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Username: Kirk Watson
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Created: Mon Jan 11, 2010 at 11:33 AM CST
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Email: kirk@kirkwatson.com  

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#AskKW Twitter Town Hall Friday, June 27th


by: Kirk Watson

Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 06:53 PM CDT

Please join me for a twitter town hall this Friday, June 27th hosted from the Texas Democratic State Convention in Dallas to discuss the political landscape and important issues in the upcoming legislative session. 
 
I've done this at the last few state conventions and have enjoyed the opportunity to hear delegates' ideas and answer questions from all over the state. 
 
I hope we can spark a lively discussion.
 
Watson Twitter Town Hall
 
Here is how you can participate: 

I will take questions submitted live via twitter and tweet out responses. You can also submit questions in advance by tweeting them to my Twitter handle @KirkPWatson or using the hashtag #AskKW. 

 


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Help for Flood Victims, and Healthcare Progress


by: Kirk Watson

Tue Nov 12, 2013 at 03:06 PM CST

If you’ve been thinking about donating to the Red Cross or another disaster relief group, now would be a pretty good time. Because whether it’s in Travis County or across the world, a whole lot of people need help right now.
 
From the devastating typhoon in the Philippines last Friday to the Halloween floods right here in our own backyard, so many people are suffering.
 
You can donate to the Red Cross simply by going to www.redcross.org. You can find more specific information about what’s going on in Central Texas at www.redcross.org/tx/austin. Or you can just text REDCROSS to 90999 to contribute $10 to the group.
 
Locally, other groups are still working hard to help those who lost so much to the floods. You can give to the United Way by calling 512-472-6267, going to www.uwatx.org/flood or texting UWATX to 85944.
 
Caritas of Austin is accepting household items for flood victims. And St. Vincent de Paul and First Independent Baptist Church are taking household items as well as things like clothing and food.
 
If you’re in a position to help those affected by these disasters, I hope you will.

How far we’ve come

Last week, Central Texas celebrated the first anniversary of the passage of Proposition 1.
 
You probably remember (or, at least, I hope you remember) that Travis County passed Proposition 1 in 2012 as a mechanism to implement the 10 Goals in 10 Years I laid out in 2011 to transform healthcare in this community. Those goals included the construction of a medical school at UT and a teaching hospital, as well as the creation of uniquely Austin health clinics and a much stronger psychiatric care system.
 
Last week, I delivered a speech updating the community on our progress toward the 10-in-10 goals.
 
As you’ll see, the good news is that we’re on track to achieve almost all of our goals.
 
The better news is that, in most cases, we’re ahead of schedule.

Progress

You can – and you should – read the speech for more details. But briefly, here’s where things stand with the 10-in-10:
 
1. Create a Medical School: UT expects to break ground in the next few months and welcome its first class of UT Dell Medical School students in 2016.
 
2. Create a Teaching Hospital: The Seton Healthcare Family is spending about $245 million of its own money and raising about $50 million more to build this state-of-the-art hospital that will shore up the safety net for our poor and uninsured neighbors. Look for it in 2017.
 
3. Create Uniquely Austin Clinics: Central Health and Seton have created what’s called the Community Care Collaborative. Those two and other partners – such as Austin Travis County Integral Care (what we used to call MHMR) – will invest in efforts to improve health and help people avoid emergency rooms by using clinics and other preventative settings. Every dollar raised locally will attract a $1.40 federal match, creating a roughly $120 million-a-year pool of money – most of it from the feds – to address the root causes of health problems.
 
4. Improve Behavioral/Mental Health: At least 10 percent of Community Care Collaborative money will be focused exclusively on psychiatric care. More will go toward programs that will help address this crisis. And the new teaching hospital will include around 14 medical-psychiatric beds for hospital patients who need one. Right now, we have none.
 
5. Support a New Research Institute and Labs: The Seton-UT Southwestern Clinical Research Institute is up and running at UMC-Brackenridge; the planned Dell Medical School research building is expected to cover more than 200,000 square feet; and the corner of downtown that the med school will anchor is already being discussed as an “innovation cluster” to help treatments develop into products.
 
