Valley Issues Occupy Border Affairs Subcommittee
BROWNSVILLE -- The Senate Subcommittee on Border Affairs heard the wide variety of challenges facing the Rio Grande Valley at a meeting on June 21, 2002. Issues as diverse as transportation, housing, water supplies and job training were on the agenda. While each Texas metropolitan area faces these challenges, in the Valley, committee chairman Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville said there is a slightly different twist to each of them along the lower Rio Grande.
Brownsville Mayor Blanca Vela was the first witness, telling the committee that while her city has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years, unemployment remains high and wages remain low and the issue of water supplies remains paramount. Mayor Connie de la Garza of Harlingen said the Valley can shed its "Land of Manana" image and will be a vital part of the 21st Century Texas economy, but only with help from the Texas Legislature in areas such as water supply, since without water all economic development plans are meaningless. He suggested a desalinization plant jointly owned by the U.S. and Mexico to supply water to people on both sides of the river. The Harlingen Mayor also mentioned education, health care and tourism development as essential issues.
Mayor Baldemar Garza of Rio Grande City also testified, saying that it's sometimes difficult for other Texans to understand the unique problems of the Valley. He too mentioned that the infrastructure such as water and sewer service is simply not keeping up with growth.
Regarding transportation, Amadeo Saenz and Mario Jorge from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) updated the subcommittee on the status of the border safety inspection facilities. This is a 100 million dollar project designed to ensure that when U.S. roads are opened up to Mexican trucks those vehicles will meet our safety standards. Road projects needed due to the North American Free Trade agreement have spurred highway construction in the Valley as well. Subcommittee member Senator Frank Madla of San Antonio reminded the TxDOT witnesses that they need to ensure that smaller border crossings such as Presidio need similar safety inspection facilities.
Mike Allen, President/CEO of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation and Bob Cornelison Port Director of the Port Isabel-San Benito Navigation District and Randy Delay of the Port of Brownsville followed, telling the subcommittee about infrastructure improvements that will be needed for Valley ports of entry. Edward Molitor, of the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, described improvements in mass transit that need to be made.
Hidalgo County Judge Eloy Pulido and Cameron County Commissioner David Garza spoke on the Border Colonia program, telling how they've been working with TxDOT to improve colonia roads. They described the problem of overweight trucks, which the counties cannot control, damaging county roads. Judge Pulido also said that while an Interstate Highway to the Valley is needed, the local roads need attention first.
Regarding water issues, Jeff Saitas of the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) said, "...half of Texas is a desert waiting to happen." He told the subcommittee members that his agency is working to bring fresh water supplies to the border and the rest of Texas. But even more pressing are the diversions from the Rio Grande on the Mexican side that are not authorized. He blamed particular Mexican farmers for these illegal diversions. He said the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) needs to credit the U.S. with the amount of water illegally diverted. Subcommittee Chairman Eddie Lucio said he was "flabbergasted" that the IBWC hadn't yet done this and that "it was not protecting our interests." Saitas said that at this time, no one knows exactly how much water has been diverted. Steven Neimeyer, also from TNRCC, described the agency's state of the Rio Grande report, saying that both water quality and quantity are major issues.
Education has been a critical issue in the Valley for years. Dr. Juliet Garcia, President of UT-Brownsville (UTB) testified that the state must work with students beginning as early as kindergarten so they can learn in later years. She said that scarce state education dollars need to be distributed where the most students can be educated for the least money. Dr. Miguel Nevarez of UT-Pan American said that the major cause for poverty along the border is a lack of education. UT statistics show that only twelve percent of Hidalgo County residents have a college degree, versus more than 40 percent in the Austin area. That, Nevarez says, is a gap that must be closed. Dr. Antonio Zavaleta from UTB told the subcommittee that educators on both sides of the border need to continue working together to improve education in the entire region.
Dr. Leonel Vela, Regional Dean of the UT Regional Academic Health Center is working to train medical students in the Valley, which has traditionally had problems attracting physicians who are familiar with the unique medical problems of lower income residents.
Dr. Gilbert Leal, President of Texas State Technical College in Harlingen spoke on the workforce needs of the Rio Grande Valley. Six hundred layoffs have recently occurred at Valley clothing plants. Leal said that those former employees with high school educations are easy to place, but that the challenge lies with those who may have less than a sixth grade education.
Stella Garcia from the job training organization Cameron Works said that getting the word out to local residents that training assistance is available is a challenge in itself.
Frank Field of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce testified that when Interstate 69 is built that Mexican Road networks will have to be upgraded as well. Judy Vera of Valley Interfaith said that people with limited English skills need special training to compete in the job market. Rosalie Manzano, Director of the Center for Business and Economic Development at UT-Brownsville said the university needs to become involved with the development of small businesses.
Another important issue in the Valley is the lack of housing that is affordable, yet well built. Robert Calvillo of McAllen Affordable Homes, reported that unscrupulous developers are selling shoddy housing and high-interest loans to unqualified people with the intention of reselling the homes when the original owners default. He testified that misleading advertising appears in local newspapers, promising the unwary a guaranteed loan. Chairman Lucio said he was under the impression that the state had been working to stop such practices.
Don Currie, Executive Director of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, said that legitimate loans made by organizations such as his have a very low foreclosure rate, even with low-income clients.
Dr. Bill Thompson from UT-Pan American spoke on tourism in South Texas. He said that that business has a huge impact on south Texas, and it represents an injection of capital to Valley businesses from the outside. Much of this business comes from out of state, as in a recent survey he completed, about thirty percent of those interviewed came from the upper Midwest as winter visitors, and forty percent were day visitors from Mexico, who came to the Valley primarily for shopping.
Public testimony followed. Brownsville residents spoke on local issues concerning sewer service and their problems in getting local authorities to attend to them. Other issues included problems with the local appraisal district.
The Senate Subcommittee on Border Affairs is chaired by Senator Eddie Lucio. Members include Senators John Carona, Frank Madla, Eliot Shapleigh and Leticia Van de Putte. Also sitting in with the subcommittee was Representative Jim Solis. The subcommittee recessed subject to call of the chair with its next meeting to be held at a time and place to be announced at a later date.