AUSTIN, Texas- Two Texas House members from the border region have been named “Freshman of the Year.”
Mary González, a Democrat from Clint, received the accolade from the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. Poncho Nevárez, a Democrat from Eagle Pass, received the accolade from the House Democratic Caucus.
The two lawmakers are desk mates in the House. They have neighboring districts and became friends during the primary election season last year when both were running for open seats. The Guardian interviewed Gonzalez and Nevárez about the sessions they have just had.
Rep. González, aged 29, told the Guardian said she was” humbled to receive such a wonderful award.” Asked how the legislative session went, she said really well.
“I think it was an amazing session. We had a lot to overcome. I was the first woman from my district. I am the youngest person on the House floor. There was a lot of news about me coming into the legislature. And so, having overcome all that and really focusing on issues that impact my district has made this a great session,” González said.
González said receiving an award from MALC is special because of the changing demographics in Texas. “It is important because we are really trying to think long term about how to serve the Latino community in the State of Texas. This is to my heart, to my family, to my community. We need leaders for our Latino community to address some of the unique and serious issues we are facing,” González said.
Asked what the important bills were for her district, González referenced water for colonias, reintroducing the dairy industry, helping immigrant students, and restoring funding for public education.
González said the dairy industry was outlined in El Paso County ten year ago due to a reoccurrence of bovine tuberculosis. The industry is worth $40 million to the local economy.
“Ten years ago there was a reoccurring case of bovine tuberculosis. The USDA bought out all the dairy farms from the legislature. Now there is more science. There is no longer BT on the Mexican side of the border. We now know so much more about bovine tuberculosis that we can potentially bring back this really important industry to our community,” González said. “We produced five percent of all the milk in our country. So bringing back that industry to El Paso County was one of my main priorities and we were able to accomplish that.”
The colonia legislation González passed will mean 263 colonias in her district will have better water and sewer services. “It is not a very sexy bill. It passed local and consent. It was a local bill that expanded our water district to take in five new colonias. EPA had a million dollar grant to give sewer and water services to the colonias. It is about knowing the community, knowing how to get things done and then doing the process to make sure it happens,” she said.
The legislation to help students that have just arrived in the United States involved providing an exemption in the first year from taking standardized tests. “They need time to get used to the language, to get used to the culture, before being put in the testing system,” González said. “All of our bills were extremely important and we are really happy to get them all done. Four bills for a freshman is amazing and so we were glad we were able to do that. All four were extremely important bills for the district and the state.”
González said the session has been great for El Paso and the border region generally.
“All of our school districts are going to see more money. Our retired teachers are going to get better taken care of. We are promoting agriculture in our more rural communities. We are helping with water issues. This session has been an extremely successful. It has been a great time to come in as a freshman, to see how things get done with bipartisanship, focusing on the issues, not letting social issues get in the way of getting the work done for Texas,” González said.
“With regard to the border region generally, I think we are one the major victors of this session. We are seeing a new medical school in the Rio Grande Valley. In El Paso, the health science center is becoming a stand-alone medical school. Those two victories in and of themselves is amazing for the border. And, we have more money for education and a lot of our young people live on the border.”
Rep. Nevárez said he was “blown away” at receiving his award from the House Democratic Caucus. “It is exciting because it is a vote from your peers and they are recognizing the body of work you have done from the beginning to the end. We pushed our agenda, the agenda of the caucus and the people we represent. I was humbled that my peers recognized we did that from the very beginning. It is a testament to the people that elected me to this office. That they put their trust in us and it motivates us to keep working hard.”
Nevárez said the top local bill he worked on this session involved allowing universities to decide the fate of their low performing programs. These are programs where 25 percent of the students have not graduated inside five years.
“I was fortunate. Senator Kel Seliger, chairman of higher education in the Senate, placed my bill on as an amendment to the sunset bill for the Higher Education Coordinating Board. My job was to fend off the wolves in the House and the amendment stayed on. We did a lot of work on the floor. We got up and spoke against stripping the amendment off. The amendment stayed on the bill and will become law. It was the biggest achievement. I would have considered our legislative record up here a failure if we had not been able to do that,” Nevárez said.
Nevárez said the legislation will really help the smaller universities in rural communities, such as UT-Tyler, Stephen F. Austin, Sul Ross, and Lamar. “It is not feasible to graduate that many students out of a chemistry program. But to shut the program down arbitrarily based on a quantitative number rather than a qualitative one is not right. I saw that as a problem.” Nevárez praised UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, and Texas State University System Chancellor Brian McCall for their help with the bill. “They did their jobs for their system and I was fortunate they trusted a freshman like to carry something this important,” he said.
Like Gonzalez, Nevárez said it was a good session for the border region generally.
“When you chalk what happened in the Valley and the miracle that is going to happen down there with the mega university and translate that to our region on the border I see the blueprint that is being laid by my compadres in the Valley. I hope to be here long enough to follow that. We are making tremendous strides but we still have a long way to go. I was fortunate to be here this session when these things happened. I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for our region,” Nevárez said.
Nevárez said victories such as the Valley’s new university and medical school ought to be “par for the course” in Austin but the reality is they are anomalies. “We need to change that. We need to make sessions like this not anomalies. They need to happen every time. There needs to be something for our part of the State and not just stigmatizing that went on the other night with claims that the drug cartels were part of Medicaid fraud in South Texas,” Nevárez said.
Before becoming a legislator, Nevárez served as a school board member. He said that during that time he could see how the border region was being shortchanged. “When you come up here you see how difficult it is to get things done. But, as Democrats, we tried to right a ship that had been listing, in terms of the money that had been taken out of these accounts. We got it done,” he said.
“I am thrilled with the session we had. I am so fortunate to have served with so many great individuals. I was happy to meet the new members from the Valley, Terry and Oscar. They are great guys. René (Oliveira) has been a great mentor. I hope to come back and serve.”