McALLEN, RGV – The Texas Border Coalition has welcomed House Speaker Joe Straus’ decision to study how $800 million in state funds provided for border security is being spent and if it is being used wisely.

The Texas Border Coalition is a collective voice of border mayors, county judges, economic development commissions focused on issues that affect 2.5 million people along the Texas-Mexico border region and economically disadvantaged counties from El Paso to Brownsville.

The group works closely with the state and federal government to educate, advocate, and secure funding for transportation, immigration and border security, workforce development, economic development and health care.

Monica Weisberg-Stewart
Monica Weisberg-Stewart

Straus announced Wednesday that the House Committee on Appropriations has been given this interim charge: “Evaluate the effectiveness of the Department of Public Safety’s use of funds appropriated during the 84th legislative session for border security operations. Examine existing data and reporting on border security metrics, and recommend improvements to ensure the availability of accurate information in considering sustaining or increasing border security funds.”

Although a large majority of House members voted to provide $800 million for border security there has been a vocal minority who have questioned why the bulk of the funds have gone to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Monica Weisberg-Stewart, chair of the TBC’s immigration and border security committee, said: “I am pleased with Speaker Straus’ interim charge on border security spending. I think with every agency we need to look at the bottom line and see the return on investment we are getting. Eight hundred million dollars is a large amount of money. There can be a lot of wasteful spending with that. As a person living in Texas I am always very concerned about efficiency and trying not to lose money.”

Weisberg-Stewart said she hopes the House Committee on Appropriations will look specifically at the return the State of Texas is getting by allocating the lion’s share of the $800 million to DPS. “DPS can give out a lot of tickets. They can do a lot of things. The question is are they actually putting a dent in border security?”

Weisberg-Stewart is a business owner who lives in McAllen. She said some border communities initially welcomed the decision to have more DPS troopers assigned to the border because it would mean higher occupancy rates in local hotels. However, she said some border communities, such as Starr County, are seeing the negative side to DPS’ presence.

“To have DPS troopers sitting in their trucks half a block away from each other does not make sense. Talk to Judge Vera. People do not want to leave their towns. They do not want to leave their homes. It is causing a loss in economic activity.”

Weisberg-Stewart was referring to Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. He has been an outspoken critic of having more DPS troopers transferred to his county. Vera voiced his opinions at a TBC meeting on South Padre Island in July. To provide the alternative point of view the TBC invited DPS Director Steve McCraw to be its keynote speaker for the group’s annual meeting in Laredo in October.

New Leadership At Texas Border Coalition

At its Laredo meeting the TBC announced its new leadership lineup. Former Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III, is chairman, Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz is chairman-elect and McAllen City Commissioner Richard Cortez is vice chairman.

Carolyn Petty, president of TaxFree Shopping, Ltd., has been appointed chairwoman of TBC’s new economic development committee, and Sergio Contreras, director of external affairs for the city of Pharr, will serve as transportation committee chairman.

“TBC is privileged to have experienced and influential border leaders working on our behalf in Austin and Washington,” Salinas said. “With decades of experience, these individuals will apply their knowledge and skills to help solve numerous challenges facing border communities. I look forward to working with them to confront these challenges.”

Cortez, a former chairman of the Border Trade Alliance and a former mayor of McAllen, said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling asked him to serve on the TBC board.

“The decisions that are made in Austin affect all Texans and certainly they affect us here in the Rio Grande Valley and the border region. If we are not able to discuss the issues they vote on in Austin then we do not matter. And we want to matter,” Cortez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“For that you have to pay the price to participate and become a member of an organization that has knowledge and skills about the needs of South Texas and the voice to advocate our position. I am glad I was asked to be part of the Texas Border Coalition and I hope that I can bring value to it by adding through my own experiences and my own knowledge and my own skills in helping South Texas get our fair share of resources.”

TBC executive committee members include Del Rio Mayor Robert Garza; Eagle Pass Mayor Ramsey Cantu; La Joya Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas; McAllen Mayor Jim Darling; Pharr Mayor Ambrosio “Amos” Hernandez; Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge Director of Operations Fred Brouwen; Port Isabel Mayor Joe Vega; Roma Mayor Jose Alfredo Guerra; Willacy County Aurelio “Keter” Guerra; Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell; and Ben Petty, Sr., TaxFree Shopping, Ltd.

Standing committee chairs also include Blas Castañeda of Laredo, who heads the workforce development panel, and Olga Gabriel of McAllen, who heads the health care panel.

Here are biographical details on the new TBC leaders:

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz

Pete Saenz:

Pete Saenz was elected mayor of Laredo in November 2014, where he is focused on bringing new industry and jobs to the city, while developing trust and transparency within city government. For 12 years, he was a member of the Laredo Community College (LCC) Board of Trustees, serving four years as president, playing an instrumental role in the planning and construction of the LCC South Campus. Saenz built a highly successful and distinguished law practice, and also worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a Range Conservationist. In addition, he has served on numerous community boards and advisory committees, including president of the South Texas Food Bank and president of the Laredo Affordable Housing Corporation.

Richard Cortez:

Richard Cortez was elected to the McAllen City Commission in May 2015, after having served as mayor of the city from 2005-13. A senior partner with the public accounting and management firm of Burton McCumber & Cortez, L.L.P., Cortez has a long history of service to municipal and civic organizations. He is a past member of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, the McAllen Community Development Council, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and McAllen International Museum. He also is past president of the McAllen Boys and Girls Club, past member of The University of Texas-Pan American Business Council, former vice chairman of the McAllen Public Utilities Board and advisory director of the International Bank of Commerce of McAllen.

Carolyn Petty:

Carolyn Petty is president of Addison-based TaxFree Shopping, Ltd., which has offices around the state and contracts with U.S. retailers to provide instant sales tax refunds to foreign shoppers.

Sergio Contreras:

Sergio Contreras, director of external affairs for the city of Pharr, is responsible for monitoring state and federal government activities, developing legislative agendas and coordinating legislative activities with public and private sector organizations. He formerly served as regional manager of external affairs for AT&T in San Antonio and the South border region.

Editor’s Note: Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is pictured in the main image accompanying this story.