Lawmakers say the framework for a future medical school, increased aid for veterans, and raises for teachers, police, and state employees are the highlights of a successful session for the Valley.
Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, vice chairman of the Senate finance committee, was one of 10 legislators who negotiated the final version of the state’s budget. Hinojosa chaired the judiciary, public safety, natural resources, and regulatory workgroups during the budget-writing process.
The state’s $182.3 billion budget, which includes federal stimulus money, also includes increases of $1.9 billion for public education, $1.2 billion increase for higher education, $2 billion in bonds for new roads, $450 million in bonds for cancer research and a $208 million increase to help people with mental disabilities live in community settings rather than in institutions.
“Crafting a balanced budget requires a great deal of cooperation and discipline. Because Texas works on a biennial basis, budget writers need to be especially careful when committing the state’s financial resources,” Hinojosa said. “With the stimulus money, we were careful to use those funds for one-time projects to help Texas heal from the current recession.”
Lawmakers say that legislation passed allowing for the establishment of a medical school in the Valley was a “huge victory” this session. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, authored SB 9, and Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg sponsored the bill which will transform the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) into a 4 year, stand alone medical school.
The RAHC currently has a medical education and research component in Harlingen and Edinburg . Funding for the facility will begin in 2015 to give the University of Texas System some time to move forward with the development and planning for the state’s newest health science center.
Peña said the Valley has long been underserved in access to healthcare and health care providers.
“The establishment of a medical school and health science center will not only serve to bridge that gap but it has the power to transform our economy,” Peña said. “I applaud state Sen. Eddie Lucio for his leadership, our legislative delegation and community and business leaders for all their efforts. While we can relish this achievement we have a lot of important work ahead to ensure that the facility is fully funded and world class.”
Peña said some of his great successes this session came for Valley veterans, as he authored legislation granting tax relief to disabled veterans and another petitioning the U.S. Congress to build a veterans hospital in South Texas.
Voters overwhelmingly approved a homestead property tax exemption for disabled veterans in a constitutional amendment election in 2007. The enacting legislation fell victim to a deadline at the end of 80th Legislative Session. As this session came to an end there were fears that the clock would run out again on the legislation. Anxious legislators found a vehicle in HB 3613.
While in session, Rep. Peña joined Valley Veterans in another march to San Antonio to highlight the need for the construction of the hospital. With the passage of HCR 5, Peña , with the aid of local veterans, successfully secured the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor to Edinburg ‘s Pedro Cano.
Lawmakers secured a small raise for teachers, law enforcement and other state employees, according to Peña. The state budget includes more money for schools, universities and important infrastructure projects. Lawmakers secured tax breaks for thousands of small businesses and volunteer fire department, he said.
“While we had some great success there were also some big disappointments like the failure to expand CHIP to include more kids and capping rising tuition costs at colleges and universities,” Peña said. “Every session begins with great potential and I think we accomplished a great deal for our veterans. “ I am proud of the work that we did to pass important local and statewide legislation.”
Peña also passed other important legislation with significant local and statewide implications. SB 689, known as the social networking bill, will compile online identifiers, email addresses and cell phone numbers of registered sex offenders. The new law will also prohibit certain dangerous sex offenders on probation or parole from accessing social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.
SB 254 will provide a tax exemption for gasoline and diesel fuel sold to a volunteer fire department. It would allow an eligible volunteer fire department, that had paid the motor fuel tax on the purchase of gasoline or diesel fuel, to file a claim with the Comptroller’s Office for a refund of the tax. Volunteer fire department already operating on tight budgets will be able to receive a refund of 20 cents for every gallon of fuel purchased. Peña filed the bill at the urging of the Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department.
The budget also included a 7 to 8 percent pay raise for correctional workers and law enforcement officers and a one-time $800 payment for other state employees. Texas public school teachers will also receive an $800 pay raise.
“Our state budget included almost $2 billion for financially strapped school districts across the state,” Peña said. “While it was not a permanent fix to some of our funding and equity issues we face, it is a step in the right direction.”
An estimated 40,000 small businesses in Texas will receive a tax break as the legislature raised the franchise tax exemption from $300,000 to $1 million. The tax break was designed to provide tax relief to many small businesses across the state that faced stiff increases as a result of the reorganized business tax passed in the 80th Legislative Session. In the House Committee on Ways and Means and as a member of the committee, Peña supported the bill.
Accountability in our public schools was a prominent issue this session. Lawmakers decreased the reliance on high stakes testing in elementary schools. Responding to concerns from parents, teachers and administrators third graders will no longer have to pass the TAKS in order to advance to the 4th grade. The testing requirement will still be in place at the 5th and 7th grade. Legislation passed that also scrapped minimum grade policies which required teachers give students a minimum grade of 50, 60, or 70 in assignments or tests regardless of the student’s performance.
Regarding higher education, legislators invested in a program designed to bring up more of our state’s universities to Tier-1 status. Currently Texas A&M University , the University of Texas at Austin and the private Rice University are recognized as such. California boasts nine and New York seven national elite universities. A $50 million incentive fund was established for universities to compete for matching funds for research and development.
With the close of another legislative session much more legislation failed than succeeded. Lawmakers will now have the opportunity to return to their districts and reengage with their community.
“Many pundits agree that more potential damage is averted by bad bills that fail to pass,” said Representative Peña. “This session saw its share of highly contentious and partisan legislation that took up headlines and time. With 181 legislators in the House and Senate it takes a great deal of compromise to get work done. We will have some time to take a step back and reflect on our successes and failures. I look forward to heading back home and continuing the work that lies ahead to make our community and ou