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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

Thumbs Up

Call it an occupational hazard.

I shake a lot of hands. But for about a year now, my right thumb — my handshaking thumb — has been a mess. Some days it was frozen and wouldn’t bend. Other days, with some real effort, the joint would pop free but not without a painful zing.

Either way, it hurt like crazy to shake hands. I tried to adapt. Some people got a fist bump.  Others were offered my left hand. Many folks, particularly those I was meeting for the first time, probably thought I was a little too friendly when they got a hug instead of a more traditional greeting.

But mainly I gripped and grinned through gritted teeth. That is, until I recently ran into a friend who has one of those weak as water, milquetoast handshakes. Even he almost brought me to my knees. Well, now my ego hurt too. So I scheduled surgery.  On the thumb. The ego can’t be fixed.

Continue Reading…

Watson Wire: Affordability and Fairness in Property Taxes

Everybody hates property taxes.

Can I get a witness? Can I get an “Amen”?

I thought so.

We’re all frustrated. We can’t control our property values but we have to pay the tax bills that are based on those values. We feel helpless as taxes soar because we live in a rapidly growing community and, well, a market economy. Lots of demand for houses and a relatively limited supply leads to higher property values, which leads to higher property taxes.

At the same time, we care about the schools and the parks and the roads those taxes pay for. We want infrastructure and services to keep up with the growth so that we all can have a good quality of life.

So where’s the balance?

I’ve posted my ideas here. It’s a working draft and I welcome your ideas. With a little over 6 months until the regular session, I want to start the discussion now.

Fairness and Affordability

Owning a home in Texas shouldn’t be so frustrating.

Those in control of the Capitol have allowed this to get out of hand. They’ll yammer about the need for reform. But they actually do very little to assure the system is fair and too often there’s not enough discussion about whether Texans get the quality services they deserve.

So I’m developing a reform plan. I’m doing lots of research and listening to people about how to better assure fairness in property taxes and improve affordability. I want your input. We’ll have a place on my website to seek thoughts and advice. I’ll be hosting a tele-town hall on the subject in the near future and we’ll use social media like Twitter and Facebook to get opinions.

Make the Commercial Appraisal Process More Fair

Commercial appraisals have emerged as the primary target for many who are concerned about affordability and the tax burden borne by homeowners. Both the City of Austin and Travis County are considering a formal challenge to the commercial appraisals.

I’m glad we’re having these discussions and encourage cities and counties to use every tool already at their disposal to provide homeowners some relief.

State law makes appraising commercial property harder than it should be. While a property’s sales price is arguably the single best determiner of actual market value (it’s only the price paid in the marketplace), state law blocks disclosure of that price.

A little transparency is such a basic tool. Texas needs to allow sales price disclosure. Almost every other state has it — yet the Legislature has resisted. Texans deserve better.

There’s also been a lot of discussion about commercial property owners taking advantage of a certain tax code provision to drive down their valuations through litigation. This provision has one of those great names you often see at the Capitol. It’s called the “equal and uniform” provision.

The problem is that it appears to be causing inequality and unfairness when it comes to commercial properties paying their fair share of taxes. There are some pretty simple ways to level the playing field.

Right now there are few, if any, substantive standards of evidence in these lawsuits. That’s silly. Well-established appraisal standards are already laid out elsewhere in the tax code so we don’t have to look very far for a solution. There’s really no good explanation for why a challenge under one part of the code doesn’t need to meet the same basic requirements as under another part of the code.

Also, the current system requires the appraisal district – that’s you and me, the taxpayers — to pay the property owner for legal fees if the district loses. But, amazingly, there’s no requirement that the property owner pay if it loses. So there is little downside for them to sue while the appraisal district has a big incentive to settle.

Let’s make it a fair fight: if the court sets a value within 10 percent of the appraisal, then both sides cover their own costs. But if the property owner loses, they pay the taxpayers (again, you and me) back for the costs of the failed effort.

These are two pretty simple fixes and there are some other things that can also help. I’ve listed some others in the working draft of my reform package.

A Homestead Exemption would help with Affordability

Anyone arguing for greater affordability or property tax relief should favor a homestead exemption. Not every jurisdiction has an exemption, even though state law allows one for up to 20% of the home’s appraised value.

So let’s enhance and expand this affordability tool. The governing bodies of cities and counties should have a choice: Adopt an exemption that would be a flat amount of $25,000 or at least 10% of the appraised value (it could go up to the 20% allowed in current law); or hold an election and let the voters decide whether to have an exemption of either $25,000 or at least 10% of appraised value (with a cap of 20%).

