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Ruling could send redistricting back to Legislature

Thursday, June 29, 2006 by

If a federal three-judge panel stays true to form, the Texas redistricting case would be returned to the Texas Legislature for a special session within the next 30 to 60 days. The alternatives are for the appellate judges to redraw the map themselves or to ask the lower court to do that task. Regardless, the clock is ticking.

The results of Wednesday’s Supreme Court opinion – focused primarily on violations of the Voting Rights Act rather than the issue of partisan gerrymandering – was not what most pundits predicted for the court opinion, but it did reflect the bulk of discussion before the justices when the Texas case was presented to the Supreme Court on March 1.

In its decision, the court threw out Congressional District 23, represented by Hispanic Republican US Rep. Henry Bonilla. The plan's ''troubling blend of politics and race–and the resulting vote dilution of a group that was beginning to achieve (the federal law's) goal of overcoming prior electoral discrimination–cannot be sustained,'' wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The court was concerned by what happened when the Legislature carved 100,000 Webb County Hispanics out of Bonilla’s established and cohesive Congressional district and replaced them with Republicans in order to shore up Bonilla’s waning Hispanic support. The court called the new Congressional District 25—intended to replace the redrawn Congressional District 23 – insufficient compensation for the lost minority-majority district.

The case was remanded back to the federal three-judge panel that considered the case the first time. The panel could redraw the boundary lines but given the court’s leanings – and the past arguments presented by the state – it’s likely that Solicitor General Ted Cruz will petition the panel to return the map to the Texas Legislature to redraw the lines. Questions still remain as to how quickly those maps can be redrawn if lawmakers get involved. Any special primaries would have to be called by Aug. 29 in order to be completed in a timely fashion before the November elections, according to the Associated Press. However, that would not allow the 60 days needed for US Department of Justice pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act.

Both Congressional District 23 and Congressional District 25 are likely to be thrown out with a new map, no matter who redraws it. In fact, plaintiff’s attorney Nina Perales, who argued the voting rights claims before the court, predicts that at least five Congressional districts are likely to be in play if the lines for Congressional District 23 are to be redrawn: Districts 23, 25, 28, 21 and 11.

Congressional District 25, representing by US Rep. Lloyd Doggett, stretches from South Austin to the Texas-Mexico border, putting Travis and Hidalgo County Hispanics in the same district. Democrats, not Perales, argued that the Hispanics in the opposing ends of the district did not share the same interests and values. A majority on the court cited that argument– a new twist likely to complicate future redistricting cases – but it was not Perales’ argument before the court. She was concerned with Congressional District 23.

"They did not say that Congressional District 25 is illegal. They said it was not a sufficient offset for 23," Perales noted. "We raised the claim of voting rights violations on Congressional District 23, and the state’s response was, ‘We gave you 25.’ Our response to that was that 25 was not an appropriate replacement for what we lost in 23."

Both Bonilla and Doggett rushed to issue statements that they both were committed to representing their districts, regardless of how the lines were to be redrawn. Bonilla called the redrawing of CD 23 a "technical correction." Doggett applauded the decision but said he remained committed to working with the families between Austin and the border.

"Hopefully, the three-judge federal court (panel) in Texas will now move promptly to correct the wrong that has been done and approve a new map for the November election," Doggett said. "Until that map is completed, uncertainty will remain as to the final boundaries of the district that I represent. The one certainty is that I will continue working hard for all families whom I serve."

The court agreed that efforts of Republicans, led by former US Rep. Tom DeLay, could not be considered partisan gerrymandering if the efforts were to correct an equally egregious map created by the Democratic Party. As long as the districts drawn by the map remained Constitutional, then the map itself was Constitutional, said the justices. That does not rule out another case, and another possible definition, of partisan gerrymandering, although what might be a more clear-cut case is unclear.

For those who were hoping for a more definitive definition on what constitutes partisan gerrymandering, the call by the court was a disappointment. In fact, some election law professors who participated in a conference call yesterday on the Texas redistricting case questioned why the Court had agreed to take the case at all, given that mid-decade redistricting appeared to be a non-issue.