6. Launch a Commercialization Incubator: During the first half of next year – around the time we’re breaking ground on the med school – we should have a report with recommendations for financing a commercialization incubator. This is a critical goal: the greatest discoveries in the world won’t make much difference if they don’t find their way into people’s hands.
 
7. Become a Center for Cancer Care: A number of healthcare partners put out a report this year finding that significant, high-quality cancer treatment is available in Central Texas. But not everyone can access this life-saving care – especially the poor – and too many feel they have to leave the region for the care they need. Our next step is to identify ways to fill gaps that the report identified.
 
8. Improve Infrastructure & Create a Sense of Place: Mayor Leffingwell has formed a downtown stakeholders group to look, in part, at how to take advantage of this growth. And Waller Creek redevelopment is moving forward; the creek will be a “defining feature” for the area around the med school. We’re creating a sense of place that’s a place of healing.
 
9. Bolster the Medical Examiner’s Office: It’s likely that the coroner’s office will not be located in the immediate vicinity of the med school. But the Medical Examiner is still stretching to meet the demands on it, and I’m optimistic that we’ll ultimately address this issue as part of this process.
 
10. Solve the Funding Puzzle: To some degree, this goal is accomplished. Prop 1 was the last puzzle piece for funding the medical school – Travis County voters will provide $35 million a year to support it. UT Austin and the UT System have identified funding and strategies to cover the rest. Seton solved the funding puzzle for the teaching hospital. The Community Care Collaborative helps solve it for our clinics and neighborhoods.
 
All of these things are coming together. They each make all of it work.
 
But our work isn’t over. This transformation has brought us two ongoing tasks: to keep our people healthy, and to keep our economy healthy.
 
I don’t know that we’ll ever do anything like Proposition 1 again. That was a generational, transformational referendum – I’ve never seen anything like it, here or anywhere else.
 
But there will be new opportunities to help our friends and neighbors live longer, healthier, fuller lives. There will be new challenges for our economy and our competitiveness.
 
We live in a special place. We proved it by embracing the 10 Goals in 2011, passing Prop 1 in 2012, and accomplishing so much over the past year.
 
I have no doubt – none at all – that we’re ready for what’s next.
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What should we be talking about?


by: Kirk Watson

Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 06:33 PM CDT

If you were us, what would you be talking about?

Every other year, in the interim between the last legislative session and the next one, both chambers of the legislature continue to work.

A lot of what we work on falls in the category of interim charges or interim studies. They're a little like extended research projects: we spend time meeting (typically as committees) and learning about subjects that the Lieutenant Governor (in the Senate's case) or the Speaker of the House (in the House's) put on a list of things to review and analyze. The studies help set the priorities for the ensuing legislative session.

Obviously, these are (as Ron Burgundy would say) kind of a big deal. And the members of the Senate Democratic Caucus think they're too important to leave to the folks who've been failing to deliver on Texans' priorities for all of these years.

So I and the other Democratic Senators want your help in deciding what those priorities should be.

The Caucus has set up a web page where you can give your thoughts on what Texas should be focusing on in this interim.

Just go to bit.ly/14PzGfq and let us know what needs to be on the list.

There are so many areas where Texas can do better - for our kids, our economy and our future - than it's been doing. This is your chance to help make sure the state's priorities are where they need to be.

Please CLICK HERE and let us know what you think. Texas needs to hear it. I'll be sure your ideas are submitted to the Lieutenant Governor and encourage him to put them on the list.  <!--more-->

Good and bad health news


The last weeks have been pretty earth-shaking for anyone who cares about health or healthcare in Texas. And not always in a good way.

Most of the developments have come out of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The good news is that the Health Insurance Marketplace is now open to help Texans sign up for health insurance. Last week, I joined a number of other community leaders to help spread the word about this opportunity to get health insurance - and the need for Texans to take advantage of it.

(By the way, if you're interested in getting health insurance or know of anyone who would or should be, go towww.healthcare.gov or just call 2-1-1 in Austin.)

