McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) ⁠— A veritable who’s who of political and South Texas community leaders attended an intimate discussion led by former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings on Tuesday in McAllen as she asked them to participate and share ideas for a new long-term statewide planning project.

Spellings, who served from 2005-09 in President George W. Bush’s cabinet, in June was named president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Texas 2036. She is touring the state to engage leaders and earmark problems, and what they believe could be solutions, for improving six specific areas, which she says will lead to a prosperous State of Texas come the 2036 bicentennial.

“We are mighty. We’re big. We’re growing and we have a lot to brag about. … But we look down the horizon into 2036, the bicentennial to the Republic of Texas, and what do we see?” Spellings asked the group of fewer than 100 dignitaries, which included Ricardo Hinojosa, U.S. District Court chief judge for Southern District of Texas; Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez; University of Texas Rio Grande Valley President Guy Bailey; Eddie Aldrete, chairman of the National Immigration Forum; and State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. The group assembled in the lobby of the IBC Bank headquarters in downtown McAllen.

“We’re going to have to do some things differently if we’re to remain the No. 1 place to live and work,” said Spellings, who served as president of the University of North Carolina System before recently moving to Dallas.

The project, which is being funded by corporations and private entities, has earmarked six policy areas where long-range strategic plans are needed in order to guarantee the fiscal health of Texas’ future:

  • Education and workforce
  • Health & Human Services
  • Infrastructure
  • Natural resources
  • Justice and safety
  • Government performance

Missing from this list is immigration, which Hinojosa, a Democrat who represents McAllen and Corpus Christi, pointed out to Spellings is a hefty cost for the local South Texas economy.

“Here in the Rio Grande Valley, between the river, the border, the checkpoints, its like USA/Tex/Mex. We have a lot of undocumented families from Mexico that we support through health care, education, infrastructure and many times we don’t get credit for that, and that responsibility is pretty much taken up by the local communities and this is reflected in terms of the unemployment rate in this Valley,” Hinojosa told her.

Spellings thanked him for pointing that out but said immigration is a “silo” within their categories, so far.

Right now, she said the most important thing is to tackle ways that the state can generate the 8 million more jobs that will be needed when it turns 200. “That’s the number of jobs we have in Houston and Dallas combined today,” she said. “Every day we’re growing. We’re getting more diverse. We’re getting older and younger and less well educated and less healthy and that adds up to kind of a cocktail of some things that we really need to concern ourselves with.”

Texas 2036 was founded in 2016 by Tom Luce, a friend and lawyer of Ross Perot, who felt the state was not focusing enough on its long-term needs.

The state is expected to increase by 40 percent, or 41 million people, by 2036. By 2025, 77 percent of all jobs in Texas will require a certificate of post-secondary degree. In 2018, only 23 percent of students achieved higher degrees.

Spellings invited the group to actively participate in this project, which will formally be unveiled during the Texas Tribune’s Festival Sept. 26-28 in Austin.