Kirk Watson

Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

Imagine a state where the pension system is in a desperate state of disrepair. Decades of underfunding by the legislature and “kick-the-can” politics have pushed the funds to the brink of insolvency and credit rating agencies are considering downgrading the state’s bonds. This is the kind of horror story one typically hears about Illinois or Detroit, but this could very well be Texas’ future if legislators continue to ignore the major problem with the state pension system. 

Pension systems are important to anyone who lives in Texas and plans to continue doing so in the future. The pension system is directly tied to the state’s budget and long term prospects as a competitive place to work. If this session’s crop of politicians are serious about addressing the problem of pension debt plaguing the state budget, they need to break with tradition and provide full funding to the system.

According to an actuarial valuation of the Employee Retirement System of Texas released last August, the fund is currently actuarially unsound. That means that returns on investment and new contributions won’t cover long-term payouts and other expenses. 

In fact, Texas has a major problem adequately funding the system on a year-to-year basis. The Texas Senate’s website notes that state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), has argued the state has failed to adequately fund the pension system in 19 of the past 20 years, an alarming number shows even a legislative branch dominated by self-identified fiscal conservatives lacks the political will to spend today’s money on long-term gains. 

What’s more, a change in the Governmental Accounting Standards Board rules for public pension accounting has shown that public funds across the countries are far more underfunded than previously thought. 

A report this month issued by Reuters said that the ERS of Texas is only 63 percent funded under the new accounting rules, down from 77 percent under the old rules. 

Under these new rules the state will be adding half a billion dollars in deficit a year to the already $7.5 billion it has accrued in debt, according to an editorial in the Dallas Morning News. Employee Retirement System Executive Director Ann Bishop told senators in testimony to the Finance Committee this month that "if [the pension liability] is not addressed one way or another, the debt is going to keep growing." 

Bishop took particular care to point out that major credit rating agencies could consider downgrading the state’s credit rating at some point in the future if the problem persists. 

“The bond houses do consider this a debt,” Bishop told the committee. Texas rightly prides itself on a AAA credit rating during a time when many states are struggling with their spending. However, if lawmakers refuse to make the kind of hard financial decisions that put Texas in the favorable position it’s in today, the credit rating agencies will downgrade our bonds. 

Moody’s warned the state as much in January. State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, has the right idea, saying in the Finance Committee that he’ll oppose cutting taxes until the ERS is appropriately funded, according to the Texas Observer. 

“We should have made the tough decisions to either raise taxes or cut [benefits],” Eltife is quoted as saying. “The reason we’re in this mess is because we haven’t made the tough decisions over the last 10 years.”

Watson, also of the Finance Committee, expressed similar sentiments about the urgency of taking action to address the growing problem. 

However, not all legislators felt the same way. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, shrugged off the problem, saying, “Texas is doing much better than other states.”

This kind of cavalier attitude toward an impending problem like credit downgrades is unacceptable and shows Schwertner doesn’t have the political courage to hold the state to obligations it has already made. Public service is a noble calling and we owe people who dedicate their working lives to it a debt of gratitude. 

If we ignore promises we’ve made to people who run this state every day, we’re sending a powerful message, not about how Texas treats the people who serve but about how the popularity of policy solutions is more important than the long-term solvency of the state. Should we see our legislators shy away from making these tough choices and instead focus on popular campaign promises, they need to surrender the prized title “fiscal conservative.”

Watching unfolding budget chaos in far-flung corners of the U.S. while smugly patting themselves on the back for making wise fiscal choices is practically a ritual for Texas politicians. If they show us this session they don’t have the wherewithal to deliver on our promises to public employees and plan for a sustainable financial future, we as voters need to show them what matters.

Matula is a finance senior from Austin. Follow Matula on Twitter @chucketlist.

The Dell Foundation promised a $25 million matching donation to the Seton Healthcare Family’s teaching hospital Tuesday.
Photo Credit: Griffin Smith | Daily Texan Staff

The Dell Foundation promised Tuesday to match donations, dollar for dollar, up to $25 millions for the Seton Healthcare Family’s teaching hospital to help cover the remaining costs.

