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The Watson Wire is one of the more unique political newsletters in Texas. Stay tuned for a different perspective about Texas politics, news from the Capitol, and the best stories I can come up with every week (believe me, I try).

Senator Watson -- already with his successful "Watson Wire" -- has pushed the envelope throughout the campaign season ..." Burnt Orange Report

Mrs. Young gets the credit

Mrs. Sharon Young was the Boswell High School Junior Class sponsor in 1974-1975. I was the Junior Class President. So, along with a merry band of Junior Class members, it was our responsibility to put on the Junior/Senior Prom.

Mrs. Young and I had a blast working on fundraising, planning and the actual execution of the rather classy, highly formal event. I thought — and think — the world of Mrs. Young. She was great. Always happy, she was the kind of teacher that everyone loves.  We learned so much from her and we all were made to feel special by her. She’s still a friend.

(By the way, we had a band called Ace that played at that prom. The theme, uh, seems to have been lost to memory. At least my memory. Something about under the sea.)

Qualifications matter

Maybe more importantly, Mrs. Young was also my bookkeeping teacher. And I made an A in her class. I believe that qualifies me to write a $220 billion state budget.

Apparently, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick agrees. Last week, he appointed me to the Senate Finance Committee, which handles all budget and tax issues.

I’m very pleased and grateful that I’ll be in this position.

I’ve been working on what I’ve called my budget “Honesty Agenda” for a couple of sessions now. I’ve made progress. Step by step, bit by bit.

This new appointment is a great opportunity for me to push for an honest budget that provides for property tax reform, addresses our troubled school finance system and invests in our colleges, universities and aging infrastructure.

And I’ll be in a position to protect the pensions and health care of our state employees and teachers.

It’s also a huge challenge. This is a diverse state with a big, complicated budget. And the decisions we make in that budget have serious consequences.

I’m also very glad that I’ll continue to serve on the Higher Education, Business & Commerce and Nominations committees, all of which deal with issues that really matter to my constituents and the state.

It’s time

Well, the session’s started. The Senate Rules have been adopted. Committees are now appointed.

It’s about to get very interesting.

 

Remembering Dr. King

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 4, 1968, the night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I was a 4th grader living in Vienna, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C.  My dad was participating in a management-training program for the FAA.

My class was supposed to go into D.C. the next day for a field trip.  That morning, my mother had me wear some nice clothes and she gave me a little bit of money so I could buy a souvenir.

All of the kids were excited about the trip.  But the teacher quieted us and told us we weren’t going on the trip because, she said, “The city is shut down.”  I don’t remember any more explanation.

My dad took me into D.C. a few days later.  It was just him and me in the car.  We drove around and saw so many who had gathered.  And we saw some of the aftermath of reaction to Dr. King’s killing.

The drive and talk with my dad made an impression about how important a loss we’d all suffered.

We appropriately celebrate the birth of Reverend King today. We embrace his work, inspiration, hopefulness and love. But I also remain struck by the loss as well.

 

Tuesday’s on the phone to me…

This isn’t a normal Tuesday. It’s the beginning of the 84th Texas Legislative Session and it all kicked off at noon today.

I was sworn in as a state senator for the fourth time. And I always keep a photo of my parents in my desk on the Senate floor. They would love that I have this opportunity and it reminds me of the lessons learned that guide my service.

We have a new presiding officer. There will be nine new members of the 31-member Senate.  There’s a lot of change.

It’s serious business. It’s about the lives, happiness and potential of Texas and Texans.  It’s about more than politics and power. It’s about more than bumper-sticker promises and exploiting fear.

Let’s pray and hope those elected to serve in the Capitol will have the wisdom, honesty, empathy and heart to be just and fair and do right by our state and our neighbors, families and loved ones.

A Whole New Ball Game

This Wire was supposed to be the one where I bragged about Baylor winning the Cotton Bowl and complained about the College Football Playoff Selection Committee overlooking a team that clearly belonged in the playoffs.

Uh, let’s just say I still love the Baylor Bears and am thankful I’m able to follow them as they have great seasons.  They’ve developed a program up there in Waco that makes me proud.

But, I want (yea, verily, I need) to make some sense out of Baylor’s total collapse in the Cotton Bowl.

Baylor led by 20 points in the 4th quarter. The team was scoring fun touchdowns with guys who normally don’t touch the football. Baylor’s quarterback was setting Cotton Bowl records for passing. The defense was shutting down the Michigan State offense. It looked like there was no way the Bears could lose. I was as high as a kite. Happy as I could be.  Sure of victory. Sure of good being achieved and joy being attained.

