AUSTIN, January 17: Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and Texas Secretary of State John Steen on Wednesday confirmed they will be participating in this year’s Legislators Tour of the Valley.
The biennial event is hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. Its president, Julian Alvarez was at the state Capitol on Wednesday to put the finishing touches to the itinerary for the tour. It takes place in Cameron and Willacy counties from Thur., Jan. 24 to Sun., Jan. 27. Legislators will stay at South Padre Island during the tour. As is customary, the bus tour will have a police escort throughout.
So far, 25 state representatives have confirmed their attendance on the tour, as have four state senators. Also participating will be U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw, and UT System Executive Vice Chancellor Kenneth Shine.
“We are really excited that Speaker Straus has confirmed his attendance. If I am not mistaken, this is the Speaker’s third consecutive trip. The fact that he is coming down here shows we are on the map,” Alvarez said.
“We are also delighted that the new Secretary of State, John Steen, is coming on the tour. Secretary Steen has requested a tour of the Port of Brownsville. He specifically wanted to take the boat tour so Eddie Campirano will play host to that.”
Campirano is chief executive officer of the Port of Brownsville.
The Guardian has been provided with a copy of the itinerary and a list of the legislators attending the tour. The state senators participating are Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood. Alvarez said other senators may still join the tour.
The visiting state House members on the tour include: Straus, Cecil Bell, Lance Gooden, Travis Clardy, John Raney, James White, Dana Miller, Ed Thompson, Eddie Rodriguez, Poncho Nevarez, Lon Burnam, Rafael Anchia, Armando Walle, William Ratliff, Bill Fletcher, Alma Allen, J.M. Lozano. All the Valley House members have confirmed their participation. They are René Oliveira, Ryan Guillen, Armando Martinez, Eddie Lucio, III, Sergio Muñoz, Bobby Guerra, Terry Canales and Oscar Longoria. Alvarez said other House members may still join the tour.
Alvarez said the legislators will fly in to Valley International Airport late Thursday afternoon to be greeted by a live performance from UT-Pan American’s award-winning Mariachi Aztlán. The band will have just returned from playing at President Obama’s inauguration in Washington. Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell will welcome the legislators at the airport. They will then travel to the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen for dinner and a presentation on healthcare along the South Texas-Mexico border.
Alvarez said the visit to the RAHC has grown in significance since UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced plans last month for the RAHC, UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville to merge into one new UT university for South Texas. The plan is for the new university to grow the RAHC into a four-year medical school. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has said the Rio Grande Valley is the most deserving region of the state for a medical school. The System needs a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate in order for its proposals to take off.
Welcoming the legislators to the RAHC will be Kenneth L. Kalkwarf, interim president of UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. Kalkwarf and Dr. Francisco González-Scarano, dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for Medical Affairs at UTHSCSA, will make remarks.
RAHC Regional Dean Leonel Vela will give an overview of the RAHC and Dr. Nolan E. Perez, director of the South Texas Medical Foundation, will moderate the panel discussion at the RAHC. The panel will include Shine, Doug Matney, the regional vice president of United Health Services Central Region, Manny Vela, the president and CEO of Valley Baptist Health System and Israel Rocha, governmental affairs officer for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.
“The Rio Grande Valley’s number one legislative agenda item this session is the legislation to create a new university by merging UT-Pan American, UT-Brownsville, and the RAHC. So, this visit to the RAHC has now taken on added significance,” Alvarez said. “We want the legislators to get a better understanding of why a medical school, allied to the new university, is so important.”
On Friday, Jan. 25, the legislators will visit UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. There, they will be welcomed by Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez. Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos will give remarks. A panel discussion on higher education will include remarks by TSC President Lily Tercero, Texas State Technical College-Harlingen President Cesar Maldonado, South Texas College President Shirley Reed, UTB President Juliet Garcia, and UTPA President Robert Nelsen.
There will also be discussion at UTB/TSC about transportation and SpaceX, a private project which could see the building of a launch pad near Boca Chica beach. Among those discussing these topics will be Campirano, Cameron County RMA’s Pete Sepulveda, Hidalgo County RMA’s Pilar Rodriguez and Lauren Dreyer, director of business affairs for SpaceX.
There will also be a discussion at UTB/TSC about border security and border trade. Among those participating in the discussions will be McCraw, DPS Commander John Rodriguez, and Eddie Aldrete of IBC Bank.
Later on Friday, the visiting legislators will have boat tour of the Port of Brownsville. They will be welcomed by Campirano and Jason Hilts of the Brownsville Economic Development Corporation. DPS will have a boat patrol at the port. Later, the RGVP will host a reception for the legislators at Sea Ranch. There will also be a cheese and wine reception on SPI hosted by Cameron County Commissioner Dan Sanchez.
As with Friday, the RGVP has a busy agenda on Saturday, with the tour focusing on Willacy County. Raymondville Mayor Orlando A. Correa will make the welcoming remarks during a brunch visit to the VTX-1 fiber optics and broadband center in Raymondville. Special guests at this event will be Sen. Cornyn and Congressman Vela.
“Congressman Vela has stated he would like to join us throughout the tour. He is very familiar with a lot of the issues. He is pleased to introduce himself to some of the new members. He is also excited to see some of the projects that are happening in his back yard,” Alvarez said.
“We are excited to have Congressman Vela and Senator Cornyn on the tour. It is the first time we have had a sitting U.S. senator participate. The senator wants to reinforce the message about the importance of wind energy. He has a special announcement he wishes to make that day. I am not at liberty to say what it is but there will be a special announcement. It is something that is going to benefit the Valley.”
At the VTX1 center, Willacy County Judge John F. Gonzales will moderate a panel discussion on renewable energy, fiber optics and advanced technologies. Panelists will include VTX1 CEO Dave Osborn, a representative for Duke Energy, AEP Transmission Line Project Coordinator Calvin Crowder, and AT&T’s regional manager for external affairs, Sergio Contreras.
Once the panel discussion is finished, the legislators will depart for a Duke Energy “switch on” wind farm event in rural Willacy County. Among those slated to speak at the event are Congressman Vela and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. Guillen now represents Willacy County.
On Saturday afternoon, the visiting legislators will tour a colonia in Sebastian, and then visit a tire recycling and processing center in Harlingen. On Saturday evening, Speaker Straus and Secretary of State Steen join the tour, participating in a fish fry event on the SPI beach.
On Sunday, the visiting legislators will tour the Port of Harlingen. Then, they will visit TSTC-Harlingen for lunch. At TSTC, state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, will introduce Vietnam War veteran Joe Ybarra and Texas State Technical College Chancellor Mike Reeser for remarks.
As is traditional, the tour will conclude with a visit to the Harlingen Marine Military Academy, allowing lawmakers a photo opportunity at the famous Iwo Jima Monument. They will then go to Valley International Airport for their departure to Austin.
“We are very excited about hosting the tour,” Alvarez added. “We want to convey the message that this is an educational tour and we hope that, by the time they head back to Austin, the legislators will have a better understanding of the needs of the Valley and how vibrant South Texas really is.”