AUSTIN, TX--A number of Border-related initiatives were signed into law, or were allowed to become law, by Governor Rick Perry. Many of the Border measures originated in the report published by last interim's Border Affairs Committee and authored by the Committee Chairman, Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville).
"During the last interim, Border Affairs produced a comprehensive report outlining the initiatives that address the needs of the Border region. I am glad that many of our recommendations have become law," Sen. Lucio said. "We addressed many of the major needs in the Border region, from infrastructure to housing, from colonias to trade, from commerce to the environment."
The following is a preliminary list of initiatives that impact the Border region. These measures were signed into law, or allowed to become law this weekend, or earlier. The Border initiatives include, but are not limited to:
Creating a program supporting water ports in order to increase commerce and expedite trade, as well as, to address the congestion at Border ports-of-entry.
SB 1282 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Rene Oliveira (D-Brownsville) recognizes the economic impact of the state's ports and establishes a Port Transportation and Economic Development Program. It requires the Texas Department of Economic Development (TDED) to fund, from the port access fund, port transportation or facility projects. The port access account fund is established through this legislation.
The interim report states: "Even though Texas' ports are key and essential components of Texas' intermodal transportation system, the state does not directly invest in . . .its port operations."
The Executive Director of the Center for Transportation Research, Rob Harrison, added "Given that the opportunities to move products through marine ports in Mexico and in Texas could affect the truck trade flows we observe at the Border, it seems logical to encourage the inclusion of marine ports in Border intermodal planning."
Sen. Lucio noted that "representatives from the Texas Ports Association and the Brownsville Navigational District have repeatedly urged our committee to help Texas' ports compete with Florida, California and Louisiana ports, which directly invest in their ports."
Co-author of the measure, state Sen. David Bernsen (D-Beaumont) said "With the passage of this bill . . .we've taken the first step toward ensuring that Texas' ports remain competitive. Port freight infrastructure is important to the state economy and this bill will provide much-needed support."
Including certain ports-of-entry projects in the state highway planning and funding system.
SB 192 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso) requires the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to include transportation projects on the state highway system related to access to ports-of-entry along the Border in its unified transportation program and to fund these projects from money other than the NAFTA discretionary funds. It further requires a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that has a port-of-entry within its jurisdiction to include such projects in its transportation improvement plan (TIP).
The Interim study reported: "since historically the Border ports-of-entry have not been part of the MPO planning process or of the TIP, according to transportation experts, it is not a surprise to see that key transportation infrastructure links are missing in regions like El Paso & the Lower Rio Grande Valley."
"MPOs direct future transportation projects and systems in urbanized areas of the state. SB 192 addresses key transportation links that are missing at our ports-of-entry, which can expedite trade and commerce along our Border region," stated Sen. Lucio.
Creating a multi-agency unit to increase trade, tourism and international relations.
SB 326 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Jim Solis (D-Harlingen) increases Texas' trade and improves its tourism to, and from Mexico, as well as with the American states surrounding Texas through a coordinated multi-agency initiative and through the development of the strategic Texas-Mexico Commerce and International Relations Plan.
"Texas suffers from fragmented coordination within state agencies -- as well as between agencies -- in terms of our relationship with the country of Mexico and with our surrounding states. This fragmentation hurts our trade status and our international relations," said Chairman Lucio.
Through SB 326, a multi-state agency coordination unit is established among 13 agencies to study and develop a coordinated state plan to:
1. Increase and improve our trade with Mexico, as well as with the American states surrounding Texas.
2. Increase Texas' tourism to and from Mexico and to and from states that Border Texas.
3. Address any important trade problems between Texas and Mexico identified by the multi-agency unit.
Judge Jeff Moseley, executive director of the Texas Department of Economic Development said, "The timing of Senator Lucio's initiative couldn't be better! Texas must have a coordinated, multi-agency plan to keep our front door with Mexico open for business."
