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WESLACO, RGV – The Rio Grande Guardian and Future RGV co-hosted a legislative preview forum that featured five different organizations from across the Rio Grande Valley.

The five groups – Rio Grande Valley Partnership, UT-Rio Grande Valley, Rio South Texas Economic Council, Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, and RGV Equal Voice Network – presented their requests for Texas’ 85th Legislative Session.

The 85th Legislative Session convenes Jan. 10, 2017 and ends May 29, 2017. During this period, bills may be passed and moneys are allocated to different parts of the state on a priority basis from numerous Legislative Appropriations Request (LARs). Common requests found in LARs include transportation, health services and education.

Rio Grande Valley Partnership

The Rio Grande Valley Partnership (RGVP) was established in 1944 to promote and enhance economic well being for the organization’s members. RGVP’s members include the business community in the Valley, municipalities and county offices in the following counties: Hidalgo, Starr, Cameron and Willacy County.

Sergio Contreras, the president of RGVP, said the group will host their 40th Legislative Tour Jan. 26, 2017 to Jan. 29, 2017. The tour occurs every biennium–in conjunction with the Texas Legislative Session–and alternates focus between the upper and lower parts of the Valley. One year it will focus on Hidalgo and Starr counties and two years later it will feature Cameron and Willacy counties. Next year, RGVP will focus on the latter counties.

“We bring in Legislators throughout the state and we target specific needs that are driven on behalf of our membership, municipalities and county offices,” Contreras said.

RGVP will also launch its first “RGV-to-DC” delegation tour some time during the spring and summer months of 2017. This will be coordinated in conjunction with the Valley’s legislative delegation.

RGVP advocates progress in education such as STEM programs, international trade, workforce training, healthcare initiatives and funding for business and trade.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), founded in 2015, is the shared university of two legacy universities–the University of Texas Pan-American (UTPA) and the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB).

Veronica Gonzales
Veronica Gonzales

The Vice President of UTRGV, Veronica Gonzales, spoke on behalf of the university for its legislative requests.

The main priority for the university in terms of funding is for UTRGV’s School of Medicine. Gonzales said at least $50 million is required to operate a medical school. For the last legislative session in 2015, the university received $30 million. UTRGV will come forth requesting $40 million.

Gonzales compared UTRGV’s medical school to the medical school in El Paso. This is because the city is also a border community like the RGV. The medical school in El Paso receives approximately $48 million from the state.

“We just want to have that same opportunity,” Gonzales said. “We waited 70 years to have a medical school here in the Rio Grande Valley and we want to make sure that it is accessible [and] that we get it right.”

Funding for medical schools across the state of Texas also come from health districts. However, the health district in Hidalgo County was rejected for the second time this election year. Gonzales used the University of Texas at Austin’s medical school as an example, Dell Medical School. Dell receives  approximately $34 million every year from Austin’s healthcare district.

The other sources of funds for the UTRGV medical school come from several non-binding memorandum of agreements from partners in Hidalgo County and a $10 million annual funds from the UT System for 10 years.

UTRGV also focuses on community service and recently broke ground for a medical research building. Gonzales said the university is asking for $8 million in biomedical science research and $6 million for coastal studies.

Other requests include $1 million for the Bilingual, Bicultural and Biliterate (B3) Institute to offer translation services throughout the Rio Grande Valley as well as support for the Hazelwood Act–a benefit that provides qualified veterans, spouses and dependent children with up to 150 hours of exempt tuition–and the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act that provides conditional permanent residency to immigrant youth for those who qualify.

UTRGV’s final requests include leaving the tuition costs up to individual universities and transportation.

Rio South Texas Economic Council

Rio South Texas Economic Council was formed in 2008 and has among its members various cities and economic development corporations, along with the Port of Brownsville.

Matt Ruszczak, the executive director of the Rio South Texas Economic Council (RSTEC), said his group has five items on its legislative agenda: transportation infrastructure, workforce development, two items of medical education regarding UTRGV and the Texas A&M Health Science Center and a border image campaign.

