AUSTIN, Texas – VIPs from the Rio Grande Valley filled four buses for the trip to Austin. Their mission: to explain to all 18 legislators or their staff what the Valley’s legislative agenda is and why it should be supported.
The legislative agenda items are listed at the end of this story. They include initiatives in the fields of transportation, workforce training, education, healthcare and marketing.
“If we are not engaged as a region there will not be anybody up there defending us. Our legislators are working really hard, but when you have 200 people showing up at the state Capitol, that sends a message, and it sends a message as a region. It is really important to be engaged, to tell our story and our side of what is going on,” Steve Ahlenius, president of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce told the Rio Grande Guardian.
RGV Public Radio 88 FM
Here is an interview with Rio Grande Guardian publisher Mark Hanna on RGV Public Radio 88FM:
He’s on his way up to Austin, Texas for RGV Day at the State Capitol.
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Resolutions and Luncheon
Upon arrival at the state Capitol, dignitaries from the Valley will be honored on the floor of the House and Senate with resolutions, proclaiming Feb. 7 to be RGV Day in Austin. After the proclamations, the Valley VIPs will get back on the bus and head for the Sheraton Hotel for a luncheon.
At the luncheon, members of the Valley’s legislative agenda will participate in a panel discussion moderated by Ron Garza, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.
There will then be an overview of the RGV’s legislative agenda. Sergio Contreras, president of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, is slated to discuss transportation and border infrastructure. Carlos Margo, from South Texas College’s business and technology department, will discuss workforce development. Richard Sanchez of UT-Rio Grande Valley, will discuss funding for UTRGV’s School of Medicine. Olga Gabriel, of Texas A&M University’s McAllen campus, will discuss the Healthy South Texas Initiative. And Matt Ruszczak, executive director of Rio South Texas Economic Council, will discuss the Protect & Promote Us marketing campaign.
After the luncheon, the Valley VIPs, armed with the Valley’s legislative agenda packages, will fan out in small teams to the Capitol offices of every Texas House and Texas Senate member. There will also be an opportunity during the afternoon for photo ops with Governor Greg Abbott and Land Commissioner George P. Bush.
RGV Day finishes with an evening reception at the Capitol Legislative Conference Center, which is Room E2.002 in the state Capitol.
Sponsors of RGV Day in Austin include the RGV Small Cities Coalition, City of Edinburg, City of McAllen, City of Harlingen, City of Weslaco, Starr County Industrial Foundation, Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, Weslaco Chamber of Commerce, McAllen Convention & Visitors Bureau, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, Mission Economic Development Corporation, McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, Weslaco Economic Development Corporation, Pharr Economic Development Corporation, McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, Anzalduas International Bridge, McAllen Public Utilities Board, Port of Brownsville, Rio Grande Valley Partnership, Rio South Texas Economic Council, South Texas College, IBC Bank, BBVA Compass Bank, Texas A&M University, UT-Rio Grande Valley, UTRGV Foundation, Food Bank RGV, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, The Warren Group Architects, Shephard Walton King Insurance, and The Monitor.
Here are the five Legislative Agenda Items for the Valley:
Transportation & Border Infrastructure
The Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost tip of Texas, covers 1,881 square miles, has a population of approximately 1.5 million, and is comprised of 46 cities and towns and more than 100 communities.
Additionally, the RGV enjoys close personal and professional relationships with the people in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. As a bi-national and bi-cultural area, tens of thousands of individuals from across the Rio Grande River share our roads every day, and trade with Mexico is growing at a brisk pace.
The RGV is the entryway to Texas markets, and that brings with it a unique demand on the region’s roads, ports of entry and deep-water seaport.
The significant increases in international trade is the reason infrastructure and transportation remain one of the Valley’s key priorities for the 85th Legislative Session.
Texas remains the largest trading partner to Mexico and much of the economic and trade impact is centered in the Rio Grande Valley. The Pharr International Bridge, the 7th largest land port in the U.S. generated more than $30 billion in annual trade in 2014, while the Port of Brownsville saw $3 billion in economic activity in 2015.
With the opening of the West Rail Bridge, the first new rail bridge to link the U.S. and Mexico in 105 years, the opening of southbound crossings at the Donna Rio Bravo Bridge and Anzalduas International Bridge in McAllen, and traffic at the Brownsville international bridges, the region has seen a robust increase in freight traffic on roadways across the Valley. Additionally, Foreign Trade Zone No. 62 at the Port of Brownsville recently ranked 2nd in the nation for the value of exports by the Foreign-Trade Zones Board.
Infrastructure connectivity is crucial to improving the economic condition of the Valley. Increased mobility is vital to improve trade, create jobs and lower the unemployment rate. But, without proper funding to build smarter the RGV’s growth could be limited.