This approach would allow for a fair debate and discussion of exemption’s impact and it would preserve local control. We could smooth the transition by allowing a phase-in of the exemption so the cities and counties don’t take a sudden hit because of a reduction in the tax. For school districts, we should also consider adding $10,000 to the school homestead exemption on top of the current $15,000 flat rate. This hasn’t been increased since 1997.

Reforming our state’s property tax system for affordability and fairness won’t be easy and nothing will be perfect. But homeowners have been doing their part. It’s long past time for the Legislature to do its part and help relieve homeowner frustration.

Let me hear from you either at kirkwatson.com or on Facebook.

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Happy Graduation!

It’s graduation season. And I’ll bet you can feel it.

Maybe your own child or loved one is finishing up school or moving on to new stage in their lives.

Or maybe you’re reminiscing about your own graduation and what a magical time it was.

Or maybe you’re experiencing some other transition – something in your life is turning into something else.

I’m kind of going through all of those things right now.

Congratulations, Preston

This weekend, our older son Preston will graduate from St. Edward’s University with an MBA in digital media management. 

Preston is a wonderful young man. He’s worked very hard and done extremely well.

We’re both very proud of Preston’s success.

Preston

Preston at 2 or 3, obviously surveying his future.

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It’s your Med School too — what are your hopes?

This is a special day.  And a happy one.

Less than 18 months ago, Travis County voters passed Proposition 1. We voted to invest in and partner with — in a meaningful, personal way — a medical school that promised to transform our region’s healthcare and economy.

And as of today, the construction of this transformative project is officially underway. Hundreds of folks from across our community came out to a ceremony that will launch the construction of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas.

I’ve been in Austin for a long time, so I’ve seen more than my share of happy, special days.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moment quite like this one.

Sen. Watson Speaking at UT Medical School Launch

Send in your hopes!

Normally, ceremonies like this are called “ground-breakings.” A bunch of swells will stand around in suits, wearing hardhats, carrying ceremonial shovels, and stick those shovels into the ground to symbolically start construction.

That was a little, well, boring for our brand new, cutting-edge med school.

So, instead, all of us — you, me, everybody — have been invited to offer hopes and aspirations for the medical school and what it will mean for our community. Submissions of hopes and aspirations will be incorporated into the med school’s design and decoration. It’s a phenomenal way to be a part of this tremendous project.

What word or phrase summarizes your hopes? Shout it from the rooftops — virtually! — in any of these three ways:

Seriously, let us hear it. Like, right now. #IHopeDellMed. The tweets don’t tweet themselves, people.

There were some signing boards at the ceremony this morning. Here’s some of what folks wrote:
          UT Medical School BoardUT Medical School Signing Board

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Worried about your water? Remember your history.

I’ve been thinking a lot about water lately. A brutal drought will do that, I guess. 

The economic and environmental devastation are bad enough. But the fights and fears over Austin’s water supply are making it worse.

Photo by the San Antonio Express-News 

So this seems like a good time to remember a little history – to take stock of what we’ve accomplished in Central Texas and where we need to go from here.

One thing we know for sure: this drought has exposed an outdated, inadequate management plan for our region’s water supply. That spells trouble for our economy, quality of life and future.

Fortunately, Austin’s in a strong position to defend its water supply. Continue Reading…

Resources for Humanitarian Crisis

Not surprisingly, our community and folks across Texas are responding with compassion to the humanitarian crisis taking place at our border. People are donating time, money, and expertise to be of help to these children in need. My office has been tracking ways to get involved you can find a few of the many resources here.

