Candidates spar over key local issues

October 23, 2012   // 0 Comments

OHAN1

OHAN director Aan Coleman used a red and yellow balloon system to alert moderator Noah Marburger that a candidate’s speaking time had expired.

by Bobbie Jean Sawyer

Traffic and education were major topics of debate at the Wednesday, October 10 candidate forum hosted by the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) at the Circle C Community Center.  Candidates for Travis County Precinct 3 commissioner and constable, and state representatives for District 47 and 48 addressed questions submitted by members of OHAN, as well as questions from citizens in attendance.  Other topics included Homeowner’s Association fees, air quality and healthcare.

Travis County Precinct 3 commissioner candidates Karen Huber and Gerald Daugherty drew clear differences on traffic, particularly the ongoing debate over whether to build SH-45 Southwest, a proposed stretch of road that would connect MoPac and FM 1626.

A requested amendment to remove SH-45 from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range transportation plan was withdrawn by the city of Austin on Sept. 27.

Gerald Daugherty, former Precinct 3 commissioner and outspoken supporter of completing SH-45, has made traffic in Southwest Austin a major focus of his campaign.

“Without question traffic is the number one issue in this community as far as I’m concerned,” Daugherty said. “It’s the thing that challenges the quality of life for all of us that love to live here.”

Daugherty cited Hays County’s pledge to put $5 million toward building the road and said he’s confident Travis County could afford the $20 million necessary to complete what he sees as a necessary infrastructure.

Daugherty’s opponent and current Travis County Precinct 3 commissioner

Karen Huber said she’s still determining whether building SH-45 Southwest would alleviate traffic, citing the elementary and middle schools on Brodie Lane as a possible cause of some of the road’s congestion. Huber also questioned whether SH-45 Southwest would pull traffic down from the north onto Brodie, causing further gridlock.

“I have never said ‘Don’t build 45 Southwest.’ I have said ‘let’s be sure it’s going to do what we say it will do,’” Huber said. “We wouldn’t want to build a road to cause even more problems.” Huber said she’s opposed to building SH-45 as a county road as Travis

County would then have to pay for maintenance and law enforcement on the road without assistance from the state.

“We should not be paying, in Travis County, for roads that the state should be paying for,” Huber said. “I will not support Travis County building that road. If it is to be built, it should be built by the CTRMA or TxDOT, as it was originally planned. I will support it if everything shows that it is needed.”

Huber and Daugherty were questioned on what they would do if the city of Austin is classified as non-attainment, an area which doesn’t meet air quality standards put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Huber said while it’s unlikely that Travis County will be classified as non-attainment in 2013, limiting air pollution in Austin is a major concern. Huber pointed to air pollution that’s transported to Travis County from Houston and industrial areas in the mountains along the Colorado River.

“Those have a significant impact on our ozone tests,” Huber said. “We need to work harder with TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) to be able to figure out ways that we cannot be penalized in this area for emissions that are coming into this area from somewhere else.”

Daugherty said the main air-quality issue facing Travis County is idling cars stuck on congested roads.

“If you’re going to do something about non-attainment, you’re going to have to do something about your traffic,” Daugherty said. “You have to have someone with conviction to not be afraid to stand up and say ‘It’s about your roads, stupid.’”

Libertarian candidate Pat Dixon joined Huber and Daugherty for closing statements and audience questions, addressing his disapproval of the Formula 1 racetrack, calling the track a “corporate welfare issue.” Formula 1 organizers have applied for $25 million in State funding through the Special Events fund. “Tax payers are paying for cars to drive around and consume gasoline,” Dixon said.

Candidates for District 48 (which now includes parts of the Oak Hill area) state representative—Democrat incumbent Rep. Donna Howard and opponents Robert Thomas and Joseph Edgar—addressed questions regarding rising Homeowner’s Association (HOA) fees, education and Austin Energy’s electric rates.

Both Rep. Howard and Republican candidate Thomas were in favor of placing a cap on HOA fees and called for more fairness and transparency in the community organizations, while Libertarian candidate Edgar opposed government intervention, encouraging homeowners to petition for lower rates within their own community.

