Only have a minute? Listen instead
The Brownsville Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon and update on the 88th Texas legislative session on the Thursday at the Brownsville Events Center.
On hand to discuss the session were District 27 Sen. Morgan LaMantia, District 38 Rep. Erin Elizabeth Gamez, District 35 Rep. Oscar Longoria, and District 37 Rep. Janie Lopez, the sole Republican on the slate.
Before an audience of chamber members and business, community and elected leaders, LaMantia said “we wanted to focus on our families and our community” during the past session.
“We wanted to make sure that we’re able to support and grow our small businesses, and there’s many factors that go into supporting local and small businesses and attracting new businesses to our area,” she said.
Education, health care, infrastructure, the electrical grid and the “cost of doing business” are among those factors, as is workforce, LaMantia said.
“This session we were very successful in some of these areas and … others we still have more work to do,” she said.
On infrastructure, the Legislature passed a bill allowing the Texas Water Development Board to study the Valley’s unique drainage needs, she said.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to get more money to our area for that specific need,” she said.
Cost of living was another big focus — specifically the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, LaMantia said, noting that TWIA is a cost coastal residents must bear that other state residents don’t.
“We’re trying to bring those costs down, and though we weren’t as successful as we wanted to be in really reestablishing our TWIA is funded, it’s something we’re going to continue to work on next session,” she said.
“Because when your wind insurance costs are higher than your property taxes, it is a huge burden not just for our families and our homeowners, but for local businesses and for other businesses trying to come into our community as well. With so much tourism going on in our coastal communities that benefits the rest of the state, we need the rest of the state’s help funding TWIA and bringing those costs down.”
Rising property taxes likewise were a major topic of discussion — by all four lawmakers present.
“It’s something that we all worked on together, but it’s still not done,” LaMantia said. “One issue that I know we’re all very well aware of is appraisal value and how those continue to go up. And though we’re realizing property tax relief, it doesn’t help when the appraisal value increases to the extent that it negates that homestead exemption. So that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on.
“What we also need to realize is that though our appraisal values go up locally, the state is saying that they haven’t increased enough. And as punishment, they’re penalizing our school districts because of that, taking much needed funds away from them because the appraisal district didn’t increase our appraisal values high enough.”
Gamez said she’s excited about major renovations slated for downtown Brownsville and that Qualified Hotel Project Zone legislation she passed with the help of LaMantia and other colleagues will bring about major changes downtown. She thanked city and county elected officials for coming to Austin during the session to voice support for the legislation, which will allow Hotel Occupancy Tax revenue generated by hotels within the zone to go toward downtown redevelopment rather than going back to the state — an estimated $80 million worth, Gamez said.
“Brownsville is now going to be on the map with the rest of the big cities you see in Texas,” she said. “I can assure you that in the next decade the city of Brownsville has the tool to change the face of Brownsville unlike anything you’ve seen before, and it’s going to happen in our lifetime.”
Longoria said the session was an especially good one for his district in terms of appropriations: $625,000 for parks in La Joya, $250,000 for a community center in Monte Alto, and $625,000 for Lion’s Park in La Feria, and $1 million for a new park in Santa Maria, for instance.
Also, Olmito Nature Park received $2.5 million for a project that will include RV sites, kayaking and canoeing, fishing, and hike-and-bike trails, he said.
“I think the district did really well,” Longoria said. “Cameron County did incredibly well. … There were 10 or 11 direct appropriations in the budget for the state. The majority of them came to South Texas and a portion of those came to Cameron County.”
On the subject of property taxes, Lopez, a member of the House Property Tax Select Committee, noted $18 billion in property tax relief for all property owners statewide was passed during the session.
“As citizens we face the unsettling possibility of being taxed out of our homes, while potential home buyers are challenged by soaring property taxes,” she said. “To address these concerns, we passed SB 2 and HR 2 which represents the most extensive property tax reduction initiative in Texas history.”
Observing bipartisan efforts in the House during the session, Lopez said she worked with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to help “get bills across the finish line,” including the Texas Privacy and Security Act, which ensures state residents have the right and ability to control personal data online.
Other successes during the session included funding for placing armed security guards on all public school campuses, expanding mental health training programs, expanding Medicaid to new mothers for a year following pregnancy, lower prescription drug prices, and boosting public education by improving the state’s teacher recruitment office, she said.
“I can truly say that the state has been very supportive of us down here in South Texas,” Lopez said. “I was proud to champion legislation that would substantially improve our great state for many years to come.”