Addressing the Needs of the Border Region
“The border of Texas is not the back yard, but the front door to our state and our nation.”
With those words in my first speech as Governor, I clearly stated my goal of working toward meeting the needs of the 4.1 million residents who live in the border region. I’m pleased to report that the 2001 legislative session, with the bipartisan support of Texas legislators, had a real impact on the quality of life in this vital area of our state.
Despite budget constraints, state leaders funded programs that will pump more than $185 million into the region. We approved an additional $243 million in tuition revenue bonds for South Texas and border universities, colleges and technical institutions
In addition, Texans will have an opportunity to approve a constitutional amendment this November providing up to $175 million in bonds for road construction in colonias. Pending voter approval of those bonds, border funding may see a total boost of more than $360 million from this session.
Working together, Democrats and Republicans focused much of their attention on problems that have plagued the border region for decades, such as limited educational opportunities, chronic ailments and diseases, and inadequate infrastructure.
By tripling the TEXAS Grant Program to $300 million, an additional 65,000 students from low-income and moderate-income families will have the opportunity to pursue their dream of a college degree. Nearly half – 47 percent – of TEXAS Grant funding goes to Hispanic students. We also established a TEXAS Grant II program to help thousands of young Texans attend a community college or technical school in the state.
We helped provide new opportunities to the children of undocumented workers – those who have been here three years and have completed high school in Texas – by allowing them to pay in-state tuition rates at our state colleges and universities. We also authorized the creation of a pharmacy school at Texas A&M University – Kingsville, the first of its kind in the border region.
Some have raised concerns about vetoes of a bill pertaining to procedures for obtaining a driver’s license and another impacting wages paid by border school districts. These decisions were based on sound reasoning.
The driver’s license bill failed to address a very critical public policy and public safety issue -- the ability to verify the identity of an individual from a foreign country seeking a drivers license. Verifying the authenticity of foreign birth certificates is complicated, yet important, since driver’s licenses are often accepted as proof of ID for such activities as cashing checks. My staff is working with bill sponsors, Mexican government officials and interested organization to resolve this issue and to find ways to ensure that immigrants can obtain vehicle insurance.
Another vetoed bill would have allowed border-area school districts to require construction contractors they hire to pay their workers more than the current wage rates in the area. School districts should not be forced to spend more on school construction or repairs than necessary. Every additional dollar that school districts must spend on construction is a dollar less they have to spend on educating our children.
To help ensure the health of border children and families, the Legislature passed and I signed Senate Bill 43, a new law simplifying the Medicaid application process and allowing parents to enroll their children by phone, mail or at any state health and human services office. The new law not only makes it easier to enroll children in Medicaid, but more importantly it encourages parents to make sure their children receive preventative health care.
The balanced state budget I signed into law increases Medicaid spending by approximately $4.2 billion to a record $25.3 billion while making Medicaid more efficient and saving taxpayers more than $400 million. State leaders also increased funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) by $935.7 million. Texas serves nearly one million children every month in the Medicaid program and an additional 380,000 children in CHIP.
In my State of the State address, I advocated expanding the use of telemedicine technology for under-served areas. Telemedicine is a method of delivering medical services over long distances to remote areas through the use of advanced telecommunications technology. And this session, we passed legislation to establish a telemedicine pilot program aimed at enhancing health care services along the Texas border.
We further addressed health care needs through House Bill 2498, which establishes an interim study to provide recommendations for the development of affordable and accessible health care coverage – including the possibility of bi-national health care coverage – along the Texas-Mexico border region.
And, we have taken steps to coordinate services that address a variety of border issues through Senate Bill 326, which creates a 13-state agency unit to study and propose recommendations on key international issues that Texas faces with Mexico. This group will study and propose solutions to health care needs along the border region.
This multi-state agency coordination will also lead to development of a "Texas-Mexico Commerce and International Relations Plan" to address key international issues, and to increase and improve trade with Mexico and other U.S. states by identifying barriers and making legislative recommendations.
To help improve border infrastructure, we approved the use of $175 million in bond financing to construct roads in Texas colonias. This funding tool does require voter approval. If approved by voters on November 6th, Proposition 2 will amend the Texas Constitution and make bond funds available to construct the needed roads in the colonias of Texas. How can we expect our children to reach for the stars when they can’t even make it to the classroom because of inadequate roads?
In addition, border counties have been given access to the State Infrastructure Bank to help finance road projects in their areas.
Senate Bill 192 requires Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to consider border ports of entry in its highway transportation and funding plans. The legislation also addresses concerns of the border by encouraging metropolitan planning organizations to include international bridge projects in their improvement plans.
My first appointee, Secretary of State Henry Cuellar – a former state representative from Laredo – continues to do an outstanding job as the state’s Border Czar. Since taking office in January, he has expanded that office’s Border Affairs division to better address issues that are unique to residents living along the border. He has actively promoted partnership with private and public entities, such as the Texas National Guard, Texas Young Lawyers Association, and private foundations, to address issues on the border.
My ongoing commitment to the border region of the state remains unwavering, planted in the staunch belief that if the border of Texas succeeds, then Texas succeeds. While there is still work to be done, we can all be proud at how much was accomplished to help the border in this session. The major steps taken will help provide border Texans the foundation for success in the 21st Century.
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