  • The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has noted that many Texans have asked about becoming foster parents for the many unaccompanied children who recently have entered the U.S. from Central America. DFPS has instructed folks who want to learn more about this situation and how to become a foster parent for the Unaccompanied Alien Children’s program to visit the following website: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/unaccompanied-children-frequently-asked-questions.
  • The Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition recently updated their website with instructions for how to help: http://austinirc.org/?p=1562.
  • Catholic Charities of Central Texas is already working to assist in doing what’s in the best interest of the child – both in terms of treating them with respect, dignity and compassion, as well as helping them navigate the legal and social services system. They have outlined very specific ways folks can be helpful on their website: http://ccctx.org/ils/unaccompaniedminors.
  • Interested attorneys: American Gateways notes that many of the children may be eligible for a form of immigration relief known as Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). SIJS presents a unique opportunity for pro bono attorneys to gain experience working with both the Travis County family courts and U.S. immigration. In order to meet the anticipated increase in demand for assistance with SIJS cases, American Gateways will be partnering with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texasto provide training and mentoring for pro bono attorneys interested in taking on these cases. Here’s more information on that upcoming training:
      • Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for Unaccompanied Minors: In collaboration with the Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas, American Gateways will be holding a training for pro bono attorneys interested in representing minors in their application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). The training will be hosted by the law firm of McGinnis Lochridge and Kilgore and will take place on Wednesday August 20, 2014 from 11:00AM until 1:00PM. The training will offer a basic overview of both the family court and immigration components of the SIJS process. The address for the training: 600 Congress Ave #2100, Austin, TX 78701
  • Lastly, the Texas arm of National Association of Social Workers has some great content on their website. I encourage you to check it out: http://www.naswtx.org/news/181328/NASW-Response-to-Humanitarian-Crisis-at-the-Border.htm.

HB 2 not about protecting women, prevention & care

Senate Seal State Senator

 Kirk Watson

 District 14

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Sarah Howard, Office of Senator Kirk Watson: (512) 463-0114

Last summer, those in control of the Capitol and in support of House Bill 2 tried to convince people that this bill was primarily intended to protect women. However, HB 2 has never been about protecting women, prevention and care. The indignant claims that this bill was about women’s health were bogus and sometimes hypocritical.

If this were truly about prevention and care, amendments offered during last summer’s debate would have been accepted. Those in control beat back, along almost entirely partisan lines, creative solutions that would prevent unplanned pregnancies. They rejected legislation that would ensure parents know what their children are being taught about sex so they can be fully part of the critical process for adolescents.  They rejected legislation that would ensure sex education is based on science and evidence.  And they rejected utterly common-sense legislation that would give teen moms, who are older than 14 and have already given birth once, the ability to get contraception.

These proposals would not have banned safe and legal abortion.  They would not make it harder for women to access safe and legal abortion. What they would have done is what those in control claim to want:  ways to prevent abortion.  These proposals do that by empowering women and educating Texans, not by punishing women or making it harder for them to seek out services they have the right to receive.

The only sure way to prevent the termination of an unplanned pregnancy is to prevent the unplanned pregnancy.

Unfortunately, those in control of the Capitol reject empowering women and efforts to truly prevent unplanned pregnancies, choosing instead to simply make it harder for women to access needed services.

MetroRail to receive $50 million state grant

Senator Kirk Watson announced that the Texas Department of Transportation will vote Thursday on a $50 million grant to the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority to purchase four additional MetroRail cars and help construct a permanent, expanded downtown rail station.

 

“It’s encouraging that TxDOT is looking for and supporting multimodal strategies to help tackle our congestion challenges,” Senator Watson said. “It’s not possible to meet the demands of a thriving economy and fast growing population by only investing in roads.  We need to embrace every available option to provide relief.”

 

“I’ve been working with Chairman Houghton to obtain this comparatively modest investment in Austin’s commuter rail because it will help Capital Metro double the capacity of the MetroRail system, which regularly runs with standing room only during peak commute times, taking cars and buses off crowded roads.”

 

Linda Watson, president and chief executive officer of Capital Metro, said the state grant comes at an ideal time given record-breaking ridership on MetroRail.

 

“Senator Watson and TxDOT share Capital Metro’s ‘all of the above’ multi-modal approach to solving traffic congestion issues in Central Texas. We appreciate Senator Watson’s leadership and TxDOT’s support toward this important goal,” Linda Watson said.

 

The state grant will dovetail with the $11.3 million in federal funding that Capital Metro received in 2013 to lay double tracks at strategic points and increase the capacity of the 32-mile commuter line.

 

The state grant, when combined with recent federal and local investments, will enable Capital Metro to increase the frequency of trains on the Red Line, cutting the wait-time from 34 minutes during peak travel periods to 15 minutes. It will also allow for the addition of a late train after 7 pm, giving more commuters a convenient alternative to their own vehicles.

 

Capital Metro requested the $50 million for the following:

 

New Rail Cars

$28 million

Four new rail cars will double the capacity of the current rail system and allow up to 2,400 passenger trips during the morning and again in the afternoon peak with 15-minute headways. MetroRail currently provides more than 2,700 trips per weekday with a majority of these passengers going through the downtown station.