The hospital will be located next to the under-construction Dell Medical School, to which the Foundation donated $50 million in 2013. The 211-bed teaching hospital is slated to open in 2017 and will cost an estimated $295 million. 

The new hospital will work in affiliation with the medical school, according to a legal agreement between UT, the UT System Board of Regents and Seton Healthcare Family. 

“UT Austin and Seton will also work to expand the healthcare infrastructure, workforce, and services available to all residents of Central Texas,” the agreement states.

Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) released a statement shortly after the announcement in support of the donation.

“Our community’s goal of transforming health care in Austin and beyond requires a modern, 21st century teaching hospital,” Watson said. “This generous donation from the Dell Foundation helps us reach that goal.”

Watson said the hospital and the medical school are vital to completing his “10 Goals in 10 Years” plan to improve health care in Central Texas.

“We’re well on our way to accomplishing the 10 goals in 10 years that I laid out in 2011, and the Dell Foundation has proved an invaluable partner,” Watson said. “It’s exciting to see this much momentum and progress.”

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Four Texas lawmakers are making voter turnout among college students a priority by proposing bills that would make university-issued ID cards an acceptable form of voter ID.

The bills, filed in both the House and Senate by Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio) and Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), would allow students to present a university-issued photo ID as a valid form of  voter ID. 

Watson said his bill, if passed, would make voting more convenient for students.

“Those in control of the Capitol have created unnecessary burdens for folks who don’t already have an acceptable form of ID to vote,” Watson said in an email to the Texan. “This is an easy way to begin removing those burdens.” 

In May, Student Government sent a formal letter in support of student IDs as a valid form of voter ID to the UT System Board of Regents. The System approved the letter as a legislative priority for the University. Chris Jordan, SG chief of staff, authored the letter and said he is excited to see support for this initiative in the legislature. 

“We’re not the first ones to say this is an issue,” Jordan said. “But we’re just glad to get the conversation started.”

In October, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Texas’ voter ID law, which requires voters have a state-issued photo ID to vote. Texas is one of seven states that requires voters to present photo IDs before casting a ballot. Other states request ID but do not require it, and 20 states do not require any ID.

Under the current voter ID law, there are seven acceptable forms of voter ID in Texas, including a Texas driver’s license and a concealed handgun license. Canales said most states that require voter ID also allow student IDs as a form of voter identification.

“Basically, this would be pushing conformity with the other voter ID states,” Canales said.

Israel said expanding voter ID to include student IDs is a secure and efficient way to increase voter turnout among college students. 

“Those who suggest that this is another opportunity for fraud are incorrect,” Israel said. “All the information that we give to the county is double checked, and there has to be a reassurance there, as we move through this process, that this is simply about creating more opportunities to vote.”

History senior Max Patterson, director of SG’s Hook the Vote agency, said the use of student IDs as voter IDs would make voting easier for out-of-state students.

“For out-of-state students, if they don’t get an election ID certificate or aren’t in the process of getting a new drivers license, they have to use their passport, which can be difficult if they don’t already have their passport at UT,” Patterson said.

Canales said he hopes the ability to use university-issued IDs as voter IDs will encourage college students to vote regularly.

“I think that if we do make it readily accessible through their student ID, we definitely are not exasperating the problem,” Canales said. “We are actually creating more avenues for college-age students to vote.”

While both the Dell Medical School and the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine will educate more physicians in Texas, a panel of doctors at The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday, along with state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, reiterated the pressing need for more physicians throughout the state.

During the discussion, which was held in Robert A. Welch Hall, Watson said Texas is still below the national average on the number of doctors per 100,000 people.

“The national average is around 240 doctors per 100,000. In Texas it’s 170, and in the Valley it’s 107,” Watson said. “In the area of pediatrics and psychology, we’re below 60 percent of the national average.”

Although the two new medical schools are scheduled to open within the next few years, Tedd Mitchell, president of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, said graduates will still be competing for a limited amount of residency spots in Texas, a number that is not growing as quickly as medical education in the state. Mitchell said if the number of spots does not increase, graduates could be forced to look elsewhere to complete their medical training.

