FEATURED: Maricela De León, a Rio Grande Valley native with almost 20 years of experience in state government at the highest levels, says South Texas’ public, private and nonprofit organizations of all sizes must increase their participation in the Texas Legislature and before the most powerful state boards, commissions and agencies in order to benefit their constituents, clients, and stakeholders. (http://formapublicaffairs.net)
Photograph ByABEL RIOJAS
Maricela “Mari” De León of FORMA Public Affairs to help South Texans succeed at the highest levels of the Texas Legislature and state government
Many people believe that the Texas Legislature, statewide elected officials, and appointed leaders of the more than two hundred boards, commissions, and agencies – the highest levels of state government – are beyond the understanding, reach and influence of most individuals.
Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Maricela “Mari” De León, a Rio Grande Valley native with almost 20 years of professional experience in the corridors of power at the State Capitol Complex, home of the Texas Legislature, governor, and major state government entities, which create and put into action the laws and policies the Lone Star State.
“Voting in elections is a very important duty in deciding and holding responsible our leaders, but the power of Texans from all walks of life to actually be part of the legislative process – how a bill becomes law – is not well-known,” explained De León, a principal with FORMA Public Affairs, one of the few legislative and media consulting firms that feature a majority Hispanic leadership.
A bill is a type of legislative measure that usually requires passage by both the Texas Senate and the Texas House of Representatives, and action by the governor, in order to become effective.
A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state.
“But if you have someone such as FORMA Public Affairs, with our combined decades of experience and our proven track record of successes, we provide expert guidance as we help people easily learn how to make the legislative and political systems work for them,” she said.
De León is in the process of getting out those messages to prospective clients, focusing on South Texas, as she encourages them to be part of the solutions on their own behalf at the State Capitol Complex in Austin, rather than just standing on the sidelines, feeling powerless from a distance.
“There are many actions that can be taken by the Texas Legislature that regional and local governments, large and small businesses, community organizations, even one individual can do to change their world for the better,” she said.
De León knows from first-hand experience, having worked for a combined 15 years as a legislative staff member with then-Rep. Aaron Peña of Edinburg and then-Rep. Gilbert Peña of Houston (no relation), on hundreds of bills and amendments.
An amendment is any proposed change to a bill as it moves through the legislative process.
In general, lobbying is defined as “persuasion, or interest representation in the act of lawfully attempting to influence the actions, policies, or decisions of government officials, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies.
An experienced lobbyist serves as a vital and extra resource for a state lawmaker and legislative staff, said former Rep. Gilbert Peña.
“Usually, we are working on dozens of bills a week in our respective legislative committees, and when they are brought up for a full vote by the House of Representatives, and lobbyists are crucial for lawmakers and legislative staff to understand the advantages and disadvantages of legislation,” Gilbert Peña said.
Legislation is a proposed or enacted law or group of laws.
“An experienced lobbyist such as Mari De León is especially important when they are working with us on legislation that we have filed,” he added.
“Filed” is used to refer to a measure that has been introduced into the legislative process and given a number.
“Maricela is a hard worker and is focused on what she wants to accomplish and will most certainly give clients the loyalty they deserve,” Gilbert Peña added.
Former Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso, a partner with FORMA Public Affairs, was a state lawmaker from 2009 through 2017. She remembers much about De León’s work on behalf of the South Texas region.
“Mari was pivotal in helping create legislation that affected border communities, especially in areas affected by colonias,” said Márquez, who did not seek reelection in 2016. “She is relentless when it comes to her community. I was proud of her work in the Legislature.”
Colonias are substandard housing developments, often found along the Texas-Mexico border, where residents lack basic services such as drinking water, sewage treatment, and paved roads, according to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.
For deep South Texas, where more than 1.5 million people call home, major issues such as colonias, pandemic recovery funds, immigration, trade and commerce, public safety, public health, and other vital matters will soon be in the process of being developed into proposed legislation for when the 88th Texas Legislature returns to work in January 2023.
“In late June 2019, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) announced these extraordinary goals by assigning some of the most powerful legislative committees in the Texas House of Representatives to begin work on this visionary mission,” De León said. “South Texas and the Texas border region with Mexico have the opportunity to become part of the legislative solutions that will have an enormous impact on us.”
De León’s credentials are admirable, proving that she has the ability, motivation, and desire to handle the most difficult legislative duties, according to her biographical sketch on the FORMA Public Affairs website:
• A Rio Grande Valley native, Maricela “Mari” De León has nearly 20 years of experience in state policy, political campaigns, and has been a registered lobbyist since 2013. Since 2002, Mari has run political campaigns for candidates in the Texas House of Representatives, Texas congressional districts, and Rio Grande Valley state district courts. She has also held various staff positions in the Texas House of Representatives, committees in the Texas House of Representatives, and the 464th District Court in Hidalgo County;
• Her lobby clients range from higher education to county issues, and has also worked closely with a variety of political organizations in Texas; and
• She holds a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) in Finance and a Masters of Public Administration, both from the University of Texas-Pan American (now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Mari provides FORMA Public Affairs clients with comprehensive knowledge on grassroots messaging and execution, social media platforms, and state policy initiatives. She is also the CEO of Kauz It’s Right, a non-profit that provides local young children with school supplies. She resides in Edinburg.
