Texas Hispanic Lawmakers Spar Over Race, Education

House members discuss changing politics at TribLive event on February 28, 2011
House members discuss changing politics at TribLive event on February 28, 2011

Protecting education and recognizing that the rapidly growing Hispanic population will gain a major political voice in Texas were themes that emerged Monday afternoon at The Texas Tribune’s "New Day Rising" forum at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.

During a lunch keynote session, Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith spoke with four Hispanic state representatives: Larry Gonzales, R-Round Rock; Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg; Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen; and Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. The four agreed that public education remains a key investment for the state. They disagreed, though, on where cuts should be made, especially as the state faces a shortfall between $15 billion and $27 billion.

“When [education is] 60 percent of your budget, you have to look there. But you have to be careful to leave an infrastructure,” said Larry Gonzales, whose wife is a special education administrator.

Villarreal said that so far, the GOP approach cuts too deeply in education and is too harsh on immigrants.

“This may be the most harmful session to Hispanics,” he said, referring to bills that would target immigrants, eliminate some pre-kindergarten programs and zero-out funding for college grants.

Villarreal also took aim at the governor.

“Rick Perry and the Republicans in control must admit that we have a permanent revenue shortfall. We have a hole in our budget that is persisting even if we balance this budget,” he said. “It’s a state responsibility to cover education — the basics — or else it gets sued.”

Peña, who recently switched to the Republican Party, said the GOP's landslide wins across the state in November showed that Texans want the government to live within its means and not raise taxes. He found himself on the defensive, as the audience of about 300 disagreed loudly.

Still, Peña and Gonzales both pledged not to increase taxes.

The Democrats advocated for a balanced approach.

“We need to not take anything off the table, like the Rainy Day Fund and raising revenue,” said Veronica Gonzales.

When it comes to the Rainy Day Fund, the lawmakers said it should be tapped — but couldn’t agree to what extent.

“If it’s not raining right now, I don’t know what weather map they’re looking at,” Villarreal told the audience after confirming he supports drying out the funds if necessary.

The Republicans expressed misgivings about draining the savings account.

A post-lunch session moderated by the Tribune's managing editor, Ross Ramsey, yielded four perspectives on the state of public policy in Texas.

Eva DeLuna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities warned that local governments will likely have to pay for more services the public expects from government, especially as the state cuts back. She advocated for sales taxes on services and instituting income taxes and lower property taxes.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Talmadge Heflin said the state must recognize that Medicaid is unsustainable and that the state’s pension system — though considered healthy now — should learn from other states that are facing similar struggles.

The event ended with an appearance by Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration.

Now the CEO of a real estate management firm, Cisneros said his native city has set the tone for inclusiveness and job creation by opening itself to a diversity of sectors, from the military and manufacturing to health care and biosciences.

But Cisneros echoed the theme expressed by fellow Democrats — that Texas is cutting education and social services at an alarming rate.

“The question is whether we’re building the kind of human capital base that can support a future economy,” he said.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.