SENATE COMMITTEE EXAMINES BORDER ISSUES
(EL PASO) — Texas faces transportation and security issues not only in cities such as Dallas, Houston and San Antonio but in El Paso as well. The Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security traveled to far west Texas today, November 8, 2007, to listen to local concerns that will affect legislation in coming sessions of the Legislature.
Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot) District Engineer Charles H. Berry gave the Senators an overview of future highway projects in the area. El Paso Mayor Pro Tem Alejandro Lozano described the close relationship between his city and Juarez, saying that problems reported by the media about the Mexican city were "exaggerated".
Senator Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso pointed out that Mexico is a larger trading partner than all the European nations combined, and that security issues which delay legitimate commerce must be addressed. Committee chairman John Carona of Dallas said that he has made numerous trips to Juarez on business and called the delays "embarrassing".
TxDot Commissioner Ted Houghton told the committee that costs of highway construction have risen at unprecedented levels due to increased international demand for materials. Amadeo Saenz, the new TxDot Executive Director, said that the state gas tax would need to increase by ten percent each year to keep up with increasing costs. He described how the agency is working to implement new measures passed this spring by the 80th Legislature. Chairman Carona questioned the amount of state money that was going toward toll roads and let the TxDot representatives know that he would soon be needing that information.
Bridge safety came up as well. Director Saenz told the committee that Texas bridges are inspected on a two-year cycle and that the information from those inspections is the basis for determining which ones are due for repair or replacement.
Regarding security, Steve McCraw from the governor's office said Governor Perry supports many of the ideas put forth by Senator Shapleigh for reducing delays at border crossings. On other issues, he warned of wildfire dangers through the fall and winter, and said terrorism continues to be a threat. He also reported that criminal gangs continue to draw strength from the drug trade as well as human smuggling and that their reach has become truly international. That being the case, he told the committee that local, state and federal agencies have to work together with each other as well as overseas authorities saying, "Border security is a team sport--you have to get along."
One continuing problem according to McCraw is that the federal government continues to refuse to refund state expenses in caring for victims of disasters such as hurricanes, saying that refunds continue to be denied and that Texas at best is recovering a "25-75 split".
The committee also heard from Department of Public Safety (DPS) officials regarding driver's license issues. Tommy Davis of DPS told the members that new demands are being placed on the Texas Driver's License, as it has changed from a simple driving document to a universal means of identification. He said that "every day" people try to secure fraudulent licenses at state offices and that changes in state law are needed to help DPS crack down on that practice. For instance, at the present time, he said there is no prohibition against non-residents obtaining licenses.
Other driver's license issues include recent surcharges imposed by the legislature on traffic tickets. Municipal Court officials testified that the surcharges are so high that people are refusing to pay and simply drive without a license and that they are having to choose between feeding their families and having a valid license. Senator Shapleigh said a program originally intended to pay for trauma care instead has become a "monster", one that has criminalized one in ten El Paso residents just for traffic fines.
In other business, the committee heard how special reflectors might be used to decrease the number of wild animals being struck on Texas highways, new ways to ease the movement of products across the Mexican border, the great degree of interdependence between the economies of El Paso and Juarez, and the issues faced by local law enforcement on the Rio Grande. Law enforcement representatives agreed that local police do not need to be involved in enforcing immigration law, that this would be an undue burden on already strained resources.
The Texas Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security is Chaired by Senator John Carona. The committee's Vice-Chairman is Senator Kirk Watson. Members include Senators Kim Brimer, Rodney Ellis, Robert Nichols, Florence Shapiro, Eliot Shapleigh, Jeff Wentworth and Tommy Williams. The committee recessed subject to call of the chair.