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Elisa Guerra Sekula, featured front row, fourth from right, rejoices as she holds the ceremonial scissors  she used to celebrate the grand opening on Friday, April 20, of the $3 million, 36,000-square-foot Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library, named in honor of her late son, an 18-year-old U.S. Marine who was the first Hidalgo County resident killed in action in Iraq.  Among the scores of family members, dignitaries, and well-wishers that joined her for the event were, front row, from left: former Mayor Richard García; Librarian Leticia S. Leija; Dustin’s sister, Danielle; Dustin’s brother, Derek; Dustin’s mother, Elisa; Rep. Verónica Gonzáles; Rep. Aaron Peña; and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. Not shown is Dustin’s father, Daniel, and Mayor Joe Ochoa, who was absent because of a death in his family.

••••••

With passing of his brother, Mayor Ochoa loses his mentor and father-figure in life

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

As profound as the loss of a brother is to anyone, the death on Wednesday, April 18, of Alejandro Ochoa, Sr. of Edinburg marked a solemn day for his surviving brother, Mayor Joe Ochoa, who said he lost his mentor and father-figure as well.

Alejandro, 72, a life-long Edinburg resident and Korean War veteran who was wounded in the line of duty, would come back from overseas as a proud U.S. Marine to work with the City of Edinburg for more than three decades.

The former veteran, whose prayer services on Friday, April  20, prominently featured the flag of the U.S. Marine Corps, impacted the development of his community not only as a public servant, but also as a beloved and trusted advisor to his younger brother, Joe, who has been mayor for more than a decade.

“He worked for the City of Edinburg for 34 years, and we would always discuss different issues,” the mayor reflected Friday evening, after a rosary for his brother was concluded. “What always impressed me about him was that he was a very well-organized individual. He planned way ahead on things to come. A lot of my vision, my planning and organizational skills are skills that he instilled in me. I attribute a lot of my successes to him.”

In the mayor’s eyes, Alejandro was a man of humility who stood tall as a mountain.

“My brother was a very simple individual. He never asked anything of anyone. He served his country well as a Korean War veteran, where he was wounded,” Mayor Ochoa said. “He has always been that type of person.”

Alejandro, who along with his wife, Hilda, would successfully raise a wonderful family, also accepted the mantle of responsibility for his siblings after their own parents’ untimely deaths.

The mayor remembered that as a young man, their parents – who came from humble beginnings – both passed away, and Alejandro helped fill the devastating void that was left,

“Coming back from college, I was only able to enjoy my parents for two years after that, because they died when I was in my mid-20s,” Mayor Ochoa said. “He led me through some difficult times. He was my advisor,  and then my father when my parents died when I was getting out of college. He was my mentor.”

Alejandro was generous with his time and his resources, even though the family had struggled financially as they were growing up.

“We didn’t have any money – my father was a laborer, my mother washed clothes and ironed for people,” Mayor Ochoa recalled. “One of the things I remembered was going off to the University of Texas and not having any money. Students didn’t get their loans and grants coming in until the middle of the school semester. He sent me money to be able to survive that first semester.  That was my big brother.”

Several hundred people attended the Friday evening prayer service, including elected officials and community leaders.

As part of the eulogy, delivered by the mayor, Alejandro, true to form, had prepared in advance for the terrible day that was sure to come, taking care of all his affairs in order to reduce the trauma for his family, the mayor said.

Alejandro especially wanted to comfort his relatives and friends, instructing several months earlier that the following passage be read during his services:

“I know you’re sad and afraid, because I see your tears. I’ll not be far, I promise that and hope you’ll always know that my spirit will be close to you, wherever you may go.

“Thank you so for loving me, you know I love you too. That’s why it’s hard to say goodbye and end this life with you.

“So hold me now, just one more time and let me hear you say, because you care so much for me, you’ll let me go today.”

Alejandro entered into eternal rest on Wednesday, April 18, 2007, at Retama Manor Nursing Home in Edinburg. He was born July 17, 1934 in Hargill and lived all his life in Edinburg. He was preceded in death by his parents, Aniceto and Angélica Ochoa; a sister, Irene Ochoa; a brother, Aniceto Ochoa, Jr.; and his best friend,  Óscar Ponce.

