State Sen. Watson: "Tax relief" suspect, school funding fix paramount


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on January 11, 2013 at 7:12 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 11 at 7:21 PM

AUSTIN -- Kirk Watson remembers the day he went from former Austin mayor to state senator, and the anticipation of his first legislative session in 2007.

"It hasn't changed," Watson told KVUE Friday at his office in the Capitol Extension.

A day after Republican Governor Rick Perry laid out his policy goals for the 83rd Texas Legislature, Watson outlined the vision he and fellow Democrats will pursue this year. Heading into his fourth session with a revenue estimate up nearly $30 billion from two years ago, Watson believes stated Republican plans for some form of tax relief are off the mark.

"While that phrase may play well on a bumper sticker in Iowa, one of the things we need to do is we need to make sure in Texas we're doing right by Texans," Watson said.

For Democrats, Watson said fixing underfunded schools is priority one.

"Paramount during this session is we need to focus on a permanent solution to school funding," Watson said. "It is irresponsible to bounce from crisis to crisis to crisis when we're talking about educating our children, and it's also irresponsible to act like we have time in that regard. A kid that's in school today doesn't have time for us to wait around, do a poor job on finding a permanent solution to school funding and wait until lawsuits are filed and then see how those work out."

With the "rainy day fund" projected to top $11.8 billion over the next two years, Watson is among many, mostly Democrats, who insist the money could and should be used to advance funding objectives relating to education and water infrastructure.

Watson attributes a flawed revenue estimate in 2011 by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs to the deep cuts in school funding that left $8.8 billion unspent, but said that's not where the budget problems end.

"We have to recognize that we have an honesty deficit in our budget," Watson said. "Session after session I have pointed out that our budget seems to based upon diversions, deception and denial. Well some of that is coming home to roost."

Watson suggests budget transparency may be an area where Democrats and Republicans could find common ground. He points to the decision to uphold the two-thirds vote required to consider legislation in the Texas Senate as a promising sign of a bipartisan spirit, at least in the upper chamber.

"What's important about that is it creates a situation where labels get thrown away," Watson explained. "Because in order to get to two-thirds, you're going to have to have both Democrats' and Republicans' support bringing your bill to the floor. That's good for Texas."

For Watson, good for Texas also means making sure reliable transportation and water are available as Texas grows. Despite opposition to increased spending voiced by top Republicans, Watson identifies infrastructure, along with education, as areas in which the state must continue to invest.

"We should not be proud if we are members of the legislature that is creating the first generation of Texans, the kids that are in high school and college right now, that don't inherit capacity in their infrastructure such that they can build a great economy," said Watson. "The key here, we need to set aside raw politics and focus on pure policy."

With one week down, the debate is only getting started.

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