Texas Needs Health Insurance


Unfortunately, this great, crucial progress was obscured by raw, destructive politics, mostly from the Governor's office.

 

Navigator news


First, the Governor seems intent on making life as difficult as possible on healthcare navigators whose job it is to help Texans sign up for insurance. Worse still, the Governor appears to be using - or misusing - a bill I passed during the regular session that had the exact opposite goal: to make it easier for Texans to find insurance in ways that make sense for Texas.

Last week, I spoke at a hearing on potential regulations for navigators. Here are highlights from the Texas Tribune's writeup:

At an informal hearing held by TDI on Monday to take input on Perry's directive, state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he feared legislation he authored to ensure navigators could effectively help Texans find coverage in the federal marketplace had been wrongly co-opted by Perry in an effort to derail implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

"These provisions were put in place to prevent precisely what I fear may be in motion here today," said Watson. "And that is a politically motivated effort to circumvent federal and state law concerning navigators and an even larger coordinated nationwide effort to shut down implementation of the Affordable Care Act."

Watson told the agency that Senate Bill 1795, which he authored in the last legislative session, requires TDI to make a "good faith effort" to work with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to improve the federal navigator rules before implementing additional state rules. Only after "a reasonable interval" does the law allow the insurance commissioner to begin a rule-making process.

Watson alleged that the agency's decision to schedule a stakeholder meeting to begin the rule-making process shortly after receiving the governor's directive and to hold the stakeholder meeting on the day before the launch of the federal marketplace - "a critical day for navigators" - indicated that the agency's rule-making process could be intentionally impeding implementation of the navigator program.

 

Don't forget Medicaid


The implementation of the Affordable Care Act also put a spotlight on another wrongheaded decision by the Governor - his refusal to expand Medicaid so more of our fellow citizens can access affordable, reliable healthcare.

This decision has terrible implications for Texas' economy as well as its people. I detailed a number of those in an editorial that ran in the Statesman last week. Here's an excerpt:

It's past time to get serious about health coverage for Texans.

The Affordable Care Act is law. Its primary components start to take effect Tuesday. Many of its benefits are already in place.

The folks running Texas need to face reality. It's time to put the health of Texans, and our economy, ahead of political histrionics.

Right now, the law extends coverage for young adults, allowing them to stay on their parents' insurance plans until they turn 26. It forbids insurance companies from turning folks down because of preexisting conditions. It expands coverage for preventive care and screenings. It lowers costs for people in the Medicare Part D "doughnut hole." And it enhances consumer protections against insurance cancellations.

The only questions left to answer are whether states such as Texas will create barriers to implementing these good changes and whether they'll expand Medicaid to cover, in our case, about 1.3 million to 1.7 million more uninsured citizens. The federal government would pick up nearly all of the costs of the expansion.

So far, the tragic answers are "yes" to barriers and "no" to more people being covered. The governor and others have made a political circus out of health care in Texas by turning their backs on tens of billions of your tax dollars that now won't come back to Texas for your benefit.

By refusing to secure health coverage for about 1.3 to 1.7 million Texans, those in control are costing Texas about $79 billion to $90 billion over 10 years in tax money we'll send to Washington. A Perryman Group study found that expanding Medicaid would boost Texas' economic output by $270 billion.

And don't forget, Texas already leads the nation in the percentage of residents without health coverage. We should put these billions of dollars to work keeping Texans healthy and cutting down on pricey emergency room visits that, in many cases, are ultimately paid for with local property taxes.

And then there are all the lost economic benefits. Expanding Medicaid in Texas would create nearly 200,000 jobs, according to a study conducted by Billy Hamilton (Texas' renowned former deputy comptroller) and the group Texas Impact.

Clearly, the launch of so many important pieces of the Affordable Care Act means last week was one for the history books.

I just hope it's remembered for the right, healthy reasons - not the harmful, political ones.