He is survived by his loving wife, Hilda; two sons, Alejandro Ochoa, Jr. (Rosalinda), Alberto Ochoa; a grandson, Alejandro Ochoa, III; and granddaughter, Carolina Ochoa; a brother, Mayor Joe Ochoa; a sister, Alicia O. (Fidel) Rodríguez; mother-in law, Esperanza R. Sáenz; and numerous nephews and nieces.

Alejandro was a loving husband, father, grandfather and a true friend to all. He took great pride in being a Marine and served his country during the Korean Conflict. After leaving the corp he went to work for the City of Edinburg and retired in 1991 after 34 years.

The family thanked the dedicated nurses, nursing assistants and the physical therapy staff of Retama Manor Nursing Home, Dr. Miguel Alemán and his staff for their care and concern shown to Alejandro and his family.

A very special thank you was extended to Mr. Miguel (Mike) Cruz, who helped care for Alejandro at home, in the hospital and at the nursing home for the last five months.

He was loved by many and will be greatly missed by all that knew him.

Visitation was held from 5 to 9 p.m. with a 7 p.m. rosary on Friday, April 20, 2007, at Memorial Funeral Home, 208 E. Canton in Edinburg. Funeral service was at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 21, 2007, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Edinburg. Interment followed at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Edinburg. Military honors were conducted by the U.S. Marines Corps.

Pallbearers were Jaime Rodríguez, Luis Rodríguez, Óscar  Rodríguez, Ricky Rodríguez, Omar Ochoa and Carlos Ochoa.

Funeral services were under the direction of Memorial Funeral Home in Edinburg.

••••••

Despite being wounded, Dustin Sekula sacrificed life to save trapped Marines

“Although he was just barely 18 years old, he was as big a man as you will ever see.”

-Major John Terri, U.S. Marine Corps,

recalling Dustin Sekula’s heroism

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Several hundred residents at the Friday, April 20 grand opening of the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library found out, without a doubt, that the namesake of the $3 million, 36,000-square-foot learning center was a true American hero in every sense of that word.

The 18-year-old U.S. Marine from the three-time All-America City was killed in action on April 1, 2004. He was the first resident of Hidalgo County to be fatally wounded in combat in Iraq.

That sacrifice moved the Edinburg City Council, under the leadership of then-Mayor Richard García, to announce that a planned new city library would bear his name in his honor.

Few in South Texas knew the full details of his bravery, with official military statements revealing little, only that Sekula, a graduate of Edinburg North High School, “died due to injuries sustained from enemy fire in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.”

But with heavy cloud cover blocking out the sun during the Friday morning ceremonies, the true nature of Sekula’s courage came to light, bringing honor upon himself, his family, his hometown, his fellow Marines, and his beloved nation.

The day after he died, Sekula was bestowed with the Purple Heart, which is a military honor awarded in the name of the President to veterans who are killed or wounded in combat.

Heroism revealed

Three years after his death, the Marines announced that Sekula was also posthumously bestowed with the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat V, a decoration signifying heroism.

Major John Terri, representing the U.S. Marine Corps, said that Sekula’s conduct under fire went beyond the call of duty.

“It was really determined that some extraordinary action on Dustin’s part took place, and it was determined that more honor should be bestowed upon this Marine,” Terri said. “I can tell you that on that night, on April 1, Dustin stood up. Although he was just barely 18 years old, he was as big a man as you will ever see.  It’s important to Lisa that you know exactly what happened that night.”

Terri then read the official account of Sekula’s actions that led to his death, but that saved the lives of his brothers-in-arms.

According to the Summary of Action prepared by Sekula’s company commander:

At approximately 2200 hours on 1 April 2004, the 3rd section of the 81mm Mortar Platoon was on a combat patrol escorting an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team to an enemy weapons cache south of the city of Kubaysah in the Eastern Al Anbar Province of Iraq.

Private First Class Sekula (he was posthumously promoted to Lance Corporal) was riding in an open high-back HMMWV as a member of the security element for this patrol.  As the patrol reached the edge of the city, Anti-Coalition Forces (ACF) initiated an ambush with a volley of automatic weapons fire from a concealed machine gun position.

Private First Class Sekula’s HMMWV was to the left of the enemy firing position at a distance of approximately ten meters.  The enemy was firing from a ditch that was not visible to the patrol due to low visibility and terrain.

