TWDB Approves Additional $535 Million in Financing from SWIFT for Corpus Christi’s Inner Harbor Seawater Desalination Plant

Today, the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) approved a request from the City of Corpus Christi (City) for $535,110,000 in multi-year financing from the State Water Implementation Revenue Fund for Texas (SWIFT) for the City’s Inner Harbor Seawater Desalination Treatment Plant. For more than a decade, the City has worked to secure an additional reliable water source to withstand future droughts and the projected increase in demand of water for a region that encompasses seven counties. Currently, the City provides water and wastewater services to about 500,000 people. But the City relies on surface water from four sources and one plant that treats about 25 billion gallons of water each year.

The Inner Harbor Seawater Desalination Treatment Plant will be designed to produce potable water. The plant is critical for the continued growth of the Coastal Bend region, as Corpus Christi is a direct or indirect regional supplier of water for municipal and industrial use for multiple entities. The plant is projected to be fully integrated into the City’s regional water system in 2028. This is the second low-interest loan the City has been awarded from the state through SWIFT. In 2020, the City was awarded $222 million to build a 20-million-gallons-per-day (MGD) desalination plant. Four years later the estimated cost to build the plant escalated to $758 million. The second low-interest loan is needed to cover the additional costs to build a much bigger plant with 30 million MGD as well as cover construction-related inflation costs.

Senator Hinojosa issued the following statement:

“I commend the City of Corpus Christi for their proactive approach to ensure our families and businesses have a sustainable water supply for multiple generations. Converting our sea and brackish water into reusable water is just one key component to providing a reliable, sustainable water base for future economic development and jobs in the region. This upcoming session water security is one of my top priorities for my district. The future prosperity of communities throughout the Coastal Bend and the Rio Grande Valley continues to be threatened by water shortages. As Texans, we tend to be reactive to address issues as they come up. But when it comes to water security, we must be proactive by implementing solutions that result in new or additional sources of water.”

Senator Hinojosa Appointed to the Senate Special Committee on Hurricane and Tropical Storm Preparedness, Recovery, and Electricity

Today, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the creation of the Senate Special Committee on Hurricane and Tropical Storm Preparedness, Recovery, and Electricity. He appointed thirteen members to the committee including State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.

In response, Senator Hinojosa stated, “I appreciate Lt. Governor Dan Patrick creating this important committee to evaluate the readiness and recovery efforts of electric utility companies during hurricanes and storms. It is important for us to evaluate and have discussions about the reliability, resilience, and preparedness of our electric power system, whether it be from investor-owned, municipally-owned, or co-op entities. I look forward to working with Chairman Charles Schwertner and the Committee members to examine the preparation and response procedures of our electric companies. This will allow us to make informed policy decisions as we prepare for the legislative session.”

The Senate Special Committee on Hurricane and Tropical Storm Preparedness, Recovery, and Electricity is expected to meet in Austin on Monday, July 29, 2024 at 9:00am.

Changes to Medicaid Contracts Should Prioritize Benefiting Recipients Over Corporate MCO’s

Unless the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (Commission) decides to cancel a procurement or delay a decision until the Legislature can act, three of the state’s largest nonprofit children’s health plans, including Driscoll Health Plan (DHP), may lose out on the state’s $9 billion annual Medicaid contract. This decision could impact 700,000 families, pregnant women, and children statewide. The Commission’s focus should be on making the right decision for the recipients rather than strictly following a flawed procurement process that affects nonprofit health plans currently serving our communities. Losing Driscoll Health Plan from this contract would be detrimental to the Corpus Christi community and the South Texas region.

DHP, which has been serving 23 counties in South Texas for over two decades, operates as a nonprofit organization with headquarters and leadership based in Corpus Christi. Unlike the for-profit entities under consideration, DHP keeps jobs in our communities and directs its funding towards meeting recipients’ needs. Excluding DHP from the contract would disrupt care for 180,000 women and children in our communities and sever essential health care relationships with providers. DHP estimates an annual expenditure of $1.2 billion in the service area, with a substantial portion of these resources remaining within the region, instead of directing administrative fees out-of-state like the new entities would.