“It’s cheap to go to medical school in Texas, which is a great thing, but the state will be in the habit of educating here and sending them to, heaven-forbid, Oklahoma, or New Mexico or Louisiana,” Mitchell said. “We want them here.”

The doctors on the panel also discussed the need for more primary care doctors in rural areas, positions that don’t offer as many financial incentives as specialty care.

“We need to look at what is drawing people away from rural areas and what is drawing people away from primary care,” said Clay Johnston, the inaugural dean of the Dell Medical School.

Brett Giroir, CEO of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, said the future of medical education would involve more of an interdisciplinary approach.

“We’re entering a really new era that’s not just about hard science in one field,” Giroir said. “It’s about the combination of multiple disciplines, all to create a sustainable, affordable, accessible health care system that provides the benefits for all across the board. Physicians don’t usually understand that or get the training in that. We are all looking at different ways to train physicians for the next 100 years.”

Johnston echoed Giroir's sentiments.

“Facts aren’t worth as much as they used to be,” Johnston added. “Human memory is very fallible, and a cell phone and Google are much less so. Learning how to find information and synthesize it, and how to use that to problem-solve with patients is another aspect of how medical education is changing.”

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

UT System Regent Wallace Hall, who is facing possible impeachment, defended his recent actions on the UT System Board of Regents during a higher education panel with state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on Saturday.

At the discussion, which was part of The Texas Tribune Festival, Hall questioned the legitimacy of the House Select Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations’ investigation into his behavior. The committee began investigating Hall after state legislators accused him of micromanaging the University and working with other regents to remove President William Powers Jr. In the past several months, Hall has filed several massive open records requests to UT.

Hall said he felt impeachment proceedings are the wrong response to his inquiries.

“Impeachment is used to protect the public, not to punish an individual,” Hall said. “Do you think I’m protecting the public, or do you think the politicians that are coming after me are protecting the public?”

Hall said he made extensive open records requests because the University would not give him the information he wanted as a regent. He said this was indicative of a larger accountability issue at UT. 

“[UT is] the flagship, and it should be the leader for all of our institutions,” Hall said. “I find that there’s a lack of accountability in a lot of what we see.”

When asked about his opinion on Powers, Hall declined to comment and said the question should be answered by System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

Noting the board lacked “institutional control,” Watson defended the investigation into Hall as an appropriate form of legislative oversight.

“This is important,” Watson said. “This is not political gamesmanship.”

Watson added Hall should not have investigated UT on his own.

“There’s nothing wrong with the board looking into campus admissions, but it should be the board that does it,” Watson said. “I think you lose transparency when an individual regent is doing something.”

Last week, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, told The Daily Texan the regents’ reach lacks definitive boundaries.

“Regents have very, very broad authority to do what they want,” Seliger said. “When you do something that costs the university a substantial amount of money, there needs to be a good reason for it.”

During the legislative session, Seliger introduced a bill to the Senate that would have set guidelines for the regents. Although passed by both the House and Senate, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.

Hall said he was willing to speak with any member of the legislature about his action, but was never contacted by joint oversight committees formed in 2011 and 2013.

The panel also discussed Hall’s inquiry into replacing Texas football head coach Mack Brown in January. Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported Hall and former regent Tom Hicks called Jimmy Sexton, agent to Alabama head coach Nick Saban, to inquire whether his client could replace Brown at UT. Hall and Hicks ended their inquiry after Brown informed Hicks he was not ready to retire.

NCAA rules state the decision to replace the head coach belongs to the institution president. According to the report, Powers was not notified about the call.

At the panel, Hall acknowledged the System should have told Powers, but said it was not his responsibility to do so.

Hall said his legal team should have the ability to cross-examine witnesses during the transparency committee’s investigation. Earlier this month, the committee decided not to allow cross-examination.