"Clearly, the only way the court is going to consider partisan gerrymandering is to frame it as a race question," said Sam Issacharoff of NYU Law School. "That message comes through loud and clear. The only question now is whether the court is willing to consider those discrimination claims that are being prepared to challenge on bipartisan sweetheart deals, where it becomes simply an anti-competition issue."

Perales predicts the decision will have implications for the reauthorization of Section V of the Voting Rights Act. Conservative Texas Congressional members – US Rep. John Carter among them – have argued that Congressional maps from Texas no longer need to be pre-cleared because discrimination is no longer a problem in the state. Texas is among a number of states that must pre-clear its maps with the US Justice Department to make sure the voting rights of minorities are protected.

Perales says the Supreme Court’s decision on Congressional District 23 underlines the fact that discrimination does still exist in Texas and that the rights of minorities must continue to be protected when it comes to voting rights.

A legal discussion of the issues in the case can be found at http://www.law.upenn.edu.

Winning PAC files contribution report

One of two political action committees that worked successfully to defeat Propositions 1 and 2 on last month’s City of Austin ballot has filed its July 15 report early.

EDUCATE PAC reports collecting $47,150 and spending more than $45,000—rather small potatoes compared to the heavy spending by both the SOS-supported, pro-amendment group Clean Water Clean Government (CWCG) and the main business PAC opposing the amendments, the Committee for Austin’s Future.

The report filed this week shows that Tejas Inc. contributed $20,000, by far the largest contribution this group received. Tejas, formerly Westech Capital, is an investment banking and brokerage firm with both institutional and private clients. According to Hoover’s, the company's investment research focuses on high-technology firms in Central Texas, telecommunications concerns, and troubled or bankrupt companies.

Vice chairman Jared Abbruzzese controls about 30 percent of Tejas, while John Gorman owns 24 percent. According to information found online with Fran Finnegan & Co., Barry Williamson acquired the right to buy 10,000 shares of Westech; divided equally amongst three years beginning on 11/8/04, and ending on 11/8/06, with the price of shares set at $18 each. Williamson was elected in 1992 to the Texas Railroad Commission and served from January 1993 to January 1999. He also held posts in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

Another big spender was Athena Equity Partners Hays LP, which contributed $10,000 to EDUCATE PAC. From online sources, it appears that the group’s principal activity is development of residential communities and providing services to local homebuilders.

A ZoomInfo.com entry points out that Clark Wilson, a former principal with Athena, currently serves on the Tejas Board of Directors. Wilson became chairman, president and CEO of Wilson Family Holdings in October, 1995, which became Wilson Family Communities in May 2005, and merged with Athena shortly thereafter.

Contributors kicking in $5,000 apiece included Leslie Ward with AT&T Texas; tax attorney Gary Vacek with Mueller, Vacek & Kiecke, LLP; and Michael Luigs, a real estate broker with Land/Water/Sky, a private firm that buys land to help create parks and open spaces. Steven Leblanc with White Stone Associates was a $1000 contributor as was developer Perry Lorenz.

EDUCATE PAC reported raising about $24,000 on its May 9 report. Of that amount, $10,000 came from publisher Mike Levy; $5,000 from the law firm of Drenner & Golden, $2500 from Armbrust & Brown and $5,000 from Time-Warner Cable.

Major expenditures by EDUCATE PAC on it July 15 expense report included $15,000 in consulting fees to Mike Blizzard at Grassroots Solutions; $5,000 to Mark Nathan at Krypton Communications; $14,261 to Kelly Graphics of Austin for mail printing; $4,754 to Castle Communications of Yardley, Pa. for automated campaign phone calls; $2,590 to the Austin Chronicle for advertising; and $2,500 to Trademark Media for website design.

Private firm to finish south leg of SH 130

The Texas Transportation Commission today will vote on a contract with Cintra-Zachry to finish the southern leg of SH 130 running from Austin to Seguin. If commissioners give their approval today, construction crews could begin work late next year after an environmental assessment and decisions on the final route of the road.

