December 29, 2006
Kirk Watson knows a little something about economic prosperity.
During his tenure as Austin mayor from 1997 to 2001, Austin experienced its most dramatic boom — in terms of business and population growth and just about every other indicator.
Much of Austin’s maturation during that time was attributed to Watson’s leadership, so it will come as no surprise to many that the Austin lawyer will put issues related to economic development at the top of his agenda after he’s sworn in as the area’s state senator in January.
Watson, a Democrat who was the chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce a year ago, says three topics in particular will attract his attention during the upcoming legislative session: higher education, health care and transportation.
“As we sit here on the verge of 2007, we have to realize that there is very little about our strong economy today that isn’t related to higher-education decisions made 20 or 30 years ago, so I want to make sure that in 20 or 30 years from now, people say that we made smart decisions,” Watson says.
With state funding for higher education waning in recent years, Watson says he is working closely with local university and community college leaders to understand their needs so he can work from inside the Capitol on ways to funnel more money into public universities and community colleges.
“If you look at the economic impact higher education has, it’s amazing,” Watson says. “We’re talking about an average return of 5.5 to 1, and when you look at our flagship universities — the University of Texas and Texas A&M — we’re talking about an 18-to-1 return on investment.”
Speaking of flagship universities, Watson says he may eventually push for another one while he is a senator.
“When you imagine Texas in 10 or 20 years, we’re going to need more than two flagship universities,” he says.
The problems with Texas’ health care industry are no secret. One in four Central Texans don’t have health insurance. Collectively in 2005, local hospitals were bogged down by more than $400 million in uncompensated care, and the average cost of premiums for health insurance jumped by about 8 percent this year.
Watson concedes that the problem is too complex to tackle in its entirety, so he intends to begin chipping away at the problem by putting pressure on his peers to increase funding for projects such as community clinics and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. State leaders — who by most estimates will be greeted by news of a $10 billion surplus when they return to the Capitol — drastically cut CHIP funding in 2003.
“The federal government matches what the state puts into CHIP more than 2 to 1 — and remember, that money in Washington is our money; taxpayers sent it there,” Watson says. “If we can get it back, that’s money that will go to people who create jobs and solve some of these health care problems.”
In regard to transportation, Watson looks to his 11-year-old son, Cooper, for inspiration.
“When Cooper Watson graduates from high school, there will be 159,000 more people on Central Texas roads,” he says. “When he’s a junior in college, there may be 324,000 more people on the roads. Being able to get around impacts economic development and, frankly, our everyday freedom.”
Watson, who is keen on rails augmenting roads, says Central Texas needs a better, more comprehensive transportation plan. He will be in an advantageous position to help create one because with his Senate seat comes a slot on the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board.
Q: You were elected as a Democrat. Do you think that will, in any way, affect your dealings with business-oriented constituents?
A: “One thing we do too much of in politics is label people — and I believe you shouldn’t assume anything just by looking at a label. I’m proud that when I was mayor, Forbes and Fortune named us as the best town for business. …I’m proud of the business climate we created while I was mayor. Heck, we were able to stop a very divisive fight between environmentalists and developers.”
Q: Do you support the state’s Emerging Technology Fund, which invests public money in early-stage ventures?
A: “Yes, that’s a good tool to have.”
Q: Going into the Capitol, what do you think is one of your greatest strengths?
A: “I’m going to be able to bring the Senate and Legislature some perspective of what grassroots economic development efforts need, and how they work. I’ve spent a lot of time recruiting businesses with the chamber, and that on-the-ground perspective will be valuable.”
Q: You mentioned that you believe Texas needs another flagship university to augment the University of Texas and Texas A&M. Where, geographically, is it needed?
A: “I can make an argument that we could use another flagship university in any one of about five different parts of the state, but the point is that we need to start looking long-term at our educational infrastructure.”