AUSTIN, Texas – The city leaders of McAllen and Pharr do not always see eye to eye but when it comes to legislation to secure funding for more produce inspectors at the international bridges they work together.

State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.
State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Teclo Garcia, director of government and public affairs for the City of McAllen, and Sergio Contreras, director of external affairs for the City of Pharr, testified together recently in support of Senate Bill 797, authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

Lucio explained what SB 797 was all about when the legislation was heard by the panel he chairs, the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations.

Last year, $3.4 billion in fresh and frozen produce came to the United States through Texas’ international bridges. Inspectors at the border must process over 170,000 truckloads of produce annually and this number is expected to almost double by 2020. When those inspectors are not sufficient to cover all of the trucks that come across a bridge on a given day the value of the cargo decreases substantially,” Lucio said.

One of the reasons analysts believe the amount of fresh produce imported from Mexico will rise significantly is construction of Federal Highway 40, also called the Carretera Interoceánica (Interoceanic Highway). The breadbasket of Mexico is the state of Sinaloa on the west coast. The traditional means for importing fresh produce from Sinaloa was through Nogales, Arizona. However, the new Mazatlán to Matamoros superhighway makes it more efficient to import the produce through international ports of entry in the Rio Grande Valley, most notably the Pharr bridge.

Teclo Garcia
Teclo Garcia

“Senate Bill 797 creates a Trade Agriculture Inspection Grant program which will be administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture and be distributed to a non-profit entity that has experience working with federal border inspection authorities,” Lucio said. “The money will be used to reimburse these authorities for the hiring of additional inspectors or for paying overtime to assist with the inspections. The funding for this grant is contingent on appropriation of funds by the legislature or receipt of gifts, grants or donations from other sources.”

Lucio said half the money for the additional inspectors will likely come from matching funds. “By leveraging private investment as well as state money the grant program will generate over ten times the return in investment in economic growth here in Texas,” Lucio predicted.

In his testimony, Garcia said McAllen “wholeheartedly supports” SB 797 and believes its passage provides the region with “another valuable tool” to be competitive in the area of international trade and jobs sustainability.

“This bill is a business bill and its proposal would help the Texas produce industry get its products to the market faster and safer by keeping more inspectors online during peak periods and moving standing trucks off the bridges and onto the road while closely checking loads of produce coming into the U.S.,” Garcia said.

Developing a grant program to help expedite the inspections of produce shipments from Mexico is in Texas’ interest, McAllen’s governmental affairs director said.

“Many Texas produce companies grow their produce on their own farms in Mexico where it can be grown year round and are simply shipping to the U.S. for package and distribution. That produce ends up in grocery stores and restaurants and school cafeterias around the country. Produce such as tomatoes, papayas, oranges, strawberries, jalapeños, and a lot more.”

Garcia then gave statistics to back up his point. He said nearly half of U.S. imports from Mexico enter through Texas land ports. Produce imports add $650 million and about 7,000 jobs to the Texas economy. The produce import business employs hundreds of people in McAllen, he said, and in 2014, 172,000 trucks came into Texas from Mexico.

Garcia said SB 797 would be a pilot program. Its passage would allow Texas to monitor the grant program’s effectiveness. “We have worked with A&M researchers for the last three years on this particular bill and the House Ag Committee gave it a favorable report,” Garcia added.

Contreras, representing the City of Pharr, said that in the 20 years since the Pharr International Bridge opened there has been “unparalleled” growth. “In particular we have seen a tremendous increase of fresh produce from Mexico into Texas, placing Pharr as the No. 1 port of entry in the Rio Grande Valley for fresh produce crossings. Overall, with various commodities, in 2014 the Pharr International Bridge broke its record by accounting for $30 billion in trade with the world.”

Sergio Contreras
Sergio Contreras

Contreras said SB 797 will help more trucks to be processed at the Pharr international bridge by creating a Trade Agriculture Inspection Grant program. He said the program would be administered by the Texas Department of Agriculture and distributed to a non-profit that has experience working with border inspection authorities to reduce border crossing wait times. “The non-profit would use the grant money along with matching industry and local municipality dollars to help pay for additional border agricultural inspectors or pay overtime to inspectors along the border,” Contreras explained.

Contreras said Pharr leaders continue to explore ways to facilitate the flow of commercial traffic and reduce wait times. He said that in 2014 the City of Pharr invested almost $90,000 in overtime pay for Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers during peak hours and holiday hours through participation in the 2014 Donations Acceptance Program. “Section 559 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act helped us facilitate and reduce border wait times. Due to our successful collaboration with CBP and our donations through the 559 program wait times were reduced by more than half,” Contreras said.

Citing Texas A&M AgriLife Research statistics, Contreras said the economic impact of additional produce imports would be an additional $650 million along with 6,920 jobs. “Any delays, disruptions or related barriers to entry of fresh produce cause a ripple effect in terms of economic and employment losses across the wide spectrum of regional economies,” he said.

Contreras predicted that Texas ports, mainly the Rio Grande Valley, will handle nearly 55 percent of these imports at over 300,000 truckloads. “We know that today’s crossings at our ports of entry of fresh produce and vegetables will more than likely be on Texas families’ dinner tables tomorrow. We know that we like them fresh. We need Senate Bill 797 to pass because we know the importance of trade and its significant impact on the Texas economy.”

Former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney registered in support of SB 797 but did not testify.