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Legal Basis for New Congressional PlanC245


by: Kirk Watson

Mon Jun 10, 2013 at 04:24 PM CDT

(Thanks to Senator Watson for this guest post. - promoted by Katherine Haenschen)

I. Backdrop for offering new congressional plan

The extreme limitations that the Governor placed on his call for this special session demonstrate the intention—shared by him and others piloting this redistricting process—to do nothing more than ratify the interim congressional plan that the federal court in San Antonio adopted for use in the 2012 elections. Indeed, the call technically prevents the legislature from considering anything but the maps that were used in the 2012 elections. Fortunately, the Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that this attempted limitation will not stand. Permanently enshrining this interim plan into state law gives it a much loftier status than the San Antonio court itself gave it.

The San Antonio court’s interim plan was adopted in February 2012. By then, primary elections in the state had been repeatedly postponed, and the preclearance case in Washington, D.C. district court was well underway.

The San Antonio court recognized the dilemma that the state’s actions created. The court emphasized over and over again that its legal analysis at that point was incomplete, and the interim plan rested on only “preliminary conclusions” that might be revised upon “full analysis.”[1] It explained that its analysis was “curtailed” and its decision “expedited.”[2] The court said that the interim map was “not a final ruling” because its conclusions “may be revised upon full analysis.”[3]

Every detail of the plan was qualified by the explanation that it was valid only “at this time.”[4] A key reason for this qualification was that, in February 2012, the San Antonio court did not have the benefit of the Section 5 Voting Rights Act decision by the D.C. federal court. That decision would not come until six months later, in late August 2012.

It is clear that had time and circumstance allowed the San Antonio court to take into account the D.C. court’s ruling, the interim plan would have looked very different in several important respects. As a result—and despite claims from the Governor, Lt. Governor and Attorney General—the 2012 interim plan does not “address every legal flaw" identified by the D.C. court.[5] 

The D.C. court—a three-member court with two members appointed by Republican Presidents—found that the Texas legislature enacted the 2011 congressional plan with racially “discriminatory intent.”[6] The court went into some detail on this but ended with an astounding conclusion: that there was “more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.”[7]   

Learn more below the jump. 

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Demand an Honest Budget


by: Kirk Watson

Mon May 13, 2013 at 07:42 PM CDT

This was supposed to be the year when Texas finally did better when it came to budget honesty.

We were going to use parks money to pay for parks; clean air money for cleaner air; utility fees for utility relief ... The list goes on. 

But taxpayers aren’t seeing the reform they expect, which means your money – tax dollars, fees and such – still aren’t being spent the way you were promised they would be.


Here’s how they get you:

The state budget is honeycombed with hundreds of "dedicated" funds – little piggybanks where those in control collect your taxes and fees. The state promises to spend the money on a specific, usually popular purpose that you probably support. 

But then, much of that money is hoarded in the accounts, diverted from its intended purposes and used to cover other costs.

Over the years, the state has allowed those accounts to get bigger and bigger, starving necessities (like parks, trauma care, 911 service and clean air) that it was meant to pay for and covering up for the failure to fund basic state functions (like schools and healthcare) in more honest, transparent ways.

And, as a result, nearly $5 billion was diverted away from its dedicated purposes in the current 2012-13 budget.


At the start of this session, folks like the Governor and Speaker of the House promised to start weaning the state from its addiction to diversions. But, if anything, things are getting even less transparent.

Right now, those in control of the legislature are pushing a pre-election utility rebate gimmick that would divert more than $700 million from its purpose. That’s money Texans have given the state to help low-income families in deregulated electricity markets pay their utility bills.

The reason the money was collected – the need it’s meant to address – still exists. Hundreds of thousands of poor and elderly Texans still can’t afford their bills in brutally hot months. 


Budget writers are using that broken promise to underwrite another one: they pledge to divert no more than $4 billion -- $4 billion! -- in the next budget. 

That’s close to the $4.95 billion they’re diverting now, minus the $700 million they’re writing off in the rebate scheme.

In other words they’re still addicted to diversions, pursing business-as-usual while shrouding it in fake reform. Worse still, budget writers have rejected calls to craft a plan to wean the state off of this practice over the next few budgets. I filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would bring true, long-term reform to this process; it hasn’t even been given a hearing. 

That’s not real reform. That’s like someone promising he won’t keep drinking any more without promising to drink much less, either.

