Senate Special Committee on Border Affairs Tries to Alleviate the Region Problems
AUSTIN - The Senate Special Committee on Border Affairs held its 13th and probably last public hearing of this interim, Monday, July 10, 2000, at the State Capitol.
Lt. Governor Rick Perry asked the committee to research five charges during this interim period, ranging from the region's transportation to water systems, health issues, economic development and inspection stations. The group has been meeting along the border and other areas of the state to hear from the public and officials about these issues. Their input will help the committee draw its recommendations for the 77th legislative session.
Elton Bomer, Texas Secretary of State, gave the first invited testimony. He asked to slow the implementation of border inspection stations until after the Legislature addresses the issue in the next session. Bomer recommended consultation with other states and engineers. The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) only received one million dollars of the 18 million requested to the federal government for the construction and maintenance of the new stations. Regarding the border colonias, Bomer said there have been improvements like water, wastewater and electricity hook ups that benefit the lives of the 100,000 people living in them. The secretary of state also recommended technical assistance for water systems and the enforcement of mandatory water hook ups in colonias.
Senator Lucio talked about visiting coloniasin Weslaco with other senators last week, and the deplorable situation they witnessed. He was troubled by the unchecked proliferation of colonias--some of them 40 years old and still without paved roads, and the counties' lack of authority to halt unscrupulous developers. Lucio said there is a misconception that colonias' inhabitants are illegal, just-arrived Mexicans, but studies show the majority of these people are low-income American citizens. The senator also mentioned health problems prevalent along the border like the incidence of malaria, dengue fever, tuberculosis and birth defects.
Carlos Ramirez, Mayor of El Paso, provided the second invited testimony. He told committee members that some of the funds assigned to the NAFTA free-trade accord should go to finance El Paso roads, since 60% of its streets are affected by the international trade. Traffic related to NAFTA has increased 94% in five years. Ramirez' other recommendations were the construction of another international crossing to alleviate traffic, a mass transportation system, workforce training and to give counties and cities along the border authority to issue ordinances relating to colonias. The mayor also mentioned that his city has had more traffic accidents in the last six months than in all 1999, and called for more forceful truck inspections. The inspections are a federal mandate that has been passed to the state with no provision of funding. Ramirez said El Paso wants to take care of the inspections for safety concerns, even without funding, as long as it can keep the money from the fines they issue.
Elizabeth "Betty" Flores, Mayor of Laredo and member of the Texas Border Infrastructure Coalition, was the next official testifying. She gave a brief description of the border region, where 3/4 of the population speak a language other than English, and less than 13% have college degrees. If the border region were a separate state, it would rank among the top in birth rate, and among the worst in poverty rate, income, health services and school enrollment. She said the State of Texas has to close the gap that isolates these communities from economic development, and asked for more funds for workforce training and development, college education and child care. Flores also talked about the importance of bilingual and adult education.
Carole Keeton Rylander, Texas State Comptroller, agreed with Flores about the situation in the border region, saying that if it were a state, the region would be 51st in income per capita. She also agreed that more transportation infrastructure is needed, and pointed out that it would be cheaper to build roads now and not pay the cost of waiting. She said one of every five jobs in Texas is related to the international trade with Mexico, and 74% of Texans think traffic congestion has become worse in the last two years.
Senator Carlos Truan called the problems of health service and health insurance an "embarrassment" to Texas, especially now that the state is the focus of attention of the national media covering Governor Bush. Texas has the second highest percentage of uninsured children (25 %), the state ranks 48th in the number of children without immunizations and 44th in the amount spent in social services. R.J. Dutton, Director of the Texas Department of Health told Truan about the advances in the reporting of birth defects, with better data collection and surveillance. He said the high incidence of birth defects on both sides along the border could be caused by a number of factors like the environment, nutrition, and a genetic deficiency in the absorption of folic acid. Truan also asked about the situation of health clinics in public schools, which provide the only health care some children receive. Dutton promised to give a full report to the committee. He also made comments about the CHIP program, or health insurance for children of families with low income. Of the 1.4 million Texan children without insurance, 600,000 of them are eligible for Medicaid but not enrolled. Truan said that community organizations could help in informing low income families that many of those who are not on the welfare rolls anymore are still eligible for Medicaid. The senator said the border is not receiving health care funding comparable to cities such as Houston.
Mr. John Guerra, Vice President of Consumer Services for AT&T, talked about the digital divide as being an economic, not ethnic issue. Following that, Senator Lucio and Jeff Moseley, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Economic Development, had an interchange about Texas being the 48th state on loans received by small businesses Lucio said that rural and small urban regions inhabited by minorities are not receiving necessary loans for economic development. He asked TxDOT to invest transportation funds on NAFTA corridors.
Dr. Gorden Plishker, spokesman for the International Consortium for the Environment (ICE) at Sam Houston State University, and Mr. Glen Provost from Texas Tech Health Science Center, talked about the incidence of dengue fever, its diagnosis, treatment and prevention, as well as anencephaly and other illnesses and conditions prevalent in the valley.
Ms. Karen Hale, Commissioner of the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation (MHMR), provided recommendations to solve problems experienced by mental health patients, like isolation, lack of transportation, not speaking the language, or being afraid to ask for help due to immigration concerns. She proposed to give colonias'patients services in their communities, to work for the involvement of family members in the treatment, to provide cultural training for health care workers and caregivers, and educational information about the services they provide. She says MHMR can only serve half of those in need, and requested more funds for those who suffer mental problems among the homeless, drug addicts and those involved with the criminal justice system.
Other witnesses providing testimony were Mr. Don Gilbert, Commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission; Mr. Ignacio Madera, Jr., Director of the Border Management Division of Texas Water Development Board; Mr. Steve Niemeyer, Office of Border Affairs of Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission; Dr. G. Kemble Bennett, Associate Vice Chancellor and Director of Texas Engineering Extension Service at Texas A&M University System; and Mr. Richard Adauto, Special Assistant to the President of the University of Texas at El Paso. Norma Chavez, State Representative of El Paso, attended the meeting.
Another issue discussed in the meeting was water and wastewater management. Water borne diseases are two and three times higher in the border than at state level. More funds are needed for chlorination, filtration and purification systems, and the training of operators to provide a quality service that would enhance the water infrastructure. Senator Lucio said the Legislature has been neglecting water issues and funds in the Valley, and "if we don't do it now, it will cost a lot of money in the future."
After invited testimony, the committee heard public testimony.
The Senate Special Committee on Border affairs includes Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, serving as chair, Senator David Sibley of Waco, serving as vice-chair, and 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.