In addition to her biographical sketch on the FORMA Public Affairs website, her career features the following insights:
• From 2003 through 2017, De León served on legislative staff at the Texas Capitol in various leadership roles, including as a legislative aide, executive assistant, chief committee clerk, and chief-of-staff.
• She worked extensively on policy matters relating to election law, criminal jurisprudence, emergency preparedness, technology, human services, juvenile justice, and family issues.
• De León coordinated efforts that helped Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, to secure more than $80 million in state money for major new construction projects in his legislative district.
• She served on Fort Bend County lobby team with Jim Short, Inc.
• She worked with the Texas State Technical College System on its legislative agenda.
• De León served as the Court Coordinator for the 464th District Court in Hidalgo County under the orders of Justice Jaime Tijerina and Judge Ysmael Fonseca, setting the standard for the administration in the courtroom.
“Maricela possessed the necessary expertise to manage a district court in Hidalgo County,” Fonseca said. “Her ability to implement policies and standards are what set my court apart from any other.”
Her resume, with more details, follows:
The University of Texas–Pan American
Master’s of Public Administration
Thesis: Is Texas Measuring Up to Federal Expectations? An Examination of the No Child Left Behind Legislation on Texas Region One Education Service Center District Schools.
The University of Texas-Pan American
TPA Cultural Immersion Program
University of Muhammed (Morocco) July 2009
Visited U.S. Embassy in Morocco and met with representatives of Moroccan Parliament to advocate for women’s voting and education rights, including job-creation.
The University of Texas Pan American
Bachelors of Business Administration in Finance
Dean’s Award for Outstanding Student Leadership.
The University of Texas – School of Law Center for Dispute Resolution
Certified to mediate court-referred disputes as indicated in the Texas Alternative Dispute Resolution Act § 154.052, Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann.
ADR – Mediator
Meets the State requirement of 24 hours of continued education specializing on Family Mediation. Approved by State Bar of Texas for 27.25 Hours MCLE and 1.75 Hours Ethics.
Texas State Technical College
Regional Executive Director of Government Affairs
February 2021 – October 2021
• Primary responsibility for all government relations’ activities in the Harlingen-Rio Grande Valley area.
• Developed and implemented strategic initiatives to establish, maintain and improve communication with all legislative offices and government agencies in the Rio Grande Valley region.
• Represented Government Affairs team and Chancellor in activities, meetings and functions throughout the region.
• Provided statewide strategic planning and implementation of government relations efforts.
De León Professional Services
January 2017 – February 2021
• Court Appointed Family Law Mediator – Half-day mediations.• Conducted research on relevant laws, regulations, and legal articles.• Filed exhibits, briefs, appeals and other legal documents with the court or opposing counsel.• Maintained docket management of attorney cases, court staff coordination, and monitoring and managing Court activities, which assisted the attorney in case management.
464th Judicial District Court
Honorable Ysmael D. Fonseca
464th Judicial District Court–Jaime Tijerina
February 2019 – December 2021
• Opened new Court, hired new staff, maintains office operation.
• Worked with 5th Region Administrative Staff and more than Five Assigned Judges.
• Prepared and disseminated press releases and notices of the court.
• Scheduled court hearings, prepared court orders, attended court hearings.
• Liaison between Judge, Counsel/Litigants, the media and public.
• Maintained continuity of Court.
• Oversaw Trial dockets for all cases.
• Developed Budgets, maintained office operating accounts, and supervised and authorized all requisition requests and expenses.
State Representative Gilbert Peña
Chief of Staff
January 2015 – January 2017
• Oversaw passage of two pieces of legislation for freshman member of Texas House District 144.
• Worked with singer/songwriter John Legend on successful passage of criminal justice reform.
• More than 13 years of professional development/legislative experience.
• Established the Representative’s priority legislation and collaborated with all stakeholders and media involved to ensure efficiency and effectiveness during a legislative session for all parties involved.
• Collaborated with stakeholders on legislative agenda meetings.
• Managed staff of four in Austin office and one in District office.
• Managed operating office budget of $14,500 monthly along with Member travel.
Jim Short, Inc.
83rd Texas Legislature
Fort Bend County – Non-lead lobbyist Session
• Reviewed bill introductions, and noted bills that may affect the client’s interest.
• Tracked progress of bills to their conclusion, including passage into law.• Maintained a network of contact with key legislators and staff for up-to-date on the latest issue development.• Assisted with strategic positioning.