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A Down Payment, Not a "New Normal"


by: Kirk Watson

Thu Mar 21, 2013 at 11:42 AM CDT

Yesterday, the Senate passed its draft budget for 2014-15. It passed overwhelmingly – 29-2. Obviously, most Democrats in the Senate voted for it. So did I.

Does that mean this session’s budget undoes the damaging budget cuts that our schools endured two years ago?

Does it mean there's a permanent solution to the school funding crisis?

Does it show that this budget makes real progress in creating honest accounting and paying down the billions in dedicated funds that have been diverted from their intended purposes over the years?

Does it mean that the state is making needed investments in Texans’ health and the Texas economy by securing more Medicaid funding?

Umm ... no.

This budget passed with many Democrats’ votes for one reason: it’s a start, a down payment on the change we need to make this session.  But no one should think our work is done.

I certainly don't.

The Good News

Even if it's a long way from perfect, there’s some good stuff in this budget.

The budget was put together in a very open, inclusive way. That's not been my experience with past budgets.

A chunk of the $5.4 billion that was cut from schools in 2011 has been restored. There’s substantial, meaningful investment in mental health programs. Most state employees will get a raise – and so many of my constituents who are state employees will tell you that it's been too long since they saw one.  The state's retirement systems for former employees and teachers also will see funding increases.

(It was a remarkable moment in the Chamber yesterday when the gallery, packed with retired teachers wearing red T-shirts, burst into applause as they heard what the budget would mean to them.)

And let’s just say it: As horrendous as the budget was in 2011, when the legislature slashed $5.4 billion from Texas schools, pretty much anything that didn’t take out the state’s hard times on its kids is comparatively good news.

But we wouldn’t have been for this budget if we’d thought this was as good as it’ll get this session.

The bad news

This isn’t as good as Texas can do. It just isn’t. I love this state with all my heart, and I know that Texas can do better than this budget.

The state has been sued by most of its districts over the school finance system. A state district judge ruled more than a month ago that the system isn’t fair, isn’t adequate, and isn’t even constitutional. This legislature could – and should – have been working to craft a permanent solution to this crisis. Instead, it’s waiting on a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, as if the state might yet get off on a technicality.

The fact is that this budget doesn't offer a permanent solution to Texas' running school funding crisis. It maintains a broken, inadequate formula – asking Texas kids and families to wait for the critical investments they need and deserve. We rank 49th nationally in per pupil spending, and after you adjust for inflation, we're actually spending less money per-pupil than we were in any of the last three years.

Really, from the first day of this session, it should have been the goal of every legislator to restore the resources that were cut from our schools in 2011 and renew the state’s investment in its future. That’s still the goal, and there will still be ample opportunities to do that between now and Memorial Day. If the legislature fails to do that, this session will be remembered as a failure – as it should be.

The danger of the “New Normal”

I see the budget passed yesterday as the beginning of our work to do better by Texas and its future. What’s scary – what we need to fight – is the perception that this budget is all we need, or that it represents some sort of “New Normal.”

I worry that some legislators may consider this budget to be a new benchmark for what’s considered adequate or acceptable, even as teachers and students look for ways to do more and more with fewer resources, and Texas women, seniors and kids struggle to get health care.

Texas can, should and must do better by our schools, our kids, our people and our future – not just leave them all a little less worse off.

So this budget vote needs to set the stage for the changes we know we need: a permanent school finance solution that creates great schools, fundamental reform of the budget process, and major investments in health care, water supplies, transportation and Texas’ future.

Yesterday was a vote for progress and process. It’s going to take all of us – not just those who almost single-handedly cut $5.4 billion from our schools two years ago – to make the changes that will meet Texas’ needs, prepare its future, and lay the foundation for a 21st Century economy.

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The End of the Beginning


by: Kirk Watson

Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 10:27 AM CDT

There are any number of moments that could pass for the beginning of the end of a legislative session in Texas. But if you’re looking for an end of the beginning, that was probably Friday.

Friday was the last day to file bills without asking anyone’s permission. Starting this past weekend, we now have to get four-fifths of our fellow senators to agree before any additional bills can be filed.