 


MetroRail Downtown Station

$22 million

The MetroRail Downtown Station will replace the current facility that was designed to be temporary and connect the Red Line with future urban rail and local bus service. The new Downtown Station will include three tracks and two platforms to accommodate future system expansion and better serve large crowds during special events. This station configuration is estimated to cost between $30 million and $35 million, part of which will come from local partners.

 

 

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Affordability and Fairness in Property Taxes

Texas can and should create a fairer system of taxation between commercial and residential property taxpayers.  But to create truly needed tax relief for homeowners, we must embrace and expand the homestead exemption.

We can improve fairness in appraisals.

 

Sales price disclosure

  • To better assure accurate appraisals on commercial property, require sales price disclosure so that appraisers have the tools they need to establish a property’s market value.

Establish standards of evidence for equal and uniform appeals

  • Specify that the appraisal standards used in the equity lawsuits must comply with accepted appraisal methods and match those used for market value claims (See Section 23.013(d) of the tax code)
  • Require the court to set the property value based on the market value of the comparable properties rather the median appraised value. Restores the tie to the constitutional standard of market value and addresses the “death spiral” effect

Loser pays
Currently, if the appraisal district loses the challenge, it pays the property owner’s attorney fees up to a specified amount.  But, if the property owner loses, it doesn’t have to pay the appraisal district’s costs.  This is unfair to the rest of the taxpaying public.

  • Both sides — not just the taxpayers via the appraisal district — should be on the hook for costs if they lose. It would prevent frivolous challenges.
  • If the value set by the court is within 10 percent of the appraisal, everyone covers their own costs.

Intervention by Taxing Entities

  • Allow taxing entities to intervene at the Appraisal Review Board and/or in the litigation to serve as a taxpayer advocate and guard against appraisal districts settling too easily.

Move up appraisal notice and protest deadlines

  • Tax agents file at the last possible moment to compress the timeline and pressure the appraisal district to settle. In Travis County, 14,000 protests had been filed as of Friday, May 30. But the appraisal district received 84,000 by Monday’s deadline.
  • That leaves the appraisal district only 24 days to get through the 84,000 protests before it must certify the tax roll. Moving those deadlines to 30 days earlier will provide more time to allow the process to work for all taxpayers.

Expanding the homestead exemption guarantees greater affordability for homeowners.

Every homeowner will benefit from a larger homestead exemption

Flat rate is fair to all taxpayers and provides relief to the low- and middle-income families who need it most. A percentage benefits the higher value homes far more.

Index the homestead exemption so that it doesn’t lose value

Cities and counties should use every tool available to them to foster affordability

  • Local homestead exemption option
    • Governing body shall adopt a homestead exemption of at least $25,000 or 10 percent of appraised value but not more than 20 percent; or
    • Hold an election on whether to enact a homestead exemption of at least $25,000 or 10 percent of appraised value.
      • The opportunity for an election would allow for a fair debate and discussion about the impact, if any, it would have on services.  It would prevent an unfunded mandate from the state and preserve local control.
  • Smooth the transition by allowing a phase-in of the exemption so the cities and counties don’t take a sudden hit because of a reduction in the tax base.
  • In Austin, a $25,000 homestead exemption would save a homeowner about $125
  • It’s time to stop arguing against affordability and fairness proposals on the basis that government will lose something. Focus less on what government is losing and more on how to assure the homeowner benefits.
  • Add $10,000 to the school homestead exemption on top of the current $15,000 flat rate, which has not been increased since 1997
  • In Austin ISD, lowering the taxable value of the average homestead by $10,000 would save the homeowner $125.

Explore property tax circuit breaker used in other states to ensure to control property taxes particularly for low-income homeowners

  • Gov. Perry vetoed a study on the issue in 2009

Apply the same or equivalent tools to the development of affordable housing and rental properties that we use for economic development (i.e. property tax abatements via 313 agreements)

Reduce the interest applied to the liens of seniors who defer their property taxes

  • Lowering the interest rate from 8 percent to the Treasury rate less punitive, would reduce the tax liability when the resident sells or dies

Statesman: How Kirk Watson would lower your taxes and make Austin more affordable

Austin American-Statesman
By: Marty Toohey – American-Statesman Staff
Posted: Monday, June 9, 2014

Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson will unveil a series of proposals this week aimed at reforming the state’s property tax and appraisal system, hoping partly to focus the city’s wide-ranging discussions about the rising cost of living. “It is clearly time for a complete discussion” about countering the market forces driving up costs in Austin, said Watson, a Democrat who is Central Texas’ most influential local politician.

Watson’s menu of ideas would apply statewide, though he crafted them with an eye toward Austin. Continue Reading…