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Watson sets out priorities for upcoming 81st Legislature

Tuesday, November 11, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Two issues near and dear to Sen. Kirk Watson two years ago – climate change and creating a process to launch a third public flagship university – will be at the top of his agenda going into the 81st Legislative session. 


Watson addressed a collection of various business officials at the Bob Bullock State History Museum on Monday morning. It was auspicious timing; Monday was the first day to file bills for the next legislative session, which begins Jan. 13.


Watson has reason to believe his legislation – and especially his package of climate change bills – will get a better hearing in the upcoming session as Democrats continue to gain in the Texas House and Senate.


Last session, Watson’s greenhouse gas emissions bill got no further than the full Senate. With the Democrats’ wins last week – in both Washington DC and in various state offices – it only makes sense to be positioned on the topic with the proper preparations.


As Watson told the audience on Monday morning, it makes no sense that the state with the greatest energy production – and the greatest emissions of CO2 – should continue to deny that climate change is an issue.


Watson has proposed the creation of a climate action plan, which would include greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, as well as an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions “so we’re prepared to be part of the discussion in Washington and we can influence the accounting that goes into these reductions.”


Watson also supports the expansion of the Texas Lone Star Energy Efficiency Program and the expansion of the state’s electronic recycling program.


The continuing pressure of the Top 10 percent guidelines on the University of Texas also mean Watson will pursue a bill he filed last session to create a process to determine how to move forward with a third flagship. States like California and New York have long outflanked Texas with top-tier universities, Watson said.


Last session, Watson’s bill made it out of both chambers. Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it. Watson said his approach – through the consideration of an impartial committee – takes the politics out of the creation of a flagship. It encourages regions to pool resources and leverage assets to create the best options for the state.


Too many key people believe that creating a third flagship would somehow diminish their own efforts. Far from it, Watson said. It would simply move the state in a direction already taken by other states leading the higher education charge.


Most of Watson’s speech was broad, intended for the general audience. But the Senator did take a few swipes at the budget process, saying the budget was pre-determined by a small group of people. Or, as Watson joked, Texas budgets were more rigged than professional wrestling. And that might just be an insult to wrestling.


A budget needs to be a defining document of government, Watson said. It tells people what the state’s priorities are and what is important to lawmakers. When only a few people make those decisions, it works to the detriment of the state.


Too often, fiscal notes are being used as an excuse not to pursue policy discussions. They stop the quality discussion that needs to occur about priorities.


“It’s putting us in a situation where we’re budgeting by fear instead of foresight,” Watson told the assembled audience.


No one really knows how big the state’s surplus will be until right before the upcoming session, Watson said. While some leaders predicted up to $15 billion early in the year – Watson expressed skepticism at the math on that one, citing a trio of circumstances: Hurricane Ike; the financial market crash; and the final numbers on the margins tax collection, which has come in under estimates.


Watson – who was appointed to the Business Tax Advisory Committee along with Sen. Steve Ogden — also was critical about the information on the margins tax coming out of the Comptroller’s Office. Watson said it was nigh to impossible to get good reliable data on what is actually occurring on the business tax and what it means to the state.


“We’re making decisions based upon anecdote,” Watson said. “We won’t have any real data before the holidays, just before the session. I fear that some will use this lack of data to memorialize the old thinking of the past.”


Given a lack of data, some will attempt to compromise social services even more than they already have been. Or they might drag their feet on doing anything, waiting for additional data. Watson said he was not inclined to wait.

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