Texas Legislative Committees Urge Federal Cooperation
The federal government is doing the Texas two-step: proposing what some call onerous laws while ignoring our pleas for information regarding their impact. At our San Antonio hearing on July 7, the Texas Senate International Relations and Trade Committee that I chair, heard hours of troubling testimony regarding the US-VISIT Program and the opening of the Border to Mexican trucks.
We invited the parties who could provide valuable information, and instead they opted out of attending on the pretext of their federal policy of nonparticipation at state committee hearings. Never in my nearly 15 years of public service have I seen such disregard by federal entities for our legislative and public hearing process.
State Director of Homeland Security, Mr. Jay Kimbrough, reported to the committee that it was his "understanding the federal Department of Homeland Security does not provide witnesses for these types of hearings due to the large number of requests for personnel that are received from city, county and state governing bodies across the nation." Yet the committee invites city, county and government representatives, so their participation could eliminate any need for duplicative testimony at separate meetings.
This was not the only federal agency that refused to participate. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was invited to discuss the ramifications of a recent Supreme Court ruling on NAFTA and the need to have an environmental impact assessment before the Border is opened to Mexican trucks. Testimony by state officials and concerned citizens indicated that too many questions are going unanswered concerning this important court ruling and that there is a need for federal agencies to answer such questions. Although FMCSA was in the process of formulating policy that will affect Border states, they still have elected not to participate in state hearings.
Three weeks after our meeting, we discover that some of these federal entities are contemplating briefing meetings in different communities concerning the policies they will be implementing. Doesn't it make more sense for agencies prior to adopting or finalizing these mandates to have an open dialogue with state legislative committees requesting valuable input concerning the likely impact that these federal policies may have on our constituencies?
One concern voiced in our hearing is the claim that US-VISIT is about national safety, yet the federal government reverses its position when it comes to Canadians. Under the current plan, visiting Mexican nationals can stay only 72 hours at a time and are restricted to 25 miles within the Border, whereas Canadians do not have such restrictions and can stay up to six months. In fact, unlike Mexicans, Canadians need only a driver's license and birth certificate for entrance. Ironically, the Rio Grande Valley hosts over 50,000 Canadian winter visitors each year.
Had the federal agencies been at that table with us, they would have discovered that given our cultural ties and efforts to expand trade, it would be more reasonable to encourage Mexicans to visit. The McAllen Economic Development Corporation asserts that US-VISIT would impact hotels, retail, housing, investments and taxes. In San Antonio alone, Mexican citizens own about 48,000 homes. The Corporation reported that Mexican visitors spend more money and do more business than citizens from any other country.
While sharing her concerns over the US-VISIT program, the vice chair of the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, reported that "the Valley economy depends on many of these visitors. The fear is keeping them from coming across in numbers to which we are accustomed." She explained that when downtown merchants cannot sell their products, it causes a ripple effect. Suppliers in other parts of the state and country stop sending their wares to Border communities in the quantities they normally would, and that translates into lost dollars for these areas, layoffs, etc.
Economist Ray Perryman's recent report appears to validate the concerns expressed at the hearing, that the U.S. economy may lose $229 billion and 1.4 million jobs from US-VISIT.
I earnestly wish our federal agencies would adopt a policy of working with the legislatures of Border states. By listening to our local communities prior to formulating policies, innovative solutions that address the foreseeable negative consequences of such federal actions could be developed. I agree that our Borders must be safe, however, not to the detriment of our economy and foreign relations. We need to work in conjunction and take into consideration the concerns of our local communities and elected officials prior to developing federal mandates. As always, if you have any input or questions regarding these or other matters, please do not hesitate to contact my office in Austin at 512-463-0127, Brownsville at 956-548-0227 and Weslaco at 956-968-9927.