Fought fearlessly

During the initial volley of enemy fire, Private First Class Sekula was struck in his right shoulder, and was knocked to the floor of the vehicle, temporarily incapacitated by the impact of the round.

Private First Class Sekula, determined to fight on, lifted himself to the edge of the vehicle and immediately returned a heavy volume of fire on the enemy while the driver attempted to move out of the kill zone.

Disregarding the proximity of his exposed position to the enemy machine gun and ignoring the pain of his own wounds, Private First Class Sekula continued to provide suppressive fire, which enabled the remainder of his squad to dismount, return fire, and managed to move the HMMWV to a position approximately thirty meters from the enemy firing position.

At this point, another volley of machine gun fire was directed at the vehicle. Realizing that his vehicle was still in the kill zone and his fellow Marines were not in a position to return fore on to the enemy position, Private First Class Sekula held firm, returning suppressive fire from his exposed position in the open cargo bed of the vehicle.

He continued to fight fearlessly.  As he maintained suppressive fire on the enemy position, he was struck again, this time in the face and mortally wounded by enemy machine gun fire.

Because of his sustained suppressive fire, the Marines of the patrol were able to assault the machine gun position and force the enemy to break contact.

In disregarding his own wounds and maintaining fire on the enemy position, Private First Class Sekula paid the ultimate sacrifice so he could protect the men of his patrol and accomplish the mission they had been assigned.

His actions that night demonstrated, in the clearest focus, what is means to be a sturdy professional, and his actions have served as inspiration to all those around him.”

Sekula is survived by his immediate family, which includes his father, Daniel, his mother, Elisa, his brother, Derek, and his sister, Danielle.

(The Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library, located at 1906 South Closner, has all of the resources it offered at its now-former location at 401 East Cano, plus new services and features, such as teen programs, Wi-Fi Internet access, independent study rooms, a computer training room, a young adult reading area, and a children’s reading area. Residents may call the library at 383-6246 for more information.)

••••••

Library marks political and personal milestones for former Mayor García

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

As the solemn drama and joyful celebration surrounding the grand opening of the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library played out on Friday, April 20, former Mayor Richard García – who spearheaded the construction and naming of the multi-million dollar complex – took the high road by being low-key about the role he played in bringing the dream into reality.

Normally, any public project that carries the price tag and emotional symbolism of the library, named after one of Edinburg’s fallen heroes from the war in Iraq, draws every political figure that had anything to do with it.

Sekula is a U.S. Marine who in April 2004 became the first Hidalgo County resident killed in action in the war in Iraq.

He is survived by his immediate family, which includes his father, Daniel, his mother, Elisa, his brother, Derek, and his sister, Danielle.

Then-mayor García and the Edinburg City Council had already planned to build a new library, but when the tragic news broke of Sekula’s death in combat, they announced their desire to name the facility in honor of the 18-year-old native son.

That vision came to fruition on April 22, when the grand opening ceremony opened the doors of one of South Texas’ latest advancements in education.

But in García’s case, the one-time U.S. Army veteran didn’t even ask to be among the dignitaries at the front podium who shared center stage with Sekula’s immediate family, state and local leaders.

Instead, García sat quietly among the seated audience, beaming with pride over the state-of-the-art public library, reflecting over the loss of Dustin Sekula’s life, and hoping that the addition of this learning resource will help countless residents make a better life for themselves.

“It is just fabulous to see what this developed into,” said García, who continues to serve the city as president of the five-member Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

“I expected to see something great for the city, but it is beyond great,” he said of the $3 million, 36,000-square-foot, two-level building.  “They did a beautiful job. I can’t get over the size.”

The aesthetics of the building’s architecture and furnishings notwithstanding, García said thee library is above all, an education resource for all.

“I think there is a lesson here. When I was growing up, this was a sleepy little village. A few of us received an education,” he said. “Many of the people I went to school didn’t go on to college because finances were a problem for all of us.”

But a public library breaks down the wall facing many working families who thirst for knowledge and education.

“In Spanish, we say, ‘querer es poder,’ which has a double meaning.  It can mean desire is power, but it can also mean that ‘where there is a will, there is a way,’ García said.