To that end, the Rio Grande Valley is asking legislators to continue supporting our regional infrastructural needs which include the following transportation and maritime priorities:
- Continue supporting completion of I-69 East, I-69 Central
- I-69 Central Interchange Expansion – improve north/south mobility, provide alternate evacuation route, improve travel capacity for local and regional traffic
- International Border Trade Corridor – Pharr International Bridge to I-2
- State Highway 68 – Connection to International Border Trade Corridor
- Deepwater port funding for all seaports through TXDoT
- South Padre Island Second Access – to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety and economic development
- East Loop Corridor Project – an improved commercial vehicle facility from the Port of Brownsville to the Veterans Bridge at Los Tomates via a new four-lane facility and south port access road
- FM 1925 (Montecristo Rd.) project that connects Hidalgo and Cameron running parallel to I-2.
- Expansion of regional public transportation to increase bus routes, expand rural coverage and enhance student access to colleges.
Each of the priorities identified above are crucial to the economic future of the Rio Grande Valley.
Workforce continues to be a top priority in the Rio Grande Valley. As globalization continues to expand because of advancements in digital technology and economic development worldwide, skills in prominent technical fields like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are becoming increasingly important and coveted across the state.
Institutions of higher education are under increasing pressure from business and industry to produce graduates with specific, high-level workforce skills that are relevant and applicable.
According to a report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond, by the year 2025 there will be 3.5 Million advanced manufacturing jobs needed.
Therefore, this project will offer multiple credential opportunities (Festo, Engineering, Engineering Tooling and Precision Manufacturing, Production Technician, Logistics, Industrial Maintenance, and others with pathways to Associates, and Bachelor Degrees toward middle and high-skill occupations with an emphasis on Engineers.
The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission Metropolitan Statistical Area ranked 4th fastest growing in the U.S between 1990 and 2000. In 2012, CNN Money reported a 39 percent population growth in McAllen, between 2000 and 2010. Brownsville, in Cameron County, is the largest city in the RGV and one of the fastest growing. The city’s population more than doubled from 1980 to 2010.
Concomitantly, the RGV has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation (33.5 percent, Hidalgo; 35.4 percent, Starr; 34.8 percent, Cameron; 38 percent, Willacy). According to the US Census Bureau (2014), the total percentage by county with some college education or an associate degree is lower than state (44.2 percent) and nation (58.9 percent): Hidalgo (42.5 percent); Cameron (40.8 percent); Starr, (37.4 percent); Willacy, (24 percent).
Regional data for engineering indicate a projected 16 percent increase from 2015 to 2025. Texas Workforce Solutions data (2016) projects a 14 percent increase for Industrial Engineers from 2016 to 2026. There are various technical manufacturing occupations in this industry that may lead toward engineering. Particular occupations have higher projected growth rates, including Industrial Engineering Technicians (13 percent project change) and Machinists (16 percent).
Roughly 4,600 manufacturing occupations by 2026 in our region, an eight percent change from 2016, which exceeds the state rate of seven percent.
- Increase funding level from $48 million to $60 for the Texas Workforce Commission Skills Development Fund (SDF) to support community colleges’ customized training and workforce development for business and industry employers.
- Appropriate $10 million in SDF funding for capacity building for community colleges. The priority for the funding should be equipment and technology related to process automation and robotics. This will help address the major skills gap forecast in mid to high-level jobs in advanced manufacturing and engineering related occupations.
- Support the appropriation of $2.5 million of SDF Funds specifically for LNG related industries.
- Support the continuance of dual credit programs in order to expand access to higher education and to support the expansion and further solidification of relevant occupational pathways.
- Support increase in funding for the Comptroller’s Jobs and Education for Texans (JET) fund.
Healthy South Texas & Healthy Texas
Request: $19.6 million for the Biennium – $10 million in new funding for the biennium and continuation of $9.6 million for existing items funded in 2016-17.
Healthy South Texas combines the clinical expertise and community-based disease prevention and management programs of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s unique education and outreach model to improve healthy behaviors and environments throughout 27 southern Texas counties with an initial focus on diabetes, asthma and infectious disease.
Since it was launched in September 2015, nearly 300,000 individuals have been impacted by the initiative’s programming, adding up to a projected health care cost savings of $60 million in diabetes control, medication assistance and physical activity engagement. The tools, technologies and strategies developed in South Texas have the potential to tackle health challenges across the state, through additional Healthy Texas initiatives.
Additional funding would allow Healthy South Texas to be intensified across the 27-county region and expanded statewide to become Healthy Texas, a population health improvement platform targeting chronic disease prevention and management with a special emphasis on community-based health promotion across the lifespan. As a result, Texans will experience improved health for generations to come.
The request for continuation of funding will:
- Support evidence-based education and monitoring in areas including diabetes, prenatal care, weight management and nutrition, to improve health and quality of life by empowering participants with knowledge.
