Border lawmakers and local officials who had hoped for state money to help train new produce inspectors at border ports and reduce wait times instead got a promise from legislators to study the issue.
Nearly half of all U.S. fruit and vegetable imports from Mexico last year came by way of Texas land ports, including those in Laredo, El Paso and McAllen. As Mexico nears completion this year of highway improvements that will create a quicker route from agriculturally rich areas in the western parts of the country to Texas ports, the already large amount of imported produce is expected to increase dramatically.
Lawmakers and local officials from border communities say the federal government's investment in southern land ports has not kept pace with the expansion of trade. The ports have run out of capacity, and there aren't enough inspectors to examine all the goods coming across. It all adds up, they say, to unpredictable wait times that slow down commerce and leave stalled trucks idling for hours, belching exhaust into the air.
Washington is exploring ways to address the shortage of agriculture specialists who inspect produce at border ports, but state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, came into the legislative session with a proposal to address the problem sooner with local resources.
Guerra filed House Bill 3761, which would have used local institutions like the Texas A&M University Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco to train produce inspectors to meet federal guidelines. New inspectors, he hoped, would reduce wait times and increase the speed of commerce.
But many lawmakers from other parts of Texas, he said, felt that the $6.4 million the training measure would have cost the state should come from Washington, where responsibility for the international border lies.
“I was getting some pushback quite frankly, but I have to be sensitive to other members in the House who have other concerns," Guerra said.
To satisfy his colleagues, Guerra turned the legislation into a requirement for the Texas Department of Agriculture to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to study the need for training new inspectors. The new price tag for his bill: $0. It also means zero state investment in inspectors, for now.
Teclo Garcia, governmental relations director for the city of McAllen, said he was disappointed that Guerra's bill had been reduced to a study. But he added that some shipping and storage companies are open to new ideas, including potentially paying more fees that would be used for new inspectors, if the federal government doesn't find the money.
"The industry wants the same thing we do, to expedite traffic," Guerra said.
The department's report is due by December 2014, just ahead of the 84th Legislature.
Around the same time, a joint interim committee will submit a report that examines the impact wait times at Texas ports of entry have on international trade.