“When they came to me and my city council with this need for a library in this city, that is the first thing that came to my mind: ‘querer es poder,'” he remembered. “We sat the city staff down, and even though there were budget considerations, I said, ‘Let’s find a way.’ I am thankful to them for all their work, because they did find a way, and we have this today. That is a lesson to be learned. It should guide our lives in the way we look at things.”

Although very pleased with this major achievement from his administration, García said he also had a lot of personal satisfaction invested in the former library, whose future use has not yet been determined by the city.

“I was remembering the former library, and I was just looking at my name up on the Founder’s Wall from the old library,” he reflected.  “I guess I have lived a lifetime since we broke ground a year ago.  I remember my wife (Peggy, who passed away in 2006) used to do puppet shows on Saturday mornings (at the old library) as  a volunteer many years ago. My daughters used to hang out in the children’s wing.”

But life goes on, he acknowledged, and he views the new library as the hope and salvation of today’s young people and future generations to come, including his own family.

“I have gained a grandson since then, and maybe he will get a shot at doing the same thing, being an Edinburg resident,” García added. “And I am pleased about that, too, of course.”

••••••

Senate passes Sen. Hinojosa’s comprehensive reforms for Texas Youth Commission

By MELISSA DEL BOSQUE

After two years of comprehensive work on youth corrections reform, Sen.  Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa’s omnibus Texas Youth Commission reform bill, Senate Bill 103, was unanimously voted out of the Senate on Thursday, April 19.

The entire Senate was signed on as co-authors of the measure. It now goes to the Texas House of Representatives for action in that chamber.

“I want to thank the entire Senate and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for their assistance in getting this bill passed and for their input in this comprehensive legislation.” said Hinojosa. “We are rebuilding the Texas Youth Commission from the ground up so that we have a humane system for rehabilitating youth that is accountable to the people of Texas.”

Hinojosa and his staff began looking into the juvenile justice system two years ago when riots broke out at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg. Hinojosa pre-filed his comprehensive reform legislation and has continued to work with stakeholders since the TYC controversy erupted to rebuild the scandal-wracked commission.

Hinojosa’s bill calls for improved security by requiring TYC guards and other staff to undergo at least 300 hours of training before being assigned to guard duty; caps the guard-to-youth ratio at no more than 12 to 1 to maintain order and safety; and requires fingerprint and national criminal history checks for employees.

SB 103 also creates a Parents Bill of Rights to guarantee swift and accurate access to information about caseworkers’ duties and the agency’s grievance policies.

In addition, Hinojosa’s reforms call for the establishment of a panel within TYC to review sentencing guidelines bringing strict accountability to the process. His bill features structural improvements to TYC’s governing board and strengthens the agency’s emphasis on community rehabilitation instead of automatic incarceration.

The senator’s bill also provides for the creation of a criminal investigation unit to look into crimes committed by TYC youth, or against them by guards and other juvenile justice employees.

Hinojosa’s legislation ends the practice of housing 10- or 11-year-olds with 19- or 20-year-olds; creates an independent authority and law enforcement trained personnel from the Inspector General’s Office to ensure safety in TYC facilities; and authorizes child advocacy groups to visit facilities and work with youth.

“I look forward to working with the House now to pass comprehensive reforms for TYC,” Hinojosa said.

••••••

House approves giving retired teachers a one-time “13th check” in September to boost pension earnings

By ORLANDO SALINAS

and

DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Thirteen could wind up being a lucky number for state lawmakers seeking reelection in 2008 if a bill that would give a one-time, extra monthly pension check in September to qualified retired teachers becomes law.

On Monday, April 16, the House of Representatives unanimously approved House Bill 1105 by Rep. Ruth McClendan, D-San Antonio, that would require the Teacher Retirement System to make a one-time supplemental  payment, or “13th check,” to eligible TRS annuitants no later than  September of 2007, according to the House Research Organization.

This additional payment would be equal to the amount  of the annuitant’s August 2007 gross annuity payment and subject to all  applicable tax withholding and other required deductions, the HRO noted.

The House Research Organization is a non-partisan team of lawyers and researchers, funded by the House of Representatives, that provides detailed background on all major legislation considered by the full House.

While McClendan is the main author of the legislation, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, was one of five joint authors of the measure, which must still still be approved by the Senate and Gov. Rick Perry.

