Three takeaways from ATA’s lunch-and-learn with Sen. Kirk Watson

Three takeaways from ATA’s lunch-and-learn with Sen. Kirk Watson

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Last week, Austin Tech Alliance hosted Sen. Kirk Watson at a lunch-and-learn for ATA members.

Watson is the former mayor of Austin and was elected to the Texas Senate in 2006, where he represents most of Travis County and all of Bastrop County. Among other recognitions, Texas Monthly magazine named him one of the state’s “10 Best Legislators” in 2009 and “Rookie of the Year” in his first session, 2007.

At the lunch-and-learn, Sen. Watson recapped the recent Texas legislative sessions, spoke about how Austin’s tech sector will be impacted, and gave advice about how the tech community can best engage moving forward.

Here are three takeaways:

The bathroom bill will be back

The defeat of the so-called “bathroom bill” — legislation aimed at restricting where transgender Texans can use the bathroom and weakening existing non-discrimination protections in Austin and other cities across Texas — was a big victory for the tech sector.

Tech companies were among the first and most vocal opponents of the bill, as they quickly understood the negative impact its passage would have on tech’s ability to recruit talented individuals to Austin.

Sen. Watson praised the group for standing up and getting involved but warned that the bill will be back next session. As a result, it’s more important than ever for people in Austin’s tech sector to remain engaged by communicating with their elected officials about the negative ramifications of passing discriminatory legislation.

Pay attention to the state budget

The one piece of legislation that the Texas Legislature is constitutionally required to pass is the biennial budget. It funds everything from public schools to health care to public safety to higher education.

Sen. Watson argued that the state has failed to adequately invest in the future of Texas, which he believes is especially reflected in our schools. This has resulted in a school finance system that the Texas Supreme Court recently held barely meets minimal constitutional muster.

In fact, Austin ISD property taxpayers are helping to prop up the state’s budget, Watson said, by providing more than $1 billion in local property taxes to the state over the next two years — more than any other school district in Texas.

Despite general agreement that the school finance system is either broken or, at best, far from ideal, the Legislature failed to pass any serious reforms. Austin ISD will continue to send hundreds of millions of local property taxpayer dollars to the state instead of being spent here in Austin.

So when you’re frustrated with increasing property taxes, Watson suggested that you direct your frustration at the state rather than the local district.

Get involved and don’t quit

Sen. Watson offered three pieces of advice on how to impact the legislative process when the legislature isn’t actually in session: 1) vote in primary elections, 2) vote in general elections, and 3) stay engaged in the interim.

The Texas Legislature only meets for 140 days every two years, meaning they won’t be back in session — filing, debating, and voting on bills — until January 2019. There will be two elections beforehand (and potential runoffs, too) that determine who’s sitting on the House and Senate floors making decisions representing you as their constituent. Showing up to vote is the easiest and most essential way to get civically engaged.

But outside of voting, pay attention to what the legislature is talking about and don’t be shy about emailing, calling, or tweeting at your elected officials. After all, they can’t represent your voice if you don’t use it to tell them what you stand for.

As Sen. Watson summed it up, “Be there — every time. Show up — every chance.”

Finally, a big thank you to Baiti Food for sponsoring the event’s delicious lunch. Baiti Food helps to support a number of Austin nonprofits, including Austin Tech Alliance, HealthStart Foundation, and Refugee Services of Texas. Read about their amazing journey from Iraq to Austin and consider their catering services for your next event.

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