San Antonio mayor lauds private option, pushes immigration reform


LITTLE ROCK — The mayor of neighboring Texas’ second-largest city complimented Arkansas’ so-called “private option” plan for health care expansion Tuesday but said this state’s new voter identification law could hurt minority and elderly voters.

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and at 39 considered a rising star within the Democratic Party, was in Little Rock for a speech at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on the the political implications of shifting U.S. demographics as part of the Winthrop Rockefeller Distinguished Lectures series.

Before his speech, Castro said the Texas Legislature should emulate Arkansas’ efforts in expanding health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act. Rather than expand Arkansas’ Medicaid rolls, state lawmakers adopted an alternative plan to use Medicaid dollars to subsidize private health coverage through the state health insurance exchange for up to 250,000 of Arkansas’ working poor.

“I wish that Texas would follow Arkansas’ lead,” Castro said in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau. “Arkansas showed initiative, showed flexibility for the better, for the sake of the state’s economy and basic health care.”

Texas has opted out of Medicaid expansion altogether.

While lauding Arkansas’ private option, Castro said the law Arkansas legislators passed this year requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls “is going to be a negative to certain communities, including Hispanics and seniors.”

“Of course, these laws are new, so we’ll have to see, now that it has been implemented, what the research shows.”

Texas has also passed a voter ID law which the U.S. Justice Department is challenging in court. The Mexican-American Legislative Caucus and the NAACP jointly filed a separate lawsuit Tuesday challenging the law.

In 2001, Castro became the youngest San Antonio city councilman at age 26. He was first elected mayor in 2009. His twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, is a freshman congressman.

Julian Castro said Tuesday he advocates “complete, comprehensive immigration reform” and supports the U.S. Senate immigration bill passed earlier this year.

“I know it seems like it’s on the back-burner right now, but the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that over the next 20 years if the Senate version was passed, the budget deficit would be reduced by over $600 billion because … the immigrant who is on a path to citizenship is more likely to buy that car, or that house that they were reluctant to buy when they were living in the shadows,” he said.

“They’re able to start a business and employ people instead of being only an employee. My hope is that states like Arkansas, and the United States as a whole, will recognize in a practical, analytical way the benefit of reforming our immigration system,” he said.

The mayor said his speech at UALR would focus on the nation’s changing demographics and what that means for politics in the years ahead. He noted, for example, that Arkansas’ Hispanic population rose 114 percent over the past decade.

According to news reports, winning the votes of Hispanics, Asians and other minorities, as well as young voters, by wide margins helped power President Obama’s 2012 re-election over Republican Mitt Romney.

“I’ll speak to what I believe is the best approach that policy leaders should take as we look at two segments of our American population that sometimes seem polar opposite, which is a young minority population who is growing, rising … and an aging mainstream community that is looking forward to retirement and Social Security,” he said.

“How do you balance sometimes what can be a tension between those two in terms of good policy making?” he asked, adding that “speaking directly” to voters is key to getting the message across.

Julian Castro said he spoke directly to San Antonio voters last year and they approved an 1/8th cent sales tax hike for expanded pre-school programs.

“It’s in the interest of all Americans, whether they are 70 or 30, that our young people be as well prepared and as well educated as possible so that we can retain job investment in this country and be able to fund Medicare and Social Security and other initiatives that help people in their golden years and provide a safety net for the future as well,” he said.