 48 candidates welcome TV coverage

Although the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce had initially planned to hold a live televised forum with all of the House District 48 candidates, it has scrapped plans for broadcasting the program because Republican candidate Ben Bentzin objected.

The three other candidates—Democrats Kathy Rider and Donna Howard and Libertarian Ben Easton—have all said they wanted the debate to be televised, as promised in a letter sent to them on December 19. The letter, signed by Charles Barnett, CEO of the Seton Healthcare Network and chair of education and workforce development for the chamber, says Wednesday night’s forum “will be broadcast on the Austin ISD cable access station live and rebroadcast throughout the week leading up to election day.”

Rider told In Fact Daily she had received the December 19 letter and thought the forum would be televised until she got an email, dated Friday, indicating that the program would not be broadcast. The same message laid out the questions and the order in which they would be asked, Rider said. The former AISD board president said she was extremely disappointed by the chamber decision and called Drew Scheberle, chamber vice president of education and workforce development, to complain.

Rider said that Scheberle told her Bentzin’s campaign manager “had indicated he would not be participating if it was televised . . . I think it’s a very sad commentary on his availability to the public.”

The Bentzin campaign did not return phone calls seeking comment. However, Saralee Tiede, the chamber’s vice president for communications, said, “It’s true that one candidate felt reluctant about the prospect of it being televised. The chamber decided the most important thing was to have all of the candidates there.” She declined to name the candidate.

Libertarian Easton made it clear that he had not objected. ”I would love it to be televised,” he said.

Howard sent out a press release yesterday asking, “"Is Mr. Bentzin trying to a). avoid taking a stand on important issues, b). avoid talking about his ties to indicted criminal defendants, c). avoid admitting that he's just a rubber stamp for the failed leadership at the State Capitol, or d). all of the above?"

On Sunday, the American-Statesman revealed that John Colyandro, who was indicted on money laundering charges along with Congressman Tom Delay, worked for Bentzin in his unsuccessful campaign to unseat State Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos in 2002. Bentzin told the Statesman the payments to Colyandro did not show up on reports to the Texas Ethics Commission because Colyandro was paid through a printer who printed the mail pieces drawn up by Colyandro. Bentzin has not been accused of wrongdoing.

Wednesday night’s forum is scheduled to run from 6 to 7pm at the AISD Carruth Administration Building, 1111 W. 6th Street. The public is invited but will not be allowed to ask questions. Early voting in the race to succeed Todd Baxter, who retired in November, will continue through Friday. Next Tuesday is election day.

Bond committee finalizes $614 million proposal

The Bond Election Advisory Committee last night unanimously approved recommending $614.8 million worth of projects to the City Council, standing by the funding amounts established in the committee’s Draft Recommendation approved back in November.

The unanimous recommendation came only after an effort by committee member Fred Butler to decrease the amount recommended for a new Central Library and allocate money for the Mexic-Arte Museum and the Asian American Resource Center. Supporters of both organizations had turned out in significant numbers at the Committee’s final two public hearings to request funding.

Butler suggested lowering the amount set aside for a new downtown library from $90 million to $80 million, diverting $5 million each to Mexic-Arte and the AARC. “I think that our community is at a crossroads,” he said, urging the other members of the Committee to consider supporting the projects valued by city’s rapidly-growing minority groups. “If we do not…wherever we’re serving…take the opportunity to very carefully consider the impact of supporting those two communities in the things that they are trying to do…then we are missing an opportunity, and we’re also missing the real driving force that is going to be upon us whether we want it or not.”

But Butler’s request ran into opposition on two fronts. Some committee members objected to taking money from the amount set aside from the library while others disapproved of the prospect of last-minute adjustments to the committee’s recommendation. “The Mexic-Arte request was for $16 million. I am concerned that allocating $5 million would not be a meaningful contribution toward realizing a new museum,” said Tom Terkel. “It’s a project that should happen in the foreseeable future, but I’m not at all persuaded that we have the ability to make that happen with a $5 million allocation. Moreover, I’m concerned that if we start the process of amendments, that we will open a Pandora’s Box that will take us into a donnybrook we don’t want to go into.”

After Butler’s motion to recommend funding for Mexic-Arte and the AARC failed, he voted against the main motion to recommend a $614.8 million dollar bond package. But he agreed to change his vote after each member of the committee pleaded with him to consider the positive aspects of the package and the impact that a unanimous committee recommendation would have on the City Council and the voters. “I support this…even though there’s some drastic differences in some of the categories from what I want,” said committee Chair Charles Urdy. “What I’m supporting is this committee’s work. I can not find on this list of projects a single one that I don’t support. We simply can’t do all of them.”

Robin Rather asked Butler if there were any supplemental recommendations the committee could make that would convince Butler to join the majority, noting that she had also had reservations about the final list of projects. “I felt like I couldn’t vote for this package for the low level of funding for aquifer protection,” she said. But Rather said she voted for the final recommendation because it offered so much for the community. “I understand where you’re at,” she told Bulter. “But we need you.” Committee members Amy Mok and Martha Cotera also defended the committee’s final recommendation, pointing out that it included funding for the Mexican American Cultural Center and a community center in North Austin that would be used by Hispanics and Asian-Americans.

The committee will include a list of worthy projects supported by the community in its final recommendation letter to the Council. But that letter will not include a recommendation, originally put forward last week by Planning Commissioner David Sullivan, to use revenue bonds for specific infrastructure projects to support development near SH 130. “It turns out that staff has moved away from doing that now and is strictly doing commercial paper for short term (financing),” Sullivan said.

