AUSTIN, Texas – The three freshmen lawmakers from the Rio Grande Valley have pronounced themselves pleased with their first legislative session at the state Capitol in Austin.
All three – Reps. Bobby Guerra of McAllen, Terry Canales from Edinburg, and Oscar Longoria from La Joya – said the biggest achievement by far was securing 100 percent support for legislation to create a new university and four-year medical school for South Texas.
“Words cannot express how excited I am for the people of the Rio Grande Valley, how excited I am for the future of education in the Valley,” said Canales, D-Edinburg. “Even though we have worked so hard on this legislation, I feel I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I can tell you, I do not think we even know how big it is. When we see it we will be beside ourselves with what we have achieved for the people of South Texas and the people of Texas in general.”
Because the passage of Senate Bill 24 was achieved with two-thirds support in the legislature, the new university will be able to access the Permanent University Fund. This wealthy fund is replenished through leasing land for oil and gas exploration in West Texas. UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, which will be merged to create the new university, cannot access the PUF.
“I believe that South Texas will be one of the most dominant forces of the Texas economy. The medical school is an integral part of the puzzle, an integral part of indigent health, an integral part of advancing education. It is going to change the economic and education landscape of South Texas in a way we cannot imagine. I compare it to the river that cut the Grand Canyon. It is going to have that kind of effect,” Canales said.
Rep. Longoria agreed. “I always looked at the new university and medical school legislation as a regional project. As I represent parts of both Cameron and Hidalgo counties, I saw the need for regional cooperation. The most important part for me is the new university because it allows us to access the PUF. The medical school is the cherry on the sundae. It is great, an historic piece of legislation,” Longoria said. “Now we have passed the legislation we need cooperation from all sides to ensure success.”
Rep. Guerra said he could not have wished for a better session to enter the legislature, given the importance of working on the university and medical school bill. “Working with all the Valley delegation on this legislation has been such a pleasure. Watching Senator Hinojosa’s leadership and Senator Lucio, and Chairman Oliveira, Vice Chair Martinez and all the rest of the reps has been an honor. We all worked so hard, cohesively, to make that happen,” Guerra said.
There were times, towards the end of the legislative session, when it looked as though everything might unravel and Valley representatives might be clashing on the House floor over where to locate the medical school. In the end a compromise was reached. The first two years of education for medical school students will be primarily based in Hidalgo County while years three and four will be primarily based in Cameron County. This was a smart move, Guerra said.
“Everybody made reference to it as being Friday Night Football. I did not look at that way because Friday Night Football is winning for a particular area. It never was, in my opinion, Hidalgo County versus Cameron County. It was all about trying to do what economically made sense so that not only did the new school survive but also the medical school. The way it gelled together was perfect all the way around, for everybody,” Guerra said.
In addition to the university and medical school legislation, the three freshmen House members also carried bills they deemed of great value, not just to the Valley but the entire state of Texas.
“I was pleased to be appointed to the Appropriations Committee so I got to see firsthand how the budget is crafted,” Longoria said. “We put more money into education and all the budget needs and concerns of the Valley were pretty much met.”
Asked which individual bills he is most proud of, Longoria mentioned two – House Bill 1790 and House Bill 792.
HB 792 helps special utility districts like Agua in La Joya to purchase water rights from water districts, just like its predecessor, La Joya Water District was able to do.
HB 1790 allows for those that are on probation for a felony to file, on completion of community supervision, a petition that asks a judge to lower the offense to a Class A misdemeanor. “I was seeing a lot of individuals caught with a small amount of drugs, narcotics, marijuana. I was just a little bit more than a misdemeanor amount but it was less than a second or first degree felony,” said Longoria, an attorney. “If they plead guilty to this felony they are basically a convicted felon for the rest of their life. It is very unfortunate.” Longoria said it is never easy to amend the Penal Code and he acknowledged he had a lot of pushback from some Republicans in the House. However, he said the Texas Public Policy Foundation was with him on the bill because it saves taxpayers’ money. “If you have a felony it is a stigma, it is harder to get a job. This is giving some people, in limited circumstances, a second chance at life,” Longoria said.
Longoria said he was also pleased to get more financial help for DPS officers. He said the agency has difficulty in recruiting and keeping officers in South Texas because salaries are so much better with Border Patrol and CBP.
Like Longoria, Rep. Canales was pleased with the outcome of the budget negotiations. “We are putting money back into education and fully funding growth in our population. While there are things I disagree with I am in agreement with a lot of the good. It is a cost-benefit analysis and the good definitely outweighs that bad here,” Canales said of the budget.
Canales said the way the legislature is designed to work prevents a lot of bills from ever seeing the light of day. Given that that is how it works he said he was particularly pleased to pass legislation that deals with electronic filing for criminal cases in Hidalgo County. “This bill will save us hundreds and hundreds of thousands of man hours and save money and storage by better utilizing new technology. This is a first for Hidalgo County and we are setting the benchmark for the rest of the counties,” Canales said.
Another bill Canales was pleased to pass concerns those who have signed confessions of guilt. “I am very proud of that bill. It says if you are going to sign a confession it needs to be in a language you understand. If you were living abroad you would want the confession in English. Having defended those who have signed confessions, I can tell you things are put in a confession that defendants did not say. We need to be honest and transparent. If someone is going to lose liberty they should at least be able to read and understand what they are signing. This is where Texas should have been to begin with,” said Canales, an attorney.
Rep. Guerra said some of the bills he was most pleased to pass involved healthcare funding. One of these allows hospitals in Cameron, Hidalgo and Webb counties to partner with the counties to leverage hundreds of millions of federal dollars under the 1115 Waiver program.
“As a freshman I was given some heavy responsibility to carry some healthcare bills that quite frankly have the potential to transform where we have been with indigent care. So many of our hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley are struggling. And so, finding an innovative vehicle to draw down more federal dollars, without having a hospital district, is going to be a tremendous asset and quite frankly help the hospitals survive,” Guerra said.
“Remember, the 1115 Waiver is only going to be around another three years. That is why I passed the constitutional amendment giving Hidalgo County the opportunity to put it to the voters to establish a hospital taxing district. But, first, it has to secure statewide passage. My thought was, at least we should have the option.”
Guerra said Hidalgo County has been “bootstrapped” by a constitutional amendment passed in 1959-60 that limits a hospital taxing district to 10 cents per $100 value. “That is why we could not do this before. It was impractical. I am sure it suited 1959, 1960. Now we are in 2013,” Guerra said.
Guerra said he was also pleased to pass legislation to get more accountability out of MCOs. “They are going to have to proceed differently with the healthcare providers. There is going to have to be a digital process to speed things up. That legislation was well received by the healthcare industry,” Guerra said.
“I have to say it was a successful session for me and as a freshman I was carrying some pretty big stuff and I have got to tell you the members in the House have received me well, across the aisle. It is all about building relationships and building trust. And it is about learning what their issues are across the state and helping them. It is a give and take process,” Guerra added.