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The group behind a petition to put a citywide public-camping ban on the November ballot in Austin said Thursday that they were "engaging a highly respected local Democratic litigator" in their efforts to fight a city ruling earlier in the week that their petition did not enough valid signatures.
Matt Mackowiak, a cofounder of Save Austin Now, the group behind the petition, stopped short of saying the group was planning to file a legal contest—but he did put out a call for donations in a post on Facebook.
Mackowiak, who is also chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, said in a Facebook post that the group has called "a highly respected local Democratic litigator to review the facts, help us determine what additional information is needed, and consider our legal options."
"Put simply: This is expensive and we need your support right now," he wrote. "We have only begun to fight."
Austin City Clerk Jannette Goodall's ruling yesterday was the first time since 2002 that the city invalidated a petition because of lack of signatures, she told Austonia on Thursday.
The struggle has intensified as residents report growing camps near neighborhoods while a consultant hired by the city is advising that moving the encampments won't solve the city's homelessness issue.
Goodall used a random sampling method that the city adopted in 2002 in her review, according to a city spokesperson. State law allows cities to use any reasonable sampling method in determining whether citizen-led petitions contain the required number of signatures.
While Mackowiak was not specific about plans to file, local attorney and activist Fred Lewis—who has spearheaded other citizen-initiated petitions, including one last year that opposed an expansion of the Austin Convention Center— said he would expect the group to file very soon, likely with the state district court.
This is because the last day for the city to order a referendum in the November election is Aug. 17, according to the state election schedule.
"You're talking two or three weeks this has got to be decided - at most," Lewis said. "The court may not be able to decide it in that time."
Save Austin Now filed the petition on July 20, with 24,598 signatures—well over the 20,000 required to put their initiative on the ballot. If validated, it would have allowed voters to decide whether to roll back a year-old city ordinance allowing camping, panhandling, sitting and lying in public spaces.
But in her review, Goodall discovered several issues: some signers asked to be removed; there were duplicate names; and a second version of the petition was detected, which invalidated others.
Ultimately, the clerk estimated that there are 19,122 valid signatures on the petition.
"The probability that checking all 24,201 submitted signatures would find a total of at least 20,000 valid signatures is less than 3 in one billion," Goodall wrote in her ruling.
Some welcomed the news.
Chris Harris, director of criminal justice programs at Texas Appleseed and who was involved in a local effort to decriminalize homelessness, called the clerk's ruling "phenomenal" in a tweet on Wednesday.
"Republican efforts to re-criminalize homelessness & use homelessness as a wedge to turn out conservative voters in November has failed," he wrote.
Save Austin Now co-founder Cleo Petricek is a self-proclaimed local Democrat.
PHENOMENAL news #ATX!!! Republican efforts to re-criminalize homelessness & use homelessness as a wedge to turn ou… https://t.co/Nouy3uT91r— Chris Harris (@Chris Harris)1596660575.0
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that Texas will opt out of further federal unemployment benefits related to the pandemic effective June 26, citing the number of current job openings and concern about potentially fraudulent unemployment claims. The benefits include a $300 weekly supplement.
"The Texas economy is booming and employers are hiring communities across the state," Abbott said in a statement. "According to the Texas Workforce Commission, the number of job openings in Texas is almost identical to the number of Texans who are receiving unemployment jobs."
TWC listed 837,273 job openings as of Monday afternoon compared to 226,849 unemployment insurance claims filed statewide between March 31 and May 1. An estimated 1 million Texans were unemployed as of March, according to latest estimates released by the state agency.
Some local business owners, including Doc's Backyard Grill owner Charles Milligan, suspect unemployment benefits are deterring Austinites from returning to work. But others agree with economists who say multiple factors are at play, including health concerns and child care availability.
We're seeing lots of posts about how nobody wants to work right now. Just wanted to share our experience.
We received over 60 resumes for a taproom bartender position we posted last week. Every applicant we've set up an interview with has shown up.
People want 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 work.
— Austin Beerworks (@AustinBeerworks) May 11, 2021
Abbott also cited fraudulent unemployment claims. Between March 2020 and April 2021, TWC received 4.48 million unemployment benefit applications, 611,000 or around 14% of which were tagged as suspicious. Most of those tagged were blocked before any benefits were paid out, according to an April 29 press release.
Federal law requires the effective date of such benefits change to be at least 30 days after the U.S. Department of Labor is notified.
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