Texas congressmen question hold-up on relief funding for smaller border towns


Friday meeting planned with state leaders in Austin to discuss stimulus relief

MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — The disbursement of CARES Act funds for smaller Texas communities — especially those on the border — has been unnecessarily delayed by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the funding formula for rural areas is unfair, two Texas border congressmen told Border Report this week.

U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar and Filemon Vela, both Democrats who represent border communities in South Texas, question why Abbott has not distributed funds that Congress approved on March 27.

Cuellar hopes to get some answers during a meeting with state leaders scheduled for Friday

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, left, and U.S. Rep Filemon Vela, D-Texas.

He said that in his congressional district, only the heavily populated counties of Bexar and Hidalgo have received direct federal stimulus funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. That is because those counties have at least half a million people. The rest haven’t received much-needed stimulus money.

Likewise, Vela said that only Hidalgo County, which also makes up a portion of his large geographic district, has received funds while all of his other Gulf Coast constituencies have been waiting for the state to distribute the funds.

“The state got $8 billion-plus directly, with responsibility to distribute at least $1.8 billion to counties and cities. If the state distributed that money in proportion to what the federal government did to the bigger places, the counties (and cities within) would get their fair proportion. The governor has apparently chosen not to do that and they are for now getting much less,” Vela said.

When Congress approved the $2 trillion CARES Act, it provided $150 billion for state and tribal governments to distribute. Communities with populations over 500,000, however, could receive direct federal funds from the Department of Treasury. Twelve of the state’s most populated areas, like Hidalgo County, did just that. Hidalgo County this week received $151 million in stimulus money, said U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat who lives in McAllen.

Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, delivers remarks during a press conference on May 5, 2020, updating the public on the state’s response to COVID-19. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

For the other areas, the state is supposed to distribute the money. That amounts to $1.85 billion for the state’s remaining 242 counties. And the congressmen say this delay is hurting poor, border communities where unemployment is in double-digits.

“The State of Texas is not giving the money out like they got the money. They’re putting certain strings on it,” Cuellar said. “Why are they putting certain strings on the small counties when we didn’t do that to the big counties, or to the State of Texas?”

Cuellar said he intends to ask them those questions during Friday’s meeting. He also wants to know why the state is keeping 55% of the funds, which amount to $6.1 billion, and for what they intend to use it.

The congressmen also say it is unfair that the state government has decided to pay out only $55 per person to counties and communities with fewer than 500,000 people when the federal government calculated the CARES Act based on $172 per person. Currently, the 12 large counties in Texas over 500,000 received payments based on $172 per person.

That will affect rural areas, like Starr County, which are struggling.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera on Wednesday said his South Texas county of 64,000 currently has an unemployment rate of 15% — double what it was 18 months ago.

Starr County is expected to receive $11.5 million. Webb County, which includes Laredo and is home to 275,000 people, is expected to receive $49 million. Cameron County — the state’s 13th most populated county with 421,750 people and just shy of the 500,000 mark — is waiting on about $76 million, Vela said.

Texas is receiving the second-most funds of any state from the CARES Act, after California, which is getting $15.3 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. The other Southwest border states of Arizona and New Mexico are getting $2.8 billion, and $1.25 billion respectively.

Efren Olivares, racial and economic director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, is seen in his Alamo, Texas office on July 18, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, on Thursday told Border Report that withholding funding to poor and border communities only hurts those who need the monies most.

“That again goes to show that communities that are originally marginalized and are now in the middle of this pandemic with high levels of unemployment that we’re seeing need assisting the most, and if they are not receiving it they are being doubly being marginalized,” Olivares said. “It is part of this administration’s discrimination against brown communities along the border.”

It is part of this administration’s discrimination against brown communities along the border.”

Efrén Olivares, racial and economic justice program director for the Texas Civil Rights Project

On Friday, Congress is expected to vote on additional stimulus measure, the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, or HEROES Act, which would appropriate $3 trillion in coronavirus relief funds. If passed as currently proposed, $375 billion would go to local governments and counties, including $125 billion to municipalities. These funds would help to supplement cities and counties with less than 500,000 residents who did not meet the population threshold set by the Department of Treasury in the CARES Act.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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