The rest of the Valley state representatives also were listed as co-authors of HB 1105.

“Providing a benefit increased to our retired teachers is long over due,” said Peña. “At the beginning of session I made a promise to local retirees that we would get something done. This bill allows us to provide some immediate relief to our retired teachers while laying the foundation for a permanent annuity increase.”

A week earlier, the House of Representatives approved their version of the state budget that included funding to cover the cost of HB 1105.

The bill increases the state’s contribution to the TRS Pension Fund from the current constitutionally mandated minimum of 6 percent to 6.7 percent.  That increase will allow the pension system to amortize its liabilities over 31 years.  State fiscal policy does not allow the Teacher Retirement System to increase benefits unless the fund is deemed actuarially sound.

“We will require TRS to cut a 13th check for our current retirees,”  said Peña. “For too long these Texans have lived on fixed incomes while inflation has far outpaced any recent cost of living adjustments.  I am proud that the Texas House is trying to fulfill our commitment to the men and women in communities all across the state who dedicated their lives to educating our children.”.”

The Texas Constitution, Art. 16, sec. 67(b)(3) requires that the state  contribution to state retirement systems, including the Teacher Retirement  System (TRS) pension fund, be at least 6 percent and no more than 10  percent of payroll. These constitutional limits are established in statute in  Government Code, sec. 825.404(a).

The current statutory state  contribution rate to the TRS pension fund is 6 percent of payroll.    Government Code, sec. 811.006 prohibits the Legislature from granting  benefit increases to retirees unless the pension fund is considered  “actuarially sound,” meaning that the pension system is able to amortize  all of its liabilities over 31 years.

••••••

Sen. Lucio appointed vice chair of Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The South Texas enator who represents one of the areas with the highest tourism rates, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., was recently named Vice Chair of the Legislative Tourism Caucus for 2007-08.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst from Brenham is the new Chair of this 80-member body dedicated to maintaining and expanding the state’s travel and tourism industry. Lucio has served two consecutive terms on the Board of Directors.  He is Chair of the Senate International Relations and Trade Committee and serves on the Committees on Business and Commerce, Finance, State Affairs, and the Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development.

Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, will serve as Secretary and Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, as Treasurer. Members of the newly elected Board of Directors include:  Rep. Alma Allen, R-Houston; Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth; Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell; Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville; Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola; Rep. Tracy King, R-Batesville;, Sen. Kel Seliger (Amarillo), Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake; and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

“I consider this appointment extremely important, especially to my district where thousands of tourists annually visit South Padre Island and the surrounding area, including a constant flow of visitors from Mexico,” said Lucio. “Tourism generates jobs and spurs both our local and state economies.”

The Economic Development and Tourism Division in the Office of the Governor reported that Cameron County hosts an estimated two million domestic visitors annually, and in 2005 they contributed more than $625 million to the local economy through visitor spending. This spending supports nearly 8,000 tourism industry jobs with wages totaling around $135 million. Visitor spending also generates approximately $34 million in state tax receipts and $13 million in local tax receipts.

Most of these visitors vacation in South Padre Island and many also cross the border into Mexico for a day. Conversely, Mexican visitors’ expenditures along the U.S.-Mexico border reportedly generate $9 billion in sales annually.

“It will be my goal to ensure that Texas continues to expand its travel and tourism opportunities so that people from throughout the country, the world and our own Texas residents can enjoy our marvels, attractions and hospitality, and so that we can benefit economically from this great industry,” added Lucio.

Tourism is a $49 billion industry for the state, and visitor spending in the state directly supports more than 500,000 jobs.

The Texas Gulf Coast region alone draws millions of visitors, stretching 350 miles from South Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley, all the way to Beaumont and the Louisiana border. In 2006, South Padre Island was named by the National Geographic Adventure Magazine as one of the top 10 nationwide  Trips with a Splash for 2006. South Padre Island was selected for its exceptional water sports, and even received recognition on ABC’s “Good Morning America” show.

“Tourism has long been recognized as a strong economic development generator of revenue and jobs for the Texas economy,” noted Lucio. “I am proud to be a part of the Tourism Caucus to help promote this industry for the benefit of Texas.”

