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Senator Watson presents dire legislative preview

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) could promise little positive about the upcoming session to a local audience at a legislative preview Tuesday: The Republicans will dominate redistricting, the debt is just as high as you might expect, and the sunset process will likely be painful and grinding for many state agencies.


Watson and Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) headlined the session with law firm Brown McCarroll’s clients yesterday. The audience, filled with members of the real estate industry and Council members and staff, were receptive and interested in key issues concerning the budget and redistricting, plus hot-button issues such as the immigration legislation fights that likely lie ahead.


Watson is a partner at the firm and Gallego is of counsel.


The biggest applause of the luncheon came from those who agreed with Gallego’s statement that he could find no sense in local law enforcement chasing his own grandmother through Alpine simply to deport her back to Mexico in the name of immigration reform.


“We need to keep us safe from drug dealers,” Gallego said. “Do we need to be kept safe from our housekeepers and dishwashers and groundskeepers? There aren’t enough buses to deport all those people back to Mexico.”


New balances in the House and Senate make Voter ID legislation likely to pass, Watson said. That leaves immigration reform, along the lines of the current Arizona law, the new battlefield in the Texas House, even as Democrats constitute only 49 of the 150 House members going into the next session.


Two Democrat representatives, Allan Ritter and Aaron Pena, chose to defect to the Republican Party yesterday. And John Kuempel, a Republican, won his late father Edmund’s seat in the Texas House last night during a special election.


“With the makeup of the Legislature, it will be difficult for a bill not to pass,” Watson said of the voter ID bill.


Watson, a former Austin mayor suggested that, given the new margins, three out of the four projected new Congressional seats in Texas would be Republican.


He also predicted that the two-thirds rule for bringing bills to the floor in the state Senate, now under attack by conservatives, would likely be upheld. And he predicted some of the reforms he has suggested for reform of the budget process might actually have bipartisan support in the upcoming session.


Democrats have salivated at projected state budget deficits of $26 to $28 billion, numbers that won’t be confirmed until the comptroller releases her estimates in January. As Gallego suggested, that would be about a third of the state’s discretionary budget, forcing Republicans to make tough choices in areas such as the state’s education budget and forcing student-teacher classroom ratios to higher levels that parents have often resisted in the past.


At yesterday’s luncheon, Watson repeated, once more, his contention that no business would go into a budget cycle – the session being less than a month away – with no idea what the budget hole might be. As it is, Watson noted, the budget deficit could be anywhere between $10 billion and $30 billion.


“The whispers are it’s $28 billion,” Watson said. “Others say, ‘No, it’s only $10 billion or it’s only $14 billion’. It’s only at the state capitol that you’re able to say it’s only … $10 billion.”


Watson has proposed budget reforms that would encourage a regular accounting of budget and revenue performance to state officials. A more transparent accounting of the system benefits fund, which often goes to balance the state budget, is probably more difficult, Watson said.


This session, combined with the pressures of the budget, will make the sunset process even more crucial, Watson told the group. He noted that an unprecedented number of state agencies, from the Texas Department of Insurance and the Texas Department of Transportation to the Texas Department of Insurance and the Railroad Commission of Texas, are up for review.


Such scrutiny, Watson said, would give lawmakers plenty of fodder for both review and consolidation of agencies, as suggested in recent sunset reports.

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