LAREDO, Texas – If the Texas Border Coalition had been asked to write an interim charge for a legislative committee to consider, they could not have done much better than one given jointly to two House committees.

The interim charge in question reads:

“Review the current state of infrastructure at Texas’ international shipping ports and border ports of entry in Texas. Identify transportation-related impediments to international trade and estimate the impact of those challenges, including border wait times, on the state’s economy. Make recommendations for improvements to facilitate international trade and economic growth.”

The joint charge was given by Speaker Joe Straus to two panels, the House Committee on Transportation and the House Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs committees.

“On Transportation, we have a very, very, interesting charge,” said Elizabeth Lippincott, of Vianovo. “If we had written this in a TBC conference call it could hardly have been worded better, to talk about the infrastructure needs and challenges our land ports of entry face. So, there are some great opportunities for TBIC to be helpful in the discussion there.”

Elizabeth Lippincott

Lippincott made her comments in a presentation to the Texas Border Coalition at the group’s annual meeting in Laredo on Thursday. Vianovo is retained by TBC to liaise on both federal and state public policy issues. Billy Moore, also of Vianovo, spoke to the TBC via conference call from Washington, D.C., on legislation impacting the border region at the federal level.

Lippincott spoke about public policy impacting the border region at the state level and handed out a two-page summary of interim charges of interest to border communities.

“Interim charges are like homework assignments, basically,” Lippincott said. “Some of these interim charges align with the priority issues that TBC has identified. We have got some really juicy opportunities to participate in these conversations over the next year, before the next legislative session starts.”

The Texas Border Coalition comprises cities, counties, economic development groups and the private sector, from El Paso to Brownsville. The group has five panels that conduct research and make public policy recommendations. The five areas are border security and immigration, transportation, economic development, healthcare, and education and workforce development.

With regard to the interim charges related to border security and immigration, TBC has flagged two of interest to the border region.

“Continue to evaluate the effectiveness of state agencies’ use of funds appropriated during the 85th Legislative Session for border security operations. Examine existing data and reporting on border security metrics. Monitor federal efforts to enhance security along the Texas-Mexico border to ensure that state resources are utilized optimally.”

This interim charge has been given to the House Committee on Appropriations.

“Review and evaluate the impact of DPS operations near the Texas-Mexico border on organized crime. Review organized crime convictions, including human trafficking convictions, collaboration with federal authorities, collaboration with federal and local prosecutors, and other relevant crime statistics and research related to organized crime intervention.”

This interim charge has been given to the House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety.

“On border security and immigration, we’ve got a couple of charges that really open the door to an investigation of the effectiveness of the border surge and the effectiveness of state investments in border security along the whole border region,” Lippincott said. Fortunately, the border region has two important members on the House Committee on Appropriations, she said, referencing state Rep. Oscar Longoria of La Joya and state Rep. Sergio Muñoz of Mission.

“For the second charge, on the impact of the Department of Public Safety, (state Rep.) Poncho Nevarez of Eagle Pass is on that committee and has been a real proponent of accountability for border security operations,” Lippincott said.

Lippincott said another friend to the border region, state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin, is, like Nevarez, on the House Committee on Homeland Security & Public Safety. “She grew up in the Valley. She has a great passion for border issues. She has been a real value-add for the issues that we work on,” Lippincott said.

Lippincott said the same is true for economic development issues. “We’ve got great legislative allies on these committees,” she said, referencing state Reps. Hinojosa, Evelina “Lina” Ortega of El Paso, and Rafael Anchia of Dallas. Lippincott said one of the economic development charges was basically an invitation to discuss international trade agreements such as NAFTA.

Here are the economic development-related charges TBC says will be of great interest to the border region:

“Analyze current data on the distribution of state economic development incentives across the state. Identify advantages or qualities, if any, possessed by the regions frequently awarded state incentives. Accordingly, identify resources available to underserved regions to increase awareness or utilization of incentives.”

This interim charge has been given to the House Committee on Economic Development & Small Business.

“Monitor developments with international trade agreements, including NAFTA, and review the impact of proposed and enacted changes on the state’s economy.”

