Straight Talk Texas #16: A Conversation With Kirk Watson

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Straight Talk Texas –  A Conversation With Kirk Watson
Date: Jul 6, 2020

Join us today for a conversation with former Senator Kirk Watson from Austin, now Dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Policy. He and Texas 2036 chief executive Margaret Spellings have a wide-ranging conversation about his time as mayor of Austin, serving as state senator, and what he is looking forward to in his new role as Dean.

Straight Talk Texas 2036 Interview: A Conversation with Senator Kirk Watson

The interview has been edited for clarity, brevity and key highlights.

Join us as Texas 2036 Director and CEO, Margaret Spellings, speaks with former Senator Kirk Watson, Dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Policy.

Margaret Spellings: You have devoted your entire life to public service and we’re grateful for that. You’ve made a lot of difference. One of the things people observe about you is you’re somebody that’s worked across the aisle. Talk about that in these politically charged times. How do you do it? 

Kirk Watson: Let me riff on that a little bit and say a couple of things. One is that I’ve always felt I lose out as a public policy person or political leader or regular joe if I let labels get too strict. I always say we ought to throw away the labels when we’re working on public policy. I understand that labels are sometimes valuable, and there’s no question that I proudly carry labels. What I mean is if you’re only looking at the label, then you’re shutting down opportunities. I’ve always felt that to succeed as a public figure, you have to be open minded because there may be a good idea worth agreeing on. When we sit down to talk, I always ask, what are five things that we can agree on, as opposed to what are five things we ought to fight about? Once we set out the agreements, things grow from that. It’s one of the reasons I’ve got dear friends that, in this politically charged time, are people that don’t vote in my primary. I’ve always felt like that’s the first rule of approach. The other part is that I think we’ve quit trying to listen to each other. We have public hearings where there ain’t no hearing going on. It’s fighting and arguing. We’ve created too many adversarial systems and we end up talking past each other. Frankly, I think Twitter and Facebook have made it harder. But when I left the Senate to take this job at the Hobby School of Public Affairs, I left with really close friends on both sides of the aisle because I didn’t want politics to interfere with my ability to do a good job.

Margaret Spellings: House Bill 3, the recently enacted comprehensive school finance bill that passed virtually unanimously, came in the aftermath of what I think most observers saw as a really difficult period in Texas politics. How did you rescue a bipartisanship or what role did you play in that? 

Kirk Watson: First of all, I was very pleased that last session the Lieutenant Governor put me on the public education committee. Going into that session, we knew it would be a public education session. I was very pleased to be on the education committee and the finance committee under those circumstances. I was also very happy when he appointed me to the conference committee on HB3. 

Now having said that, let me back up a little bit. Sessions prior had repeatedly punted and avoided actually taking on what we should be doing in public education. In the session before HB3, I thought the House did a pretty good job of looking at public education. Not so much the Senate, the Senate kept putting poison pills in the bill and pitching that dead cat back over to the House, and the House would say, “We’re not going to pass that. Don’t do it again.” And then it would happen again. I was disappointed in the way that all played out. Then the House sent the Senate the creation of a public education commission. I must admit, I kind of stomped around and said, “We’re supposed to be the commission. They elected us to do this. Lock the doors, call a special session, and make us do our job.” I ended up voting for that commission comprised of experts because there was nothing better to vote for. You’re never going to hear me say I was wrong, so let’s just say I wasn’t as right as I would’ve liked to have been because it did great work.

Margaret Spellings: And it led to a great bill and a process that worked. 

Kirk Watson: We weren’t ready the session before last. The work that was done made a big difference, and it also pointed out ways of finding bipartisanship. You could make substantive decisions that weren’t based in partisanship. One of the best parts of that bill was the recognition that it does cost more money to educate kids that are living in poverty. How do we set that up in a way that makes a difference and achieves real goals? I was very pleased to get to play a leadership role in that and we ended up with a good bill. Will we have the discipline to keep financing this? That’s the question. Now with COVID it becomes an even harder question, but we’ve got to find a way to do it right.

Margaret Spellings: As you look at House Bill 3, which has early childhood, equity, teacher pay, rewards for closing the achievement gap, an extended year, on and on. What do you think are the most important priorities from that legislation that need to be attended to?

Kirk Watson: I don’t think we should try to recreate the past and we shouldn’t judge our success by the way we’ve always done it. “We’re broke so where are we going to start making cuts?” This is an opportunity to look at our work from a revenue standpoint because COVID has exposed a lot of our weaknesses, including that of our very limited revenue streams. Sales tax is in shambles even though it’s the biggest revenue stream in the state budget. Instead of starting with cuts we start with, how do we change the way we do things? Let me give you an example. A couple of sessions ago we needed a lot of transportation money; we still need a lot of transportation money. We created an entitlement for roads out of our sales tax revenue. I won’t go into all the details, but I remember asking the question, what happens if we have another 2011 legislative session where the budget is really tight, and we’ve limited this to roads? We had this perception of affluence that was going to go on forever and life was going to be great. Well, we ought to allow for other revenue sources for transportation that we’ve taken off the table. Things like toll roads. Think of all the private equity out there – why not let them take the risk on some of these roads? We can fix our roads and we can free up things like sales tax so we might not have to make cuts to education.

Margaret Spellings: How should we be thinking about local control, which Texans have always been for, in an environment where the state wants more say over what these entities (school districts, cities, counties, etc.) do?

Kirk Watson: When I was the Mayor of Austin, I always whined the state didn’t give us enough tools to grow the economy. My response was, “If you’re not going to provide the tools, then get out of the way, and let us make the decisions.” The second thing is we saw what working together looks like at the very beginning of the COVID pandemic. The state was working closely with local government, and for good reason. But responding to a pandemic at the local level requires attention to community culture and monitoring how your community responds. Then the state started saying, “Oh, you can’t do that.” I think we can let the state set certain goals, parameters, and outcomes, but let the local governments figure out how best to achieve those. In essence we don’t really have a state economy. It is the sum of its regional component parts. Our regions are different. Let them be different. 

Margaret Spellings: I want to ask you about your new gig. You’ve got the mandate of educating a generation of young people that are going to have to tackle some big issues. Talk about what your aspirations are for the Hobby School and the role you’re going to play in leading it.

Kirk Watson: It’s very exciting. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. After the last legislative session, I was happier than I’d ever been after a session. The government transparency bills I’d been working on for multiple sessions passed, along with my sexual assault on college campus bills, and HB3. It felt like I was at the top of my game and I was very happy. For me to leave the Texas Senate under those circumstances required a very compelling platform in public service. The opportunity to be involved in building a world class public policy school from the ground up, in the state’s largest city, arguably the nation’s most diverse city and a hub for healthcare, energy, and immigration. We’re providing the skills and education for the next great generation of public policy leaders, whether that be in government, private industry, nonprofits or philanthropy. Not to mention the fact that the school plugs into public policy discussions and debate by research or symposia or white papers, etc. Just this past week, Mayor Turner appointed me to his policing reform task force. There are roles to play and it’s a tremendous opportunity so I’m very excited.

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