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Watson, Defender of Open Government and Journalism, to Retire from Texas Senate

St. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, a member of the Texas Senate since 2007 and a stalwart defender of the public’s right to know, announced Tuesday that he is retiring from the upper chamber effective April 30.

Watson is leaving to become the first dean of the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs.

“The ability to build a public policy, public affairs school from the ground up in what will soon to be the third-largest city in America, in one of the most diverse cities in America, is just a very unique opportunity,” Watson told the Austin American-Statesman.

His departure into academia echoes moves taken by other longtime Texas state senators such as John Montford and Robert Duncan, who both served as chancellor of Texas Tech University System.

His resignation will also initiate a special election to replace him this spring.

Texas Senate seats do not open often, and there likely are several Austin-area lawmakers who might be interested in the office.

Depending on who succeeds him, the move could also create a subsequent special election for a Texas House seat.

Defender of Open Government

“Watson’s departure creates a real void in the Texas Senate as he is that chamber’s strongest advocate for Open Government and the public’s right to know,” said TAB President Oscar Rodriguez.

“Countless times he has come to the aid of Open Government advocates such as TAB to either defend the Texas Public Information Act, the Texas Open Meetings Act or Texas newsrooms’ ability to report on issues of importance.”

In the most recent legislative session, Watson passed SB 943, a bill addressing the damage done by the June 2015 Texas Supreme Court decisions in Boeing and Greater Houston Partnership which prevented taxpayers from seeing how taxpayer dollars are being spent.

The victory came after a 2017 effort to repair the TPIA met severe opposition in the Texas House of Representatives in the form of an uncooperative House Speaker and committee chairman.

That year Watson passed measures out of the Texas Senate addressing the issues raised in the court decisions, not once, but twice, only to see the effort die in the Texas House.

Said Watson at the time, "The Legislature’s failure to repair and improve the PIA this session is a shame. It should be beyond debate that Texans have the right to know how their tax dollars are spent and what their government is doing in the name of the people. So rather than abandon these important efforts, I hope we can build on the collaboration that we started this session.”

He did not give up.

In the 2018 interim, he and St. Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, crafted legislation more narrowly addressing the government contract transparency problem in hopes that it would stand an easier chance at passage.

The gambit worked and SB 943 became law on Jan. 1, 2020.

Watson had a quicker road to passage for SB 1640, a bill addressing a bad Texas Open Meetings Act court decision handed down in late February of 2019 as the Legislature was in session.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the “walking quorums” prohibition in TOMA was unconstitutional.

Watson’s bill restored TOMA’s criminal provisions and was on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk just 11 weeks after it was filed, a bit of a legislative miracle.

It became law last June.

Another 2019 Watson bill, SB 944, clarified an earlier law that said public business, even if it is conducted on private electronic devices or in private email accounts, is public record.  

Champion of Texas newsrooms

In the 2015 legislation session, Watson saved the day by helping TAB prevent an effort to close off newsroom access to motor vehicle accident reports.

After TAB successfully amended the original House bill to restore media access to the reports, the Senate stripped that language Memorial Day weekend on the Senate floor.

Watson, at the behest of Austin broadcasters, astutely defended TAB’s position during Senate floor debate saying the media uses accident report information responsibly.  

He noted that road improvements and product recalls have resulted from such reporting.  

Watson’s remarks on the Senate floor helped TAB identify a constitutional weakness to the secrecy effort.  

TAB was able to press the media’s case and the lobbying group advancing the House bill conceded that it would have to reinstate TAB’s House amendment language protecting access to complete accident reports to ensure the proposed law didn’t get overturned in court. 

It was one of many such Watson efforts to ensure the public’s right to know in more than a decade’s worth of service in the Texas Senate.

Watson leaves behind a remarkable legacy of public policy and will now help shape future generations of policy makers through his academic work.

TAB wishes him well in this next chapter and is thankful for his efforts on behalf of Texas newsrooms and governmental transparency.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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