Mayor Castro's Keynote Address
What can politics accomplish when it is done well? Mayor Castro answered the question with his "opportunity-first agenda," which includes San Antonio's college preparatory program Café College, and Pre-K for SA, a program which will provide free, high quality full-day pre-kindergarten education to 22,400 four-year olds in San Antonio. He spoke of his goal to create well educated young people with big dreams and the ability to accomplish them, and then match those people with opportunities.
Mayor Castro said that the Valley is "under-invested in," but that it now presents a great value proposition for any business owner and great opportunity for growth. He advocated for the proposed new joint university, the proposed medical school, and he also spoke of his dream to build a law school in the Valley.
There was strong support for federal immigration reform at the Summit. Congressman Castro stated that he believes comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship will pass in Congress this year, and said that with regard to immigration there is "no state with more to gain or lose than Texas." Mayor Castro chimed in, adding that immigration is "one of the issues in Washington where folks are getting their act together."
Mayor Salinas of Laredo attacked the image of the border as unsafe, which he says is not supported by fact and has "really hurt" South Texas (and hurt him personally), and implored leaders to work to change that image.
Panelists addressed how to better serve the large population that lives in colonias, neighborhoods outside of the city limits that often do not have access to basic services like water and power. Ann Williams Cass of Proyecto Azteca stated that despite an economic boom in the Valley, there has been no decrease in the poverty rates in colonias and that some families can pay more in gas each month to get to work than they make. Cass asked local leaders for more affordable housing, more regional coordination and less "turfism."
Mayor Castro described a model process that he employed to develop the Pre-K for SA program, in which more than 5,000 people were consulted and a task force was created. He also explained how he convinced voters to pass the 1/8 cent tax increase needed to fund the program ("explain in concrete terms what people get for what they will pay").
Regarding the issue of higher education in the Valley, Mayor Castro called the history of underinvestment a "travesty." However, this is likely to improve thanks to the proposed consolidation of UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, which is likely to become reality this legislative session. The combined university will have access to permanent university funds and include a medical school.
UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen, a crusader for quality higher education in the valley, who risks losing his own job by advocating for a combined university, had the rapt attention of attendees as he nearly cried while pointing out all the graduates in the crowd and spoke of "saving the kids."
State Representative Mary Gonzalez, HD-75, offered strong support for full restoration of all public education funds cut in 2011. She also vehemently criticized pending legislation (HB 5) that purport to default all incoming Texas high school students into a less educationally-rigorous "foundation" track, in which they will not be eligible for the "top 10" program.
There is a boom right now in South Texas, thanks in large part to the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas discovery. According to Mayor Garcia, Edinburg is riding "the wave," with a 16.5% sales tax collection increase this year and a 6.7% unemployment rate. Congressman Castro, who served as moderator on the energy panel, led a lively discussion touching on Texas' status as the top producer of alternative energy sources, how to reduce energy usage in households, and how to increase energy production safety and improve infrastructure.
Regarding health care, panelists held a spirited discussion of major issues affecting health care in the Valley - Medicaid expansion, access to care, the uninsured, promoting early intervention, and Texas' shockingly low doctor/patient ratio (which is even lower in the Valley), and how opening the new medical school and bringing in residents from other medical schools is a step toward improvement.
New Leaders Texas Foundation plans to hold similar summits across the state. Stay tuned!