The bill filing deadline is always a crazy day. A great many offices tend to have at least a couple of loose ends to tie up, and they rush to get their bills filed. Meanwhile, various advocates and interest groups – some totally legitimate, some ... less so – run through the Capitol in search of a legislator who will throw their idea a bone, letting it live for at least 80 more days as a bill and buying time to see whether it can become a law.

School house rock 

A lot of offices don’t much care for the scramble. Some put up signs on doors making it clear that they’re not interested in last-minute ideas. As one office down the hall from mine asked last week, “If this idea’s so great, where was it three weeks ago?”

Always a good question.

 

Read all about it, and get ready for more

The good news is that all of our stuff got in, and we’ve got a great collection of legislation that I’ll be talking and writing about more over the next few weeks.

I’ve already written some about my constitutional amendment to end budget diversions, my bill to reform investor-owned utilities, and a set of bills I filed on basic necessities and priorities such as budget honesty, education, water conservation and public safety.

Here are a few more that have attracted some notice over the past couple of weeks:

Modernize open meetings laws – make government more open & efficient

Government should function efficiently and effectively. And the public should know as much as possible about what government is doing. No matter where folks fall on the political spectrum, they should agree with both of those statements. And technology can help make them both come true.

Senate Bill 1297 would infuse technology into Texas’ public information laws by allowing government officials to communicate via an official online message board posted on their government entity’s web site. The idea is to give officials a way to communicate and allow the public to listen in on the conversation.

I introduced the bill on Thursday at a press conference with Attorney General Greg Abbott. It was a great event, and I hope the bill will continue to bring people together from different perspectives. Here’s a good summary from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

Property rights issue: let folks xeriscape their yards

Any time you can protect property rights and the environment, you’ve got to do it, right?

My SB 198 allows for the installation of more drought-proof landscapes by limiting a homeowners association’s ability to block xeriscaped or more efficient yards and landscapes.

Landscaping can make up about 30% of residential water use. People should have the right to save water and money.

Here’s more from State Impact Texas.

Increased penalties for fatal hit-and-run accidents

I filed Senate Bill 275 to increase potential criminal penalties on those who hit and kill someone in an accident.

Under my bill, those convicted of leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death could face a 20-year prison sentence, not just the 10 years that current law provides.

Here’s an article about it from the Texas Tribune.

Transparency for major events incentives

For years, Texas has had a program designed to lure big events such as the Super Bowl to Texas. I believe that anyone who supports programs like these (and I do) has a special obligation to make sure they work.

So this session, I filed SB 541 to increase oversight and transparency for these programs. My bill also would ensure that the state is getting its money’s worth – and not someone else’s – by severely capping taxpayers’ obligations for things like new scoreboards from which a sports team (or another private interest) will recoup most of the value after the event has ended.

Here’s an editorial from the Statesman on the bill and the controversy that helped to prompt it.

Like I say ...

These are all terrific bills. I hope to share good news about each of them – along with some other good ones I’m working on – before the session wraps up on Memorial Day.

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The Legislative Session's Low Moment


by: Kirk Watson

Tue Mar 05, 2013 at 10:36 AM CST

Every session has its ups and downs, its highs and lows.

This session is no different, though the lowest point seems to have arrived early this session. It usually comes later – after short-sighted behavior, ridiculous lack of discipline, and terrible (albeit easily foreseen) outcomes.

This low point is my new high: I’m officially back to being fat.

I usually put on some serious pounds during a session. But I’ve porked up much earlier this year than ever before.

This is a session of firsts: the first time my pants have been let out before March; the first time I’ve eaten a sleeve of cookies by declaring to myself that “I deserve these” before I’ve even passed a bill out of the Senate; the first time I’ve stood behind my desk chair for a picture with a page to hide my belly (and the strained button on my coat); and the first time I’ve methodically eaten a box of beef jerky in an afternoon while telling myself it was okay since jerky has no carbs.

I’m way up, which means I’m sort of down.