And then it was all lost.

I’ve thought a lot about it. When I spend time thinking about almost anything, I usually figure out how to make it about me.

So I’ve concluded Baylor’s loss was a direct message from the universe to me. It’s saying: “The legislative session is starting. No matter how much you might feel like you’re winning and ahead, you can never forget that your dreams, hopes and hard work can evaporate in a moment, leaving you heartbroken. Get ready, big boy. It starts in a week.”

Continue Reading…

Look what we found

We’ve moved offices in the Capitol to be a little bit closer to the Senate chamber and much closer to the men’s room. Come by and visit us in E1.804.

In the process of cleaning out the old office, we found postcards from a mystery sender with a detailed understanding of my legislative agenda in 2009 and a seriously weird sense of humor.

Anyone recognize this handwriting? My guess: Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Speaking of tax policy

The Houston Chronicle picked up on my call to increase the mandatory school homestead exemption as a way to reduce property taxes, and simultaneously shine a light on how the state quietly takes advantage of rising property taxes.

I’m encouraged that the Chronicle editorial writers get that we need to strike a balance between reducing property taxes while not tying the hands of local elected officials.

No time to wait on school finance

Everybody — everybody — knows our school finance system is broken.

But there’s a lack of political will to do anything about it until the Texas Supreme Court rules in a sweeping lawsuit brought by two-thirds of the school districts. Oddly, there’s even a lack of will to begin discussing the problems.

Under the best of circumstances, it wouldn’t be an easy task to craft a school finance system for such a large, diverse state. The challenge will be doubly difficult this time around because we’ve lost a lot of institutional memory lately and legislative amnesia seems to have already set in at the Texas Capitol.

That’s why I think we need to start talking about the problems right now. Yesterday, I filed a package of bills aimed at jump-starting the discussion.

My bills address some fundamental problems that can be tackled during this legislative session, regardless of the lawsuit, and help school districts sooner.

For example, the transportation allotment was created in 1984 as a way to assist schools with the cost of getting kids to school. The transportation allotment hasn’t been changed since — wait for it — 1984, and now covers only about one-third of the cost. Every dollar spent by a local district on transportation is money taken from educating a child in the classroom. So my proposal is to split the tab and call it even.

Another proposal is to update the Cost of Education Index. This is meant to help account for variations in hiring costs between districts. In some communities, it costs more to attract teachers because of the cost of living or the location. This index hasn’t been updated in almost a quarter of a century.  It’s a fundamental part of the way we fund education and it’s no longer based in reality.

It’s silly that our state relies upon decades-old methods and information to pay for schools today. This guy thinks so, too.

Watson named to key Senate Finance Committee

Friday, January 23, 2015

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Sen. Kirk Watson issued the following statement after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced committee assignments for the 84th Legislature:

 

I’m very pleased with Lt. Gov. Patrick’s decision to appoint me to the Senate Finance Committee. It will put me in an ideal position to advocate for an honest budget that provides property tax reform, addresses our troubled school finance system and invests in our colleges, universities and aging infrastructure. And state employees and teachers can rest assured they will have someone working to protect their pensions and health care.


I will also continue to serve on the Higher Education, Business & Commerce and Nominations committees, which will allow me to work on issues of great importance to my constituents and the state.

Watson bills offer property tax reduction, fairness

Homeowners are frustrated by rising property taxes and a sense that they’re not getting the same deal as some deep-pocketed commercial property owners.

 

Sen. Kirk Watson has filed a collection of bills that could reduce homeowners’ frustration along with their property taxes.

 

“Hard-working Texans need good schools, safe neighborhoods, adequate roads and well-maintained parks. So we need a fair tax system that will pay for those needs. Homeowners are doing their part — it’s past time for the Legislature to do its part, too,” Sen. Kirk Watson said.

 

The bill package includes:

SB 278 (SJR 20): Increases the mandatory school homestead exemption from $15,000 to $25,000, which would provide every homeowner a tax reduction. The school homestead exemption has not been changed since 1997.

 

SB 279 (SJR 21): Creates a flat-amount homestead exemption option for cities, counties and other local governments, in addition to the percentage option already available. Also requires that the jurisdictions to enact one of the homestead exemption options or have the board vote to opt out of the exemption.

