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Domestic partners' insurance on May ballot

Friday, March 3, 2006 by

Voters will get the chance in May to repeal the provision of the city charter prohibiting the city from offering health insurance to the domestic partners of city employees. The Council voted 6-1 to place a charter amendment on the ballot repealing the provision that was adopted by the voters in 1994.

“We have a responsibility to be a good employer and one of the things we’ve learned is we have many valued employees in our city workforce who have loved ones who have health crises and under our current health insurance policy, they are not able to buy health insurance for their loved ones,” said Council Member Brewster McCracken, one of the sponsors of the measure. “What we’re trying to do is restore that opportunity. We do have a responsibility to look out for each other. We have a responsibility to be a good employer. This will help us keep valued employees in our workforce.”

Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas was critical of the plan to put the issue back before the voters. “If we’re going to bring back an amendment that has been voted down by the citizens, I think we need to go into a little bit more detail than we did,” he said. He also pointed to the impact that offering additional insurance benefits could have on the city budget, saying he would prefer to find ways to reduce the cost of insurance for city retirees before expanding benefits for current employees.

And while the language of the amendment does not specifically mention same-sex partners, Thomas said he was opposed to the measure on the grounds that it would pave the way for gay city employees to add their same-sex partners to their insurance coverage. “There’s certain things that I cannot support, and I think everybody on this Council knows how I feel when it comes to same-sex marriage,” he said. “I feel that everybody does deserve health insurance, but there are always other ways of providing that health insurance.”

But supporters of the proposal outnumbered Thomas on the dais. McCracken said the estimated cost to the city would be approximately $200,000 to add the option for current workers and $50,000 to add the option for retirees. “A serious emergency room visit runs about $100,000,” he said. “So for the cost of two serious emergency room visits you could restore the opportunity for employees to be able to buy health insurance to protect their loved ones and protect their household budgets. It seems like not only the right thing and the fair thing to do, but it makes fiscal sense.”

Council Members Raul Alvarez, Jennifer Kim, Betty Dunkerley, and Lee Leffingwell also spoke up in favor of the charter amendment. . “It gives us the ability to formulate a benefits package that is fair to all of our employees and is competitive in the marketplace,” said Leffingwell. “I’ll note that Travis County has a similar program. Many other cities around the state and nation have this. All but a handful of the major corporations in the U.S. have packages that address the needs of all of their employees.”

The major point of discussion turned out to be where the proposal would be listed on the May 13 ballot. Mayor Will Wynn received assurances from the city’s legal department that the Council could return next week to set the order of the various charter amendment propositions. City Manager Toby Futrell, while not expressly advocating for the change to the charter, told the Council that “this is an item that is of great importance to the city workforce.”

Unions representing city employees may also play a role in the upcoming campaign. Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield offered his support for the amendment, pointing out it would allow city employees to obtain additional insurance benefits for their siblings or other relatives, not just their domestic partners. “We’ve been supportive of this change all along,” he told In Fact Daily. “We didn’t like the original measure when it passed. We felt it discriminated against certain employees. This is about changing something that was viewed by many to be unfair.” Mike Martinez, president of the Austin Association of Professional Firefighters, said his union also supported the measure and had tried to get a similar provision into the firefighters’ contract.

SOS irate over charter ballot language

Bunch calls wording ‘dishonest,’ McCracken says it’s accurate

Save Our Springs Alliance Executive Director Bill Bunch was irate yesterday over language the city’s Legal Department proposed for the ballot on the SOS charter amendment, calling it “dishonest” and “totally inappropriate . . . You might as well have just written, ‘Vote No.’ “

Council Member Brewster McCracken, on the other hand, defended the department’s wording. “The ballot language does accurately reflect the consequences of a proposed charter item that has a lot of potential disastrous impacts,” such as preventing the city from offering affordable housing in southwest Austin, he said.

The Council will decide on whether to approve the wording next week, along with language for four or more other ballot propositions. City Clerk Shirley Gentry expects to certify today that there are enough signatures to force the city to put a second SOS-sponsored amendment on the May 13 ballot. The latter is called the Open Government amendment and would mandate an enormous amount of work on the part of the city, at an estimated cost of $36 million.

