EL PASO — Lawmakers from all over Texas were in El Paso Friday to get an up-close look at how border wait times impact the local and state economy.
In a rare mid-session meeting, members of the Texas House Committee on International Trade and Intergovernmental Affairs traveled to El Paso for the hearing.
Nearly a dozen people were invited to speak in front of the committee including Congressman Beto O'Rourke, Mayor John Cook and representatives from Union Pacific, BNSF Railway and the Texas Department of Public Safety, among others.
Mayor Cook welcomed state representatives by playing his guitar and singing a song. Once the song was over, it was down to business.
State Representative Joe Moody, along with State Representative Marisa Marquez and State Senator Jose Rodriguez helped organize the leaders.
"Our economic health in Texas in inextricably intertwined with that of Mexico," said Moody, "It's not just an El Paso issue, it's a Texas issue."
State Representative Rafael Anchia from the Dallas area is the chair of the committee. He said he plans to take some of what he learned at the hearing back to Austin.
"It's one thing to hear testimony in a committee car away in Austin, it's another thing to come to the border to touch and feel and see what's going on," said Anchia.
Once the federal budget cuts begin there will be less Customs and Border Protection agents at the already understaffed border crossings in El Paso.
"We're all worried about the impacts of the federal sequester on border crossing and international trade, but my take away is that at the state level we can do some things in state law to make sure that border crossings are more efficient in order to promote international trade here in El Paso," said Anchia.
Congressman O'Rourke said the best short-term plan is to take advantage of a new pilot program that Congress passed on Thursday. It allows cities to work with private companies to fund more Customs agents at the ports of entry.
"At peak travel times on the Paso del Norte bridge, only half of the available booths are staffed. If we can get staffing at all booths during peak travel times on all of our local bridges, we're going to bring more shoppers into our economy, we're going to bring more trade across our bridges and we're going to create more jobs in El Paso." said O'Rourke.
El Paso City Representative Steve Ortega suggested that the state offer to pay for more CBP agents. In 2011, he submitted a proposal to the federal government to allow El Paso to pay for more CBP agents. It was declined.
"If the federal government is not going to do their job, we will offer to do it because it's that important to the economy," Ortega said.
There are several pieces of pending legislation in the Texas House of Representatives related to border wait times. Anchia said he plans to review all of the information presented at the hearing before making recommendations.