HARLINGEN, RGV – Visiting state legislators and their staff fly into Valley International Airport this afternoon for the 22nd Valley Legislative Tour.
This year’s event, spread over four days and focusing on Hidalgo and Starr counties, is possibly the biggest one yet with two state senators coming in who are not from the Valley, and 29 state representatives who are not from the Valley.
In addition, there will be 34 chiefs of staff from various legislative offices, plus 22 other guests and 20 partners to the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, which hosts the biennial tours. Half the visiting legislators on the tour are Republican and half Democrat.
“We are excited to see the incredible level of interest this year’s educational legislative tour has generated. Overall we are hosting about 129 individuals on the tour,” said Sergio Contreras, president of the RGVP.
“We are a friendly community and we extend our friendship to our special guests. We plan to showcase economic vitality of the Rio Grande Valley and how important we are to the state of Texas.”
The Rio Grande Valley Partnership was established in 1944 and serves as the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce. Its goal is to bring business leaders, influencers, and policy makers together in an independent forum to advance prosperity for the Valley, Texas, and the world.
Contreras said legislators on this year’s Valley tour will partake in in-depth panel discussions with local healthcare professionals, educators and law enforcement partners. Key issues will focus on economic and business development, premier medical advancements and care, tourism, transportation, public education and workforce expansion, and border security in the way of international trade and current infrastructure.
Contreras said the tour will also provide legislators an opportunity to visit key sites that highlight growth and challenges facing civic leaders and community members.
The previous tour, two years ago, focused on Cameron and Willacy counties. This year the focus is on Hidalgo and Starr counties. The tour will include visits to two international ports of entry, Pharr and Anzalduas, UT-Rio Grande Valley Medical School, a wind farm in Starr County, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Edinburg Children’s Hospital and IDEA Public Schools.
Some of the events are open to the media and some are private. Among the events the media are welcome to attend are a reception at Valley Baptist Health System in Harlingen on Thursday evening, a public education panel discussion at PSJA Southwest Early College High School in Pharr on Friday morning, and a look inside a South Texas Health System facility in Edinburg on Saturday morning.
“I want to thank our board of directors and sponsors for helping make this tour happen and for our Valley legislative delegation for their incredible engagement. I also want to thank House Speaker Dennis Bonnen for his help,” Contreras said.
In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Contreras ran through some of the key statistics visiting legislators would be told about.
“We have over 600,000 young people living under the age of 25; the median average of our population is 29; our taxable sales for the year 2018 was $12.5 billion; the commercial trade that crossed our 13 ports of entry in 2017 was worth $51 billion; our sea port at Brownsville is second in the nation for exports.”
Asked why the Valley Legislative Tour is important, Contreras recalled a recent conversation he had with a Valley entrepreneur on a flight to Austin. They did not know each other.
“This investor owned several hotels and restaurants. When I told him what I do and that I was helping to plan this tour, he said: ‘This provides an opportunity to highlight our region’s impact to the State. It is very important that our guests experience our South Texas border communities as we continue to grow’.”
Contreras pointed out that the decisions the legislature makes this session can have a great impact on the Valley’s public schools, healthcare institutions, and economic development prospects. “It is vitally important our visiting legislators come and see what our region is all about. We have a great opportunity to be laser-focused as we present the Valley’s legislative agenda.”
The top issue identified by state leaders this session is public school finance. Contreras said the public education discussion that takes place at PSJA Southwest on Friday morning will thus be of great interest. “Working with our Valley legislative delegation and our school superintendents, we will make the point that we do need more funding,” Contreras said.
Likewise, the visit to IDEA will be beneficial, Contreras predicted. “The legislators will be able to see some of their success stories and programs they have implanted that are transforming lives through the state.”
Asked why he believes there is so much interest in this year’s Valley Legislative Tour, Contreras spoke about strong preparation and attention to detail.
“We started to advocate for this tour in February, 2018. We hosted several luncheons at the Capitol for legislative staff so they could save the date. We engaged with state lawmakers prior to the November election and after the election. So, there was a lot of walking the hallways at the Capitol, ensuring they were aware of our region.”
Asked if the recent attention President Trump has given the Valley played a role in drawing such a large guest list for the tour, Contreras said: “Our state legislators realize the importance of the Rio Grande Valley as we continue to grow. We bring economic vitality to the State of Texas. Clearly, they want to understand border security and life on the border.”
The 22nd Valley Legislative Tour will conclude on Sunday lunchtime. Contreras said 95 percent of the guests will be in the Valley for the entire for four days.
“It is not land and then take off. By spending four days here our guests will get a greater appreciation of our entire region. They will see we are a safe community.”