Committee meant to help South Texas colonias has gone unformed, without report

A system to add or remove colonias from the state-recognized list has yet to be created. Some have since become cemeteries or no longer exist.

By Carolina Cuellar, Gaige Davila, Texas Public RadioOctober 17, 2022 10:00 am,

From Texas Public Radio:

A committee meant to address the needs for South Texas colonias has gone without forming, and without a report meant to be presented to the state’s House of Representatives.

For more than a year, state legislators have failed to follow a mandate to form a committee meant to address the needs of South Texas colonias. Colonias are historically poor neighborhoods along the border with inadequate infrastructure, such as water or sewage systems.

Oliver De La Garza, a Hidalgo County colonia advocate, said he had heard of the bill in passing earlier this year but thinks he’s the exception.

“It looks like the intent was to just all along was just to let this kind of slide by and and go unnoticed,” de La Garza said. “Locally, I think the majority of people probably don’t even know what this house bill is.”

Authored by State Rep. Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City), House Bill 1301 sought to establish a joint interim committee to study colonias and identify their needs.

Since the state government’s recognition of the term colonia in the late 1980s, they’ve created legislation and set aside funds to prevent and aid these particular communities. But a system to add and remove colonias from a state-recognized list doesn’t currently exist.

“There’s, I think, 937 colonias on the Secretary of State’s list in Hidalgo County, but some of them now are cemeteries, some of them don’t even exist,” said Ann Cass, the executive director of Proyecto Azteca, a non-profit organization that helps colonia residents.

Highland Memorial Park, is an example of such a case. While it’s listed in the Attorney General’s Colonias Database, it has been a cemetery since 1950 and was never even a residential neighborhood. Yet, there’s no way to remove this classification.

Cass said a new designation system is much needed to properly allocate colonia funds and track improvements. Finding a solution to this problem was outlined in the bill:

“In conducting the study under this section, the joint interim committee shall:

(1) determine the best methods for updating and maintaining colonia identification systems…”

But Cass, whose organization receives state funds, never had the opportunity to speak with legislators about the issue because she didn’t know about the bill or study until Texas Public Radio reached out.

In fact, many state officials didn’t know about this section of the bill or its status.

TPR spoke to the bill’s authors, sponsors, designated standing committees and the House Research Organization and none could answer why nothing was done.

TPR also repeatedly reached out to the office of the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor’s office but received no response.

According to the bill’s text, the joint interim committee was to present a report detailing their findings and legislative recommendations on September 1 of this year.

But the report was never submitted, nor was the committee ever formed, according to the two standing committees responsible for forming the joint committee — State Senate’s Committee on Local Government and the House Committee on Urban Affairs.

This section of the bill dies on November 1, 2022, regardless of whether lawmakers fulfilled its requirements, and they face no repercussions once it does.

De La Garza said he isn’t surprised; the state has been withdrawing aid for some time.

“Colonias are being pushed aside, you know, colonia funding, colonia initiatives, colonia, you know, anything related to colonias,” de La Garza said.

In 2017, Governor Greg Abbott cut the Secretary of State’s (SOS) Border Colonias Initiative. The program allocated funds for the SOS to track progress through annual reports and maintain a database of colonias complete with classifications.

House Bill 1301 seemed to reinitiate what the Colonias Initiative was already doing before Abbott terminated it. Now, De La Garza said, it seems that lawmakers are just trying to placate.

“Well, a lot of this is just, kind of, to shut up people, you know, like, ‘okay, here we’re doing something right’,” de La Garza said. “But are you really following through? That’s the key.”

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