State Representative Aaron Peña
Chief of Staff
March 2003 – September 2012
House Committee on Technology
Chief Committee Clerk
June 2011 – September 2012
• Guided 20 House bills to the governor’s desk and saw passage into law.• Spearheaded effort to grant Texas Legislative Medal of Honor to two district soldiers.• Culminated in attendance to White House ceremony for U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient.• Worked with Hispanic Republican Conference to help influence the passage of several key bills.• Attended on behalf of State Representative Aaron Peña at local community events; served as official contact.• Established the Representative’s priority legislation with the office team. • Collaborated with all stakeholders and media involved to ensure efficiency and effectiveness during a legislative session for all parties involved.• More than eight years of professional development/legislative experience in South Texas and Austin. • Possess extensive knowledge of government programs and state agencies.
• Extensive knowledge of legislative rules and parliamentary procedure.• Bilingual (English & Spanish).• Critical thinking, complex problem solving, and judgment and decision-making.
• Expert in Microsoft Word, Excel, and various social media platforms.
• Case Management System.• Odyssey – E-Filing Service Provider.• File-Time E-File Service Provider.• Texas Notary Public (Expires October 2022).
• Just Kauz It’s Right (Founder & CEO) – Raise awareness of education issues in South Texas; provide
and distribute educational materials to school children in need.
• Leadership Edinburg XXXII Class (Current Member).
• Executive Women in Texas Government (Current Member).
• Hispanic Women Network of Texas – Rio Grande Valley Chapter (Current Member).
• Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (Former Board Member).
• Rio Grande Valley Partnership (Former Board Member).
• Rio Grande Valley LEAD (Linking Economic and Academic Development) (Former Associate Director).
• Capitol Republican Women (Member).
• Hidalgo County Republican Party (Former Secretary, Executive Committee Member).
• University of Texas-Pan American, Austin Alumni Chapter (Former Secretary).
• Edinburg Rotary Club (Non-Active Member).
• Delta Xi Nu Multicultural Sorority, Inc. – National Executive Board (Former Director of Finance).
TEXAS LEGISLATURE WRAPS UP THIRD SPECIAL SESSION WITH NEW MAPS, PROPERTY TAX RELIEF
The third special session ended Monday, October 18, 2021, with lawmakers granting final approval to new maps for statehouse and congressional districts, completing a process that began almost a year ago when the Texas Legislature opened redistricting hearings in January 2021.
Delays in census data pushed the process back months, but the Legislature reached a consensus on a map that creates two new congressional districts, one in Travis County and another in northwest Harris county, increasing the size of the state delegation in Washington to 38 seats.
Also passed Monday, October 18, 2021, was a bill to allocate more than $13.3 billion in federal COVID aid sent to the state through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“These dollars will help us continue to fight COVID-19, address a wide range of needs that have emerged over the past two years, and provide a major boost to our ongoing economic recovery,” said Sen. Jane
Nelson, R-Flower Mound, Chair, Senate Committee on Finance, and the author of the legislation.
The largest item in the bill is $7.2 billion to pay off the debt in the unemployment insurance fund accrued during waves of COVID-related layoffs, protecting employers, said Nelson, from a potential hike in unemployment tax rates.
It also includes $2 billion to cover salary costs for increased staff at hospitals and $400 million to pay for staffing needs at nursing facilities.
“This money will continue to be available through the end of next year, as we brace for a potential COVID-flu double whammy,” Nelson told members.
This was likely Nelson’s last time to take the microphone on the Senate floor, as the seven-term senator will not be seeking re-election to the seat she’s held since 1993.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, appointed Nelson as the first woman to lead a legislative appropriations committee when he came into office in 2015.
After leading the Senate’s appropriations process for four sessions, Patrick announced from the rostrum Monday, October 19, 2021, that the expansive committee room in which Nelson presided over hundreds and hundreds of hours of Finance committee hearings will be named in her honor.
“It’s a part of history,” he said.
Legislators also approved a measure that would permanently raise the untaxed portion of a home’s value.
Subject to voter approval, Senate Joint Resolution 2 by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would raise the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $40,000, which translates into around $175 in annual tax savings for the average homeowner.
“This is real property tax relief for 5.7 million Texas homes,” he said.
With the completion of the new district maps and federal aid appropriated, it is likely that the third special session will cap legislative activity for the year, and possibly until the Legislature meets again in regular session in January of 2023.
Only slated for 140 days every odd year, in 2021 the Legislature spent almost twice that in session as Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, called lawmakers back to Austin three times to deal with a number of highly contentious issues including a divisive elections bill that sparked a walkout in the House and garnered national attention.
All three sessions also saw a bill that would prohibit transgender students from participating in school sports divisions that don’t match the biological sex listed on their original birth certificate – a measure that was sent to the governor’s desk on Monday, October 18, 2021.
One issue that wasn’t addressed was the subject of employer vaccine mandates.
Abbott issued an executive order forbidding such mandates last week and asked lawmakers to send him a bill to place that order into state law. The Senate considered such a bill in committee but with much of the business community opposed to the proposal, it failed to garner enough support to reach the floor.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).