Sunday, October 26th, 2014

Kirk Watson “hearts” PolitiFact Texas

Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Wendy Davis of Fort Worth are two of 12 Democrats serving in the Texas Senate.
Sens. Kirk Watson of Austin and Wendy Davis of Fort Worth are two of 12 Democrats serving in the Texas Senate.

Recapping the 2011 regular legislative session at a forum for Central Texas Democrats, state Sen. Kirk Watson touched on redistricting, the state budget and, repeatedly, PolitiFact Texas.

Our first shout-out came as Watson, D-Austin, did a little math while describing how the Republican-controlled Legislature’s redrawing of Texas Senate districts affected Travis County.

Watson noted that Travis County had about 1,024,000 residents in 2010, according to the U.S. census, while each of the 31 Senate districts drawn by lawmakers needed to have about 811,000 residents. That means, Watson said, the Senate map could have featured a "wholly contained" district in the county.

Then again, Watson continued, the Travis-only district "could never represent roughly more than around 80 percent (of the county), right? 811,000 versus 1,024,000."

Pause.

"There’s somebody from PolitiFact in here," Watson quipped, "and I just know that I’m going to get eaten alive: ‘Well, it’s really 81 percent.’ I’m trying to be careful." Laughter ensued.

It’s nice to get noticed, even if it is for splitting hairs. But, hey, we’re fact-checkers!

In the next breath, Watson mentioned, for the second time, that his 32nd wedding anniversary was coming up. "By the way," Watson said, glancing at the PolitiFact reporter at the forum, "it won’t be our 32nd wedding anniversary until late tomorrow night. I said ‘tomorrow’; I didn’t mean tomorrow morning."

More laughter. And an audience member joked that Watson deserved a Mostly True for that statement.

PolitiFact came up again as Watson got back to the GOP redistricting plan, which puts most of Travis County in his Senate district, with the remainder sliced into districts represented by Sens. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, and Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay.

Watson, who ultimately voted for the plan, said Fraser’s district reaches into southwestern Travis County. Another way to picture Fraser’s portion is to "think of all the golf courses" in the county, Watson said. Another pause. "It may not be all the golf courses," said Watson, gesturing toward the PolitiFact reporter. More laughter.

We couldn’t resist: The Statesman’s Central Texas golf course database shows several Travis County golf courses north of the Colorado River: Lions Municipal, Morris Williams ...  Aw, never mind.

Moving on to state finances, Watson leveled a charge that we’ve heard before, saying the state budget has been "for too long based upon what I say are debt, diversions and deception." Elaborating, Watson said: "One of my pet peeves that I’ve talked about over and over and over again is the use of money that is dedicated for a specific purpose for, as PolitiFact (Texas) says, balancing the budget or, as the chair of Finance (Senate Finance Committee) says, using it to certify the budget. ... But either way, it’s not used for its dedicated purpose."

Watson mentioned PolitiFact one last time after an audience member asked when the state’s so-called rainy day fund was last used. "I don’t remember exactly the last time," Watson said. "There was quite a bit of debate and discussion. It’s actually been zeroed out a couple of times. In fact, I think PolitiFact just recently did" a story. Watson then suggested that we could help answer the woman’s question.

We’re happy to.

Up to this year, the last time legislators took money out of the fund — a state reserve account filled primarily with oil and gas production taxes — was in 2005, when funds were removed to start an emerging technology fund overseen by the governor. The 2011 Legislature tapped the fund to cover a deficit in the budget that runs through August.

Since the session started, we’ve done three fact-checks related to the fund.

In March, Gov. Rick Perry called it "our insurance policy against a major natural disaster," a statement we rated Barely True. Later, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told colleagues that in 2007, Perry advocated for liquidating the fund, a Half True claim.

We also looked into the assertion, made by Watson during the forum, that the fund has been zeroed out before. In May, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said lawmakers have voted "to use virtually all of the rainy day fund four times." That’s True. According to a 2011 report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, lawmakers emptied the fund in the 1991 and 1993 sessions and took nearly every penny from the fund in the 2003 and 2005 sessions.

By the way, Watson’s math — which kicked off his references to PolitiFact — checks out. He said 811,000 (the desired population of each Senate district) was "around 80 percent" of 1,024,000 (Travis County’s 2010 population).

It’s 79.1992 percent, to be precise. But who’s counting?