Senate Subcommittee Continues Investigation of Border Economy
The Senate Subcommittee on Border Affairs is examining the effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11 on the border economy. During the February 5 meeting at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, committee members heard that growth continues along the border, but at a slightly slower rate.
After welcoming messages from area officials, the subcommittee first examined economic development issues. Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs reported advances in value-added processing, meaning that Texas farmers are getting profits from both, the raw commodities and the finished products by processing farm products themselves.
Eddie Solis from the Comptroller's Department followed, saying that since the terrorist attacks economic growth on the border had slowed, but that the economy overall was not in decline.
Helen Colyandro of the Texas Department of Economic Development (TDED) testified about the effect on trade and tourism. Craig Morgan, Director of Tourism Development for the TDED said that any falloff in out of state tourism was being compensated by an increase in Texans visiting Texas. Rene Gonzalez from the North American International Trade Corridor Partnership testified that increased trade between Texas and Mexico continues to cause traffic congestion along the border that needs to be relieved by new roads.
Workforce issues, or the unemployment rate, were also a topic of discussion. Luis Macias of the Texas Workforce Commission reported on how TWC is helping to train and find jobs for border residents. Pete Castillo of the Middle Rio Grande Workforce Board testified on workforce issues that affect the area from Del Rio to Big Bend.
Increasing population along the border leads to increasing demands for city and country services. Mercurio Martinez, Jr., Webb County Judge, testified regarding how Laredo is coping with the increasing population. Martinez noted that help from the state is still needed.
With increasing traffic due to the North American Free Trade Agreement, transportation has become a large issue along the Texas-Mexico border. Amadeo Saenz, Ed Wueste and Luis Ramirez, all of the Texas Department of Transportation, testified regarding proposed bridges and toll roads along the border. Toll roads have been opposed by some local residents who say the larger percentage of lower income families along the border means a smaller part of the population can afford to drive on toll roads. Consequently, it would take longer to pay for them.
Mayor Elizabeth Flores of Laredo then spoke regarding where inspection stations at existing and new bridges should be located and how Mexican trucks are inspected. Carla Mancha of the City of Eagle Pass reported on the challenges faced by her community, saying "What is good for the border, is good for the State of Texas." Sam Adams from the Laredo Development Foundation testified that the Texas-Mexico border is the fastest growing border in the world and the demands being placed on the city are unprecedented. More than nine thousand trucks a day now cross at its bridges, as many containers as the Port of New York. Miguel Conchas, CEO of the Laredo Chamber of Commerce, said that the commercial sector is recovering from the drop in business suffered after the September 11 attacks. Public testimony followed.
The Senate Subcommittee on Border Affairs is chaired by Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville. Members include Senator Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso and Senator Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio. The subcommittee recessed subject to the call of the chair.
Senate Committee Examines Utilities Market Deregulation in Texas
AUSTIN - The Electric Utility Restructuring Legislative Oversight Committee met at the Capitol on February 5, 2002. The joint panel was created to oversee the implementation and monitor the effectiveness of Senate Bill (SB) 7, approved by the 76th Legislature. As established under SB 7, the electric utility market was deregulated and open to competition in January of 2002, after the implementation of a pilot program.
Representatives of the power industry -- wholesale and retail--testified before the committee, as well as members of the Public Utility Commission (PUC), and executives of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the corporation that administers the state's power grid.
Approximately 25 percent of Texans already have the option of choosing electrical providers. Although the transition from a closed to an open market still has glitches, witnesses said the system is working pretty much as planned, without the problems seen in other states, and that the prognosis for deregulation is good. Finance issues like credit worthiness of providers involved, and the possible consequences of ENRON and other Texas companies' bankruptcies attracted the attention of the legislators.
The committee also heard about protocol issues, the composition of providers' boards of directors, customer education, the new "Do Not Call" lists, low-income assistance programs, and the intention to simplify the change over for customers.
Rebecca Klein, PUC's Commissioner, referred members and the public to her agency's web site, www.puc.state.tx.us, for useful information like electrical rates and tariffs. Most of the consumers complaints about utilities deregulation, both electricity and telephones, are caused by slamming (services switched without consent), long processing time, mistakes in billing, and sudden disconnections.
The joint committee includes five members of the Texas Senate appointed by the lieutenant governor, and five members of the Texas House of Representatives appointed by the speaker. Sen. Troy Fraser co-chairs the committee after the resignation of Sen. David Sibley. Representative Steven Wolens is the co-chair from the lower chamber. Other members include Senators Teel Bivins, Frank L. Madla, Jane Nelson and John Whitmire; and Representatives Kim Brimer, David Counts, Debra Danburg and Sylvester Turner.
The committee recessed subject to the call of the chair. The next meeting will take place in four to six weeks, with date and place to be announced.