"The proposal requires them to pay all of the cost of extending the highway, pay the state a small up-front fee, and permits the state to also share with the firm the tolls that are collected," said Texas Transportation Commissioner Ric Williamson. "This will enable us to build the road approximately 25 years sooner than otherwise could have been expected. Of course, we don’t have the money to build it anyway, so we’re building an asset that could not have been built. It’s a pretty significant day for the state."

The northern half of SH 130, running from Georgetown to Austin, is already under construction by a joint venture called Lone Star Infrastructure, and should be finished by the end of 2007. Work on the southern portion could begin at about that same time with a scheduled completion in 2012.

State transportation officials say Cintra-Zachry, which is already working on the Trans-Texas Corridor, is prepared to spend $1.3 billion on the southern segment of SH130. While the company would pay for the construction of the road and operate it for a period of 50 years, the state would retain ownership and receive a portion of the toll revenues. Cintra-Zachary is a private Spanish-American conglomerate. Cintra has extensive experience building roads and other infrastructure in Europe

In addition, TxDOT would receive $25 million up-front under the agreement with that money going to fund projects in the Austin and San Antonio districts. The toll rates will be set prior the opening of the road. Williamson predicted they would be similar to those for the northern half of SH130, but also stressed that they would be based on market forces and could be higher or lower.

The campaign office of Carole Keeton Strayhorn issued a news release late Wednesday criticizing the proposed contract. "Texans still don’t know what is in the first contract between Gov. Perry’s TxDOT and Cintra, the European-based company, in this $184 billion Trans Texas Catastrophe," Strayhorn wrote, using her campaign lingo for the Trans-Texas Corridor. "And today we find out that the state has been secretly negotiating behind closed doors to let that same company build this 40-mile stretch of toll road."

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

Curtis heading to Capital Metro . . . Mayor Will Wynn’s press secretary and special assistant Matt Curtis has told In Fact Daily that he will be joining the staff of Capital Metro as Assistant Director of Business and Community Development at the end of July. Curtis, who began his city career with Council Member Brewster McCracken after working in numerous political campaigns, is also a finalist for the Thomas P. O'Neill Family Foundation Distinguished Public Service Award . . . Alternative energy day . . . Two players in the plug-in hybrid vehicle arena, former General Motors electric car specialist Chelsea Sexton and former CIA Director Jim Woolsey will speak tonight at Austin Energy. Sexton is featured in the new documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? Woolsey is part of the Set America Free Coalition, which is promoting the mass production of plug-in hybrid vehicles as a way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. They plan to participate in what is being called an American Independence Forum at 7pm at Austin Energy, 711 Barton Springs Road, as part of the nationwide Plug-In Partners campaign, which was started by the City of Austin under Wynn’s direction . . . Politics out of church. . . Texas Faith Network plans a news conference today to launch a Campaign To Protect Houses of Worship From Partisan Politics. The statewide campaign will call on politicians to respect the faith of all Texans. Clergy from a variety of denominations and faith traditions will launch a campaign aimed at encouraging responsible civic participation by congregants while also protecting sacred spaces from being dragged into partisan politics. The news conference is planned for 11am at the University United Methodist Church, 2409 Guadalupe in Austin . . . High-rise project breaks ground . . . High Street Residential broke ground yesterday on The Shore, a 22-story 192-unit residential complex, at the development's leasing center downtown. The project will be built in the Rainey Street District. The developer has presented the Austin Parks Foundation with a check for $10,000 to improve access to the nearby hike-bike trail on the lake. High Street says more than 80 percent of the units in The Shore have been pre-leased. The project is slated for completion in January 2008. . . . National Night Out . . . July 1 is the deadline to register your neighborhood’s National Night Out gathering to have a public safety representative attend. On August 1, neighborhoods across Austin will turn on porch lights for National Night Out, an annual, nationwide event designed to promote neighborhood safety. National Night Out is designed to: heighten crime and drug prevention awareness; generate support for crime prevention; strengthen neighborhood spirit and police community relations; and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back. For materials on National Night Out, call 972-9522 or email custinfo@austinenergy.com.

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