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Dallas Officials Keep Wary Eye on Dallas Convention Center Hotel Foes

By Emily Ramshaw, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 28, 2009--AUSTIN -- Even in defeat, foes of the Dallas Convention Center hotel have the city on edge.

A representative for real estate mogul Harlan Crow, who bankrolled the losing anti-hotel referendum, says he won't try to upend the hotel plans in the Capitol.

But Dallas officials, fearing that a behind-the-scenes maneuver could imperil the project in the Legislature's final days, won't rest assured.

They've commissioned an experienced team to protect the hotel -- researchers who spend long, stressful days scrubbing bills and monitoring late amendments for any hint of trouble.

They say they can never be too cautious: Lawmakers have tried to slip through changes before that would've disrupted convention center hotel funding.

"A lot of time and resources have gone into the convention center hotel since 2001," said Larry Casto, the city's chief lobbyist. "Now that we've had a successful referendum on the issue, it would just be a travesty to not be able to proceed."

Adding to city lobbyists' stress?

A five-day stall-fest in the House that blocked a divisive voter identification bill from coming up for a vote. The delay meant many other bills missed a crucial deadline for House action -- and now are getting slapped on as amendments to bills the Senate is considering.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said that he has one of his staffers searching for anti-hotel amendments around the clock, and that he's keeping close watch in the Senate.

"The citizens of Dallas have spoken, and they said they want a hotel," West said. "My obligation is to ensure no legislation passes that would undermine that vote."

City lobbyists already have identified 120 bills that could easily be homes for anti-hotel amendments -- but say they're most concerned about hundreds of others with less obvious links.

Dallas voters narrowly defeated a referendum this month to throw out plans for a $500 million publicly owned convention center hotel. Crow, who largely funded the anti-hotel forces, later wrote to Mayor Tom Leppert and said he hoped they could put the bitter campaign behind them and work together.

"For us, the matter is settled," Crow wrote.

Anne Raymond, a spokeswoman for the anti-hotel side, said Crow has no intention of going after state legislation to block the hotel.

But city lobbyists say they won't take anything for granted. In 2003 -- long before the referendum -- some lawmakers floated last-stab amendments that would have restricted the funding mechanism of a proposed convention center hotel.

Casto said that repealing just one of several state tax codes would damage the referendum.

And Crow, who owns the Hilton Anatole hotel, is well-staffed in Austin. Records show he has five lobbyists registered to represent him this year; the Crow Family Partnership registered another six. His Austin-based lobbyists did not return phone calls Wednesday.

Tracking last-minute amendments, which often slip through quickly and without debate, is an enormous and difficult task. The researchers are armed with lists of words ("repeal," "convention center," "municipality") and tax and government code numbers ( 351.102, 151.429).

Casto said false alarms sound about every 10 minutes. "I haven't heard of anything legitimate yet," he said, "which is more worrisome to me than if I had."

Staff writer Dave Levinthal in Dallas contributed to this report.


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