Sen. Kirk Watson on the 86th Texas Legislature

“In Texas, we don’t focus on what our needs are; we focus on what we want to pay”

photo by John Anderson

Kirk Watson, the former Austin mayor, is entering his fifth term representing most of the city in the Texas Senate. His committee posts have included Finance, Health & Human Services, and Higher Education. – Michael King

Austin Chronicle: We can begin with big-picture subjects: What are your general expectations for the 2019 session?

Kirk Watson: The feel as we go into this session is significantly different than the last session, for two reasons that are really opposite sides of the same coin. One is that we’re not hearing, and we’re not engaging, in the sort of far-right agenda that last session – that was all we talked about. This session it is rarely, if ever, talked about. We’re not hearing the wedge issues that were used as weapons.

The flip side is that the priority is at least said to be public education. I welcome that fact, although we’re a long way from having a solution, knowing what the elements [of one] are or what will be agreeable. But that makes me pretty optimistic that at least some good can happen. The discussion is about property taxes, of course – you cannot talk about school finance without talking about property taxes.

I saw the creation of a commission [the Texas Commission on Public School Finance] last session as a pretty poor consolation prize, a function of the fact that we were using wedge issues as a way to kill discussions on public school finance. It was the best that we could get, so that’s what ended up being voted out. But there are some really good things that made it into the Commission’s final report; for example, the emphasis on pre-K and early childhood. Another example, this may be the first time there’s been a focus on [how] being economically disadvantaged can impact success in education and how we can address that, not only from the perspective of the individual student [but also] where you have pockets of economically disadvantaged students.

“[T]he priority is at least said to be public education. I welcome that fact, although we’re a long way from having a solution. ... You cannot talk about school finance without talking about property taxes.”

AC: How do they think they’ll be able to square the circle – that is, cut property taxes while putting more money in public schools?

KW: Let’s walk through it. Property taxes have become such a paramount part of our school finance system, that if you start looking at something like the compression of the tax rate – that the Governor’s office is advocating – and you also look at the Legislative Appropriations Requests that were filed by the Texas Education Agency, you immediately run into a delta [difference]. The TEA requests presume 6.7% growth in property tax revenue per year in the biennium. The governor’s proposal would compress that growth down to 2.5%. Even I can do that math: 2.5 is a lot less than 6.7. That ends up being a delta of about $3.8 billion. So in the only proposal of any depth that we’ve heard, we start out with a $3.8 billion biennial deficit, and it would be an ongoing, structural problem.

That’s the first part of the problem. The second part is, if you’re going to start with a deficit, how do you fund the other smart things we just talked about, like early childhood development, like doing better by teachers, like focusing on pockets of poverty? There’s going to have to be some means of finance [for those] – that’s what I think will be the biggest wrestling match. Right now, you’re not hearing answers.

I will tell you, if we agree [on what] our public education system should encompass, and then say now, we’ve gotta pay for it ... I certainly see some value in doing it that way. I’m not confident that there’s a plan or strategy right now. But my approach will be [that] we agree on ‘X’ number of things we need to do, coming out of the commission, or the governor’s proposal. We always focus on the money, and act like we’re broke, so we don’t end up with things we know we need. I would rather focus on what we need, and then figure out how to pay for it.

The same goes for health care. In Texas, we don’t focus on what our needs are; we focus on what we want to pay. That will be a problem in public education, if we do it that way.

AC: Health care will certainly be another big issue, as it was in the midterms. What are you expecting there? Rep. Gina Hinojosa says she will sponsor a “Health Care for All” bill – not anticipating immediate success, but as a way of getting that discussion on the table.

KW: Unfortunately, I don’t feel as optimistic there. I don’t think the Legislature is thinking about health care from the perspective of what we need, instead of what we are willing to pay. So we end up with a stingy, failed system, in my opinion. What I think what will happen – contrary to the series of pronouncements [from Gov. Abbott] that we’ll have “our own Affordable Care Act” – is we will get a series of piecemeal approaches, and folks will declare that we’ve dealt with health care.

I’ll give you an example. We’re doing wrong by our retired teachers. We need to significantly increase the state’s contribution to TRS-Care (the Teacher Retirement System health care plan). That would be very, very, very important, but it ought to be part of a global approach. It will probably end up being a rifle shot instead.

I think we’ll also see significant discussion about what to do about medically fragile kids, and how managed care is done in that area. The Legislature only pays attention when they are in a lawsuit or the media actually calls them out, and a Dallas Morning News series on problems in Medicaid managed care [“Pain and Profit,” June, 2018] has struck a chord. Again, it’s an instance of worrying first about what we’re willing to pay, instead of what we need.