- Support education and integration of services to prevent and reduce the consequences of asthma affecting children and their families resulting in decreased healthcare related costs for families, communities and the state.
- Support extensive outreach in rural and urban communities to reduce the number of infectious disease cases in South Texas and their consequences, with an emphasis on prevention and vaccination.
The Population of the 27 counties 2,751,582, which is ten percent of the Texas Population.
UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine
Request: $10 million for the Biennium. UTRGV’s School of Medicine (SoM) welcomed its inaugural cohort of 55 students during Summer 2016.
The SoM plans to admit first year cohorts of 50-55 each year for the next three years, accepting up to a total of 220 medical students by 2019. The charter “Class of 2020” will graduate in May 2020. Preliminary Accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education was granted October 2015.
While the UTRGV SoM curriculum is an integrated module-based curriculum that folds clinical experiences in with the basic sciences from Day 1, there will be a significant ramp up in clinical activities and rotations after the initial 18 months of medical education. In preparation for clinical rotations beginning in FY18, faculty hires in the clinical departments are planned and rotational sites are being identified, inclusive of our veteran service partners.
The requested $5 million per year would address five critical needs:
- Provide operating funds toward achieving Provisional Accreditation;
- The development of years 3 and 4 of medical education, which will focus on clinical experiences;
- Clinical educators and support of the clinical sites and partnerships necessary for the continuation and completion of the integrated medical education curriculum at the School of Medicine;
- Faculty researchers; and
- Staffing and operating resources as medical students are added over the next three years. The addition of three new cohorts of students will create increasing demands for faculty time and effort and for student support across all departments.
Health Related Institution Funding:
In addition to Special Item funding, UTRGV’s SoM seeks Health Related Institution (HRI) formula funding to place it on equal footing with other existing medical programs throughout the state.
The alternative, being placed in the General Academic Institutional (GAI) model of funding, would position the SoM at a distinct disadvantage not experienced by other medical programs. The GAI formula does not serve health related institutions well, as it is based on semester credit hours (SCH) and relative weights compared to liberal arts programs.
The University considers the best option available to ensure the most predictable and stable appropriations funding methodology is to include it in the existing HRI formula funding model. The HRI formula provides appropriate funding for medical students, related predicted square footage, research related to the SoM and graduate medical education.
Border Relations/Image – Protect & Promote Us Campaign
The Rio Grande Valley (RGV), and its strategic location on the U.S.-Mexico Border, is key to the economic prosperity of Texas.
Over 40,000 companies employing over 1,100,000 Texans operate in the export trade and make Texas the #1 export state in the nation. Mexico is Texas’ #1 trading partner, with
$94,500,000,000 worth of merchandise being exported to Mexico in 2015. Over $19,000,000,000 of these exports to Mexico flowed through RGV Points of Entry.
In addition to southbound exports, the RGV is a major hub for visitors & trade coming from Mexico, with over 800,000 trucks, over 5,800,000 pedestrians and over 11,500,000 vehicles crossing into Texas through RGV Points of Entry in 2015.
This trade and tourism activity fuels both the retail and hospitality industries in the RGV. In reporting year 2015, the RGV’s total retail sales exceeded $14,600,000,000 and area hotels grossed almost $280,000,000 in receipt. These numbers translated into over $400,000,000 of sales tax and hotel occupancy tax flowing into the state’s coffers.
We agree that safety is important for the State of Texas as much as it is for the RGV, and we appreciate the state’s efforts to make Texas and our region safe. Yet an unintended consequence of these efforts is an inadequate perception that the RGV is a region of elevated crime and insecurity. This inadequate perception in turn discourages investors, tourists and business people to explore the opportunities offered by our region and/or the state of Texas as a whole.
Therefore, while we invest in safety, we need to simultaneously invest in supporting business and trade in the RGV as it has a significant impact on the economic prosperity of the state as a whole. You can help us keep Texas prosperous, and keep the RGV prosperous, by investing in the promotion of our region for trade, tourism and economic expansion.
We would like to see a $25,000,000 annual investment of the Texas DPS Border Security Funding for the promotion of our region utilizing:
- Matching funds for out of state tourism and business promotional activities by RGV non-profits, CVBs and economic development marketing organizations
- Familiarization Tours of the RGV for Texas, U.S. and International media professionals in the news and business fields
- State funding for Tourism Oriented Directional Signs for the RGV
- State sponsored promotion of the RGV ports of entry for use in importing and exporting products and merchandise
- State sponsored promotion of the RGV as a prime nature and eco-tourism destination
- State sponsored promotion of the RGV as a year-round active tourism destination
Valley Legislator’s Luncheon
Governor Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott met with Valley VIPs during RGV Day at the state Capitol.
“I look forward to working with your representatives and your senators to make sure the state of Texas remains the best state in the United States of America,” Abbott told them.
Editor’s Note: We will be updating this story through the day. Check back later for new updates.