Bill to rename stretch of I-35 after Chavez passes in House

Posted Friday, Apr. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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AUSTIN -- A bill to name a stretch of Interstate 35W through Fort Worth after civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez passed the Texas House on Thursday after brief threats of a challenge on the House floor failed to materialize.

Passage of an identical bill in the Senate would send the name change to Gov. Rick Perry, but that's not a lock. That bill was narrowly approved by a 5-4 vote in the Senate Transportation Committee.

The legislation by two Fort Worth Democrats -- Rep. Lon Burnam and Sen. Wendy Davis -- is backed by the city's Hispanic leadership.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has expressed concern about the measure, saying the name change could be confusing.

If the legislation emerges from both chambers of the Legislature and is signed into law, a nearly 10-mile stretch of Interstate 35W would be designated as the Cesar Chavez Memorial Freeway. The name would apply to the section of the highway that bisects Fort Worth from Interstate 20/Loop 820 on the south to Texas 183 on the north.

Burnam's bill seemed destined for easy passage on the local and consent calendar, which is reserved for noncontroversial bills, but several North Texas lawmakers opposed to the name change signaled their intention to try to strip the bill off local-and-consent to subject the measure to a full debate.

"That was discussed but at the end of the day it didn't happen," said Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, one of the lawmakers opposed to the bill. "We felt we would at least do well to put our objection in the record even though it went through the local and consent calendar."

The initial unofficial tally showed the vote at 141-3, but the results changed later in the day as dissenting members went to the House Journal Clerk to register no votes. Two of three members initially shown as voting no said they accidentally voted wrong on the local and consent calendar and corrected their votes to support the measure.

By late afternoon, the vote was 131-13, according to the journal clerk.

Those who voted against the measure include three freshman Republicans from Tarrant County -- Krause and Reps. Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake and Jonathan Stickland of Bedford. Rep. Roy Orr, a Burleson Republican who represents Johnson County suburbs adjacent to Forth Worth, also opposed the measure.

Chavez, who died in 1993, was an American labor leader who championed Latino rights and co-founded the United Farm Workers union. His birthday, March 31, is celebrated as a state holiday in Texas, California and Colorado. President Barack Obama has also proclaimed March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day, although it is not a federal holiday.

Price could not be reached for comment after Thursday's vote but she earlier told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board in an email that she had reservations about the name change, though she acknowledged the significance of Chavez to the Hispanic community. She also said she had not been aware of the legislation.

"For practical purposes, I'm not sure we need to be renaming major highways in Fort Worth, like I-35," Price said. "I think it's confusing to have to deal with the various names given to different stretches of major highways."

Burnam won passage of the bill in the House on the local and consent calendar in 2011, but the measure died in the Senate. The Fort Worth lawmaker, who represents a heavily Hispanic inner-city district, said efforts to rename the highway after the Latino leader began about three years as an initiative by the Hispanic leadership in Fort Worth

Communications issue

Although the city of Fort Worth endorsed the bill in 2011, Burnam acknowledged that he didn't reach out to city officials this year to see whether the current leadership supports the name change. Price was elected mayor in June 2011, after the last legislative session, replacing Mike Moncrief.

"What we have found out is there was a breakdown in communications," Burnam said. "The city spoke in favor of the bill two years ago. It didn't occur to me to go back."

Witnesses who testified in behalf of the bill at a March 12 legislative hearing included Assistant Tarrant County Administrator Mark Mendez, representing Commissioner Roy C. Brooks, and Fort Worth school board member Juan Rangel.

The Rev. Stephen Jasso of Fort Worth's All Saints Catholic Church also sent a letter to members of the House Transportation Committee, saying the designation "would be a significant symbol for the Hispanic community in Fort Worth."

But Capriglione and Krause said they had no contact with local officials on the issue, adding that the absence of expressed support from local leaders was central to their decisions to oppose the measure.

"It runs right through the heart of Fort Worth," Krause said of the interstate. "It would have been good if we had heard from the mayor and City Council -- approval of it. I didn't hear from any elected officials or constituents in the district who thought it was a good thing."

Capriglione agreed, saying, "I didn't get one private individual or one elected official who said, 'Hey, I'm in support of that bill' -- not one."

The lawmakers also said they felt that the name change would be confusing, pointing out that the stretch of highway is also known as the Purple Heart Trail as well as Interstate 35W. Authorizing the Cesar Chavez designation, they said, would have given it a third name.

Chavez's sometimes controversial image was not a major factor in their opposition to the name change, the lawmakers said.

"He certainly is a controversial figure in some ways, but to me it was more about what Fort Worth wanted to do," Krause said.

Davis said she unsure of the outlook in the Senate but expressed hope that passage of Burnam's bill in the House would boost momentum behind the measure. "I'm working to get the votes I need," she said.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief.


Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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