The proposed wording for the springs-related amendment reads (in part), “Shall the city charter be amended to limit infrastructure improvement in the Barton Springs Zone, disqualify certain individuals from exercising their property rights under state law . . . make all ‘grandfathering’ decisions under state law subject to City Council approval after a public hearing, limit the city’s ability to enter into economic development agreements, and prohibit the city from participating in or supporting certain road projects?”

Assistant City Attorney Jenny Gilchrist said “improvement” is legal language for “construction of something” and does not mean that what was built is superior to whatever it replaced. Gilchrist pointed to language in what SOS submitted as backup for the notion that the term improvement should be in the ballot language.

Petitioners brought in approximately 20,000 signatures needed to place each amendment, before voters. Those petitions do not use the word improvements, instead referring to any “road, utilities, and other infrastructure extension (or) capacity expansion,” within the Barton Springs Zone.

But for most non-lawyers, the term does not refer to any “road, utilities,” etc Bunch is an attorney, but he complained to In Fact Daily, “They're picking and choosing words, words that aren't in the amendment itself; words that don’t tell the whole story. (They)… say nothing about this is based on a scientific consensus…trying to maintain the spring flows for out economic prosperity. There’s no connection. It’s like a whole different world.”

McCracken, also an attorney, was the only member of the Council to express an opinion on the appropriateness of the proposed ballot language.

Council postpones decision on contributions

Questions remain on how to limit PAC money

On Thursday, the City Council postponed for one week a decision on how to amend the charter to increase the amount individual contributors can give to Council candidates. There seemed to be near unanimity on the need to raise the current $100 limit to $300 and let inflation dictate future raises.

During the next week, there will be some intense discussions about how the city can legally restrict the amount of money political action committees are allowed to collect and spend on Council races. The city Legal Department declared that there had been problems with regulating PACs in the past and advised trying to do so in the new charter amendment.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen, told In Fact Daily, “It is our belief there are legitimate and easy ways to regulate PAC activities and we plan to explore them over the next week with the City Council.”

Earlier Smith told the Council, “As inflation has occurred, we realized that it had the unintended effect of really strangling the ability of people to wage campaigns that meant something, and we think it’s appropriate to increase the limits. We like the idea of indexing it (to inflation). One of the concerns that we have…as our experience with this ordinance has kicked in, we have created some unintended loopholes. A significant amount of money is going to PACs.”

Libertarian Party Chair Wes Benedict, a former City Council candidate, told the Council, “I think raising the contribution limits from $100 to $300 is a good thing. . . We’ve seen lots of evidence that the $100 limit puts enormous pressure on money to find ways around those limits into PACs and other organizations that makes it harder for voters to see where the money is coming from.”

Benedict, who has filed numerous complaints about violations of state and city campaign finance regulations, added, “enforceability is uncertain for many of the charter provisions. That sets up a situation where those who follow the rules may penalize themselves, where those who risk ignoring the rules may come out ahead. It puts too much power in the hands of entrenched campaign consultants like Mark Nathan, Mark Littlefield, and David Butts. Their experience lets them advise candidates on which rules candidates might get away with breaking. The only way to reduce the influence of money on politics is for government to get out of the business of micro-managing so many aspects of our lives.”

Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Betty Dunkerley and Brewster McCracken co-sponsored the charter amendment item. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 24, 2006) “In San Antonio the Mayor is allowed to collect individual contributions of up to $1,000,” Leffingwell said, “Similarly in Houston, city-wide elections for the Mayor…he or she is allowed to collect up to $5,000. We’re not setting any precedent here. Nobody’s vote can be bought for $300.”