••••••

Sen. Hinojosa pushing for new state holiday honoring Hispanic icon Dr. Héctor P. García

By DAVID A. DIAZ

The late Dr. Héctor Pérez García of Corpus Christi, a Texas political giant and civil rights champion whose distinguished life included time spent in Edinburg and Hidalgo County, could have a new state holiday named in his honor if a bill by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is approved by the Texas Legislature.

Senate Bill 1805, which was approved by the Texas Senate on Thursday, April 20, would designate the third Wednesday of September – which also falls in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Week – as Dr. Héctor Pérez García Day in memory of his significant contributions to the Mexican American civil rights movement.

The holiday wouldn’t involve any day-off for government employees or public schools, but it would require that “Dr. Héctor Pérez García Day” would be “regularly observed by appropriate ceremonies and activities in the public schools and other places to properly commemorate the importance of the contributions made by the longtime South Texas leader,” according to Hinojosa.

It also would be the second state holiday designated in honor of an Hispanic.  In 1999, legislation filed by Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, was approved designating March 31 as “César Chávez Day” in Texas.

“This bill would incorporate into the state academic curriculum lessons learned from Dr. García’s efforts on behalf of civil rights and veteran causes,” said Hinojosa, himself a U.S. Marines combat squad leader in Vietnam. “That day would committed to teaching the lessons of Dr. Hector P. García.”

García was born in Llera, Tamaulipas, Mexico, according to archives, and his parents and family fled with him to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1917, immigrating to Mercedes.   He attended Edinburg Junior College as a young man, hitchhiking 30 miles daily.  He would go on to attend the University of Texas at Austin.

An identical measure – House Bill 3535 by Rep. Juan García, D-Corpus Christi (no relation to Dr.  García) – was heard in a public hearing on Monday, April 17, before the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee.

Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, is a joint author of HB 3535, while two other Valley state representatives – Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito – are co-authors of HB 3535.

“Dr. García left an undeniable impact on Texas, the nation, and the world,” said Hinjosa. “His service and accomplishments in life were many and included some of the most memorable occasions in recent Texas history.”

In 1948, García  founded the American GI Forum, aimed at giving Hispanic veterans equal access to the education, job training, and home loans promised by the GI Bill of Rights, Hinojosa noted.

García, whose passing in 1996 left a remarkable legacy, was a physician/surgeon, Army veteran who served in World War II, a civil rights champion, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among his many achievements.

But he was most famous for the role he took in the first major political stance taken by his GI Forum, when a Mexican American soldier who was killed in action was refused a burial site in Three Rivers because it was reserved for Anglos.

“Dr. García made national headlines with the group’s first big fight, which came after the family of a Hispanic World War II veteran killed in the Philippines was turned away at a Three Rivers funeral home and told to bury him in a segregated cemetery for Hispanics,” Hinojosa recalled. “The doctor contacted state and federal lawmakers and eventually secured a full military burial for the veteran, Private Félix Longoria, in Arlington National Cemetery.”

The event made the cover of the New York Times and marked the launch of the American GI Forum as a civil rights organization, according to a Senate committee bill analysis of the proposed holiday.

From then until his death in 1996, García fought for Mexican-American rights, both locally as a respected doctor and in the national arena, the bill analysis noted.

García was an alternate ambassador to the United Nations, the first Mexican-American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a recipient of the nation’s highest civilian honor when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.

Throughout his distinguished career, García was awarded multiple accolades from various governments and other organizations. They include:

?The U.S. Army’s Bronze Star and six battle stars, 1942-1946;

?The American G.I. Forum’s Medalla al Merito, 1952, for his work with Mexican American

veterans;

?The Republic of Panama’s Condecoracion, Orden Vasco Nunez de Balboa, with the rank of

commander, 1965;

?The 8th United States Marine Corps District honored him with a plaque in recognition of

his service to the war deceased, 1967;

?A humanitarian award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s

Corpus Christi chapter, 1969;

?The Distinguished Service Award from the National Office of Civil Rights, 1980;

?The Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1984;

?Honor Al Merito Medalla Cura Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon A.D.P.E., Mexico City, México.