The agencies involved in the coordinated plan include: the Texas Department of Health; Texas Water Development Board; Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission; Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs; Texas Health and Human Services Commission; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; Texas Department of Transportation; Texas Department of Public Safety; the office of the Secretary of State; Texas Department of Agriculture; Texas Department of Insurance; Railroad Commission of Texas; and, the office of the State Comptroller.
Establishing a Border Trade Advisory Committee in the Texas Transportation Commission.
SB 195 by Lucio and Rep. Pickett establishes the Border Trade Advisory Committee in the Texas Transportation Commission. "Without a doubt, SB 195 will help increase the representation of the Border in one of the most powerful and influential commissions in the state of Texas!," said Sen. Lucio.
Historically, the Border region has been overlooked in terms of its fair share of transportation funding. Chairman Lucio noted, "This neglect was caused by a lack of appreciation of the Border and a lack of representation of the region in the commission. SB 195 is a first step in the right direction to increase accountability of our transportation agency to the Border region."
SB 195 requires the commission to establish the Border Trade Advisory Committee to define and make recommendations to the commission, as well as to develop a strategy for addressing the highest priority Border trade transportation challenges. It further requires the commission to consider the importance of Texas' trade with Mexican states, potential sources of infrastructure funding at Border ports and the value of trade activity in the Border Transportation Districts, when determining the action to be taken on the recommendations of the Border Trade Advisory Committee.
- Addressing the housing needs of low and medium income, as well as colonia Texans through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) Sunset Bill.
SB 322 by Lucio and Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine) comprehensively reforms and restructures the Housing agency in Texas. "With this bill, the Legislature set priorities for TDHCA to devote itself to serving the housing needs of our lower income citizens while establishing a fair, objective and open process for the awarding of housing contracts to developers," said Sen. Lucio. SB 322 won the support of the non-for profit community and housing developers.
John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (a non-profit organization that works on behalf of housing for low income Texas families) stated, "Senator Lucio has been tenacious in his insistence that our state housing agency be reformed and focus on helping the most needy Texas families. With SB 322, Senator Lucio has hit a home run for the Border and lower income families all across the state of Texas."
Mr. Henneberger went on to say, "SB 322 is the most comprehensive reform of our state's housing programs ever passed by the Legislature. It combines both fiscal accountability and major new resources for the fight against homelessness, substandard living conditions and poverty."
Jeanne Talerico, the Executive Director of the Texas Association of Local Housing Finance Agencies, said that the new provisions in SB 322 will almost double the availability of first-time home buyer loans for low- and moderate-income working Texans. In addition, financing for affordable rental housing will be available in every region of the state rather than just the high income areas.
Highlights of the major Housing reforms established by SB 322 include, but are not limited to:
- Increasing the first-time buyers bond volume cap by $219 million (from $250.5 million to $469.9 million) & the residential rental bond volume cap by $200 million (from $165.4 million to $365.1 million).
- Requiring TDHCA to develop a strategic plan, customized by region, to provide affordable housing and to use the plan to allocate funds to meet regional priorities.
- Requiring TDHCA to assess the present & future affordable housing needs of the Border and the uniform state service regions by using US Census Bureau data in order to provide a report regarding the adequacy of existing programs to meet the affordable housing needs of each region.
- Improving and strengthening the TDHCA's programs that serve colonia residents:
1. Reforms the Colonia Self-Help Centers and provides that all of TDHCA's programs will be offered through the Centers.
2. Creates a yearly $3 million statutory funding mechanism for the successful "Bootstrap" owner-builder self-help loan program, increases the maximum size of the loan from $25,000 to $30,000, establishes the life of the program to 10 years, and allows single-parent households to participate in the program.
3. Establishes & funds with $2 million a new colonia model subdivision program/revolving loan fund that will provide new high quality residential subdivisions as an alternative to substandard colonias.
