Dave Moore, Staff Writer
Congressional representatives from North Texas are optimistic that they’re close to approving an updated free trade agreement – referred to as the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) – they told the crowd of 250 business leaders at the Dallas Regional Chamber’s 2019 Congressional Forum.
They were also cautiously hopeful that additional highway funding might become available in this congress.
“Of course, we in Texas know how important that trade is to this state,” said U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, whose 30th Congressional District covers most of Dallas and southern Dallas County. “It is absolutely one of the things that we cannot function as a state without. We all know that having a trade agreement is protecting American goods.”
Held on Aug. 22, this year’s Congressional Forum at the Dallas Ritz-Carlton opened with remarks by Chairwoman Johnson followed by a panel that included other members of the congressional delegation. During the panel discussion moderated by Julie Fine of NBC 5, the congressional members discussed other issues, including immigration reform, transportation funding, the 2020 Census, and higher education funding. Johnson and other members of the panel had much to say on topics of transportation funding and updating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“We have an inland port in Dallas – that’s how important trade is to us,” Johnson told the crowd, adding that she and members of Congress are working with the U.S. trade ambassador and have found him to be extremely cooperative.
“There are still some issues of concern that we continue to work with, and I’m hoping that we are working ourselves to the ‘yes,’” said Johnson, who – in her 14th term in the U.S. House – is the Dean of Texas’ Congressional Delegation.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey – who represents the 32nd Congressional District, which includes portions of Fort Worth, Irving, Grand Prairie, and Dallas – said he hopes the revised trade agreement is passed before 2020.
“I think there’s a lot of bipartisan consensus that we really need to get something done… before the end of the year” and the 2020 Presidential election, Veasey said. “You saw how trade was really demonized in 2016, and you heard the term ‘bad trade deals’ over and over again. You heard how NAFTA was so bad… Imagine what we might hear in 2020.”
U.S. Rep. Van Taylor, whose 3rd Congressional District includes Plano, said the U.S. economy could gain a lot with the ratification of the USMCA.
“NAFTA 2.0 is a very important step forward,” said Taylor, who said NAFTA-related trade comprises $120 billion in exports of Texas’ $1.8 trillion state economy. “One specific provision in the prior agreement allows 62.5 percent of the vehicle has to be manufactured within the NAFTA (territory) to avoid tariffs. [The new agreement] changes that to 75 percent… most of that will happen in the United States.”
Taylor said while he thinks there are enough votes to pass the trade agreement, some additional changes need to be made to assure strong bipartisan passage, and to set the foundation for future trade agreements.
U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, whose 32nd Congressional District includes northeastern Dallas County, said he’s optimistic the new trade agreement can be ratified.
“We are a trade state,” he said. “We’re the number one trade state in the country… it’s critical to our economy. In terms of the prospects of it going forward, I do think that there are some changes that have to be made, but I think and some changes can be made in a way that doesn’t alter what’s going on there.”
He said it’s key that provisions in the agreement pertaining to environmental standards and labor standards are enforceable.
On the topic of infrastructure funding in the Dallas Region, the panel agreed that it’s been a battle to obtain the money needed to keep up with the area’s growth.
“We’re the only donor state to the highway trust fund; every other state is getting more back than they’re putting in,” said Allred, who is on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which Johnson chairs. “We’re getting 98 cents for every dollar… and I think that’s not right,” he said. “We did come together as a (Congressional) delegation to try and correct that.”
Allred said that he’s confident a transportation bill will be signed, though it won’t be the major $2 or $3 trillion transportation bill that was previously discussed.
“We have to get something done because we’ve had a million people move here since 2010, and we see it on our roads,” he said. “We are becoming one of the more congested cities in the country.”
Allred said part of the solution is diversifying transportation options, including the Texas Central high-speed rail project.
“With Texas Central here… I think it would be a great project for us to get a high-speed rail train between Dallas and Houston,” said Allred adding that a majority of the Texas Congressional Delegation signed a letter urging federal approvals for the project.
Johnson said Congress has struggled with funding infrastructure bills because they involve long-term projects.
“Infrastructure deals cannot be done every term,” she said. “They have to be done at a minimum of six years because many projects last longer than six years. The one thing we don’t want to do is to start on a project and it has to stop because the funding ran out. Many of you over the years heard about the bridge to nowhere in Alaska,” she said.
Johnson cited a project she successfully backed in 1993 to fix the flow of traffic through downtown Dallas’ mix master interchange. However, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan derailed funding, and now, the project – ultimately referred to as the Horseshoe – is finally complete.
At the close of the forum, DRC Senior Vice President of Public Policy Priscilla Camacho urged forum attendees to aid in the participation of completing the 2020 Census.
“In the last Census, we picked up four additional Congressional seats,” she said. “We’re talking about billions of dollars on the line that can come to North Texas.”
In the 2020 Census, Camacho said that North Texas alone could gain two additional seats in the U.S. House.
“Every person has to be counted, and we need you to help us with that,” she said. “You have employees, your employees have families. We need them to understand that they need to participate.”
Event gold sponsors included Lockheed Martin and Texas Instruments; silver sponsors included Axxess and Texas Central.