 

SB 280: Cleans up vague language in the property tax code that has created a loophole for property owners challenging an appraisal under the equal and uniform provision of the code. Applies the same standards of evidence for determining what is a comparable property for an equal and uniform claim as are used for market value claims.

 

SB 281: Requires a property owner to provide an opinion of the property’s value and evidence supporting that value when protesting an appraisal value via affidavit to the Appraisal Review Board.

 

SB 282: Extends from five years to 10 the property tax exemption granted to charitable organizations that provide low-income housing.

 

Other bills intended to improve the property appraisal process are in the works.

Watson: No time to wait on school finance

Sen. Kirk Watson filed a package of bills on Monday aimed at jump-starting the discussion about how to fix our school finance system, regardless of any ruling by the Texas Supreme Court in the lawsuit brought by two-thirds of Texas school districts.

“There’s a lack of political will to do anything about our school finance system until we’re forced to do so by the court. Oddly, there’s also a lack of will to begin even talking about how to fix it,” Watson said. “Everybody knows our school finance system is broken, and continuing to do nothing about it is a disservice to the schoolchildren and taxpayers of Texas.”

The bills address some fundamental problems that can be tackled right now to help school districts, regardless of the lawsuit.

For example, the state transportation allotment, which is funding intended to assist schools with the cost of transportation, hasn’t been changed in three decades and now covers only about one-third of the costs school districts incur to get children to school. A lot has changed since 1984 and every dollar spent by a local district on transportation is money taken from educating a child in the classroom. Sen. Watson’s proposal, SB 241, requires the state to cover an equal share of transportation costs so that more dollars can go into educating students.

Two bills offer alternative approaches to the Cost of Education Index, which is a basic part of the funding formula and accounts for variations in hiring costs. In some communities, it costs more to attract teachers because of the cost of living or the location.

But the measure has not been updated since its inception in 1991.  Texas—and local communities in Texas—have changed a great deal in almost a quarter of a century. The Cost of Education Index no longer has any basis in reality. Senator Watson has offered two options:

1.      SB 243: Simply update the Cost of Education Index to reflect current conditions

2.      SB 244: Eliminate the Cost of Education Index. A contingency rider would be needed in the appropriations bill to flow the same amount of money to school districts through the basic allotment.

Senator Watson’s other bills related to school finance include the following:

●       SB 240: Ensure additional local school property taxes supplement rather than supplant state education dollars

●       SB 246: Eliminate a vestige of the 2006 school finance legislation that reduces state aid for certain school districts, known as fractional funding, if a district tax rate is now more than $1

●       SB 247: Raise the yield on “copper pennies” levied above a $1.06 tax rate to the same value as the pennies in the first $1

●       SB 245: Provide Tuition Revenue Bonds for institutions of higher education that are working with local school districts to achieve the post-secondary readiness goals of House Bill 5

●       SB 242: Allow “Robin Hood” school districts to apply their transportation costs against their recapture payment to the state, as is already done with other components of the formula such as the New Instructional Facilities Allotment

“Texas should address these important issues independent of the lawsuit.  It’s silly that our state relies upon decades old information to pay for schools today,” Watson said.

Here comes trouble

“The best thing an elected official can say when it comes to water is nothing.”

That’s some unsolicited advice I received recently. And it’s good counsel. So, as I get ready to ignore it (as I have so many times before) I can hear my father’s voice from back in fifth grade, “Son, we’ve got to find a way for you to make a living with that mouth.  Otherwise, you’re going to get into big trouble.”

Poring over water

My Senate District is ground zero for water issues. And though the discussion is often difficult, we really need to be talking about these issues.

Starting to the west, my district tracks along the border of Lake Travis, one of two major water supply reservoirs of the Lower Colorado River in the Highland Lakes. In times of drought, it provides the primary water supply for Austin and much of the surrounding area as well as the water supply for power plants that are important for reliability and stability in the ERCOT electric grid. Beautiful homes, thriving communities, and successful businesses have been built around Lake Travis.

When we’re not in a major drought, Lake Travis has also historically provided water to support rice farms in counties near the Gulf Coast. And it has sustained the river ecosystem that is home to fish and wildlife and provides for recreation, hunting and fishing all along the Lower Colorado River basin.

The Colorado River flows right down the middle of my district when it hits Bastrop County, which benefits greatly when the water flows in the right amount.  And bubbling underneath Bastrop County is the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which is a critical source of water for many Bastrop communities. Meanwhile, the folks who live in the cities of Bastrop and Elgin and Smithville know they sit just a short drive from Austin, and with that, they are well positioned to grow. And, there are other places growing that are looking at that groundwater.