A big fat falsehood

One of my biggest priorities remains ending the diversion of money that you pay for specific things like clean air, trauma care, or state parks, but that’s used instead to pay for other budget items.

I’ve written repeatedly about the dishonesty of this practice. I’ve worked session-after-session to curtail it. And I’ve even filed a proposed constitutional amendment this session to end this process with a big dose of openness and accountability.

My amendment does four things that I believe are essential to ending diversions:

  • It puts this vital decision in the hands of Texans by allowing them to vote on the amendment.
  • It enshrines these limits in the state constitution so future legislatures can’t simply write around them with a bill.
  • It creates a responsible “glide-path” that gives the legislature more than six years to end this practice.
  • It allows disciplined discretion that permits a supermajority of the House of Representatives and Senate to redirect this money, but only in the most open and transparent way possible.

I’m very proud of this legislation, but it’s not like my ideas were handed to me on a stone tablet. I’ll work with anyone, from either party, who’s willing to stop playing games and get serious about acknowledging this deep honesty deficit and what it will take to close it.

It’s time to get real

The problem, I guess, is that old habits die hard, and this is one of the oldest bad habits in the state budget. As I’ve said repeatedly, the budget is balanced with a toxic mix of debt, diversions, deception and denial, and it’s not clear that everyone’s willing to throw out those rotten crutches.

In 2001, the state diverted about $1.6 billion in dedicated funds. For the current budget, the total is about $4.95 billion, an increase of more than 200 percent. The state now diverts nearly as much in parks fees, clean air charges, utility bill surcharges and other fees as it collects in business taxes.

That $4.95 billion represents years of broken promises to Texans and spells out the size of the state’s honesty deficit. You simply can’t address this issue without at least coming up with a plan to pay down that debt or creating a mechanism to prevent budget writers from diving back into these diversions in the future.

New normal

That $4.95 billion total is a 10-figure indicator of how badly those in control of the budget have allowed this reliance on diversions to get. This isn’t a matter of just letting bygones be bygones. The legislature has to reckon with its past actions. It’s not enough to say, “We won’t let it grow any more than this.” That’s the equivalent of saying the system is too broken to fix.

It also isn’t possible to fix this deception without constitutional language ending it and a plan for paying back this debt.

Some may claim this measure of responsibility is too hard to live up to. They say they need discretion to write the budget. But “discretion,” and the abuse of it, created this problem, deep distrust among Texans, and distaste for these diversions and broken promises.

So those in control can’t simply say, “Trust us; we mean it this time.” How can anyone believe that this practice will end for more than a session or two without a constitutional provision short-circuiting it?

Besides, approaches like mine still allow some flexibility. Legislators could redirect dedicated funds with a two-thirds vote. They’d simply have to do it in the light of day, declaring fund-by-fund what they were doing and explaining why to their constituents.

That’s what I call “disciplined discretion.” It offers a real change, not just more promises. It allows taxpayers to trust the state by verifying that the legislature’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. And it requires those in control to be honest about how they’re using taxpayer dollars while still allowing them to do what they need to do to balance the budget.

These diversions have been going on for more than 20 years. They now total billions of dollars. I think Texans will be willing to trust the state with this money again, but the state is going to have to earn it.

 

 

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Texas Kids Deserve Better


by: Kirk Watson

Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 10:21 AM CST

On Saturday afternoon, about 3,500 people (according to the Texas Tribune) from around the state marched up Congress Avenue for a rally in support of Texas’ children, its schools, its economy and its future.

I was honored to welcome the crowd to the Capitol and to talk about what’s going on with Texas schools  and what we can do to make sure the state does better by them.

Please take a few minutes to watch the video of my speech. My prepared remarks are below, but I’ll bet you already know the gist of it:

“When our kids make a mistake, we expect them to fix it. When our kids have an assignment to do, we don’t let them procrastinate. When our kids have a test, we expect them to show up and do well. It’s time to demand as much from this legislature as we demand from a child.”

Save Texas Schools

Thank you all for being here … Isn’t it a great day to be in Austin, Texas?

And isn’t it great to be supporting Texas schools?

I’m honored to welcome you all here to your state Capitol, and I’m proud to stand with you today.

