Plans already in works for 2019 legislative push

McALLEN — The Rio Grande Valley business community is already preparing for the next legislative session and learning about the upcoming budgetary challenges the state faces, including a potential shortfall of more than $12 billion, according to state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, one of five senators tasked with finalizing the biennial budget.

The Rio Grande Valley will have a louder voice in the budget-writing process for the upcoming session after Texas House Speaker Joe Straus appointed Oscar Longoria as the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hinojosa told members of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon Thursday.

Together, Hinojosa and Longoria will be instrumental in both the House and Senate in the final stages of negotiating the budget, which once again promises to be a hard-fought battle.

Many people don’t know the state had a $5 billion deficit during the 85th session, Hinojosa told the group of about 40 people. The state owes the Texas Department of Transportation about $1.8 billion dollars.

“That’s required by law. It’s in our constitution,” Hinojosa said about the payment to the state’s transportation agency. “(Add) another $5 billion that has to be transferred under Prop. 1 and Prop. 7.”

Texas also spent about $1.8 billion in unforseen costs that stemmed from Hurricane Harvey.

“We have $12.1 billion already committed before we even start putting together our budget,” Hinojosa said about the upcoming session.

And Texas is already facing challenges to fund higher education, which saw a big reduction in funds during the last session, health care, which is eating up the budget, and public school funding, which is causing property taxes to go higher.

“Higher education took the biggest hit … we made a reduction anywhere from 6 to 10 percent,” Hinojosa said. “We’re doing that because we didn’t have money, quite frankly. We cannot issue checks for money that isn’t in the bank.”

For example, the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was initially appropriated $5.6 million, but Hinojosa and other local legislators pushed throughout the last session to eventually bring that figure back up to $54.1 million.

Hinojosa said the school needs local support, just like every other region supports their medical school through local funds. He acknowledged taxpayers rejected the creation of a health district and said other solutions needed to be brought to the table, such as the Local Provider Participation Fund.

The LPPF allows local hospitals to assess themselves a fee, which is then put into a fund that is given to the county. The county then takes that fund and sends it to the federal government, and it more than matches the amount and returns it back to the county and local hospitals.

“The business community will have to get involved,” he said, “for the simple reason that it’s the community that will benefit the most.”

RGV Day at the Capitol is slated for Feb. 5, 2019. The all-day event is set up to give the region one voice as local community leaders head to Austin to talk to legislators about issues important to the region.

nlopez@themonitor.com