|McALLEN, April 13 - The recent speech by former McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez sponsored by Futuro McAllen about the future of the Rio Grande Valley economy reinforces my belief that education is the best economic development tool we have.
I applaud Cortez for sharing his ideas and bringing these critical issues to light.
Thanks to the diversity of Texas' economic landscape, Texas leads the nation in job creation and low unemployment rates. That is not so in the Valley, where unemployment remains in the double-digits and more than one-third lives in poverty. Now is the critical time to invest in our region's economy -- in our new generations and our growing workforce. In past Legislative Sessions, we've worked hard to affect change for our Valley region and improve the economy and quality of life for our community and families.
A few years ago, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District was plagued with a dropout rate double the Texas average, much like many of our school districts. But through extraordinary efforts and a solidly implemented dropout recovery program, they reduced their dropout rate by 80 percent. I saw the remarkable accomplishments of the PSJA model and knew it needed to be duplicated. In 2011, I authored Senate Bill 975 the Statewide Dropout Recovery Bill which expanded this blueprint for success to all Texas schools to give all our young people a second chance to earn their diploma.
To prosper, our communities need new jobs and our families need salaries. While the job market has shrunk dramatically for those with no education beyond high school, and college is out of reach or inappropriate for many individuals, the workforce has great demand for "middle jobs" that require no bachelor's degree but necessitate education and training beyond high school, Career Technical Education (CTE) can provide those skills needed for those jobs through career postsecondary programs, employer-based training, and industry-based certifications. For these reasons last session I passed HCR 82 which creates a joint interim committee to study education policy as it relates to developing a skilled workforce. We need to explore topics like curriculum requirements, opportunities for new education-workforce partnerships and the impact of emerging industrial sectors.
I also look back to a program I helped craft in the 1980's to create jobs in economically distressed communities by providing businesses with performance-based incentives to locate and invest in economically distressed areas -- the Texas Enterprise Zone Program. It has proven to be one of the most successful economic programs in Texas with one of the best return on investment for the state. The Enterprise Zone Program refunds sales taxes to qualifying businesses that meet employment and investment criteria set out in statute. From 2000 to 2013, Senate District 20 has received more than $3.1 billion in investment from our local businesses.
The Rio Grande Valley has historically been plagued with a severe physician shortage, limited resources and is a medically underserved area with critical health epidemics. Hidalgo County has the highest percentage of adults lacking health insurance in the United States. Almost 49 percent of residents in the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metro area are uninsured, about three times the national average. As our population grows rapidly, the demand for physicians and access to care also grows. Demands are escalating at both ends of the age spectrum as more babies are born and our older population lives longer.
We need to develop solutions that will positively redefine our future. An incredible opportunity has recently energized our communities in the creation of The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. I proudly authored Senate Bill 24, legislation that gave birth to UTRGV by merging UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville and creating a free standing medical school. We stood united as a legislative delegation embracing a regional mindset to secure the bill's passage. The vision of UTRGV united our communities and will provide endless healthcare benefits as well as more jobs, lower poverty levels and higher educational levels for our families for decades to come.
While exciting potential exists in the medical school, we need to look closely at what it will take to guarantee a stable financing source to sustain its costs for years to come. We, as a community, need to be informed of our options, the costs, and the incredible benefits of such a vision. We need to provide resources that will support a medical school, cover our community's healthcare needs and expand our economy in the future.
There is much work to be done. But this can't be done without collaboration -- collaboration among legislators, public officials, business and community leaders, parents, and students. Communities must emphasize the correlation between education and the economy. With more education comes more opportunities and higher paying jobs that translate into a stronger economy. As we prepare the Rio Grande Valley to fully realize our tremendous potential, I am eager to build strong relationships and partnerships and look forward to hearing ideas and potential solutions to our changing region.
Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa is state Senator for District 20 in Texas. A Democrat who hails from Mission, Texas, Hinojosa is chair of the Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee.
Editor's Note: The Rio Grande Guardian interviewed former McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez about his speech about the Rio Grande Valley's economy, which was given at a Futuro McAllen event. Click here to read the story.