We’re here because we love Texas and we love Texas schools. We’re proud of our state’s great history when it comes to fighting for our schools and defending them from harm.

And we know Texas can do better, Texas has done better, and Texas children and schools deserve better than they’re getting from this legislature.

Now, we all know our state’s future depends on whether our kids will learn enough to thrive in the 21st Century economy. That isn’t news to any parent or teacher in this audience or in this state. And let’s face it: you have to talk a lot about the economy to get anywhere with the folks in control of this building.

But it’s time — it’s past time — to talk about the kids, too. Let’s focus on the young Texans who will owe so much of their lives to the things they’re learning in school right now.

And let’s imagine how great the Great State of Texas would be if every single child could get a world-class education right in their neighborhood school. No matter what she looks like. No matter where her parents are from. No matter where she lives — in the ’burbs or the barrio; the gated community or the ghetto.

Just imagine what we could become if every last one of Texas’ children was prepared to succeed and prosper in the 21st Century.

People under that Dome speak all the time about issues like individual liberty, individual prosperity and economic development. But as soon as the subject changes to how to help those kids, it’s like these so-called leaders forget how to talk.

There’s no excuse to wait any longer. The verdict is in, and it says Texas’ school system isn’t adequate, isn’t fair, and isn’t even constitutional.

This legislature is failing our children.

It’s failing them by refusing to restore the $5.4 billion that was unconscionably cut away from schools, teachers and kids two years ago. It’s shameful and immoral that the legislature isn’t working right now to restore these resources — especially now that we know Texas has the money to do that.

The legislature is failing by refusing to even talk about finding a permanent solution to the school funding crisis. Instead, those in control are sitting around like some litigious, deadbeat dad, waiting for an even higher court to force them to meet their responsibilities.

It’s failing by entertaining a deceptive, destructive voucher scheme that could take money from public schools and funnel it to unaccountable private ones.

Those in control fail every time they refuse to be honest, open and accountable in describing what’s happening in our schools. Every time an elected official uses deception and denial, or plays fast and loose with basics like funding levels or graduation rates, our kids suffer.

And the legislature is failing our kids by trying to stake out this new normal — one that allows Texas to do less and less for our kids even as the 21st century demands more and more of them — at this instant where the state’s changing demographics and economy make free, public schools more important than ever.

The good news is that we can fix all of these things. Your state representatives and senators could walk into this building right now and start addressing all of these failings.

So it’s time to stop waiting to do the right thing.

When our kids make a mistake, we expect them to fix it. When our kids have an assignment to do, we don’t let them procrastinate. When our kids have a test, we expect them to show up and do well.

It’s time to demand as much from this legislature as we demand from a child.

Thank you for being here, and thank you for fighting to save Texas schools and to build a better Texas.

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Four Promises, No Labels


by: Kirk Watson

Tue Feb 19, 2013 at 10:25 AM CST

(Senator Kirk Watson details how he's using his position on the Senate Nominations committee to push for greater accountability. Barbara Cargill, the eyes of education advocates are on you.   - promoted by Katherine Haenschen)

With all due respect to Congress, nobody’s nailed down the “politics at its worst” thing quite like Texas’ State Board of Education.

Our board has one policy area to not screw up: what kids learn in Texas schools. And yet, for years, it’s been wrought by conflicts that have been initiated, in my estimation, by folks who care more about propagating what they themselves believe rather than what kids actually need to know.

The dynamics have gotten so bad that two legislative sessions ago, in 2009, the Senate actually busted the Governor’s appointee to chair the board. Last session, there was so little support for the Governor’s chair that she didn’t even get a vote. There's even a PBS documentary about it called "The Revisionaries," which you can watch online until Feb. 27.

Well, yesterday, the Senate Nominations committee, on which I’m the only Democrat, took up the nomination of Barbara Cargill, the third nominee for SBOE Chair that the Governor’s given us in the last three sessions.

And the committee recommended her confirmation. Unanimously.

Why vote yes? Find out below the jump.

 

There's More... :: (0 Comments, 759 words in story)

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