DHP plays an important role in meeting the healthcare needs of our communities by ensuring access to subspecialty care for our children and pregnant women. It has been instrumental in reducing maternal morbidity, mortality, and improving infant outcomes by funding 75 percent of the maternal fetal medicine specialists (MFM’s) in South Texas, as well as mental health resources for children. Over the years that it has served the region, DHP has invested more than $150 million to help reduce NICU costs. This investment includes recruiting and funding MFM’s and flying doctors across South Texas five days a week to serve their patients.

It is not realistic to expect that the level of care from the new MCO’s will be equivalent to that provided by DHP. Building trust with providers requires collaboration and support that takes years to create. It requires significant investment and resources to build the proper infrastructure to achieve high performance. DHP has all this already in place. It would take the new MCO’s that have never served our region years to build that infrastructure. Proceeding with awarding the contract as is would disrupt care for our most vulnerable population, and worse, it would set us back in time.

The procurement process the Commission used to make a decision overlooks key factors such as experience, past performance, and value, despite DHP being recognized as the top-performing managed care organization in terms of quality by the Commission. The current laws governing the Request for Proposals in this procurement are outdated and need modernization to ensure fairness and transparency. The process cannot be considered “fair” if fairness means that there is no consideration given to the past performance of existing MCOs, their positive outcomes, high patient and provider satisfaction, investment, innovation, and quality – just to make it more competitive for external MCOs to enter the service region. I fail to see any benefit to this approach for anyone in the state, except for the profits of the MCOs that will now receive the contract.

To add to the flawed procurement process, it was reported earlier this year that the Commission released redacted information to some of the MCOs before the start of the oral presentation of the applicants. While the release of the information is permissible, the law also provides a clear exception to the disclosure of the information prior to a contract award. The Commission should have exercised that exception to prevent any unfair perception of an advantage and further calling into question the fairness of this process.

To address these issues, the South Texas legislative delegation has recommended to the Commission to remove MCO-related procurement caps to increase competition among MCOs statewide. This change would benefit both MCOs and Medicaid members, providers, and communities, avoiding disruptions currently anticipated. If the authority to make this change is not available under current procurement laws, we urge the Commission to delay finalizing the awards until the Texas Legislature can provide guidance during the next session which begins in January 2025.

The impact on our women and children, the continuity of their care, and the benefit of our nonprofit community plans outweigh making a rushed decision that will ultimately lead to lawsuits being filed that will cost the state and our taxpayers more money. Delaying the decision until further guidance is received from the Texas Legislature would ensure a more informed and transparent process to maintain quality access to care and for the benefit of all Texans.

Senator Hinojosa Reminds Texans: Sales Tax Holiday for Water-Efficient and ENERGY STAR® Products, May 25-27

Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa wants to remind Texans that the Sales Tax Holiday for Water-Efficient and ENERGY STAR® products will take place during Memorial Day weekend, beginning Saturday, May 25, through Monday, May 27. This weekend, Texans can purchase water-efficient and water-conserving products, as well as ENERGY STAR® energy-efficient products, without paying a sales tax.

In 2015, Senator Hinojosa authored and passed SB 1356 to add water-efficient products to the already existing tax free weekend for energy-efficient products to incentivize consumers statewide to make smart choices in conserving water and energy. These products save consumers money and reduce consumption rates for our state’s valuable resources.

Senator Hinojosa issued the following statement:

“The best time to prepare for extreme heat and drought is before it happens. I was proud to pass legislation in 2015 that saves Texas families money as they purchase the products necessary to upgrade their water and energy systems. This tax free weekend is estimated to save our hard-working Texans almost $15 million in state and local sales tax. I urge everyone to take advantage of the tax holiday this weekend and spread awareness about the importance of water and energy conservation.”