4. Creates a Colonia Advisory Committee to advise the board on the needs of colonia residents and requires TDHCA to develop an annual needs assessment and action plan to address those needs.
5. Requires TDHCA to collect information on demand for contract for deed conversion, self-help housing, consumer education, and other colonia resident services in counties within 100 miles of the Texas-Mexico Border. Requires the Office of Colonia Initiatives to prepare a biennial action plan to list policy goals for its colonia programs and the expected outcomes.
Providing Border counties $175 million -- upon voter approval of a constitutional amendment -- to pave colonia streets and provide colonias access to public roads.
SB 1296, along with its constitutional amendment, SJR 37, both by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Kino Flores (D-Palm View) will for the first time allow -- upon voter approval -- the issuance of bonds so that residents of colonias can enjoy roads that are safer and cleaner.
This measure addresses the current conditions of colonia residents who continue to live in neighborhoods with streets that are nothing more than dirt and "caliche" paths subject to intense flooding after a rain. Usually below sea level, colonia roads fill with stagnant water that creates prime breeding habitat for mosquitoes and water-borne diseases. Lacking curbs and drainage, existing colonia "streets" often become barriers to school buses, postal delivery trucks and emergency vehicles.
"In 1999, we made great strides by passing the Colonia Omnibus Bill to bring water, wastewater and electric hook-up services to our colonias. However, at that time we were not able to address the lack of adequate roads in colonias. SB 1296 is part of a series of bills that we have passed over the years to address the quality of life of colonia residents," added Sen. Lucio. "That is why I am thankful for the support of the leadership in Texas, especially of the Governor's office, through SB 1296. The state of Texas and the Governor's office will partner with our Border counties to help pave colonia streets and better the lives of colonia residents."
- Establishing a self-help program at the Texas Water Development Board to fund water and wastewater projects in colonias.
Chairman Lucio was successful in adding an amendment to Senator Zaffirini's and Rep. Gallego's SB 312, the Water Development Board Sunset legislation, to establish a self-help colonia program that will provide water and wastewater services to colonias residents.
The amendment builds on the success of non-profit organizations which have been successful in providing self-help projects in colonias. Because residents provide their own labor, self-help projects have many benefits. (They usually save up to 40% over the cost of a traditional project.) Self-help non-profit organizations usually provide matching private funds.
The Lucio amendment allows money to be spent for platting, engineering and other associated costs with providing water and wastewater. Self-help projects are particularly appropriate for small water and wastewater projects that do not fit the traditional EDAP funding mold.
- Establishing short-term auto liability insurance for non-Texas residents traveling into Texas.
SB 693 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Roberto Gutierrez (D-McAllen) provides the Commissioner of Insurance the authority to develop a short-term auto insurance program. "SB 693 will help the state considerably in terms of liability loss due to accidents involving uninsured motorists," said Lucio.
According to the Texas Department of Insurance, the uninsured motorist population in Texas ranges from approximately 21 to 28 percent. This percentage is even higher along the Texas Border region. A contributing factor to this high percentage is the number of motorists traveling from Mexico to Texas without liability insurance coverage for their automobiles.
Memorializing Congress to develop a treaty or agreement with Mexico to address health issues of mutual concern.
Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 21 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Miguel Wise (D-Weslaco) calls for the federal government to fully recognize the importance of establishing and building a public health infrastructure by adopting public health agreements with Mexico that are at the same level of comprehensiveness as the NAFTA environmental agreements. The measure will provide a means to establish cooperative efforts while removing the legal barriers to the exchange of epidemiological data and public health information that currently exist.
Border health conditions not only pose an immediate risk to those who live along either side of the United States-Mexico Border, but also are a health concern for all of the United States. If left unaddressed, the health problems in this region will continue to worsen as the Border population increases. The result will be an escalating risk to other areas of exposure and transmission of diseases. Texas has attempted to address many of the health issues facing the Border population in Texas; however, binational cooperation at the federal level is essential to addressing these health concerns.