All three candidates were critical of the state-implemented high-stakes testing in public schools, which many argue do not allow for an accurate representation of student knowledge.

Thomas said current academic assessment tests are unfair to students who aren’t great test-takers and described the tests as “unacceptable from a cost-perspective.”

“Let’s take the partisanship out of educating our children and ensure that we have a test that our children can execute without holding them accountable or labeling them,” Thomas said.

Rep. Howard proposes looking at accountability at the classroom, community and state level without implementing expensive assessment tests.

“We can do scientific sampling—valid sampling—without testing every single student in every single subject every single year for the state to make those decisions,” Rep. Howard said. “It’s cost-irresponsible to do it.”

Edgar said he supports a voucher system that would allow parents more choice on where to educate their children.

“Right now the only way a school gets funded is to have a student in a seat, not knowledge in their head, and I think the dynamics of that, the economics behind it, are absurd. Let’s start focusing on educating children,” Edgar said. “I’m supportive of moving forward on charter schools to give more choice, to give more allowance for individuals to choose which school they want their children to go to.”

Rep. Howard said the use of vouchers would harm the already struggling public school system.

“I’m opposed to the use of vouchers. I’m opposed to the use of public dollars to pay for private education, especially in light of the fact that we have not adequately funded our public education program,” Howard said. “To drain those dollars off for private education is something that I will not support.”

The candidates were questioned on Austin Energy and Austin City Council’s influence over electric rates.

Rep. Howard cited the benefits of Austin Energy as a municipally owned utility that invested funds back into the community, but stated her support for a model to have a new appointed body, rather than City Council, oversee Austin Energy.

Thomas said if elected, he would address the issue at the state level to investigate whether Austin Energy is taking advantage of residents.

Edgar said he supports opening Austin Energy up to competition.

The forum ended with a debate among District 47 candidates for state representative, republican incumbent Paul Workman and opponents Chris Frandsen and Nick Tanner, in which education continued to dominate the conversation.

Both Democrat candidate Frandsen and Libertarian Tanner criticized the $5.4 billion legislative cuts to education.

“Everybody says we’re spending a lot of money and not getting value for the money,” Frandsen said. “I would say if you’re 49th in what you spend on your students amongst the states, maybe you’re getting what you paid for.”

Tanner proposed taking money out of the Texas Lottery Commission to help fund education and limiting superintendent pay.

Rep.Workman defended his vote to slash funding for education.

“There were not Draconian cuts. The average school spends about $10,000 per student and we cut $500 per student. That’s five percent. In 2011 when we went there, there were businesses all over who were having to make 40 (percent) and 50 percent cuts,” Workman said. “We have to learn to live with less.”

Another hotly debated topic, the issue of healthcare, was addressed by each of the candidates.

Frandsen said using Medicaid dollars from Obamacare to fund the 1.6 million uninsured will help keep citizens from paying for costly emergency room visits, while Tanner proposed nullifying Obamacare, which he deemed unconstitutional, despite a ruling to the contrary by the Supreme Court.

Addressing an audience question regarding the law that requires physicians to perform sonograms on a woman seeking an abortion, Frandsen criticized the legislation and political interference with womens’ healthcare.

“I believe that women are in charge of their own body and the government has no place in making decisions for women,” Frandsen said. “To play politics with the funding for women’s healthcare in the state of Texas is criminal.”

Rep. Workman went on the defense over his support of the legislation.

“Who would have a medical procedure and not expect to be able to see the results of the test? This bill simply said that a woman would have the right to see that screen,” Workman said. “I believe that life begins at conception and as such the right of that child in the womb is due the respect and protection of the state of Texas.”

Kathleen Miller, an Oak Hill resident in attendance, said she was glad to see the candidates address issues of importance to Southwest Austin, such as traffic and school funding.

“I thought some good substantive issues were talked about and it was very fair-minded, I think,” Miller said. “It’s good to put a face with the yard signs.”


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