Watson defends tax hike proposal for UT medical school


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist DOUG NAUGLE

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE


Posted on August 7, 2012 at 6:15 PM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 7 at 6:33 PM

AUSTIN -- These days especially, raising taxes for just about anything is a tough sell.

"As it is, they're getting higher and higher every year," one Travis County resident summed up his opinion Tuesday afternoon. "It's getting to be like New York; people can't afford to live in Austin."

Texas State Senator Kirk Watson knows such a venture will take plenty of convincing. The former Austin mayor sat down with KVUE Tuesday at the State Capitol to lay out his argument for why Travis County taxpayers should consider doing just that.

The conversation revolves around a new medical school and research center at the University of Texas, which according to records obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, is estimated to cost $4.1 billion over the next 12 years. Watson says for Central Texans, it's an investment worth considering.

"A medical school and the affiliated activity related to it will create 15,000 net jobs, permanent jobs, and around $2 billion in economic prosperity," Watson said.

Watson is asking Central Health, which levies taxes on homeowners within the boundaries of Travis County, to give taxpayers the option to vote on a five cent increase, or about $50 a year on a $100,000 home.

The $35 million annually would be matched by federal funds under the 1115 Medicaid Transformation Waiver at a rate of $2.46 for every dollar contributed by Travis County taxpayers. Combined with a match from the University of Texas and nearly $2 billion from the Seton Healthcare Family, taxes collected locally would foot less than 10 percent of the bill.

"That money is money that we've all sent to the federal government through our federal income taxes, but now we can get it back to take care of our business right here as opposed to having it go to some other state," said Watson.

The project would also make use of $250 million from Seton for a new hospital and trauma center to replace the aging University Medical Center-Brackenridge. Watson says the hospital and university have reached a general agreement that the new hospital would be located near the Erwin Center on ground currently serving as a parking lot.

Then there are the students. Without a full-scale medical school at its flagship campus, students pursuing medicine at UT-Austin face difficult choices.

"I love Austin, and I want to go to med school, and my only choices right now are like schools in Houston," said biology and kinesiology major Jose Hernandez. "Austin would be my choice given the chance."

Supporters also argue the project would keep many of those students in Austin once they become doctors. According to Central Health, as more Texans are insured under the Affordable Care Act, Travis County could be short 800 doctors by 2016. Watson believes it will also help those suffering from illnesses like cancer from having to seek specialist treatment hundreds of miles away.

"This is something that benefits each of us and all of us and our families, because it's going to make health care better in Travis County," said Watson.

Central Health will have to decide if a tax increase goes on the ballot in November's general election, then it will be up to Travis County voters.