With 140 days behind us, I reflect on a difficult 85th Legislative Session that ended with tension and conflict.
Legislation targeting immigration status, women, undocumented students, same sex couples, and even local government control, was prevalent.
While many pieces of legislation passed, a substantial achievement was the many pieces of legislation that did not pass. Many bills that were discriminatory and not good public policy could have become law if we did not fight for what we know is right.
Despite a challenging session, I am proud of what we accomplished for South Texas and the entire State. We had important legislative victories and crafted a balanced budget that takes care of Texans. This session I passed 60 pieces of important legislation and secured millions of dollars for our priorities in Senate District 20.
As Vice Chair of the Senate Finance Committee and one of five Senate conferees on SB 1, the state’s General Appropriations Act, I was involved in countless hours of budget negotiations that resulted in many of the cuts in the original version of the budget being restored. I was able to put the Rio Grande Valley at the forefront of critical discussions and secure funding to help stimulate our local economies.
A tremendous achievement was the $56.6 million appropriated for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. The original budget allocated only $5.5 million to the medical school which proved an extremely difficult challenge all session to work to increase critically needed funding. Part of the challenge was the perception by lawmakers that there is a lack of local community support for our medical school.
While higher education funding overall decreased, financial aid for our college students was a bright spot as we increased funding by $71 million for the TEXAS Grant program. A total of $786 million will serve 92 percent of all eligible students this coming biennium which is a significant increase from last session. We also secured $78.3 million for South Texas College, $4.5 million for Texas Academic Innovation and Mentoring (AIM), and $9.1 million for Texas A&M’s Healthy South Texas to engage families, promote behavior change, and improve quality of healthcare and health outcomes.
We had important legislative victories for the Valley, many of which focused on continuing our regions’ significant economic growth to ensure a competitive and prosperous future. I authored SB 1136 to allow the City of Edinburg to collect municipal Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue to construct sporting-related facilities surrounding their new soccer stadium thereby attracting tourists and overnight guests to our region. Another significant accomplishment was working with TxDOT to secure $150 million to expand the Pharr Interchange to address the traffic congestion. Our region is of one of the fastest growing areas of the state.
Preparing Texas students for the growing technology workforce demands is a priority, and I am proud to have authored HB 728 that gives more computer science options to high school students statewide by directing the State Board of Education to develop and implement a rigorous computer science program that will count as an advanced math or science credit towards graduation.
I also worked to secure $10.2 million to fund grants for our local law enforcement agencies for border security efforts, $12 million for the Border Prosecutions Grant Program, $8 million for the replacement of Game Warden boats to increase safety and provide faster rescue operations, $3.2 million for a new DPS Law Enforcement Operations in Penitas, and $5 million for the Center for Urban Ecology at Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen.
While we could have done better by prioritizing jobs, increasing healthcare services for our most vulnerable citizens, and investing more money into education and our workforce, there was too much focus on ideology and politics.
And this is not the end, as Governor Abbott has just called for a special session beginning July 18. There are 20 items to be considered in his call. I will return to Austin and face these critical challenges. Now more than ever we need experienced leaders to have the courage to put people over politics and focus more on the needs of our working families.