In addition to its final list of projects and the total bond package amount, the committee will further recommend to the Council that they place the bond package on the May ballot. It will also recommend that the ballot include six separate proposals: affordable housing, drainage, facilities, open space, transportation, and a new Central Library. There was some discussion on whether the library should be included with other facilities for voter consideration, but the committee eventually agreed to recommend placing it on the ballot as a separate item. The full committee’s recommendation letter and accompanying policy recommendations are expected to go to the Council by January 26.

Overall, committee members were pleased with the results of the long process to bring the recommended package down to a level the city could afford. “I think that for the first time ever doing an affordable housing bond package is one of the best things that we could have come up with,” said Rather. “I think it’s a very important first step.”

Members of the group also pledged to support their recommendation before the Council and the public. “I’ve been honored to be a part of this process,” said DeWayne Lofton. “Having lived in Austin all of my life I’ve seen the needs that have gone unmet. I think this bond package addresses a lot of those needs. This is just the first step in the process…so it’s really up to us to support the work that we’ve invested in during the past six months.”

Williamson $17 million short on bond money

Funding for road projects insufficient

Williamson County Commissioners will dig deep in their pockets at today’s meeting to find $17 million needed to complete road projects approved by voters in the 2000 bond election. County road officials say they are still committed to complete about $72 million in road projects, but only have $55 million left to pay for them.

In 2000, almost three-fourths of Williamson County voters approved $350 million in road bonds, designed to make improvements on several major roadways, including Gattis School Road and Reagan Boulevard (Parmer Lane). The road bond project update, presented to county commissioners last week by road consultant Prime Strategies, outlined the amounts needed to complete current projects and the amounts raised in bond sales thus far.

According to the report, general obligation bond sales to date include $95 million in May 2001; $125 million in April 2003; $75 million in March 2004; and $55 million in December 2005, for a total of $350 million.

The consultant’s report outlined ways to cover the shortfall, including selling $17.1 million in revenue bonds; selling $4.6 million in revenue bonds, enough to complete current obligations but fund no new projects; or use pass-through toll funding to fund projects. Pass-through tolling is a program through the Texas Department of Transportation in which the state refunds up to 80 percent of the cost of building a road if the traffic count reaches certain levels. No toll is collected from users of the roads.

The consultant’s report notes that $15.2 million is needed to finish currently approved and budgeted projects, including: $6.5 million for Reagan Boulevard from FM 2243 to SH 29; $1 million for Reagan Boulevard at SH 29; $700,000 for Reagan Boulevard at FM 3405; $1 million for CR 274 at US 183; and $6 million to purchase right of way for various projects.

Contractual commitments totaling $44 million include $4 million for CR 274 Phase II ROW Agreement; $3.8 million for Gattis School Road, per the Travis County Interlocal; and $5 million for O'Connor Boulevard, per the TxDOT CAMPO Agreement.

Also under contract are agreements between the county and TxDOT, including $22 million for the pass-through toll agreement contribution; $5 million for non-eligible pass-through toll ROW (FM 1660, FM 2338); and $1.1 million for other ROW agreements. Williamson County has also committed to spend $12.5 million for Reagan Boulevard from FM 3405 to FM 2338.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Early voting . . . A total of 2,043 votes has been cast in early voting for the January 17 Special Election for the District 48 seat in the Texas House of Representatives. The election will fill the seat vacated by Todd Baxter in time to a Special Session of the Legislature to consider court-ordered changes in public school funding. The largest number of votes so far, 759, have been cast at the Randalls on Bee Cave Road, followed by 390 at the Randalls on Research Boulevard and 330 at the Howson Branch Library. The mobile voting booth has registered 355. Early voting continues through Friday. . . Fundraiser for Mayor Wynn . . . Ted Siff and Janelle Buchanan are hosting a fundraiser at their home on January 30 for Mayor Will Wynn’s re-election campaign. Co-hosts for the event are Cari Clark, Andrew Clements, Chris Riley, and Michael Whellan. The event begins at 5:50pm at 604 West 11th Street. . . . Meetings . . . The Planning Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Airport Advisory Commission meets at 5pm in room 160 at the Department of Aviation Building at ABIA, 2716 Spirit of Texas Dr. . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am at Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11ths St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners meet at 9:30am in the Pct. 3 JP Courtroom on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . The Hays County Commissioners meet at 9am in room 301 in the Hays County Courthouse in San Marcos. . . . Policy session . . . The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Fourth Annual Policy Orientation for the Texas Legislature continues today at the Capitol Marriott with a keynote from a former US House Speaker and some Central Texas lawmakers playing key roles. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich delivers the keynote speech at 9am. In the breakout sessions, Rep. Dan Gattis (R-Georgetown) will participate on a panel discussing Medicaid issues, Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) will preview the upcoming special session, and Rep. Mike Krusee will join a panel studying transportation issues. . . . CAMPO names officers . . . The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Policy Board agreed to reappoint Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos (D-Austin) to one final term as chair of the Transportation Policy Board. This will be the last term for Barrientos, who has announced he will not seek another Senate term. West Lake Hills Mayor Dwight Thompson also was re-elected as vice chair of the group. . . . CAMPO condolences. . . . Grady Click of Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office, who was just at the CAMPO meeting last month, passed away over the holidays. CAMPO staff, and the Transportation Policy Board, both agreed to send letters of condolence to Abbott’s office last night. Click was a long-time transportation liaison between CAMPO and the state agency.

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