March 26, 2013
To go through the main entrance of the new Topfer Theatre at the Zach Scott complex, you now are able to walk through The People’s Plaza.
It’s a big, beautiful open area that’s just up from Lady Bird Lake, and it’s wide open to the public. The idea is that it’s ours; we all share it. It allows all of Austin to be part of this wonderful complex, whether you’re there for theater or not.
And instead of naming it after a benefactor who donated millions of dollars, the Zach Scott folks named it after the people who make Austin special. It’s part of their recognition and thanks to Austinites who’ve made Zach and its new digs possible through bond elections and other efforts.
I was very pleased to be recognized among the inaugural group that was honored on Sunday at the People’s Plaza, which also included Edith Royal, Bertha Means, Gary Farmer, Terry Lickona, and Ray Benson. Zach also honored some folks who came before us, including Darrell Royal, Edwin Waller, Lady Bird Johnson, Governor Ann Richards, George & Ronya Kozmetsky, Jake Pickle, and Andrew Zilker. And we celebrated the naming of the Bobbi Pavilion for Bobbi Topfer. It was really a joy to be included in group with so many different people who share such wildly diverse talents with Austin and the world.
That’s part of what’s great about what Zach is doing with this project. And it’s a great reminder, in the middle of this legislative session, of how much is going on in this wonderful place we all live in.
We’re now a little more than halfway through the session – just under 9 weeks to go. There’s plenty going on (more on that in a minute), but taking a step back, it’s easy to feel good about everything that’s been happening.
I got a nice affirmation over the weekend from KXAN, which named me an MVP of the session so far. You can watch it here:
So, now that we’ve covered all that good feeling, let’s head back into the weeds of the session. It’s going to be another busy week.
(And, yes, I know that probably goes without saying at this point; every week’s going to be a busy week until we adjourn on Memorial Day.)
My bill modernizing Texas open meetings law, by allowing governments to create message boards that officials can communicate on and the public can easily view, was approved unanimously by the Senate Open Government Committee yesterday.
I’m hoping for a similarly happy resolution for my bill reforming Public Private Partnerships in Texas. That’ll be up for a vote by the full Senate Economic Development Committee tomorrow or next week.
And my bill increasing penalties on those who fail to stop and render aid after an accident was unanimously approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week. I hope to see it get a full vote of the Senate next week.
There also have been a couple of news stories featuring my legislation (including a bill from last session) that I want to make sure you saw:
Some people will do anything to stay away from tax bills and budget cuts.
Look at the Texas Legislature, which is on track to divert nearly $5 billion raised for specific programs to accounts where it balances spending in the two-year general budget. Legislators tell voters they are collecting taxes and fees to pay for pleasant-sounding programs like criminal justice planning, fugitive apprehension, clean air, artificial reefs, 911 emergency services and trauma care, to name a few.
Then they leave some or all of the money collected for those programs in account balances that, for accounting purposes, can be counted against general spending to balance the budget.
Most taxes go from your pocket into general accounts that can be used for anything in the state budget. The dedicated funds are supposed to be used only for their intended purpose, if they are used at all. That last phrase — “if they are used at all” — is the part where the budget magicians do their work.
Money that is not used — unspent balances in state accounts — offsets overspending in other accounts. It doesn’t matter to the counters whether the unspent money is dedicated to something or not …
Still, some people do mind. Senator Kirk Watson, Democrat of Austin (of which he is also a former mayor), minds. And after several years of talking about it, he has company on both sides of the aisle. It turns out that transparency is popular with Republicans and Democrats.
“We’ve got to get some more transparency,” Mr. Watson said. “Everybody recognizes this is not an honest way to budget. If you’re going to collect a tax and not use it for that purpose, quit collecting the tax.”
(This story ran in the Dallas Morning News just before Spring Break; you need a subscription to read the whole thing.)
It’s been two years since Texas lawmakers passed a “911 lifeline law” to encourage people under 21 not to be afraid to call for help if they suspect someone else is suffering from alcohol poisoning.
But the state legislator behind the law and the family of the Austin native whose death prompted it still worry that amid spring break and St. Patrick’s Day revelry, not enough people know about that lifeline.
“There could be some situations this week and St. Patrick’s Day … where some bad set of circumstances could happen and if a kid knew, they could use that 911 lifeline and save a life,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. “And I fear that some won’t know, and we may lose some kid this week.”
Watson’s 2011 law, which passed unanimously, says that people under 21 will not be charged for alcohol possession or consumption if they are the first person to call 911 in a possible alcohol poisoning case. The caller also has to remain at the scene until medical help arrives and cooperate with authorities, according to the law.
It was inspired by the 2008 acute alcohol poisoning death of 18-year-old Carson Starkey after a college fraternity hazing ritual at California Polytechnic State University. Fraternity members loaded Starkey into a vehicle to take him to a hospital, but they changed their mind and took him back inside a house out of fear they would get in trouble.
Starkey, a close friend of Watson’s oldest son, was left on a mattress and never regained consciousness. His blood alcohol level was 0.40, which is five times the legal driving limit in Texas.
“The boys had him in a car to take him to the hospital and aborted the trip,” said Julia Starkey, Carson’s mother. “It was literally a quarter-mile from the hospital. They were afraid of getting in trouble.”
Starkey and her husband, Scott, were soon on a mission to both educate young people about the dangers and signs of alcohol poisoning and to fight to eliminate the fear that they believe cost Carson Starkey his life. They launched the nonprofit Aware Awake Alive, through which they spread their message and advocate for immunity laws or policies in states and at colleges across the country.