Some lawmakers hope for campus construction money in third special session

Gov. Rick Perry called lawmakers back for third 30-day special session Tuesday to deal with a $4 billion hole in transportation funding. Although Perry has only put transportation funding on the agenda, some lawmakers hope they will be able to pass key measures in higher education policy this time around.

Minutes after the governor decided to keep them in Austin, lawmakers filed at least three bills to fund campus construction projects at the state's higher education institutions. Perry has given no indication that he will add the so-called tuition revenue bonds to the agenda but has said in the past he would keep an open mind after the Legislature passed a transportation bill. The Legislature can only act on items the Perry puts on the agenda.

SB 10, a campus construction bill, was filed on Tuesday with 22 senators signed on as authors. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, also filed bills for campus construction projects. UT-Austin is currently hoping to receive $95 million for a new engineering building. 

Rumors were rampant on social media that the governor would add campus construction projects and measures for a concealed firearms on campus to the agenda, but by Tuesday evening only transportation was on the call.

"When it comes to transportation, the stakes facing our state could not be higher, and a failure to act now could take years - if not most of a decade - to correct, as traffic congestion increases and harms our quality of life," Perry said in a statement. 

LIVEBLOG: Abortion legislation in Senate

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks as she begins a filibuster in an effort to kill an abortion bill, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Austin, Texas
Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, speaks as she begins a filibuster in an effort to kill an abortion bill, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, in Austin, Texas

Please read our up to date blog posting here about the recent actions on the abortion legislation. 

10:30 p.m. Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst ruled that Sen. Donna Campbell's, R-New Braunfels, point of order was sustained, and he issued the third strike against Sen. Wendy Davis's, D-Fort Worth, filibuster.

However, democrats in the Senate immediately challenged the decision, and debate has ensured on the issue.

Follow Bobby Blanchard @bobbycblanchard for live updates.

10:08 p.m.: Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, raised a point of order against Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, for going off topic.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and others were still debating the point of order as of 10:08 p.m. If it is ruled against Davis, the filibuster will likely be over.

9:10 p.m.: Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, just has two hours and fifty minutes to go before the special session ends. 

During her filrbuster, Davis has been issued two warnings. One for going off topic and another for recieving assistance with her back brace. If Davis is issued a third warning, the filibuster is likely to end. 

Davis has spent the past hour going through the bill, line by line.

"I am going through this bill anaylsis, bit-by-bit, because I have something to say, about all of it," Davis said. 

7:35 p.m.:  Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has been issued another warning for violating one of the filibuster rules. This is her second. If she is issued a third rule, the filibuster will end.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, raised a point of order agaisnt Davis, for recieving assistance with her back brace. According to the rules, Davis cannot drink, eat, sit down or lean on anything during her filibuster. She also cannot use the restroom.

"A filibuster is an endurance contest and it’s to be made unaided and unassisted," Williams said.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst said there was no precedent for the challenge, so he put the point of order to a debate and vote in the Senate Chamber. Senators spent more than 10 minutes debating and speaking on the point of order. In a vote of 17-11, the Senate voted to sustain the point of order and issued Davis her second warning.

6:39 p.m.: Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, has spent more than 30 minutes questioning Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, during her filibuster Tuesday evening.

Watson asked Davis many questions. He has asked her to clarify different aspects of the bill, to recall points of debate on the bill and to speak on why the American Medicial Association might oppose the bill. Watson has also asked Davis if anything in the abortion legislation would do anything to reduce the number of unwanted pregancies that end in abortions.

Davis must survive until midnight. She cannot drink, eat, sit down or lean on anything during her filibuster. She also cannot use the restroom.

6:04 p.m.: Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, survived several rounds of questions and challenges from fellow senators during her filibuster Tuesday afternoon, but she suffered a strike against her for drifting off topic.

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, raised several points of orders against Davis, challenging the topics she was discussing were not related to SB5, the abortion legislation. The first point of order for Davis speaking of Planned Parenthood's funding. Another point of order was for Davis speaking about Roe v. Wade.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst overruled Nichols's second point of order. However, he agreed with Nichols' first point of order regarding Planned Parenthood's funding, and he warned Davis that she needed to stay on topic.