The Water-Efficient Products Sales Tax Holiday applies to shower heads, bathroom sink faucets, and toilets. It also applies to lawn and garden products that help conserve water outdoors, like soaker or drip-irrigation hoses, moisture controls for sprinkler or irrigation systems, rain barrels, mulch, plants, trees, and grasses. The following link to the Texas Comptroller’s webpage will provide more information:

During the ENERGY STAR Sales Tax Holiday, certain energy-efficient products displaying the ENERGY STAR logo can be purchased tax free, including air conditioners priced at $6,000 or less, refrigerators priced at $2,000 or less, ceiling fans, fluorescent light bulbs, dishwashers, dehumidifiers, and clothes washers. The following link to the Texas Comptroller’s webpage will provide more information:

Senator Hinojosa Attends Groundbreaking Event for $81 Million Arts & Media Building at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa attended the groundbreaking event for the new 85,000-square-foot Arts & Media Building at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi earlier today. This state-of-the-art facility will house undergraduate and graduate programs within the School of Arts, Media, & Communication, including music, theatre, and dance.

The new two-story building will provide modern amenities such as a proscenium theatre performance space, recital hall, black box theatre, and dance studio. It will include rehearsal halls and theatre labs for instruction in costume construction and makeup, as well as faculty and administrative staff offices and support areas. The building will also have a designated place for Dr. Hector P. Garcia’s files and memorabilia.

Phase 1 of the project is estimated to cost $81 million, with $45 million provided by the Texas Legislature as part of a list of capital projects at higher education institutions included in Senate Bill 52 passed during the 87th Legislature in 2021. Substantial completion of this project is expected by March of 2026.

Senator Hinojosa provided the following statement:

“I appreciate Dr. Kelly Miller, President of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, for her leadership in making this project a reality. This has been one of her priorities since she became president of the university in 2017. She not only wanted a beautiful building for the arts, but also a space that would pay tribute to Dr. Hector P. Garcia’s legacy.

Investing in our educational institutions is investing in our future. Funding this state-of-the-art facility benefits our students and the community. It enhances the learning experience, attracts top talent, and contributes to the cultural and economic growth of our region.

During the 2021 legislative session, with the collaboration and support of Chairman Todd Hunter and Chairman Abel Herrero, we were able to secure $45 million for Phase 1 of this project estimated to cost $81 million. I appreciate Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, Governor Greg Abbott, Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Brandon Creighton, and Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp for their support of this project and its inclusion in the legislation authorizing the funding.”

Senator Hinojosa Announces UT System Approves Proposal for School of Optometry at UTRGV and Funding for a Student Housing Facility

Today, State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa announced that the University of Texas System Board of Regents has approved two significant projects at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). The Board of Regents has approved a proposal for the establishment of a School of Optometry and a Doctor of Optometry degree program, the first step in the development process which requires approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the accrediting institutions. The Board of Regents also allocated $135.5 million for a new Student Housing and Dining Project at the UTRGV Edinburg campus.

In response to the shortage of optometrists in Texas, the School of Optometry and the new Doctor of Optometry degree program at UTRGV will enroll approximately 40 students per year, increasing access for Texas students and addressing the need for optometrists in the RGV and the state. The School of Optometry, which would be the third in Texas, will collaborate with UTRGV’s School of Medicine and the South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute to conduct research and clinical activities to improve healthcare access and quality of life in South Texas. UTRGV estimates that it could welcome its first School of Optometry class as early as Fall 2027.

The Student Housing and Dining Project at the UTRGV Edinburg campus will provide housing for 550 students and include a dining facility with seating for 500 students. This project will increase on-campus student housing from 810 beds to 1,360 beds. The building will be designed to help students connect, collaborate, and overall build a stronger campus community.

Senator Hinojosa continues to advocate for expanded healthcare and infrastructure investments in South Texas and expressed his appreciation to the UT System Board of Regents, Chairman Kevin Eltife, and Chancellor James Milliken for their support of UTRGV’s new School of Optometry and the Student Housing and Dining Project. He said, “This approval is a significant step forward in transforming the delivery of medical care, improving healthcare access, enhancing campus life, student experience, and creating a vibrant campus community at UTRGV. I appreciate the UT System’s commitment to investing in these opportunities for our students and improving healthcare access in our community.”

