Friday, January 26, 2007

Dewhurst makes Kirk Watson vice chair of Transportation & Homeland Security Committee

On the Lege

Watson Having Fun Stateside

January 26, 2007

Austin Chronicle
Copright 2007

Well into his first month on the job, Kirk Watson is still bouncing off the walls with the energy of a 10-year-old. "It's just so much fun," gushed the freshman senator, hours before anti-toll-road activists would greet him with boos as he took the chairman's seat at Monday night's CAMPO meeting.

As Austin's former mayor, Watson is no stranger to verbal potshots at public forums; the genteel decorum of his new environs in the Senate chamber must seem like high church when compared to the emotional climates of road-planning meetings and City Council hearings. Or even House sessions, for that matter. "There have been a number of people in the Senate who have reached out to me – from both parties, I might add – since I've been here," Watson said. "Everyone seems to get along. You can tell that even with what are going to be some strong philosophical differences from time to time, the rules of the Senate allow you to take strong stands yet still maintain strong relationships. One of my rules in engagement is to try to create new constituencies without creating unnecessary enemies."

Like other Travis Co. delegates, Watson's interests run in areas of health care and education, but though he did not secure a seat on either of those Senate committees, he did win at least one plum assignment – as vice chair of Transportation & Homeland Security – the job held by his predecessor, Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos. "The lieutenant governor [David Dewhurst] had been very good about talking to me about what my interests were," Watson said. "He called me at home on a Friday night, and we talked about it, and he told me what he was going to do, and I really feel like he did me right." Watson's other committee posts include Business & Commerce (and its Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies and Economic Development), Jurisprudence, and Nominations. "As the senator from Travis County, being able to be involved in transportation, and being the vice chair of transportation, is a big deal," he said.

The Emerging Technologies post isn't too shabby either. "This is also a big deal because it allows me to be involved in everything from electric utilities to higher education. It allows me to have my finger in a number of issues that are of key importance." Watson sidestepped an opportunity to take a swipe at Gov. Rick Perry's controversial Emerging Technology Fund, a state-financed pet project of the governor's that many consider a boondoggle, without the necessary checks and balances to monitor its progress. But Watson does agree the program could use some tweaking. "This is one of those tools that you see other states use very effectively to create technology jobs," he observed. "So I'm looking forward to being on the committee to ask some of those questions about ways to make [the program] work better and be more accountable."

Dewhurst's other committee assignments held few surprises. (The less predictable House Speaker Tom Craddick is expected to announce his committee selections this week.) Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, whose district includes parts of Travis Co., kept all of his committee seats, including chairman of Jurisprudence. The only notable Senate demotion was no shocker. El Paso Dem Eliot Shapleigh had expected to get bumped off the all-important Finance Committee because he had actively campaigned against a fellow Democratic senator, the late Frank Madla, who had been friendly with the GOP leadership. But Shapleigh secured an equally significant committee seat on Health and Human Services. Conservative talk-radio personality and freshman Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston snagged assignments on Education, Intergovernmental Relations, International Relations, and Trade.

Can Texas Cure Cancer?
Watson didn't get his wish for a seat on Health and Human Services, but he'll be part of a team carrying an important bill that could make Texas a leader in the fight against cancer. The far-reaching proposal, which could go to voters in November if approved by the Legislature, calls for investing $3 billion – $300 million a year for 10 years – in a statewide cancer research consortium. About 50 people, including cancer survivor and cycling champion Lance Armstrong, Gov. Perry, and an assortment of medical doctors and research scientists, hashed out details of the plan over lunch at the Four Seasons on Monday. The bipartisan initiative carries the endorsement of two leading cancer-fighting groups – the Lance Armstrong Foundation and Susan G. Komen for the Cure – plus the state's leading research and treatment institutions.

On the Senate side, Watson, a testicular-cancer survivor, will co-author the proposed legislation with Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, and Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, while Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, will carry the House bill. Watson credited Austin businesswoman Cathy Bonner, who served under the late Gov. Ann Richards, and former Comptroller John Sharp with moving the idea forward. Richards died in September after battling cancer of the esophagus. "There are very few people who in some way haven't been touched by cancer," Watson said. "One of the gifts of cancer for me is that it gave me the freedom to do something else in life. It is an unbelievable gift that I now find myself in a position to maybe do something that can ultimately lead to the end of this disease." end story

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