3:55 p.m.: Following several hours of reading previously unheard testimonies, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, switched to reading personal stories submitted by volunteers during her filibuster.

However, she was interrupted when lawmakers began to question her.

"Do you think the traditions of the Texas Senate are more important than women's health?" asked Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville.

Deuell also challenged Davis' claim that clinics in Texas be closed by the passage of SB5. 

There are eight hours left before the special session ends and time runs out.

2:30 p.m.: Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, continued giving personal testimony past 2 p.m. Davis is reading from 31 personal testimonies given by volunteers that were not read before the House State Affairs committee late last week.

Here are five quotes from personal testimonies so far:

1). "Roe v. Wade has not been overturned. This bill is about access and women's health."

2). "You are cordially not invited to share that experience [making a family] with me."

3). "The message the Legislature is sending with these bills is that a woman's role is solely to have children."

4). "I fear for my daughter's future in a state that values my daughter's right to carry a gun on a college campus over the right to her body."

5). "It makes me sad as a Texan to see my home state moving back to the 1950s."

1:00 p.m.: Shortly before 1 p.m., Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, began giving personal testimony from people who she said were denied an opportunity to speak at a hearing on HB60 last week.

"Because that testimony was not allowed, I thought it was particularly appropriate today to give voice to [those] people," Davis said.

Davis said she has 31 personal testimonies prepared for the Seante. She has 11 hours left to go in her fillisbuster before the special session ends.

12:45 p.m.: Despite an outburst from the gallery, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is still conducting her filibuster.

A man in the gallery started to shout at Davis that "abortion is genocide" during her filibuster, although he was quickly escorted out. Davis did not stop speaking during the outburst.

Davis has read personal testimony from Texas ACOG, Texas Hospitals Associated and several physicians.

12:03 p.m.: ​During her filibuster, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, referenced a tweet from Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst that stirred up controversy last week.

On June 19, Dewhurst sent a Twitter message that included a picture of a map of Texas showing the many abortion clinics that would close if SB5 passed. The picture said "If SB5 passes, it would essentially ban abortion statewide."

We fought to pass SB5 thru the Senate last night, & this is why! #StandWithTXChildren #txlege pic.twitter.com/fJbQSJur7i

"We know why," Davis said of the bill's justification for being passed by conservatives. "Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst's tweet told us why."

Davis began reading personal testimony to the body just before noon.

11:50 a.m.: Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, began her filibuster Tuesday by rehashing the history of SB5 and other abortion legislation in the state.

She also began by discussing the ways she believed the bill could negatively impact women's health if passed.

"This bans abortion before a woman might receive important information about her health," Davis said. "Fewer than 2 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks. And while it is uncommon, it is important that a woman and her doctor have every option available."

Supporters of SB5 and other abortion legislation claim the bill would make abortion safer for women in Texas.

11:37 a.m.: Because the Texas Senate brought up abortion legislation before discussing transportation funding or sentencing guidelines legislation, it is likely those bills will not pass during the first special session.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Forth Worth, has expressed to reporters and fellow lawmakers that she will filibuster the abortion legislation until the special session ends Tuesday night. This means the Senate is likely not going to get a chance to pass legislation on transportation funding, or sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds who are found guilty of capital murder. All three of these issues — abortion, transportation funding and sentencing guidelines, were issues Texas Gov. Rick Perry added to the special session.

While the first special session ends Tuesday night, Perry can always call another special session at anytime he wishes.

11:30 a.m.: Lieutenant David Dewhurst called the Senate to order at about 11:10 a.m.

Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, immediately introduced abortion legislation in SB5. Hegar explained the bill out, prompting Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth to immediately begin her filibuster.

Davis first took issue with the way the bill was brought to the Senate.

“We all know that these bills were filed during the regular session,” Davis said.

Davis pointed out that bills on abortions restrictions failed to be heard during the regular session because such legislation did not have two-thirds support in the Senate to get the bill on the floor. In the special session bills can be started without the traditional “two-thirds” rule.