Senator Hinojosa concluded by congratulating and thanking UTRGV President Guy Bailey and the staff for their work to advance these important initiatives. He stated, “I appreciate the leadership of Dr. Bailey and am grateful to all the UTRGV staff who work tirelessly to provide innovative educational opportunities and improve healthcare access in our community. The dedication and vision of our officials at UTRGV and the UT System are making a difference in the lives of students and residents across South Texas.”

Senator Hinojosa Reminds Texans: Sales Tax Holiday on Emergency Preparation Supplies, April 27-29

Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa wants to remind Texans that the Texas Sales Tax Holiday on Emergency Preparation Supplies is coming up this weekend. Beginning Saturday, April 27 through midnight on Monday, April 29, Texans can purchase emergency supplies and hurricane-proofing materials without paying a sales tax.

In 2015, Senator Hinojosa authored and passed Senate Bill 904 to create this tax free weekend for all Texans to be better prepared for weather events or disasters, including hail storms, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and more.

Senator Hinojosa issued the following statement:

“The best time to prepare for disasters is before they strike. From hurricanes and snow storms to record-breaking heat, we know the devastating effects that natural disasters can have on our daily lives. I was proud to pass legislation in 2015 that saves Texas families money as they purchase the supplies necessary to be ready for any disaster they might face.

I urge everyone to take advantage of the tax holiday this weekend and spread awareness about the importance of mitigation and emergency preparedness.”

Some of the items exempt from sales tax this weekend are:

·     Portable generators

·     Hurricane shutters

·     Batteries

·     Carbon monoxide detectors

·     Coolers and ice chests

·     Tarps

·     Radios

·     Smoke detectors

·     Fire extinguishers

·     First aid kits

·     Fuel containers

·     Candles, flashlights, and lanterns

There is no limit on the number of qualifying items you can purchase. A full list of emergency preparation supplies can be found on the Comptroller’s website:

Rooting Out Corruption in La Joya ISD

There is nothing more important to our communities, our families, and the future of our children than a strong public school system. Our dedicated La Joya ISD teachers and staff work tirelessly and do an excellent job preparing our students for success.

Recently, a crucial policy change took place within La Joya ISD, one that signals a significant step towards preventing corruption and minimizing conflicts of interest. The Board of Managers made a bold move to prohibit La Joya ISD administrators from holding an elected position. This policy is tailored to positions that oversee employees or manage the financial affairs of the district. This policy shift, led by Superintendent Dr. Marcey Sorenson and Board of Managers President Julian Alvarez, is a praiseworthy initiative that deserves our support.

This action is key in dismantling the persistent culture of corruption that has tainted the integrity of our institutions. The recent string of federal indictments involving public officials from La Joya ISD, Agua Special Utility District (“Agua SUD”), and the City of Penitas emphasizes the urgency of addressing this issue at its core.

As the largest employer in western Hidalgo County, some La Joya ISD board members took advantage of this influence to enrich themselves and their allies with promotions, stipends, and government positions and contracts. In 2017, I passed a law that attempted to address the trading of hires between board members of La Joya ISD and Agua SUD. At the time, the president and vice president of the La Joya ISD board were employed by Agua SUD, while four Agua SUD board of directors were employed by La Joya ISD as administrators of different departments. This trading of hires of elected officials by these overlapping taxing entities created a huge conflict of interest.

SB 814 (85R) prohibited Agua SUD from hiring elected officials or family members of another taxing entity within the district, such as La Joya ISD. To protect their cushy and dubious jobs, the Agua SUD spent public money to pay for consultants to kill SB 814. When it became clear they would fail, both boards took actions to loot additional taxpayer money. On May 1, 2017, the Agua SUD board rushed to approve new five-year employment contracts with the two La Joya ISD trustees with a severance clause that guaranteed a huge payout to both trustees shortly after SB 814 became law in June 2017. Eight days after Agua SUD approved the new contracts, the Agua SUD board members employed by La Joya ISD all conveniently received promotions, new positions, as well as dramatic increases in their stipends and salaries that were significantly higher than the average teacher in the district. In July 2017, the Agua SUD board voted for severance packages totaling $489,000 between the two trustees, despite being employed for less than two years. These events led to the Texas Rangers conducting a criminal investigation of Agua SUD in 2018.

