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DATELINE TEXAS Feet to the Fire in the Valley BY GEOFF RIPS Edinburg Somewhere between William GreiderN “Who will tell the people?” and Yogi Berra “It ain’t over til its over and just this side of Barry Goldwater “eternal vigilance” there must be an aphorism about the administration of public programs that says you gotta watch ’em every second If all organizing is reorganizing, then all public agreements to provide programs for the poor, the unemployed, the underemployed, or the underserved, appar ently require continual reaffirmation. A case in point is the state’s latest incarnation of job training Smart Jobs. Another is the gram, intended to bring water and wastewater infrastructure to the colonias on the Border. Valley Interfaith is all too aware that for low-income people, no deal is a done deal. That’s why the March 29 convention, marking its fifteenth year, its quinceaiiera, was not so much a celebration of longevity and accomplishment as it was a work session to extract promises from public officials. At least 7,000 people, arriving by school bus and car caravan, shoehorned themselves into the U.T.-Pan American Field House in Edinburg in the middle of a balmy, Valley Sunday afternoon. A school bus from Brownsville sported a banner proclaiming, “La vida es una escuela. Valley Interfaith is a university.” The Mariachi Los Coyotes of La Joya High School played, state and local politicos arrived and were escorted onstage, and the convention got down to business. No Valley resident was more representative of the serious business at hand than Carmen has been a cornerstone of the colonias of Las Milpas. As a Valley Interfaith leader, she has led countless state and national elected officials through the mud of Las Milpas in an effort to bring water, sewer, streets, and electricity to the colonias of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. “Fifteen years ago,” Anaya told the convention in Spanish, “no one knew where or what a colonia was. We have come very far and remain strong.” Despite years of work by Valley Interfaith and other Industrial Areas Foundations organizations to put the colonias on the state’s agenda, despite the passage of two sets of state bonds to provide the infrastructure, right now in Hidalgo County in the heart of the Valley, all the colonia projects are frozen because all the money is frozen. Since the implementation of the state’s colonia infrastructure program in 1991, $247 million in state bond money has been allocated for water and wastewater projects to serve 147,000 Valley residents. But many projects are still on the drawing boards and, along with current projects, are now threatened because Hidalgo County officials have apparently reneged on the state requirement that the county enforce model subdivision rules \(which prevent the proliferation of more colonias without ingranted permits to long-time colonia developers to sell lots once again without the required utilities. As a consequence, the Texas Water Development Board, with the backing of the Attorney General, cut off EDAP funding for current and future Hidalgo County projects until the county complies with the rules. So Valley Interfaith found it necessary, once more, to hold official feet to the fire to get Hidalgo County colonia projects up and running again. Janie Cuellar, a Valley Interfaith leader, grilled Hidalgo County Judge Renato Cuellar and Billy Leo and Eloy Pulido, the two candidates vying to replace him in November asking them to commit to a Valley Interfaith plan that halts all new colonia development, sets up an audit of existing new colonias for compliance with the model rules, requires new plats to be sent to the A.G.’s office, and establishes a local independent review board. All three agreed to the plan. Then there’s the issue of job training. Valley Interfaith created a job-training program for the Valley Valley Initiative for Develvide local residents with job training for good jobs in the Valley. During the convention, employers from the region promised 1,000 more jobs for graduates of the program. “SEVEN THOUSAND PEOPLE CAME BECAUSE THEY LEARNED ABOUT THIS [LIVING WAGE] ISSUE AND THEY’RE TIRED OF LOW WAGES. THE ORGANIZATION IS HERE TO STAY.” Meanwhile, the state was doing its thing shuffling and re-shuffling its job-training programs and dollars, trying to find some way not to pay workers directly for their own job training. They came up with the Smart Jobs program, through which businesses are subsidized by the state for on-the-job training for new jobs. But which businesses? And what jobs? Do new jobs mean good jobs jobs paying a living wage? “Why is it that Valley workers earn $7,600 a year while the state average wage is $25,000?” a speaker asked. Valley Interfaith leaders were pointing to the state’s Smart Jobs Fund Program. According to the state statute, businesses are given priority for the Smart Jobs subsidy when they create a “family wage” job, meaning “a job that offers wages equal to or greater than the state average weekly wage,” plus benefits. According to the Comptroller, in 1994, the state average weekly wage was $498, or $12.44 per hour and $25,872 annually. Where are these jobs in the Valley? A January 1998 study by the Texas House Economic Development Committee, chaired by Brownsville Representative Rene Oliveira, found that a disproportionate amount of Smart Jobs funding went to Dallas and Houston, while South Texas, San 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 24, 1998