?Corpus Christi Human Relations Commission’s Community Service Award, 1987;

?The Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organization’s Humanitarian

Award, 1988;

?The National Hispanic Leadership Conference’s Hispanic Heritage Award, 1989;

?The Midwest/Northeast Voter Registration Project’s National Hispanic Hero Award, 1989;

?MAPA Award for outstanding service to Hispanics from the Mexican American

Physicians’ Association, 1990;

?The National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Distinguished Lifetime Service Award,

1990;

?The Equestrian Order of Pope Gregory the Great from Pope John Paul II, 1990; and

?Corpus Christi State University’s first honorary doctorate of Humane Letters, 1991.

••••••

Senate passes Sen. Zaffirini’s measure to improve the Community Living Options Process

By NICK ALMANZA

The Texas Senate on Thursday, April 19, passed the committee substitute for Senate Bill 1870 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would require the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) to contract with local mental retardation authorities (MRA) to implement the community living options process (CLOP) for adults residing in Texas state schools.

The bill would ensure the integrity of the process by requiring that it be conducted free of conflicts of interest so it provides maximum benefits for persons with intellectual disabilities who reside in state facilities.

Current law perpetuates a conflict of interest by allowing state school personnel to administer the CLOP to residents aged 22 or older. The CLOP was created to inform persons with intellectual disabilities and related conditions and their legally authorized representatives about alternative community living options.

“This bill ensures that adults with disabilities who are residents of state schools receive complete information regarding their community living options,” Zaffirini said. “As legislators we have an obligation to improve and enhance the quality of life for persons who have developmental disabilities. Providing comprehensive information for them and their families is essential to meet this goal, and I am proud to sponsor this legislation.”

In 2006 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated the Lubbock State School and found that Texas fails to provide community services to persons who reasonably can be accommodated, and, contrary to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, that interdisciplinary teams appear to endorse and promote the retention of persons in state institutions.

CSSB 1870 would enable DADS to respond to DOJ by requiring DADS to contract with local MRAs to develop a more effective community living options information process. What’s more, the bill would eliminate the conflict of interest created when state school personnel are responsible for informing residents of their community living options.

The bill must be passed by the House of Representative before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Perry for final approval.

••••••

Texas House approves bill that would help save fuel taxes for Edinburg fire department fire trucks

By ORLANDO SALINAS

Volunteer fire departments all across the state, including Edinburg’s fire department, would  be exempt from paying gasoline and diesel taxes if actions by the Texas House become law.

State Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is one of five joint authors of HB 685 which would give volunteer fire departments an opportunity to receive a state tax rebate for gasoline and diesel purchased for official firefighting business.

“Volunteer fire departments provide critical emergency services to almost every community in my legislative district,” said  Peña. “These brave men and women donate their time and sometimes their own resources to operate and maintain these departments.  This sales tax rebate will allow these departments to provide more essential services to our communities.”

The state tax on gasoline and diesel fuel is 20 cents per gallon.  Volunteer fire departments will be eligible to apply for a rebate with the State Comptroller of Pubic Accounts for fuel purchased for fire department business.  The bill precludes volunteer fire fighters from using the rebate for their own personal vehicles.

The cost of fueling emergency service vehicles and fire trucks constitutes a large portion of a volunteer fire department’s budget.  These departments usually receive some funding from a local government or a local emergency service district.  Many departments supplement their budgets with grants, private donations, and fundraisers.

“These fire engines and heavy duty emergency service vehicles aren’t known for their fuel economy,” said Representative Peña. “As fuel prices continue to rise it is appropriate that the state provide some help to these departments that serve the public good.”

HB 685 is now headed to the Senate.

David A. Diaz contributed to this report.

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Senate approves bill by Sen. Hinojosa, Sen. Lucio to create mechanism to help cities obtain water rights

By MELISSA DEL BOSQUE

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville,  passed Senate Bill 847 on Thursday, April 20, to create a mechanism for transferring water rights for municipalities.

Currently, there is no existing law providing a fair mechanism for the transfer of irrigated water rights to municipal water rights in the Lower Rio Grande region, according to a bill analysis of the measure.  A process needs to be established for the subdivision of urban non-agricultural land on water rights in certain counties, including Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo counties.

SB 847 authorizes irrigation water rights owned by water districts, other than a drainage district, in the Lower Rio Grande region that cover counties adjacent to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico or adjacent to such a county to be converted from irrigation water rights to municipal water rights for use by municipal suppliers in the region and details the conversion process in a uniform manner for the Lower Rio Grande region.

