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Sen. Watson talks priorities as Legislative session begins

Wednesday, January 9, 2013 by Kimberly Reeves

Democratic State Sen. Kirk Watson is learning it sometimes takes two, or even three, legislative sessions before his ideas take root.


This time two years ago, at the beginning of the 82nd session, Watson was touting his “Honesty Agenda,” a package of more than a dozen bills Watson filed to increase the transparency and accountability in the state budget process. And while he had no success in the Republican-controlled Senate, Watson is now hearing some of his proposals echoed by state leaders.


“I’ve been talking about the budget, and we have made progress, session after session,” Watson said from his office on Tuesday, which marked the first day of the legislative session. “You even heard the governor use language today that he could have pulled from my bills, like end the diversions so that we keep our promises on these general revenue dedicated funds. The effort to stop diversions last session couldn’t even get a hearing.”


Even Finance Chair Sen. Steve Ogden had to admit Watson’s amendment to end diversions out of the state budget made sense, though it went down to defeat last session on a partisan vote.


“Now you’ve got the speaker of the house, he’s for it. You’ve got the governor, and he’s for it,” said Watson, who was elected to the Texas Senate in 2007. “You’ve got business groups that before hadn’t been supportive that are now saying government ought to be this way.”


The diversions – defined as spending dedicated funds on non-dedicated uses – are getting harder for lawmakers to defend, Watson said. But Watson said getting out of the diversion hole would probably take multiple sessions.


“You can’t do it with one shovel or even a big backhoe,” Watson said. “To fix a badly broken system, it takes a little time to do that right.”


And it’s because of those diversions and deferrals Watson is not counting on the state to maintain its current $8 billion surplus. With the state delaying paying some bills and school districts suing the state because of inadequate funding, then the state is probably not going to have a surplus.


Watson also has more localized priorities for the session. The interim report out of the Senate Business & Commerce Committee, for instance, would suggest some options for the City of Austin to better manage its municipally owned electric utility, Austin Energy.


And Watson, who as mayor of Austin cut some of the city’s best economic deals, wants to see more transparency with state economic development funds, the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Major Events Trust Fund. Economic development deals have value, but lawmakers also must make sure of a proper return on investment, he said.


Water also will be on Watson’s agenda, especially when it comes to investor-owned utilities. The Travis County senator is looking for a new mechanism to streamline the ability of mom-and-pop utilities to raise rates to provide upgrades while also making sure larger utility players are not over charging.


Watson, who picked up Bastrop County in redistricting, expects to try to streamline the rules for the use of state vehicles in disaster relief efforts. And he wants to revise homeowner association regulations so that homeowner associations can’t stop a homeowner from using drought resistant plants as a part of landscaping.


Finally, Watson, who has served as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, expressed some optimism about getting movement on transportation funding, although he didn’t divulge details. The fact state leaders are open to potential solutions is a new piece of the puzzle.


“You heard it today: the lieutenant governor and the governor talking about the funding of transportation improvements,” Watson said. “We’re starting to see people and coalitions building around the issue that we’ve not seen before.”

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