This interim charge has been given to the House Committee on International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

On the education front, Lippincott said House and Senate members are being asked to look at dual credit programs. She said last session border legislators were at the forefront on this issue.

The three education and workforce development interim charges of interest to border communities, TBC believes, are:

“Review dual credit opportunities throughout the state, examining the impact of HB 505 (84th Legislature) on students in particular. Look at the outcomes of statewide studies completed in Texas regarding dual credit, and examine the current rigor of dual credit courses, as well as how to improve advising for students in dual credit.” (Joint charge for Senate Committee on Education and Senate Committee on Higher Education)

“Examine the rapid growth of dual credit course offerings across the state, and evaluate whether dual credit is effectively reducing time-to-degree and improving affordability for students and the state. Evaluate institutions’ policies and processes for ensuring rigor and quality, and the adequacy of student advising regarding the potential applicability of dual credit courses to future academic program requirements. Review the current state funding methodology and costs of, and the share of state funding attributable to, dual credit programs.” (House Committee on Higher Education)

“Evaluate the ongoing and long-term workforce needs of the state’s businesses and industries. Determine whether state resources are adequate to address shortages and assist with closing existing or future gaps in workforce readiness and skills to ensure the continued economic security and success of the state.” (House Committee on Economic Development & Small Business)

On healthcare, the interim charge of most interest to the border region, TBC believes, is:

“Monitor Congressional action on federal healthcare reform and CHIP reauthorization. Identify potential impacts of any proposed federal changes. Identify short- and long-term benefits and challenges related to converting Texas Medicaid funding to a block grant or per capita cap methodology. Determine how Texas should best prepare for federal changes, including statutory and regulatory revisions, as well as any new administrative functions that may be needed. Explore opportunities to increase the state’s flexibility in administering its Medicaid program, including but not limited to the use of 1115 and 1332 waivers.” (House Committee on Appropriations)

“You will notice most of these charges are for House committees, they are a lot more workingman like and policy driven, a lot of the Senate charges are more on traditional hot button issues,” Lippincott said.

One thing to keep in mind, Lippincott said, is that multiple hearings will be held to consider the interim charges. She said this provides a great opportunity for TBC to reach out to the committees and invite them to consider holding hearings on the border. She said having committee hearings on the border gives border communities and TBC a great opportunity to teach visiting legislators about the unique challenges the region faces.

Lippincott said it is possible TBC’s winter meeting could be arranged to take in a House or Senate committee hearing that takes place on the border.

Lippincott also gave a brief review of the how the 85th Legislature went, from a border region perspective. She said it was a difficult session, with “deep and strong divisions.” Despite that, she said, TBC worked closely with the border region’s “excellent” delegation and other legislators whose goals coincided. By way of example she cited the workforce training legislation of state Rep. Travis Clardy, a Republican from Nacogdoches, near the Louisiana border.

Lippincott said one piece of legislation TBC championed that did not make it into law in the 85th Legislature was a bill authored by state Sen. Jose Rodriguez of El Paso. The bill aimed to crack down on the dumping of tires. “We are going to continue our education process,” Lippincott said. Rodriguez’s bill was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

On international trade, Lippincott said TBC would continue to be a “strong and loud” supporter of the North American Free Trade Agreement. “We will continue to educate decision makers on the importance of cross-border trade, for our communities and the whole state and nation,” Lippincott said. In this regard she gave a shout out to Rep. Anchia, chairman of the House Committee on International Trade & Intergovernmental Affairs.

On the healthcare front, Lippincott predicted that a Border Health Task Force set up following legislation from state Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville would turn out to be “meaningful.”

A big development that has just occurred, Lippincott said, was the decision of House Speaker Straus not to seek re-election. She described Straus as a moderate Republican from San Antonio.

“It can hardly be overstated what a seismic shift this is for the Texas Legislature. It is a real watershed moment for the House and the Legislature in general. It is going to reveal how different sectors of the Texas economy, to what extent they want to get involved and make their voices heard on the direction of the Texas House and the selection of the next speaker. In talking to folks at the Capitol and around the Capitol, there is a lot of speculation, a lot of consternation, and not a lot of answers, because this is still a pretty recent development,” Lippincott said.