SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – On the eve of his group’s annual conference, the outgoing president of the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association says more attention needs to be paid to the importance of trade with Mexico. Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell wants the STCJCA to impress upon state lawmakers just how big a topic it is. Rathmell points out that trade with Mexico will only increase as oil and gas production starts to flow in the Burgos Basin. “It is very important this association does not take border trade with Mexico for granted. We need to look for ways to improve the trade and improve our relations with Mexico. We need to encourage our legislature to help us with that,” Rathmell told the Guardian. STCJACA meets at South Padre Island’s Convention Center over the next three days. Rathmell said there is no specific forum slated for international trade at the conference but acknowledged that could be an oversight that needs fixing. “We do not have this issue down as a particular topic in our coursework but along the Rio Grande we are all aware of how important trade with Mexico is. I would not say we take it for granted but we certainly need to work at it and highlight it,” Rathmell said. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration, 36.1 percent of Texas’ total merchandise exports in 2013 went to Mexico. Texas posted merchandise exports of $100.9 billion to Mexico in 2013.
Roger Galvan, 2nd vice president of STCJACA and a Calhoun County Commissioner, agreed with Rathmell on the importance of trade with Mexico. “In my view, too many of our politicians are very short sighted when it comes to Mexico. They want to talk about constructing fences to stop illegal immigration but they never talk about our international trade. It is very important to the Texas economy. It helps Texas stay active and vibrant,” Galvan said. “People should not be looking at this in a political way but in what is best for Texas in general. And international trade with Mexico is clearly very important.” Rathmell said he is not sure at this point how big an impact oil and gas production in the Burgos Basin in northern Mexico will have on South Texas. “We have heard reports that the shale formation might be larger than originally thought. We will have to wait and see,” he said. According to Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company, there are an estimated three billion barrels of oil and 4.2 trillion cubic meters of natural gas in the Burgos Basin. Victor Herrera, managing director for Latin America at Standard & Poor’s, told the Washington Post for a story posted on Sunday that petroleum embedded in shale is the “low-hanging fruit” of Mexico’s energy overhaul. “We could see a lot of investment coming very quickly from Texas.” Rathmell said Zapata County has been impacted by Eagle Ford Shale. “Eagle Ford Shale is close enough that some of our residents work in the shale play. So, it is providing work. But, we are a natural gas county and we were left high and dry when they (the oil and gas companies) moved north to get the oil. The natural gas prices were depressed. They were a little lower than usual so they went north to get to the oil. We have actually had a downturn in recent years.” Many South Texas counties have been impacted by Eagle Ford Shale. Rathmell was asked what the county judges within the Eagle Ford region are telling him. “They are concerned about the infrastructure that is required. We have a great influx of people coming in to the counties. Short term, do they have the resources to cope? Long term, how long is it going to last? Are they going to be prepared for when it is no longer there? The county judges and commissioners need increased revenues so they can plan for the future of their counties.” Among the topics slated to be discussed at the STCJACA conference are strategic planning, health care reform, communications, broadband, public safety, inter-local agreements, rules of evidence, motions to revoke probations, alcohol monitoring devices, maintaining and preserving cemeteries, roads and road safety, groundwater conservation districts, unincorporated areas, the public information act, and interaction with the legislature. Rathmell said an issue that always comes up for discussion is unfunded mandates from the State of Texas. “On a yearly, even a monthly basis, we ask the legislature not to send any unfunded mandates to our counties. It is hard enough to keep up with maintaining our counties and to have Austin say, you have to do this but not send any money to help, it is difficult for us. We are all in agreement that unfunded mandates are not appreciated,” Rathmell said. Asked for examples of unfunded mandates, Rathmell said: “Healthcare – we are all required to set aside eight percent of our local fund for the indigent. That is difficult. Also, mental health, we are burdening our constituents with those costs. We could go on and on. We are trying to stay away from unfunded mandates.” Rathmell said one of the attractions in coming to the STCJACA is that county judges and commissioners get continuing education credits. He said it helps that the conference is being held in such a beautiful setting. “I want to thank Cameron County. Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos and the Cameron County Commissioners have been very generous hosts. And the city of South Padre Island. It is a beautiful place to have a convention.” Rathmell said next year’s STCJACA annual conference is slated to be held in Beaumont.