Bully Pulpit

Pushy, driven, and fearless, Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer is Bush's big man on the border. But is he tough enough to cut through the red tape snarling efforts to help the poor people living in the colonias?

Bomer can somewhat relate the struggles of his own family to those who live in colonias. He remembers the modest house he grew up in on the 50-acre family farm near Montalba, in East Texas. The family of four grew peas, corn, tomatoes, and a little cotton. The house had no running water and no bathroom. As a boy, Bomer had the job of drawing water from the 60-foot well. He struggled every day with his scrawny adolescent arms to lift the bucket by pulling a heavy metal chain across a pulley. Bomer recalls the day his father replaced the chain with a lightweight rope as one of the happiest days of his youth.

His family lost the farm because of financial problems shortly before he graduated from high school. He left home after high school and eventually moved to Houston, where he worked during the day and earned his degree in business management by attending night classes at the University of Houston. He worked in marketing and sales for IBM from 1965 to 1974 and became senior vice president of East Texas National Bank in Palestine. He served two stints in the Texas House before Bush plucked him away.

Today, he commutes from Austin to his home in East Texas each weekend to spend time with his wife, Ginny, who suffers from symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. During the week, the couple talk on the phone two or three times a day. It's hard, he says, because some days she is more lucid than others. One recent morning, he was pouring her coffee when she stared up at him blankly and asked, "Now, who are you again?"

Bomer had been at his new job as secretary of state only two weeks when he called two state officials into his office to brief him on the progress their agencies were making on bringing water and sewer services to colonias. He listened politely for a bit before going ballistic.

"I was frustrated," Bomer says. "All the discussion was about how well we had done in the last year or so. And in my frustration I said, 'I'm not interested in what we did last year. I'm interested in what we've done since 8 o'clock this morning.'"

Bomer had set the tone. The dawdling days were over.
This is no time to relax. Incidences of hepatitis A and other diseases transmitted through poor sanitation are much higher in the colonias than anywhere else in Texas and as much as five times the national average, says Dr. Laurence Nickey, a member of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission and retired director of the El Paso City-County Health Department.

When it comes to bringing clean water and effective sewer service to colonias, money hasn't been the problem. In the last 10 years, $579 million has been available for those projects. In November 1989, Texas voters approved $100 million in bonds, and two years after that, they supported an additional $150 million. The federal government, through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has pitched in $300 million, and the state has appropriated an additional $29 million since 1991.

The backlog on water and sewer projects is so great, however, that the Texas Water Development Board, which bankrolls their construction, stopped accepting applications for new projects two years ago. When the backlog is cleared, and no one can say for certain when that will be, 72 percent, or about 283,000 of the estimated 392,000 colonia residents, will have water, sewer, or both. Others will never be served. State officials have determined that some colonias are so remote that it would be cheaper to relocate the people who live there than to construct new water and sewer systems.

Of the 90 projects the Water Development Board has approved since 1990, a mere 22 have been completed, serving about 53,000 residents, or less than 14 percent of the colonia population. Another 10 projects are under construction. Those will serve an additional 58,000 people. Water Development Board officials hope to have most of those projects done in the next 12 months. When those 10 projects are completed, the state still will have spent just $182 million of the $579 million it has set aside for colonias.

The majority of the board-approved projects have yet to break ground. The state has committed $124 million for 20 additional projects currently in the design stage. Those would boost the number of colonia residents being served to 162,000, still less than half of the total population. The board also has approved 38 other projects that have yet to progress past their initial planning stage.

In the 10 years since Texas voters approved the first bonds, many state officials have tried to take the lead on colonias. Too many, it seems. A lack of coordination among the various federal, state, and local officials and agencies working on the problem has been part of the problem. On the state level alone, at least five offices and agencies play a role in colonia programs: attorney general, secretary of state, Water Development Board, Housing and Community Affairs, and the Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The state Senate already has approved legislation that would let the governor designate a single office, such as secretary of state, to coordinate all colonia programs--something Bush in effect is trying to do now by designating Bomer.

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