RSTEC is devoted to the economic and industrial advancement of the South Texas region. According to the 2015 reporting year, there was about $46 billion of trade flow northbound and southbound across the bridge in the Valley.

“The challenge that we face with transportation is that when we do counts of vehicle registrations–these counts do not necessarily reflect the traffic that we have on our roads because we have all this additional trade coming through here, we have our friends coming up from south of the river come into these areas so investment is extremely important,” Ruszczak said.

Previously there was investment in Donna and the Anzalduas Bridge with a new lane for southbound empties. The council requests support for the completion of I-69 Central and I-69 East.

In terms of workforce development, the council requests the current funding of $48 million from Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) to be raised to $60 million to work on better skillsets with local community colleges and other entities.

Ruszczak said his group supports an increase in funding for the Healthy South Texas Initiative run by the Texas A&M Health Science Center by $9.6 million.

“[The initiative] provides education to folks in order to help people foster positive health focused behaviors,” Ruszczak said. “This leads to reduction in diabetes and asthma inspections. The initiative started back in Dec. 2015 and has been able to education about 300,000 individuals–saving approximately $60 million in healthcare costs.”

As of yet, the state plans to allocate $1.1 billion towards border security. Even though the money will bring progress to the border, Ruzsczak said the money will build the perception that South Texas is unsafe. He said in many cases, the perception is incorrect.

“When we look at economic recruitment, we’re trying to look at investment,” Ruszczak said. “We’re trying to bring people down here and they look at that information and think, ‘Oh, maybe that’s not the best place to go.’ So we’re asking the state to carve out about $25 million and use that money for image campaign.”

Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council celebrates its 50th anniversary next year.

Ron Garza, the executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Center (LRGVDC), said his group’s legislative agenda focuses on five key areas, or domains, as Garza called them: public safety, health and human services, economic development, transportation and environmental resources.

Garza said the LRGVDC is the designated council of governments for the three county area–Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy County. The council has a board of directors composed of 26 members–two thirds of which are elected officials as per state law.

Also by Texas state law, the LRGVDC is required to have a regional planning organization. The council created a five-year regional strategic plan for the community in response and is updated every two years.

“We really looked at a comprehensive viewpoint [and listened to] the voice of everybody–not only our content expertise in some of these fields but from general community members to our advisory committees,” Garza said. “We really looked at all the data and we brought it together.”

The main area that’ll ultimately help the five domains is public transportation. Garza said there are about 500,000 riders on Valley Metro every year and the numbers are growing. The council is requesting $11 million in transportation resources.

“Public transportation is a priority that transcends so many things,” Garza said. “It’s not just moving people from point A to point B, [but] it’s about getting people to healthcare, getting them to education and being more environmentally sensitive.”

RGV Equal Voice Network

Ann Cass
Ann Cass

Established in 2008, the RGV Equal Voice Network (EVN) is a network for ten community based organizations committed to the families of limited financial resources living in colonias. According to Ann Cass, a leader with the RGV EVN, said a colonia is a marginalized rural subdivision. In Hidalgo County alone, there are 937 colonias.

Cass spoke on behalf of the organization for funding towards drainage, transportation, rural housing and the redefinition of a colonia. Cass said one reason there are so many colonias is because the RGV doesn’t have affordable housing and is recurring issue across the nation.

The organization requests healthcare coverage for all Texans, funding for Zika education and a research lab, education and a living wage for the people of Texas.

“Uninsured people cost those with insurance more money,” Cass said. “Our insurance rates go up. 300,000 people in Hidalgo County don’t have insurance and people in that category are dying from diseases they shouldn’t be dying of … because they don’t have health insurance.”

On the topic of immigration, Cass said the organization intends to be reactive rather than proactive. The group will continue to support immigration and refugee rights.

“We will oppose the state or federal government spending more money to militarize the border,” Cass said. “The border wall in Hidalgo County cost $12.8 million per mile back in 2008. [Funding for] one mile could go to spending for housing or healthcare.”

Editor’s Note: The photos accompanying this story were taken by Apolonio Sandoval.