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McALLEN — How did the state legislature fare during the 88th Legislative Session earlier this year — a session overshadowed by the historic impeachment of the Texas attorney general, as well as pitched battles over border security, private school vouchers, property tax relief and restrictions on local control over elections?
All things considered, things went pretty well, according to members of the Rio Grande Valley delegation who spoke about the five months they spent in Austin earlier this year.
“Overall? This session, B+,” state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said to a packed room at the Embassy Suites by Hilton, where the McAllen Chamber of Commerce held a legislative luncheon on Thursday.
“B, B+,” state Rep. Ryan Guillen, R-Rio Grande City, added a moment later.
His colleague in the House, state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, also gave the session a B, while state Rep. Sergio Muñoz rated only the session’s success in passing property tax relief as an A.
As the lawmakers continued answering questions from moderator and former McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, the discussions largely focused on three key issues: property taxes and appraisals, education and how economic development in border communities is affected by political pundit talking points that paint the region as dangerous.
First and foremost, the lawmakers made it clear that they do their best to represent the Rio Grande Valley as a cohesive region, regardless of party affiliation.
“The Valley delegation works cooperatively together very much, and if we didn’t, the state wouldn’t listen to us,” Guerra said.
Guerra’s remarks echoed recent initiatives by local officials to shed the Valley’s long history of localism that prioritized individual cities and communities over the broader regional as a whole.
In mid-July, local leaders, joined by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, marked their commitment to speaking with one unified voice during a first-of-its-kind economic summit.
Up in Austin, however, state lawmakers have already been putting that growing sense of regionalism into practice, Guerra said.
“Whether Republican or Democrat, we all think pretty much the same way on many issues,” he said.
However, near the end of the panel discussion, Darling asked how lawmakers reconcile the Valley’s strong drive toward economic growth in the face of the powerful image painted by outsiders of how dangerous border communities are.
“The border’s been demonized, and especially the Valley. … How do you deal with that when you’re up in Austin,” Darling asked.
Hinojosa, the lone state senator on Thursday’s panel, and the longest serving lawmaker among them, said his colleagues don’t see the Valley as a bad place.
“They don’t think that the Valley is a violent place. They don’t think that here we have the cartel running all over the place. That’s not the case,” Hinojosa said.
He went as far as touting Abbott’s history of visiting the Valley more than any other governor before him.
But Guerra’s comments a few moments later told a different story — one where his colleagues in the statehouse have shown him two different sides when it comes to their thoughts on the Valley.
“I’ve had some members that come up to me on the House floor and say, ‘Hey, I just went down to the Valley. Man, what a beautiful place.’” Guerra said.
“But when you look at their campaign stuff, OK, they’re on gunner boats on the river talking about how dangerous this place is. And that’s very disheartening,” he said.
Guerra said it’s not only incumbent on lawmakers, but on the local community, as well, to show people a different narrative of the region than the one that’s shown in national headlines.
Guillen, the only lawmaker on the stage who represents several rural non-border counties — and the only Republican of the group — shared a similar perspective.
“Interestingly … the farther that you get away from the border, the more important that border security is to them,” Guillen said.
That’s why it’s imperative, he said, to help people — especially potential developers — to understand the Valley’s role in international commerce.
“The most important thing to do with folks that have a hand in potential development … is to get them to understand the value and the importance that trade with Mexico has for our part of the world,” Guillen said.
“And the impact that it can have — and that it does have — to the state of Texas as a whole.”