No means yes

City council speaks with forked tongue on tax funding for the Olympic bid

Lying to taxpayers about their taxes is a basic political skill some politicians grasp sooner than others. Veteran members of the Dallas City Council are trying now to get new member Laura Miller to wise up and stop behaving as if they really meant it when they promised not to tax Dallas residents to pay for trying to bring the 2012 Olympics here.

An increasingly heated behind-the-scenes game of nudge-nudge wink-wink is swirling around the council's resolution, passed unanimously last September, in which the council solemnly vowed to use "minimal resources" in pursuing the 2012 games.

A private Olympics committee supported by the Dallas Citizens Council, a business group, has vowed that no tax money will be used to bring the games here. In fact "no public funds" has become a kind of mantra for the Dallas Olympics bid, probably reflecting a perception that Dallas voters feel tapped out right now by big-ticket projects and would like to see their streets fixed before anything else happens.

But every time the boosters say it, some new shred of evidence pops up to indicate they may be telling a fib.

Dallas lawyer Tom Luce, who heads the private Olympics bid committee, reacted with Shakespearean indignation last month when Miller produced a memo that seemed to show his committee was in fact pursuing legislation in Austin that would create vast new tax-dollar revenue streams to finance the 2012 games and repay Luce's committee for its own out-of-pocket expenses.

Luce reiterated heatedly that his committee is not seeking and "will not accept" tax money to finance its efforts, nor is it pursuing legislation, he insisted, to provide tax money for the games.

Meanwhile, the city council is playing it both ways. In public they have castigated Miller for questioning the integrity of the bid process.

But the private position being taken by a majority of the council--possibly all members except Miller and North Dallas' Donna Blumer--is that they should continue to maintain their pious no-taxes-for-games posture in public while sending word down to Austin that they want every nickel they can get.

The Texas Legislature is considering bills that would allow Texas cities vying for the games to create a variety of new local taxing mechanisms to pay for them.

In a recent city council subcommittee meeting, southern Dallas member Don Hicks basically told Miller that the council and private Olympics boosters should pursue tax revenues for the games in the ongoing legislative session while continuing to tell the public the opposite. Hicks told Miller he thought Luce didn't really mean it when he promised not to seek taxes for the games.

On an official city tape-recording of the subcommittee meeting, Hicks can be heard telling Miller, "It's not that they aren't supporting it. They say that they wouldn't pursue it this term. That didn't mean they don't support it."

Miller objects, "Well, they said in The Dallas Morning News they don't support it. I mean, am I missing something? Do you know something I don't know?"

Hicks answers her, "Well, you know what, it's kind of like, 'How do you define sex?' I think that they don't mean that, even though they said it. You think they mean it."

Hicks did not return repeated phone calls asking for comment on his taped remarks at the subcommittee meeting.

The issue came up because the city's legislative lobbyist, Assistant City Attorney Larry Casto, had come to the committee to ask what position he should take on Olympics bills moving through the Legislature now.

"I get several phone calls a day from our own delegation who are asked by members of the Houston and San Antonio delegations, What are you all doing on this bill?" Casto told the committee.

Alan Walne, who represents far northeast Dallas, sided with Hicks in suggesting that Casto should go for the money. Walne said Luce's position, as reported by the Morning News, only meant he wouldn't seek tax money, not that he wouldn't accept it.

"In all due respect to what The Dallas Morning News may have said," Walne said, "I didn't read in the letter that was in my packet last week that they didn't 'support' it."

South Dallas member Charlotte Mayes helpfully offered, "They won't seek it."
The only press representative at the meeting, Michael Saul of the Morning News, can be heard reassuring the subcommittee that Tom Luce's public vows not to seek tax money probably should not be taken too literally.

Toward the end of debate on the issue, Miller tells the rest of the subcommittee that she thinks the council should declare itself officially on the question of how Casto should proceed. Should he "work" the Olympics tax-revenue bills, trying to get a bill that would let Dallas tax its residents for the games, or should he tell legislators that Dallas does not want to be a part of the bills?

Miller says on the tape, "I think we need to vote on this as the city council. Instead of us doing what the 2012 [Citizens Council committee] is doing, which is saying, 'I don't really pursue this, but I wouldn't mind if we had this,' I would like us to vote on it, so that the city of Dallas has a position on whether they're going to use tax dollars to fund the games, and not sneak up on the taxpayers after this thing passes and say, 'Well, the state gave us the authority, so how can we turn them down?'"

To its credit, the subcommittee agreed with Miller that the full council should be briefed and take an official position at its next meeting on the issue. But City Manager Ted Benavides refused to put the briefing item on the council agenda, saying he would brief the council on it next month when he deals with several other legislative issues.

Saul, of the News, did not report on the controversy at the subcommittee meeting in his newspaper the next day. Nevertheless, word bubbled to the surface when Mayes, chairperson of the subcommittee, complained that Mayor Ron Kirk had threatened to strip her of her chairmanship for even suggesting the issue be brought to the full council.

Kirk denies threatening her.
In the meantime, there are frequent indications that Olympics boosters in Dallas are finding their ways around the no-taxes vow to ensure that Dallas won't be left out of any lucrative tax deals the Legislature might pass.

Rep. Arthur Reyna, a San Antonio Democrat, is sponsor of the House bill to provide Olympics funding for cities seeking to host Olympic and sub-Olympic events in the future. Reyna says the main person he has heard from on his bill is Ron Kirk.

"Right around the time all the excitement started in Dallas with Laura Miller," Reyna says, "he called and assured me he supported the legislation and that she didn't speak for the whole council."

Kirk confirmed that he had called Reyna, but only, he said, because he knew reporters would start calling him after Miller called Tom Luce a liar over the issue of tax support. "I called him privately to give him a heads-up after Laura Miller slashed around indiscriminately at a council meeting and called Tom Luce a liar and so on. I wanted to let him know that a majority of the council supported Luce and supported the effort to bring the games here."

Casto, the city's lobbyist, says he is pursuing a strategy that sounds much like what Hicks had suggested at the subcommittee meeting: Casto is telling legislators that Dallas doesn't have an official position on the tax-support legislation right now, but that the city doesn't want to be left out of it.

"That's pretty much a standing order on any legislative issue," he says. "Even though we don't have an official position, we wouldn't want to see anything done that would put Dallas at a disadvantage with regard to other cities."

Kirk says he thinks the council will be briefed on the issue and have an opportunity to give Casto official walking orders before the Legislature passes an Olympics bill. Reyna says he, too, thinks that may happen, because the bills in both the House and Senate are being re-jiggered this week to provide more time to resolve Dallas' special predicament.

Mayes predicts the council will vote to tell Casto to go for the gold. "That's how I see it happening," she says.

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