McCracken said, “I believe that the charter amendment that was passed in 1997 is a fundamentally sound approach, I think it has been good for the political culture in this city. I also believe that contribution limits at a reasonable level is also a good system. What we have found is that since 1997, there’s been inflation: multiple postage rate increases, there have also been rent increases, cost of living has gone up, the cost of gasoline has gone up, television time is considerably more expensive because our metro area is bigger now. “

El Concilio representative Gavino Fernandez scolded the Council for not putting single-member districts on the charter ballot. He said there would be no need to raise the limit if the Council were elected from neighborhood districts. Later he told In Fact Daily that his group would support a mixed-system, with some members elected at large. The electorate has rejected single-member districts six times.

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

Chipping away at the moratorium . . . It didn’t take long for the first request for a waiver from the city’s interim development regulations to come before the Council. The owner at 1511 Hardouin Ave. requested a variance on Thursday in order to expand their home from 1,591 square feet with a 2,323 square foot second-story addition. The request was out of line with all three moratorium requirements: a 0.4-1 FAR, 2,500 total square feet, or the existing size plus 1,000 square feet. Council Members seemed sympathetic to the homeowners, who had already spent some $20,000 in architect’s fees, but had not filed a permit application before the deadline. After some wrangling over reductions in impervious cover, the Council voted 6-1 to OK the variance. Council Member Lee Leffingwell was the lone “no” vote, saying he was sticking to his principles and had concerns about setting a precedent . . . Pooches on the patio . . . Dogs will have their day at Austin restaurants. The Council approved a change to the city’s health code permitting restaurants with outdoor patios to allow dogs in those seating areas. Council Member Danny Thomas was the lone vote in opposition. “I like dogs too, but I think there’s a limit on what we need to do when it comes to dogs,” said Thomas. “I think there’s a limit to what we should allow.” . . . Skating for ratings . . . The Austin Convention Center will host the next roller derby bout of the TXRD Lone Star Rollergirls ( Members of the league, which is featured in the A&E show “Rollergirls”, spoke at Thursday’s Council meeting to offer their thanks to the city for allowing them to use the Convention Center after they were forced out of the new Crockett Center on North Lamar. The converted big-box store did not have the proper permits to house the roller derby league. The league will work with the property owner and the city to obtain the necessary permits, but needed a place to host a high-profile bout during the SXSW music festival while those permit issues are being resolved. Lone Star Rollergirls spokesman Mike Blizzard said the A&E show has between 500,000 and 1.5 million viewers per episode. A&E has spent about $15 million promoting the show, which the network bought partially to raise its profile among younger audiences. Rollergirls have been on the Today Show and have been featured in foldouts from Esquire and Rolling Stone, Blizzard said. Rollergirls manager April Ritzenhaler was particularly appreciative of efforts by City Manager Toby Futrell to assist the group in getting into the convention center. Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza jokingly told In Fact Daily he thought city employees should have a contest to give Futrell a roller name. The women on the show have names like Lux, Sister Mary Jane, Venis Envy and Witch Baby. The teams will face off on March 16, March 19 and March 26 . . . Early voting . . . Today is your last day to vote early for next Tuesday’s Texas Primary. Voting in Travis County and across Texas has been considerably slower than in the 2002 Primary. Some 10,833 county voters, just under 2 percent, have cast ballots in early voting. That compares to slightly more than 4 percent in 2002. Statewide, 171, 906 people, or 2.27 percent of registered voters, have cast ballots, compared to just over 4 percent in the 2002 Primary, according to the Secretary of State. Election Day is Tuesday. . . . Another late night . . . With an extended executive session in the afternoon, and a couple of long public hearings, City Council went late into the evening again last night. The debate over allowing dogs on restaurant patios, scheduled for 6pm, didn’t get started until nearly 11pm. Several individuals—some who brought their dogs to Council Chambers—went home some time before that item came up for debate. It was the same for several other items on the agenda. Council finally voted to adjourn at 11:43pm. . . . Williamson settles jail suit . . . Williamson County Commissioners have approved a financial settlement with three women who claimed jailers allowed a male inmate to leave his cell and perform sexual acts in front of them when they were in the jail. The inmate, Michael Moore, has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a Round Rock woman. County Attorney Jana Duty said terms of the settlement won’t be released until all three women have signed the agreement.

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