The unethical and illegal actions of these public officials continued from there. In 2021, a federal investigation of La Joya ISD, Agua SUD, and other neighboring cities revealed a massive bribery and kickback scheme that involved more than a dozen public officials in western Hidalgo County. In 2022, the U.S. Attorneys’ Office charged the same two trustees that received the severance packages from Agua SUD and three of its central office administrators with various federal financial crimes for actions taken from 2017–2020. Court documents revealed the intricate kickback scheme and bribe payments made to local elected officials and administrators in western Hidalgo County. As of April 2024, almost a dozen local public officials and subcontractors have pled guilty to federal charges that included bribery, money laundering, extortion, and wire fraud, while others yet to be charged have been implicated in the conspiracy to defraud the taxpayers.

Records show that one trustee illegally used his influence over elected officials employed by La Joya ISD to ensure that this one company was awarded the energy savings performance contract projects. This company would then hire subcontractors recommended by the administrators. The subcontractors would then overcharge La Joya ISD, which the trustee and two administrators would receive kickbacks from the overcharges. The same trustee also supported promotions and stipends to the elected officials employed by La Joya ISD for their official votes or support of the same company to be awarded energy savings performance contract projects at other neighboring governmental entities. As a result, taxpayers from La Joya ISD, Agua SUD, and the City of Mission were on the hook for at least a total of $70 million. Funds from the overcharges and inflated costs were used to payout at least $1.5 million to local officials involved in the massive bribery and kickback scheme.

Based on these charges and the guilty pleas, as well as other complaints the Texas Education Agency (“TEA”) received about the board’s alleged fraud and violations of law, the Commissioner of Education authorized a special investigation of La Joya ISD on March 21, 2022. The TEA Final Report on the Investigation of La Joya ISD made the same or similar findings that federal investigators uncovered. TEA determined that the state could not afford to wait for another round of indictments to address the corruption and conflicts of interest at La Joya ISD. TEA replaced the local school board with a board of managers. As the saying goes, to enact real change, one must “strike at the root.” It is key to eliminate corruption from its source to advance a culture of accountability and ethical governance.

For far too long, individuals in positions of power have exploited their authority for personal gain, disregarding the well-being of our children and the hard-earned money of taxpayers. The transformation we seek must begin at the top, permeating throughout the district to ensure that integrity and public interest remain paramount. This district policy will ensure that every decision made by employees in influential positions is solely based on delivering the best education for our students.

Elected public officials are entrusted with a duty to serve the public and safeguard taxpayer funds, not to serve their own self-interests and line their pockets at the expense of the community. I applaud the leadership of Superintendent Sorenson and the Board of Managers in providing proper oversight and correcting the mismanagement and unethical practices that have plagued the district for many years. In this instance, La Joya ISD has a legitimate interest in regulating the political activities of its employees. La Joya ISD employees with the power to hire, fire, or manage tax dollars should not be employed to build a powerful, invincible, and corrupt political machine. This new policy strikes a balance between the district’s interest in promoting efficiency of its administrators to prioritize the student’s needs and the administrators’ interests. I strongly believe the limits on holding elected office by the district’s administrators substantially serve the district’s interests that are “important” enough to outweigh the administrators’ rights and political ambitions.

Looking ahead, it is important that we continue this momentum. During the next legislative session, I will work to enact any necessary changes that will safeguard the future of our children, uphold the values of ethical behavior, accountability, transparency, and ensure the culture of corruption comes to an end.

The Demand for Physicians in Texas

It’s no surprise that Texas, with its booming economy and vast opportunities, has one of the fastest-growing populations in the nation. As more people move to the Lone Star State, we are faced with intensifying challenges regarding accessibility to physicians, which have consistently been in short supply.

While the shortage of physicians isn’t new or unique to Texas, projections show that our physician distribution lags compared to other states. By 2032, Texas could be short over 10,000 physicians if current trends remain. Other major drivers of the shortage include an aging population that requires increasingly complex care, medical school debt, burnout following the pandemic, and a significant portion of the current physician workforce reaching retirement age.

