Run From The Border

How the Legislature snubbed the neediest region of Texas—again. And why we’ll all pay for it.

September 1999By Comments

Last year, as the summer heat hit full stride and politicians—including yours truly—roamed the state in search o votes, my office released a comprehensive report called “Bordering the Future: Challenge and Opportunity in the Texas Border Region.” It contained (if I do say so myself) exhaustive research about a region with great economic potential. My staff and I talked to everyone from clerics to chamber of commerce executives. We interviewed police officers and bank managers, mayors and maquiladora owners. We consulted academics and transportation industry executives, economists and environmentalists, federal officials and local taxpayers. In the end we came up with a package of proposals designed to turn changes into opportunities for Texas between now and the year 2020.

Our blue-print was hailed in all but the most bitterly partisan of circles. Folks seemed to realize that “Bordering the Future” was an attempt to come up with an agenda for lifting the border region out of the poverty and neglect it knows so well. Business leaders liked the emphasis on job training, infrastructure investment, and economic-development incentives. Education experts praised the recommendations for improving the region’s 155 public school districts and bring state funding of its colleges and universities into line with their percentage of total state enrollment. International-trade advocates appreciated our suggestions for unclogging border crossings. Community activists applauded our ideas for making affordable housing a reality for families—and profitable for builders.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well received the report was. And with the largest budget surplus in Texas history stating lawmakers in the face, I wasn’t alone in thinking that state officials might honor their commitments and give the border its due during 1999 legislative session. Indeed, as the Legislature convened in January, there seemed to be a really chance to build on the momentum we had going. All along the 1,254-mile border, people who had been disappointed so many times before allowed themselves to think that real progress was possible.

Boy, were we wrong. When all was said and done, the Seventy-sixth Legislature did for the border what the previous 75 had: next to nothing. Members harvested as many votes as they could from the region in the fall, then gave back as little as they could in the spring.

There were some notable exceptions. Prompted by a series in the Austin American- Statesman on the Third World conditions endured by the some 4000,000 Texans who live in the region’s many colonias, George W, Bursh ordered his point man on border affairs, Secretary of State Elton Bomer, to wad into the issue. The result was landmark legislation, coauthored by Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, that could improve the lives of the residents of these substandard sub-divisions by accelerating a water-and-sewer-line hookup program, granting counties more authority to prevent the creation of new colonias, and hiring six ombudsmen as border troubleshooters. In addition, the Children’s Health Insurance Program will provide inexpensive health insurance for tens of thousands of kids who low-income families don’t qualify for Medicaid. New checkpoints near the border should help local law enforcement curb the region’s growing auto-theft problem. And one-stop truck inspection facilities in Brownsville, Laredo, and El Paso are intended to ease the flow of cross-border commerce.

These successes and others like them were all important, and everyone who ushered such projects through the legislative process is to be commended. But given the endless list of candidates in both political parties who came a-courtin’ last year with promises of help, the payoff seems pretty paltry. The fact is, some of the biggest border rojects never materialized, despite the heightened expectations for more than just business as usual.

For example: One major recommendation of “Bordering the Future” was the creation of a Border Health Institute in El Paso—a place where doctors can identify manageable diseases, from diabetes to hepatitis, that too often reach epidemic proportions. The entire El Paso delegation, led by Senator Eliot Shapleigh, sponsored the bill and sought $105 million in state funds, but the Legislature approved less than half that amount. Then there was the attempt by Senator David Sibley of Waco and Representative Henry Cuellar of Laredo to change state formulas used to allocate money for things like education, job training, and health care. They were fought every step of the way by lawmakers who don’t see that refusing to provide the border with adequate resources makes little sense economically and none morally.

And speaking of Senator Sibley, why didn’t anyone respond to his call for new aid for the border modeled after the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II? Instead, all we ot was a border commerce coordinator in the Secretary of State’s office. Why didn’t anyone second the view of my successor as comptroller, Carole Keeton Rylander, that the border is the key to Texas’ economic future? Instead of increasing highway money for the region, the Lege cut it, from a proposed $1 billion bond package to only $42 million in additional Texas Department of Transportation funds. At a time of great prosperity across the state the border’s victories were “underwhelming,” to quote the decidedly non-bleeding heart Wall Street Journal.

One look at the numbers shows why we need to help 43-county region that stretches from El Paso to Brownsville. If the Texas border were a state unto itself, it would rank (according to the most recent information available) first in the nation in poverty, first in unemployment, and first in the percentage of residents without a high school diploma. (Even more telling, without the border counties. Texas would rank thirteenth, fortieth, and fourteenth in those categories, respectively, versus sixth, tenth, and twelfth with them.) Moreover, the governor of this imaginary state, would be forced to defend the region’s last-place ranking in medical insurance and per capital personal income and average annual pay.

The overreaching need along the Texas border is to raise incomes. This means more than campaign promises or the rhetoric of empty legislative resolutions. It means simultaneously fostering the growth of higher-wage jobs and training the work-force to fill them. These efforts need to build on strategic industries for which the region has some natural advantages: niche markets serving U.S.-Mexico trade, for example, or even attracting major league baseball spring training operations, an idea Senator Lucio and I proposed more than two years ago.

Through the year 2020 the border economy will continue to grow faster than the state economy as a whole, adding jobs at an average rate of 2.4 percent, compared with the overall state rate of 2 percent. The region’s population, expected to reach 6.3 million over the next generation, will also grow faster than the state’s. Nearly 1 million more people will move into the border region than will move out through 2020, and relatively high birth rates will also help spur the population growth. At the same time, the region’s future prosperity will be impeded by wages 20 percent blow and unemployment nearly 3.5 percent above the state average.

As a son of South Texas—I was born and raised in Victoria—I confess to a certain bias. I think the challenges of the border region demand our attention now, not later. I think the future of our state, even those areas that are far removed from the international bondary itself, will increasingly be subject to the ups and downs of the border. The Texas workforce of the future will be drawn largely from this region, where a huge and growing population of young people gives us a comparative advantage envied by other states. If we continue to shirk our responsibility to provide them with the best possible education, those young people will be a liability large enough to drag down the rest of us. But if we offer them the educational and training opportunities they deserve, they will drive a future prosperity so strong that it will make the books of the past look like a barn dance.

We had a choice this session between seizing this unique moment and shoring up our economic foundation or falling back on the traditional neglect that has characterized our approach to the border. Our legislators make the promises, took the votes, and ignored the border again. All of Texas will suffer for it.

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