10:54 a.m.:  It is almost 11 a.m. and the Senate has not yet convened to discuss legislation. 

While all eyes are on the Texas Senate for an expected filibuster on abortion legislation, many Texas higher education stakeholders are looking to the House. 

Today, Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, may attempt to bring up a resolution in the House that would begin impeachment proceedings on UT System Regent Wallace Hall. Pitts filed the resolution during the special session after months of accusing the regents of engaging in a “witch-hunt” against UT President William Powers Jr. 

Hall would be the first Texas higher education regent to ever be impeached.

If the resolution passes in the House, a committee would be set up by House Speaker Joe Straus. If the committee decided it wanted Hall impeached, it would be up to the full Senate to vote on the impeachment.

10:08 a.m.: Following days of intense debate and civic protest, the Texas Senate is meeting Tuesday morning to debate pending abortion legislation in the last day of the special session.

Lawmakers in the Senate will convene sometime after 10 a.m. to begin debate on SB5, a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy and likely close many clinics in Texas where women can obtain an abortion. Democrats in the Senate have pledged to filibuster the bill. 

The Senate is also expected to take up bills on transportation funding and a bill on sentencing guidelines for 17-year-olds who are found guilty of capital murder.

A bill filed in the Texas Senate will increase the penalty for leaving the scene of a hit-and-run that results in a fatality.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, will change the status of hit-and-run charges from a third degree felony to a second degree felony, increasing the maximum punishment from 10 years in prison to 20 years. 

“The goal of this bill is certainly to remove any incentive for individuals to leave the scene of an accident,” Watson said. “But it’s also to encourage more people to do the right thing, in a bad set of circumstances, and actually save a life.”

The bill was filed in response to constituent demands following a hit-and-run accident involving legislative aide Gabrielle Nestande, who was charged with criminally negligent homicide after hitting pedestrian Courtney Griffin and fleeing the scene. 

Nestande has not been formerly sentenced, but the jury recommended 10 years of probation. She was not convicted of the other charges levied against her, which included intoxication manslaughter and manslaughter and could have resulted in heavier sentencing.

Last year, Kylie Doniak, a UT soccer player, was seriously injured in a hit and run accident. The driver, Nicholas Colunga, was charged with intoxication assault and failure to stop and render aid, both of which are currently third-degree felonies. 

Although Doniak survived the accident, she sustained severe injuries that led to long-term physical therapy and withdrawal from the University. The proposed bill does not increase punishments for hit-and-run charges that do not result in a fatality, which the Doniak family considers an oversight. 

“The proposed bill should increase the penalty for all hit-and-run drivers, not just those whose actions result in a fatality,” the Doniak family said in an statement e-mailed by their attorney. “The penalty for the crime should not be less if the victim lives, but suffers life-long injuries.”

Both the Doniak family and Griffin’s mother, Laurie Griffin, are suing the bars where Colunga and Nestande had been the nights of the accidents. 

“Legislators should enact laws that require bar owners in Texas to carry liquor liability insurance to provide for the catastrophic damages caused by over-served patrons,” the Doniak family said in the statement,

Watson said he hopes this bill will encourage people to help.

“First responders often talk about the ‘golden hour’ of trauma care following a serious and potentially deadly accident,” Watson said. “My sincere belief is that with this bill, more people will remain at the scene of a potentially fatal accident to call 911 and get help to victims.”

Published on March 18, 2013 as "Proposed law would increase sentence for hit-and-run drivers". 

Students and employees who commute to Austin from surrounding areas such as Georgetown and Kyle may have more public transit options headed their way in the future.

Currently communities that cannot afford full service transit services are unable to work with rapid transit authorities such as Capital Metro, but a bill filed in Texas Senate would allow these communities to create government entities to fund levels of service they need.

The bill would allow rapid transit authorities to create local government corporations, which are nonprofit corporations created by local communities to act on their behalf. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, authored the bill.

Transportation authorities such as Capital Metro would be able to work with surrounding cities to provide levels of service most useful to those communities, said Capital Metro spokeswoman Erica Macioge. 

