EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Life in El Paso changed drastically after the Aug. 3 mass shooting in 2019, and became even less familiar with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Despite changes to the ways we all live, work and entertain ourselves, lawmakers are looking to the future.
On Aug. 18, the El Paso City Council unanimously adopted a $984.6 million dollar budget for FY2021, designed to align with key goals such as fostering a vibrant economy and maintaining El Paso’s presence as an example of one of the nation’s safest cities.
To achieve local goals, the city must work with state and federal legislators to determine issues that need to be addressed and determine strategies that lead to a thriving city.
KTSM 9 News met with U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar to discuss key issues as they pertain to El Paso. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity and length:
KTSM 9 News: City leaders have set a goal for a “rich and vibrant” economy. What federal work is being done to help protect cities like El Paso?
Escobar: We passed over 100 days ago, the Heroes Act. One of the most critical things we can do as a federal government, in addition to the health care side, is address the challenges that communities like El Paso are facing on the economic side. Before the pandemic struck, I had this great community conversation about the future of our economy and diversifying the economy. And there are things that I’ve been working on in D.C., through the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), through the Department of Defense, in collaboration with UTEP, to essentially grow a new facet — a new ecosystem for our local economy: more competitive jobs for engineers, so that we can retain our talent. But when COVID-19 hit and everything came to a standstill, you saw state governments and local governments have to redirect their attention and their resources to the health epidemic and the health crisis. We have to first get through this health crisis. And with the economic crisis, we have to bolster local and state governments, and we have to continue the help we committed to small businesses.
KTSM 9 News: What’s interesting is there is so much discourse on bolstering the economy versus public health — and the two are not mutually exclusive. What is being done, or needs to be done, to address these concerns equitably?
Escobar: That’s exactly right. You’re not going to save the economy without first addressing the health crisis. Even once we do address the health crisis, we have to realize that the consequences of the economic impact are pretty far-reaching; they’re not going to be over the day that there is a vaccine. Those terrible days of the economic crisis are not going to be over once we flatten the curve. We are going to see, essentially, a ripple effect in our economy for years to come unless we act boldly now.
KTSM 9 News: With the economic crisis you have to worry about crime rates increasing. Another one of the city council’s goals for FY2021 is to maintain El Paso’s standing as one of the nation’s safest cities. But the newly-approved budget includes a $1.3 million reduction in technology equipment replacement for EPPD while numbers of cadets enlisting in the police academy continues to dwindle. How do these realities factor into conversations to keep El Paso safe?
Escobar: I think it’s about smart budgeting. I’m very fortunate to have had the experience that I did in local government when I was at the county. You have to make — in my view — wise investments on the front end that reap benefits on the back end. I’ll give you an example: Representative Henry Rivera, a few years ago, proposed body cams. The County of El Paso has had body cams on their police officers for years, the City of Horizon has had body cams on their police officers — the City of El Paso has never once applied for the multitude of federal grants we offer for body cams. But that investment in body cams saves money on lawsuits. It tells you where there’s bad actors. It tells you what policies need to change because you’re able to gain insight during crisis situations.
But we’re seeing now, for example, the City of El Paso paying out literally millions on lawsuits that have been brought against them in cases where the mentally ill have been shot in their own homes as they were unarmed.
Reform could have prevented that. Training could have prevented that. But instead taxpayers are funding millions of dollars for the consequences of those cases. In budgeting, I think it’s always important to look at where our tax dollars are going: Where have we made mistakes? What investments can we make that will let us reap benefits?
KTSM 9 News: This past weekend, you voted in favor of the Delivering for America Act. Why is this such a critical piece of legislation?
Escobar: Last week I visited our U.S. Postal Service Processing and Distribution facility, and I was assured by our local Postmaster General that there were no delays and the status quo was intact. The next day, I met with postal workers — virtually, of course — who told me the exact opposite. They told me that recent changes had essentially created significant delays, and it was an interesting juxtaposition of information.
We are working on getting information directly from the public as well. We have an online survey on my website that is bilingual. We expect — and we hope — to have about 500 respondents. We’re well over 400 right now, and it closes on Friday night.
We want to know from El Pasoans, have the changes to the U.S. Postal Service impacted you?
We also know through the federal hearings that Postmaster (Louis) DeJoy knows very little about the U.S. Postal Service. We know that he is unwilling to return equipment that ensures Americans have access to their mail. Fear and concerns over our elections and mail-in ballots are at an all-time high because of mistrust in the postmaster general right now.
One of the things that we know for sure is there have been delays — despite reports from local leadership — there absolutely have been delays.
KTSM 9 News: The Aug. 3 shooting feels like it happened yesterday but also in another world, and yet it’s only been a little longer than a year. How do we keep fighting against white supremacy and xenophobia?
Escobar: One of the things we need to do is always recognize domestic terrorist threats, and we know what they are — they’ve been identified by the FBI. Two examples: QAnon has been identified as a domestic terrorist threat. Yet we have the Republican party basically promoting its venom on Twitter. The venom is intended to fuel xenophobia, fuel bigotry, fuel hate, fuel division. We have also seen a really drastic — dramatic — terrifying increase in white supremacy. We have a white supremacist in the White House, Steven Miller, directing national immigration policy. So we have a real serious problem in our country with domestic terrorism.
Part of what makes El Paso so special is we are a community that takes care of each other regardless of color of skin, regardless of what side of town, regardless of anything. We reflect, truly, in many ways, the best of America. And we reflect those foundational values that make our country so unique and so exceptional.
But those values are under threat by hate, by domestic terrorism, and enablers in government who are allowing it to persist.