Memorializing Congress to recognize the impact on Texas of the federal policy of opening the Border to Mexican trucks in accordance with provisions of NAFTA and to appropriate to Texas $11 billion for opening up of the Border.
SCR 25 by Sen. Lucio and Rep. Pickett urges the federal government to recognize the unique needs of the Border by rectifying the funding imbalance that Texas has experienced from the federal government by increasing the discretionary money that Texas receives. The measure calls for the following earmarks:
1. $3 billion to fund the construction of one-stop federal and state inspection facilities that are open 24 hours per day along the Texas Border region, as well as to fund infrastructure improvements and construction projects at border ports of entry.
2. $4 billion for critical NAFTA-related planning, capacity, and right-of-way acquisition needs.
3. $3 billion for immediate construction, maintenance, and planning needs for rural roadways impacted by NAFTA-related traffic, as well as those of emerging NAFTA-related corridors.
4. $1 billion for law enforcement needed to prepare for the influx of Mexican trucks with access to travel throughout the Border and beyond.
Establishment of South Texas Center for Rural Public Health.
HB 910 by Rep. Gutierrez and Sen. Lucio formally establishes the Center for Rural Public Health under the A&M Health Science Center in an effort to deliver health education outreach programs, and provide community based instructional sites for the education of public health professionals, as well as to address the need to overcome the limited access of rural residents to public health professionals.
In 1995, the budget writing committees established through a budget rider the School of Rural Public Health under the Texas A&M University System Health Science Center. It was an effort to add seed money to address the rural needs of South Texas and the Border region.
- Establishing a center for Border economic and enterprise development at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
HB 323 by Rep. Oliveira and Sen. Lucio creates a center for Border economic and enterprise development at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Similar centers currently exist at UT El Paso and UT Pan American universities, as well as at Texas A&M International. These centers develop an economic database, conduct economic developmental research and planning, and provide technical assistance to industrial and governmental entities.
Establishing a dental care pilot program in the Border region to serve indigent individuals.
HB 2614 by Rep. Solis and Sen. Lucio establishes a dental care pilot program in the Border region to serve indigent individuals.
The Border Affairs Committee reported that only 26 percent of children eligible for Medicaid received dental screenings in 1996, and the percentage of children receiving such care is estimated to be lower in rural areas. This lack of screening by children creates health problems such as gum disease, which are difficult and costly to treat in the long run, especially along the Border region.
- Providing tax incentives for certain businesses located in enterprise zones, defense readjustment zones, or strategic investment areas.
HB 2686 by Rep. Solis and Sen. Lucio makes substantive changes to the Texas Enterprise Zone Program and Defense Economic Readjustment Zone Program by providing for increased incentives for certain businesses located in an enterprise zone, federal empowerment zone, or federal enterprise community. This bill will generate capital investment and stimulate job creation in the most economically distressed region of the state.
Providing for a study of binational health care plan coverage.
HB 2498 by Rep. Pat Haggerty (R-El Paso) and Sen. Lucio provides an opportunity to begin to identify the many complex and unique health issues along the Texas-Mexico Border. The goal of the study is to formulate recommendations for the development of affordable accessible health care coverage along the Texas-Mexico Border region.
Specifically, the bill requires an interim study and establishes an interim committee to hold hearings in the Border areas of the state to:
1. Determine the need for binational health benefit plan coverage;
2. Assess the health care needs of the Border area and evaluates those needs that can be served by various types of providers; and,
3. Assess the affordability, cost effectiveness, economic impact and improved health status achievable through a binational health benefit plan coverage.
The committee will be composed of: the Commissioner of Insurance; the Commissioner of Health and Human Services; one member of the House from a Border, appointed by the Speaker of the House; one member of the Senate from a Border, appointed by the Lieutenant Governor; and, three health-related members appointed by the Governor to include one health maintenance organization representative, one medical practitioner, and one hospital representative.