“We are very supportive of this bill and have sought help getting it filed,” Macioge said. “It would allow us to potentially provide transit service to communities outside our area.”

Macioge said CapMetro’s current structure is strict in that it can only accept 1 percent sales tax from communities in order to receive transit service, rather than other sources of funds. Creating local government corporations would allow CapMetro to work with communities that cannot adequately fund full transit service but have needs for other levels of service.

“Our area is growing so rapidly and we’re thinking regionally and planning regionally, but we have a problem because we’re not actually able to provide the service,” Macioge said. “This would allow us to create a local government corporation where we could enter into agreements with those local authorities.”

Areas such as Georgetown, which lost funding from the Capital Area Rural Transportation System because of high urbanization rates in the last U.S. census, would be able to work with CapMetro through a local government corporation to determine what level of service is most beneficial to the local community.

Mechanical engineering senior Brian Roppolo commuted to campus from Georgetown until fall 2012. Roppolo said having regular bus service or train service from the Georgetown area would be useful to commuting students because of irregular class and study schedules.

“I think I would have [used it] because I would have saved on gas,” Roppolo said. “I could drive down to Cedar Park and take the train if I wanted to, [but] being that I was an engineering student and I would stay after 11 o’clock. When the train started it would come twice a day or something like that, it’s not conducive to someone who doesn’t have that flexibility.”

Policy staff from Watson’s office said though smaller communities have other options for funding public transit, such as contracting separate companies, this bill would be an additional way to coordinate public transportation with local government. 

“This just allows [Capital Metro] other tools in our toolbox and tools for other communities as they grow,” Macioge said. “We are supportive of the bill and hope that it moves forward.”

Houston’s Sharpstown International School Senior John Baffoe leads a chant at the third annual Save Texas Schools March and Rally in front of the Capitol on Saturday afternoon. 

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

A multicolor sea of homemade picket signs and the sound of marching bands and protest chants flooded Congress Avenue on Saturday as thousands of concerned students, parents, educators and advocates marched to the Capitol in support of enhanced public education in Texas. 

The third annual Save Texas Schools March and Rally, organized by Save Texas Schools, a statewide volunteer coalition demanding an end to financial cuts and a reevaluation of standardized testing, began at the Congress Avenue Bridge and converged at the steps of the Capitol. 

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, Diane Ravitch, former assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, and other guests delivered lively disaffected speeches on the benefits of quality public education, the state’s negligent management of its funding and standardized testing procedures. 

Chief among the day’s concerns was the Legislature’s $5.4 billion budget cut to public education in 2011. The crowd demanded the Legislature tap into the state’s Rainy Day Fund to replenish the budget. 

“[The Legislature is] sitting around like some litigious, deadbeat dad, waiting for an even higher court to force them to meet their responsibilities,” Watson said in his speech. “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.”

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, also called the STAAR exam, was a hot topic among the participants and speakers. 

At the rally, protesters framed standardized testing as an instance of squandered funds on behalf of the Legislature, citing the $500 million contract between the state and Pearson, the creator of the exam. Several protesters described it as discriminatory toward minority demographics and a hindrance toward legitimate classroom instruction. 

Many in attendance waved signs with slogans like “STAAR Wars” and “Enough STAARS in the sky.”

Ravitch said standardized testing is a monstrous idea and noted that the national shift toward standardized testing began in Texas. She petitioned those in attendance to fight back.

“Now the thing that is exciting about this rally, aside from the fact that you have [so many people coming together], is that Texas is the place where the testing madness started,” Ravitch said, “Texas is the place where the vampire gets garlic in its face, a mirror waved and a stake in its heart.” 

According to early estimates, the event drew in roughly 10,000 participants. Allen Weeks, director of Save Texas Schools, deemed the rally a political success. 

“I was overjoyed [by the march and rally],” Weeks said. “We had tons of people here. Everyone knows why they’re here. We’re going to change this. We’re going to get funding back in and testing out.”

Published on February 25, 2013 as "Texans protest for school reform".