As lawmakers, we are constantly evaluating how we can increase the supply of high-quality physicians to help achieve our ultimate goal of providing accessible healthcare to all Texans. With 16 medical schools across the state, 7 of which have opened since 2016, the Legislature has continued its commitment to bolstering the physician workforce for generations to come.

However, providing more opportunities for medical school is just one part of the equation. With more students graduating from medical school, it is critical that the state provides adequate opportunities for training through residency programs. Without enough residency slots, students are leaving the state for other graduate medical education programs, some of whom will never return. In response to this trend, the Legislature set a target ratio of 1.1 to 1 for the number of first-year residency positions compared to graduating medical students. Meeting this target would allow all Texas medical school graduates to pursue their residency training within the state, a factor known to boost the likelihood of physicians staying in Texas to practice medicine after completing their training.

To further address the shortage of first-year residency positions, the Legislature initiated several new programs in 2013, including the Unfilled Residency Position Program and the Resident Physician Expansion Program, and provided just over $14 million in funding. During the following legislative session, legislators consolidated the various programs into the single Graduate Medical Education (GME) Expansion Program and increased funding to over $49 million. Funding has significantly increased over the years and most recently, the Legislature appropriated over $233 million for GME, indicating an increase of $219 million since the GME Expansion Program’s establishment. The GME Expansion Program has supported the creation of 508 new first-year residency positions between 2014 and 2023.

We’ve seen the impact of GME Expansion right here in the Rio Grande Valley. These funds have supported new residency positions in various specialties, like family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, neurology, psychiatry, general surgery, and more. Additionally, the UTRGV School of Podiatric Medicine, the first podiatry school in Texas, is now eligible for GME funding following the passage of House Bill 2509 during the 2021 Legislative session, which I proudly authored. These funds support residency slots for students to pursue careers in the medical and surgical care of the foot and ankle – an important specialization for the Valley due to its high incidence of diabetes and related diseases of the lower extremities.

More people means more healthcare needs and we must continue to invest in the education of physicians in all corners of the state. The Legislature has made GME Expansion a priority over the years, but the work is not done. As we move forward, we need to ensure that our medical schools and US/Texas students are a priority for GME funding. By further bolstering graduate medical education programs, we can ensure that medical school graduates have the opportunity to train in and ultimately serve the diverse communities across the state.

Senator Hinojosa Announces Grants Awarded to Brooks and Jim Wells Counties to Assist Law Enforcement and Prosecutor Offices

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar recently announced that nearly $126 million in financial assistance has been delivered to rural law enforcement and prosecutor offices across the state as part of a grant program assisting rural areas.

Enacted by Senate Bill 22 during the 88th Legislature, Regular Session, the grant program provides financial assistance to sheriff’s departments, constable’s offices, and district and county attorney’s offices in eligible counties to ensure professional law enforcement and legal representation of the people’s interests throughout the state. Specifically, the grant program allows the Comptroller’s office to administer the Rural Sheriff’s Department Salary Assistance Grant, the Rural Constable’s Office Salary Assistance Grant, and the Rural Prosecutor’s Office Salary Assistance Grant. The Legislature appropriated $330 million for the 2024-25 biennium to fund the grant program.

The following awards were granted to law enforcement and prosecutor offices in Senate District 20:

·     Brooks County – Sheriff Grant Award: $250,000

·     Brooks County – County Attorney Grant Award: $100,000

·     Jim Wells, Brooks Counties – District Attorney Grant Award: $175,000

·     Jim Wells County – Sheriff Grant Award: $350,000

·     Jim Wells County – County Attorney Grant Award: $175,000

Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa issued the following statement:

“In Senate Finance Committee hearings, we heard testimony from sheriffs, constables, and prosecutors regarding the vital resources needed for them to continue protecting our communities. By investing in our local law enforcement agencies and prosecutor offices, especially those in rural counties, we are not only strengthening public safety but reinforcing our commitment to supporting the brave men and women who serve and protect us. I thank Lt. Governor Dan Patrick for making this issue a priority last session and Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar for his work on this important issue. I look forward to seeing the impact these grants will have on the communities of Senate District 20.”