|AUSTIN, February 16 - On Feb. 27, the Texas Tribune will bring local and state experts together to discuss the implications of our changing state demographics at the "Symposium on Demographic Change," to take place at the University of Texas at El Paso.
That is a discussion worth having—an essential conversation about our shared future.
Unfortunately, a growing number of statewide candidates appear to be running against that future. We hear Sen. Dan Patrick referring to an "invasion" from the south, and we see a proposal by Attorney General Greg Abbott to spend close to $300 million of Texas taxpayer money on "border security."
This type of conversation is a disservice to the state. Trade and commerce with Mexico supports more than 450,000 jobs in Texas, nearly 100,000 of them in El Paso alone. If we're going to spend more money on the border, let's spend it on the infrastructure needs at our ports of entry and creating more jobs for Texas.
Or, what about spending these hundreds of millions improving our children’s education? Across the state, we already need more funding for bilingual education/dual language, pre-K, and other initiatives; this need will only continue to grow.
The number of students of color in Texas schools is around 70 percent, with non-Hispanic white students at about 30 percent. Former state demographer Steve Murdock testified during the ongoing school finance trial that the number of students of color will keep rising until stabilizing at about 85 percent. Yet the state continues to spend taxpayer money fighting school funding in the courts instead of stepping up and realizing that the education of all our students is a wise investment in the future.
The fact is that an educated population is and always will be the strongest economic development tool for any advanced state.
We also haven't addressed access to health care. We have tools available under the Affordable Care Act: expanding Medicaid and increasing access to health insurance through the marketplace. Yet four years after the ACA’s passage, state leaders have attempted to obstruct every aspect of the law under their control while still not developing an alternative “Texas solution,” which would address the 6.4 million uninsured in this state. While other states already are seeing the benefits, what we have in Texas is millions of uninsured residents and billions of our federal taxpayer dollars going to other states. Surely we can do better than that.
These are the issues at hand for our state, but you'd never know all this from listening to the campaign rhetoric.
The El Paso Times this past week did a great job in dissecting the "border security" argument. While there is no question we need effective law enforcement on the border and elsewhere in the state, to a militarized response flies in the face of the facts. It's unnecessary and fiscally irresponsible.
Questioning this, by the way, is not simply a partisan position. The Abbott plan was developed without regard for those whose communities would be most affected by the buildup of state forces. The rapid expansion of federal government forces on the border has brought complaints about abuse of authority, not just by migrants but also ranchers and other border residents.
On Feb. 8, U.S. Reps. Beto O'Rourke, a Democrat, and Steve Pearce, a Republican, jointly announced a proposal to establish stronger oversight of border agents precisely because of this concern, which is community-based, not partisan. We need to ask: How would a rapid buildup of state troopers and paramilitary equipment affect our communities?
Let's be clear. El Paso and other border communities have played a key role in the state's economic success for decades. We represent the future of this state; if we don't succeed, then neither will the state. The direction of the Republican primary makes economic development in business recruitment, tourism and other sectors more difficult, which hurts all Texans, not just those of us on the border.
I'm hopeful we will see more statesmanlike leadership begin to emerge, and we can point the policy discussions in a more meaningful direction. The future is upon us; let's not waste the opportunities it offers.
José Rodríguez is Texas State Senator for District 29. A Democrat, he resides in El Paso. Rodríguez is vice vhairman of the Jurisprudence Committee.