Local leaders prep for legislative session

November 16, 2016

WESLACO — Local lawmakers and community leaders are working together to draft bills to benefit the area, and one of them, filed Tuesday, seeks to stop governmental bodies like the city of McAllen from keeping quiet about how much money is spent on concerts, parades and other events paid with taxpayer money.

About 70 community members met Tuesday night at the Weslaco Public Library to hear about the agendas of five of the area’s largest entities.

The speakers included Ron Garza of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Ann Cass of the RGV Equal Voice Network, Matt Ruszczak of the Rio South Texas Economic Council, Sergio Contreras with the RGV Partnership and Veronica Gonzales with the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley at the event which was hosted by Futuro RGV and Rio Grande Guardian.

Each took turns outlining their wish list for the upcoming 85th legislative session to a crowd that included businessmen, community leaders and the staff members of about half a dozen local politicians.

Registered lobbyist Joe Garcia began the event with an introduction about the political climate in Austin and the agendas of some of the state’s top officials, like Gov. Greg Abbott’s wish to classify a crime committed against law enforcement as a hate crime and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s stance on the gender and bathroom issue.

Perhaps the first fist fight will be whether to approve a $661 million supplemental budget, Garcia said. Oil and natural gas revenues are down, and Texas is expecting a shortfall.

The Lone Star state has already asked state agencies, like UTRGV, to reduce their budgets by 4 percent, and there’s talk of implementing zero-based budgeting, Gonzales said.

“We would have to go in and fight for every dollar that we get, instead of building on our previous budget,” the vice president of governmental affairs said about the potential budgeting method.

UTRGV needs all the funding it can get for the new medical school, and the institution plans on asking for $40 million for the next two years. It made the same request last session, but only obtained $30 million from the state.

“ We’ve laid the groundwork,” Gonzales said. “We’re ready, but we know that we face challenges because of the budget cuts that are coming.”

Public school funding and health care will be at the forefront of the session, and Cass wants to make sure that every Texan has access to medical care. Her organization will focus on issues that affect low-income families and the marginalized.

The RGV Equal network will fight for affordable housing, infrastructure needs and living wages for carpenters, electricians and other laborers. They encourage the state to change the way it defines colonias and to help migrant families with unnecessary financial burdens, like the water disconnection and reconnection fees they routinely have to pay.

Health care will be a tricky one due to Obamacare’s uncertain future. President-elect Donald Trump vowed to repeal and replace it while campaigning, but has recently softened his tone, saying he would instead amend portions of it.

Texas is locked in a battle with the federal government, and some suggest they wait to see how Trump’s first 100 days will impact health care and then act accordingly, Garcia said.

Contreras said the RGV Partnership will focus on educating the workforce and promoting initiatives in science, technology, engineering and math.

The nonprofit coordinates RGV Day at the Capitol, where local stakeholders meet with various lawmakers to promote their agendas, and will soon begin planning the first ever RGV Day in (Washington) D.C.

Ruszczak of RSTEC touched on border security and the recent request from the Texas Department of Public Safety for $1.1 billion to help secure the border.

“Border security is a great thing,” Ruszczak said. “But they build a perception that for some reason it’s unsafe down here.”

His organization will ask Texas to carve out $25 million from whatever amount it plans to give DPS in order to help the area run a positive image campaign in order to avoid businesses and people from coming to the area.

“Help us stretch our advertising dollars,” he said.

Garza of the LRGDVC said it’s hard to pick an issue because “they can’t all be top priorities.” However, his organization will focus on transportation issues, which he said intersect with most aspects of day-to-day life.

“ Traffic isn’t bad yet, but we are about to turn a corner with this dynamic growth in population,” Garza said.

The council will lobby for $5 million, which can then be leveraged for $11 million more.

Lawmakers are already busy raising their voices in support of many of the issues through the filing of legislation. State Rep. Terry Canales is the latest to announce a bill he introduced Tuesday that seeks to strengthen the state’s public information law by prohibiting a person or governmental body to enter into a contract that would prohibit the disclosure of expenditures for an event paid in part or in full with taxpayer money. The legislation is a direct result of McAllen’s refusal to disclose how much money it paid Enrique Iglesias for a concert he gave during last year’s holiday parade — an event that caused the city a loss of more than half a million dollars.