For many years, my focus on water has been to plan for and protect Austin’s current and future water supply. That’s in part because I’ve been so deeply involved in Austin’s long-term water planning from as far back as my days as mayor.

But I now represent Bastrop County, too, and I’m spending a lot of time addressing the water challenges there.

Drought forcing tough discussion

Talking about water only gets harder during a time of drought. And, it takes some guts to say what needs to be said, and do what needs to be done.  Fortunately, I’ve been witness to a fair amount of courage when it comes to addressing the water challenges this region has faced during this current drought.

For example, the LCRA board made a big decision when it voted unanimously to update the water management plan for the Highland Lakes. That plan protects the cities and firm water customers that have paid for water to be there today and in their future, even during drought.

The difficulty for some in this vote is that it acknowledges a harsh reality that has been exposed by this ongoing drought: there might not always be water to share with agriculture in the future. That’s a difficult scenario for the downstream rice farming communities that have been able to rely on the Colorado River.

Senator Troy Fraser and I together applauded the LCRA Board for making that difficult decision. You can read our statement here.

Listening for new ideas, solutions

Rivers and aquifers don’t follow political boundaries, so I welcome opportunities to meet with folks who live outside of my Senate District to talk about water. Haskell Simon, a rice farmer and LCRA institution, has taken me up on the offer. And I look forward to seeing Haskell soon because he threw in a promise to bring me a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone from Dairy Queen.

In the meantime, he sent me two books “to round out my water library.”

Haskell describes Walter Prescott Webb’s 1954 book, “More Water for Texas,” as an unofficial version of the first planning in Texas.  The book was published during the drought of the 1950s, which became “the state’s most significant recorded drought.”  We’re likely surpassing it now.

Chapter 5 of Webb’s book struck a chord. Its opening passage reads: “If this were a political pamphlet, designed to please everybody, we would find a way of saying that with proper management, every section of Texas could have all the water needed for municipal use, for irrigation and for industry.  The only trouble with such a statement is that it would be false.”

That 60-year old statement is even more true today. Given the realities of balancing a finite resource with a growing economy – and an ongoing drought – a talk about solutions is where any respectable public conversation about water should seek to end up.

I’m happy to listen to new ideas and different perspectives because, contrary to what I was advised, talking about water is the only way we’re going to find solutions.

Statement regarding the LCRA Board’s action on their 2012 Water Management Plan Application

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Contact: Sen. Fraser (512) 463-0124
Sen. Watson (512) 463-0114

Senate Seal

Senators Troy Fraser and Kirk Watson: Statement regarding the LCRA Board’s action on their 2012 Water Management Plan Application

 

For over a year, Senators Troy Fraser and Kirk Watson have called on the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to implement a water management plan that satisfies the LCRA’s legal obligation to protect the water supply for the LCRA’s firm water customers, even in times of drought. Today, we congratulate the LCRA Board for taking strong action to protect the water supply that serves over one million people as well as the critical industries that rely on the Colorado River and Highland Lakes.

Today’s unanimous vote at LCRA reflects the recommendations of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), echoes the sentiments voiced by Senators Fraser and Watson, and incorporates key priorities for firm water customers.  The new plan will closely monitor inflows along the Lower Colorado River and take into account any conditions which would indicate a drought or below-normal forecasted precipitation. With this approach, the LCRA will be able to ensure an adequate supply of water in the Highland Lakes to satisfy the current and future needs of firm customers who pay a premium for their water.

Over the past month, LCRA staff has conducted multiple stakeholder meetings to allow the public to provide meaningful input into the plan. Our focus now shifts to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which must review and approve the plan. During the course of that review, affected holders of water rights and customers have an opportunity to provide comments and even ask for an independent, administrative hearing. All of this means that the ultimate outcome will not be known for some time. Furthermore, with each passing day of little rain, this region continues to navigate an unprecedented drought. If we keep setting new records, even this plan may require revisiting in the future.

However, the importance of the LCRA Board action today should not be understated. The LCRA Board’s commitment to sound water management principles marks a new day for firm water customers in the basin and is a significant change from previous water management plans. A lot of hard work and sacrifice has gotten us to this point, and we stand ready to do whatever we can to see that TCEQ has the information it needs to get a strong and protective plan in place as soon as possible.
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