Local legislators square off over 82nd session
By Nadia Tamez-Robledo
The division between Rep. Aaron Peña and his colleagues was palpable in more than just the space between them on the Student Union Theater stage they shared Tuesday.
The Republican spent much of his time defending his party’s actions during the 82nd Legislative session against the criticism of State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Rep. Veronica Gonzales.
The event was part of “The Hot Seat,” a discussion series hosted by the Texas Tribune, a political news website based in Austin.
Mediator Evan Smith, editor-in-chief and CEO of the Tribune, gave the first question to Hinojosa, asking if the 82nd session had been good for the Valley.
“No. Actually, it was the most difficult session I’ve been involved in,” said Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat who has served in the Senate since 2002. “It was a session driven by ideology and not good public policy.”
He and Gonzales slammed the Republican-sponsored budget cuts to education and health care that passed in Austin last April.
“When you cut $59 million from Texas Grants, which is so relied upon here by students at this university and many others across the state, that’s going to impact the ability of students to get an education, and that’ll impact the workforce and impact the economy,” said Gonzales, who will not seek reelection following the end of her fourth term.
Peña explained the logic behind his fellow Republicans’ votes even as he distanced himself from the results. He reminded the audience that he voted against the budget and was in favor of using the Rainy Day Fund, money set aside by the state to cushion budget deficits; Republicans blocked that money from being disbursed.
“They’ve got constituencies they have to represent, and I think it would take an act of God to get some of those constituents to want a tax increase,” said Peña, who switched from Democrat to Republican in 2010. He has not yet decided whether he will seek reelection in November.
Hinojosa agreed that the Legislature didn’t need to raise taxes to increase state revenue. He echoed Gonzales’ criticism that Congress failed to close tax loopholes or make use of the Rainy Day Fund – which he said had $6 billion at the time the controversial budget passed.
“(Republicans’) answer to everything – cut taxes, shrink government,” he said. “Unfortunately, government’s a lot more complicated than that, more sophisticated than that. Taxes is a responsibility, and taxes is a price that we pay for civilized society.”
Peña answered no when Smith asked if he thought Texas was spending too much on education.
“The bottom line is that the general public does not have an appetite for seeing government grow and grow and grow, so we have to use the creative powers that God gave us to find solutions, and I think we can do that,” he said. “The only way you could say (cutting education funds) was a step in the right direction was that it reflected the wishes of the general public not to
Smith explained that the majority of funds that can be cut in order to balance the budget come from public education, higher education and health care.
“You cannot talk about not raising taxes but wanting to invest in public education,” Hinojosa said.
Update: A previous version of this story stated that State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa said the Rainy Day Fund contained $6 million last year. He actually said the fund contained $6 billion, and the story has been changed to reflect this correction. The Pan American strives for accuracy in reporting and apologizes for any inconvenience this may have caused.