Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Peña: Another Successful Session Comes to a Close

At the start of the 81st Legislative Session State Representative I declared that the establishment of a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley was my and the region's number one legislative priority. Now with session over and with that legislation headed to Governor Rick Perry for his signature, we can claim a huge victory for South Texas .

The Rio Grande Valley has been long 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. I applaud State Senator 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.

I was a sponsor of SB 98 which authorizes the creation of the medical school in the Rio Grande Valley . The passage of the legislation 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. Aside from passage of the medical school bill, there were other important victories that overall made this session a success for South Texas.

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. Every session begins with great potential and I think we accomplished a great deal for our veterans. We secured a small raise for teachers, law enforcement and other state employees. Our state budget includes more money for schools, universities and important infrastructure projects, while we secured tax breaks for thousands of small businesses and volunteer fire departments. I am proud of the work that we did to pass important local and statewide legislation.

Veterans services and care was prominent in my legislative agenda. I authored important legislation granting tax relief to disabled veterans and another memorializing the U.S. Congress to build a veterans hospital in South Texas . While in session Valley Veterans led another march to San Antonio to highlight the need for the construction of the hospital. With the passage of HCR 5 , with the aid of local veterans, we successfully secured the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor to Edinburg 's Pedro Cano.

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. We found a vehicle in HB 3613.

Providing meaningful tax relief for disabled veterans is not only honorable but the right thing to do. On numerous occasions a contingent of veterans from the Rio Grande Valley testified, lobbied and tirelessly championed legislation for their brethren. Much of our success this session is owed to them.

In 2007, we were successful in securing the Texas Legislative Medal Honor for Edinburg 's Freddy Gonzalez. HCR 5 will posthumously confer Texas ' highest military honor to another Edinburg hero, Pedro Cano. The legislation awaits the signature of the Governor. Cano was presented the Distinguished Service Cross on April 26, 1946 in the town square as the city of Edinburg proclaimed it Pedro Cano Day. Businesses closed, schools were dismissed, a parade was held and more than 4,000 people witnessed the decoration of our country's second highest military honor to the 25 year old Army Private. 63 years later our state now honors his life and service to our country. A ceremony with the Governor presenting the medal to the Cano family is expected to be held later in the year.

I 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. As technology continues to evolve, state law must keep up and empower law enforcement with new tools to track, catch and prevent sexual predators from preying upon our children.

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. I filed the bill at the urging of the Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department.

Every legislative session lawmakers are required to pass one bill, the state's biennial budget. Highlights of state's $182.3 billion budget included an 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.

At a time when our economy is contracting and the state is facing revenue shortages we must be faithful stewards of the taxpayers' money. A state as big as Texas has many divergent interests and priorities for funding. Overall I believe we did a good job in addressing some of our most pressing needs.

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. 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.

Not all legislation included spending. 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. On the Floor of the House and in the House Committee on Ways and Means, as a member of the committee, I supported the bill.

Accountability in our public schools was a prominent issue this session. We 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, the legislature 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 $50million 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. We will now have the opportunity to return to our districts and reengage with our community.

Many pundits agree that more potential damage is averted by bad bills that fail to pass. 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 our state the best it can be.

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