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March 22, 2000     (512) 463-0300

Special Committee on Border Affairs Holds Hearing in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO - The Senate Special Committee on Border Affairs met at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) downtown campus Wednesday, March 22, 2000. The senators found themselves addressing charges of racism at the University of Texas Health Science Center(UTHSC).

Senator Zaffirini told the committee that in a newspaper article published that morning, University of Texas Regent Tony Sanchez had charged discrimination against Hispanics at UTHSC. In response to those charges, Senator Zaffirini moved that the committee ask the UT Board of Regents for a response. The motion was adopted unanimously.

Dr. John Howe, President of UTHSC told the committee that just under a third of his students are of Hispanic origin, putting that school sixth in the nation in minority recruitment nationwide. He also said that UTHSC has more Mexican-American faculty than any other comparable school in the country. Senator Lucio said that he expects the University to work toward becoming a school that mirrors the population of the area. During extended questioning from Senator Zaffirini on recruitment policies, Howe responded that when filling vacancies, his search committees look for excellence and that minorities are fully considered.

Following that, Dr. James Young, the Dean of the Medical School at UTHSC, described the center's outreach to under served communities along the Border. Young said that a number of his programs are in jeopardy due to budget cutbacks and urged the committee to explore ways of restoring funding so that the UTHSC can continue reaching out to the under served. During that testimony, Senator Shapleigh inquired as to how many Hispanics were in his program. Dr. Young said he did not have that information available, but could get it.

In other action, welcoming remarks were given by Dr. Ricardo Romo, President of UTSA and San Antonio City Councilwoman Debra Guerrero, who spoke on the Border's needs for infrastructure improvements, the committee heard invited testimony regarding issues concerning transportation, wastewater disposal, economic development and health concerns along the Texas-Mexico border.

Regarding transportation, Rob Harrison, Director of the Center for Transportation Research at UT-Austin, began by describing how the University of Texas is working with other institutions to identify transportation problems along the Border. He urged the creation of one stop processing centers for truck traffic where federal and state officials could clear cargo, helping to expedite freight as it crosses the Border. He also said it is essential that Mexican concerns be addressed in any regional plan.

Mr. Joseph Krier, President of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, told the committee that cooperation between the local Border communities and officials at the state level is essential if progress is to be made. He says one of the great challenges the state faces is ensuring that roads to and from the Border can handle the traffic.

Jennifer Allis, from the Secretary of State's Office, testified that over the past few months, a task force has been meeting to address Border transportation questions. It is working on streamlining truck inspection and examining places where new border crossings could be established. One problem with existing facilities is that they are simply out of space and cannot be enlarged.

Ed Wueste, the Assistant Executive Director for Border Trade Transportation at the Texas Department of Transportation followed, saying that emissions tests for Mexican trucks might be necessary to ensure that they don't pollute the air in San Antonio and other nearby regions. He also said that development of new border crossings is continuing with emphasis on creating a prototype one-stop federal/state inspection station that could be a model for future crossings.

In regard to Border water and wastewater needs, Homer Cabello from the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) testified that his agency is helping raise housing standards for colonia residents by working with local lenders to get the residents the funding they need for home improvements, but that funding is needed for additional improvements to water systems all along the Rio Grande. On another subject, he also reported that TDHCA is educating colonia residents about the importance of responding to the 2000 Census.

Laura Brown, the Director of Project Development for the North American Development Bank followed. She testified that water is likely to be a huge problem not only for the Texas border, but worldwide. The problem is that the Rio Grande is used not only as a water source, but also for wastewater disposal and that this has a tremendous effect on the health of the residents. Along the river, she says that the infrastructure is so poor that much of the region's water supply is wasted by leakage from old obsolete pipes.

Greg Rothe, General Manager for the San Antonio River Authority testified that his agency is nearing completion of its plan for Senate Bill 1, the water plan passed by the 75th Legislature. San Antonio's problem is that the city expects to be short of water in coming years due to low levels in it's water supply, the Edwards Aquifer.

As the committee addressed economic development, Robert McKinley, Assistant Vice President for Economic Development at UTSA, testified that "small business is big business for the Texas Border". McKinley says that small business is what creates desperately needed jobs in high unemployment areas along the Rio Grande and that state programs that encourage small business growth return many times their cost in additional tax revenue.

As part of the committee's study of Border health problems, Jim Kazen, the Coordinator of South Texas Projects for UTHSC, told the committee that "Across from Brownsville and McAllen, we have a Dallas and Fort Worth, across from Laredo, we have an Austin, across from El Paso, we have a Houston". Kazen says we do not realize that there is a tremendous number of people along the Rio Grande using the entire infrastructure, and the health care system is no exception. This, he says, is why the Border's problems are unique, unlike those in any other part of Texas.

In response to the newspaper article charging racism at UTHSC, Kazen said what Regent Sanchez said required courage, and that it would have been easier for Sanchez to not speak out. Kazen says no one at UTHSC will be satisfied until the center reflects the region it serves. He continued: "...we have some tremendous Hispanic physicians, it's about time they got their opportunity."

William Rasco of the Greater San Antonio Hospital Council testified on the effects of federal government cuts Medicare and Medicaid funding. Rasco says rural South Texas Hospitals are suffering and are being asked to take even deeper cuts than originally predicted. In addition, he says the burden of uncompensated care is also forcing Texas hospitals into the red. Rasco echoed earlier testimony calling for a coordinated effort to health care along the river, saying "Bugs don't have borders." Senator Shapleigh replied that "While bugs don't have borders, they do bite harder there!"

Public testimony followed the invited witnesses.

The Senate Special Committee on Border affairs is made up of Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, chair, Senator David Sibley of Waco, vice chair, Senators Teel Bivins of Amarillo, Robert Duncan of Lubbock, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, Carlos Truan of Corpus Christi and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo. The committee stands recessed subject to call of the chair.

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