One other area where I might get a rifle shot: mental health. You’ve already seen a multi-biennial effort to address mental health, and one of my top priorities is getting funding in Phase 2 of one of the budget riders that we had the last time, so that we get state hospitals up to date. During the last session, we got the planning money for the Austin State Hospital. That planning is complete; it was chaired by Steve Strakowski, who’s chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the Dell Medical School. We put together a steering committee and their work is done. We’ll ask for the money we anticipated last session. I went down on Monday, toured the San Antonio State Hospital with the new senator from down there, Pete Flores – it’s also been going through that kind of process. …

So, TRS-Care, managed care for medically fragile children, and mental health care are the three areas where I think you’ll see some movement in health care.

AC: How remote do you think is the possibility of getting the state of Texas to expand Medicaid, which would draw down a 90% match from the federal government?

KW: It still remains very remote.

AC: How much progress do you think you can make in the Senate, working against the two-thirds rule (which blocks much progressive legislation) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick?

KW: There is room for us to work together on a number of issues. I do think the election had an impact. The Democrats picked up a net one [seat], which doesn’t sound like a lot, but think about what happened – two Republicans lost, and while [Pete Flores] won a seat that Democrats thought [Pete Gallego] would win, that is a very Democratic seat. So I would anticipate that anybody holding that seat would vote in a way that reflects the desires of that district. And when you look at the election overall in the state, I think it sent a message that people want us not to be spending all of our time addressing wedge issues, but to spend it addressing the needs of the state. I anticipate we will be able to move forward.

Now, that is not to say I anticipate not having some silly debates. There will still be the theatre, but overall I anticipate a more substantive session. But to cover myself: I have been disappointed before.

“There will still be the [political] theatre, but overall I anticipate a more substantive session. But to cover myself: I have been disappointed before.”

AC: Any hope of progress on criminal justice?

KW: I will have bills related to sexual assault and rape that didn’t make it very far [last session], but I’m bringing them back because I think last session we made great progress on college campuses, with regard to the Penal Code and how we define consent. If a person has consumed alcohol and is not capable of consent, that ought to be how we deal with it in the Penal Code, instead of reducing it to, “Well, she was drinking.” The #MeToo movement has been, in my view, a wonderful change in the way we now talk about these things, and I’m optimistic we can make some progress.

AC: Texas has historically been good at two things: building highways and prisons. Any conversations on those subjects?

KW: With regard to prisons, I’m not hearing a whole lot of talk about that, but I don’t serve on that committee, so that may be why.

With regard to highways: there will be a discussion about the financing of our roadways. I’m going to have some legislation to enable a local option to allow money to go to transit, because the state has been so negative in regards to transit, and I don’t think we can make it with a roads-only approach. I do feel pretty strongly about I-35, taking out the upper decks, and making it so you can have transit on it. Throughout the state, we don’t have the [transportation] infrastructure we need, and we can’t do it without transit – at least give us the local option.

AC: The property tax issue is not just about the money, but the power – that is, the relationship between the state and local jurisdictions. The governor essentially proposes strangling local jurisdictions on property taxes, and making it impossible to put a budget together. Do you see any change in that balance of power?

KW: I see all the effort to subvert local decision-making [and] think this will be one of the big debates during the session. It will take significant time and oxygen out of the building. A strong case can be made that the state does so little to help local governments, that it ought to just get out of the way, instead of taking another step in the wrong direction.The state’s economy is really the sum of its regional component parts, and those parts need to be able to make local decisions that spur that economy. If the state goes in thinking that a constituent made a good decision to send a person to the Legislature, but isn’t capable of making good decisions to elect mayors and council members and county judges and commissioners – I don’t think that the state ends up prevailing in that debate.

AC: What has often blocked Republican action on schools – as in the attempt to expand charter schools – has been the reaction of rural districts saying – wait a minute, we don’t have any charter schools, and our school district is the largest local employer, and a focus of the local culture. We often talk about a rural/urban political divide – will there be some unity on this issue of local control?

KW: Whether you’re in a big urban city or county, or a small rural city, you want the decisions about your public safety, your infrastructure, your quality of life made by the people you’re electing to do that. That was an issue in a number of these [mid-term] elections. You saw some people voting against their district last session that won’t vote against their district this session.

AC: The environmental issue was very much a local control issue in the last election, and especially for Austin – the state didn’t want us even protecting trees, or getting rid of plastic bags. They’ve been yanking those decisions out of the hands of the localities. What kind of progress – or not – do you see on environmental issues?

KW: I’m not optimistic. I think we’re in a better spot to stop bad things, but not in as good a position to advance good things.

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