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Election Day today in District 48

Tuesday, January 17, 2006 by

Bentzin, Howard, Rider, Easton all stump for votes

Candidates for the vacant District 48 seat in the Texas House of Representatives spent the final day before today’s Special Election trying to reach as many voters as possible. With a low turnout predicted, candidates tried to knock on as many doors and phone as many people as possible.

The two frontrunners spent the last day campaigning. Democrat Donna Howard spent her morning marching in the MLK Jr. Day Parade down Congress Avenue, and later rode a school bus with supporters to knock on doors in several neighborhoods. Republican Ben Bentzin held a high-profile rally, drawing media attention with an endorsement from Gov. Rick Perry.

The other candidates, Democrat Kathy Rider and Libertarian Ben Easton, spent the day walking neighborhoods and working the phones.

The major issue in the campaign is education, with the winner of the election primarily serving during the upcoming Special Session of the Legislature this spring to change the way Texas funds its public school system.

Howard is counting on support from teachers and others with an interest in education, with an endorsement from Education Austin.

“Teachers are among my major supporters, and they have a major stake in the outcome of this election,” she said. “The future of education is going to be decided by the Legislature this spring.”

Howard, a former president of the Eanes School District, has been critical of Bentzin’s stand of school vouchers, saying the state needs to spend its money to improve public schools.

Bentzin, in response to a reporter’s question, sidestepped the issue, but Perry interjected his opinion into the conversation.

“It (public school vouchers) is probably as big a red herring as I’ve seen across the state,” the governor said. “Every voucher program we have talked about is for inner city schools where they are failing the children. Quite frankly, I don’t understand why anyone would defend a status quo that is failing.”

He called Howard’s criticism of vouchers “a scam,” and a “con game” on the voters.

Howard is not the only candidate with an education background. Rider is the former president of the Austin ISD Board of Trustees and has extensive experience as a consultant. Howard has the better funded campaign of the two Democrats, reporting about $85,000 in donations. However, Bentzin claimed in a recent news release to have a war chest of more than $300,000.

The governor called the special election to fill the seat vacated in November by Todd Baxter, who retired and took a job as the chief lobbyist for the state’s cable TV operators. There is no primary election, but to win, a candidate must get more than 50 percent of the vote, making as runoff election a possibility.

Polls will be open from 7am to 7pm.

Travis County must tiptoe through land rules

The topic of last week’s Capital Area Council of Governments workshop was county subdivision regulations, but given the heavy emphasis on Senate Bill 873, it might as well have been a workshop for Central Texas counties on how far they could push state guidelines to address development standards along the future State Highway 130.

About 35 miles of SH 130 will pass through three precincts in Travis County. Unlike cities along the route, however, counties have limited state-mandated authority to address development-related issues such as thoroughfare planning, water quality and signage. For the most part – and for the last 150 years – the state has limited county authority to a handful of only the most necessary of development-related issues such as pavement width, drainage ditches, speed limits, septic tanks and the regulation of sexually oriented businesses, Jeff Barton of Doucet and Associates explained.

People move out to the county because they want to get away from the city’s heavy-handed regulations, but that’s a double-edged sword, Barton said. A homeowner may be happy with lax county regulation when he buys a home in a manufactured housing subdivision, but change his mind when a cement batch plant goes in next to that subdivision.

That regulatory authority is laid out in Chapter 232 in Local Government Code. For decades, when county land was primarily rural, that made sense, Barton said. Four years ago, however, the Texas Legislature recognized the urbanization of Texas counties and passed Senate Bill 873, which provided a broader definition of regulatory authority. That regulatory authority, however, is still vaguely worded and open to legal challenge.

Such challenges are a real worry to county officials. Barton says the only way to avoid a court battle over expanded regulation is to follow some careful guidelines: make sure the rules are the result of careful deliberation with stakeholders and are not arbitrary or capricious; apply the standard evenly across the county; and be careful about takings, including the completion of a takings impact assessment. County officials must be able to make a reasonable, rational connection between the objective and the code.

In the four years since SB 873 was approved, only two counties have taken on the challenges of drafting new legislation: Medina County outside San Antonio and Travis County. Over the summer, Travis County used SB 873 to pass water quality regulations.

Under the original Chapter 232, Travis County’s water quality regulation was limited to storm water drainage requirements along roadways during construction. And, of course, the county could limit construction in the flood plain. New regulations, however, expand water quality to both construction and permanent water quality measures, such as water quality ponds. The county also now requires buffer zones to preserve stream corridors.

Barton presented a chart that compared city powers with county powers and where counties will likely be able to take on those powers now given to city. For instance, it’s the opinion of Doucet and Associates that an issue such as storm water management and transportation planning are within county authority. An issue such as floor-to-area ratio can be regulated. Zoning is expressly ruled out for counties, Barton said.

Issues such as tree protection, impervious cover and signage control have been claimed by some cities – under language that gives cities the right to create an “orderly, healthful and moral development” – but is an area of untested authority for counties, Barton said.

The heavily Republican Medina County, adjacent to Bexar County yet still heavy with ranching, has claimed SB 873 to set out land conservation rules. Those regulations, however, were enacted with strong consensus of local input and primarily incentive based.

Other workshops during the day addressed parameters on transportation planning, storm drainage, water quality and developer participation contracts. Travis County officials will be discussing all those matters when dealing with SH 130.

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

Protest planned . . . Sal Costello’s People for Efficient Transportation (PET) is planning a protest today at the site of a Texas Department of Transportation workshop designed to launch the next generation of Comprehensive Development Agreement projects (CDAs). CDAs are road and land development projects that combine the powers of the state with private interests. The event is designed to make it easier for private corporations to learn about the CDA process. PET’s calls CDAs “highway robbery, behind closed doors.” Opponents site concerns about public disclosure, public debate, legislative oversight, open and transparent government, double taxation and local control. PET points out that the Trans Texas Corridor 35 project with Cintra/Zhacary was handled through a CDA. The meeting begins at 8:30am in the auditorium of the lower level of the State Capitol . . . Meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Urban Transportation Commission meets at 6pm in the 8th floor conference room at One Texas Center . . . The Resource Management Commission meets at 6pm in room 1101 at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners Court meets at 9am in Commission chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commissioners meet at 9:30am in the Pct. 3 JP Courtroom on Inner Loop Dr. in Georgetown . . . First City Council campaign forum . . . Former Austin Mayor Kirk Watson will moderate a forum for candidates for the Austin City Council on February 7. Participants will be candidates for Place 2 and Place 6 on the Council. The event is planned for noon at 219West, 219 W. Fourth St, but may be moved if a larger venue is needed to handle the crowd. Forum sponsors will include Austin Hotel & Lodging Association, DANA, Small Business Group, Austin Police Association, and BOMA-Austin . . . A monument-al discussion . . . Renovations continue at the Williamson County Courthouse, but there has been a difference of opinion lately between the Texas Historical Commission and county officials over where some monuments currently on the grounds should be placed. The THC—which is kicking in some $4 million on the project – wants some of the statues removed and placed elsewhere because they are too “contemporary.” However, several members of the Commissioners Court are objecting to the THC’s “suggestions” for the project, and plan to return all the current monuments to the courthouse square after the renovation is complete. County officials say the THC grant does not give them “statue authority” over the project.

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