“For many years there has been much debate over how to transfer irrigation water rights to municipalities,” Hinojosa said. “We are one of the fastest growing areas in the country and water has become the top issue of concern for our region. This bill helps address some of the issues we have been grappling with regarding the prices and processes for the conversion of water rights.”

Lucio, Jr. is co-author of SB 847.

“I commend my colleague, Sen. Hinojosa, for spearheading this bill which will shape the future of South Texas when it comes to water rights,” Lucio.  “It was a pleasure working alongside Sen. Hinojosa in bringing together the coalition that has helped us solve major water rights problems for the entire region.”

SB 847 is the result of 18 months of negotiation from stakeholders representing the irrigation districts and the municipalities.

“This bill is the product of a lot of hard work and negotiations from all of the parties involved,”  Hinojosa said.

An identical bill is being carried in the House of Representatives by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen.  That measure, called a companion bill, is House Bill 1803, which was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, April 11.

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Reforming Windstorm Insurance

By REP. JUAN GARCÍA

D-Corpus Christi

Despite being promised that the 2003 changes in insurance law would provide relief, Texas homeowners continue to pay the highest premiums in America.

Windstorm insurance rates in Texas are twice the national average. Responsible home and business owners know they need an insurance policy, but they’re forced to assume more and more of the risk through higher deductibles, caps on replacement costs, and fights over payouts. Along the coast, companies are refusing to renew tens of thousands of property policies. It’s no coincidence that “Home For Sale” signs increasingly dot the Coastal Bend as many families simply can’t keep up.

What steps is the Texas Legislature considering to address this crisis?

One proposal calls for changing the State Insurance Commissioner from a gubernatorially-appointed position, as it is now, to an elected one, as twelve other states do. The idea is that if the commissioner were directly accountable to voters every four years, he or she would be much more responsive to consumers, and help end the “revolving door” between the office and the corporate boards of large insurance companies. Opponents contend that this would only invite those same large insurance interests to “buy” their candidate with exorbitant campaign contributions. However, Texas voters already select the state’s agriculture commissioner, the state’s chief tax collector, and the railroad commissioners (overseers of the oil and gas industry).

Another measure addresses policy-owner frustration over a spike in their premium anytime they actually make a claim. The bill would guarantee that homeowners would not be penalized for making their first claim by prohibiting insurance companies from increasing premiums until after a second claim during a given three-year period. Policy-holders should not be punished for making legitimate claims on a policy they have faithfully made monthly payments on for years.

Still another idea being debated is an attempt to stem the flow of insurers willing to write windstorm policies in the so-called “Tier 1” areas (the coastal counties). The measure would end “cherry-picking” and provide an incentive for companies to stay in the area by prohibiting them from writing homeowners insurance anywhere in Texas for five years after they quit writing such policies along the coast. The legislation would not apply retroactively, so companies that have already left would be welcomed back, and hopefully those considering leaving, after weighing the loss of the entire Texas market, would think twice.

A final initiative would address the shortfalls of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), the last resort for citizens when coverage is not available. The TWIA, or the ‘Pool’ as it is commonly referred to, has over the years been allowed to slip into disrepair, with assets equaling only a tenth of exposure. Fixing it will require accepting as a premise that when a major hurricane comes, the damage will not be just a coastal disaster, but will have a severe impact on the entire state (residents of northern Mississippi and northern Louisiana learned this when foodstuffs, petrol, and manufacturing goods couldn’t get in or out of devastated ports after Katrina). The measure calls for an additional fee on premiums statewide, either pre or post-event, to be used in the bond market to fill the gap in the Pool’s mismanaged resources.

Statistics indicate that the “Big Storm” striking the Coastal Bend is not a question of ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’. Hurricane Season is just a few months away. Finding the right formula of measures is critical for this legislative session.

Rep Juan Garcia represents Calhoun, Aransas, San Patricio, and parts of Nueces Counties.

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Senate approves measure by Sen. Zaffirini to modify repayment portion of “B-On-Time” Loan Program

By NICK ALMANZA

The Texas Senate on Wednesday, April 18, passed Senate Bill 1496 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would amend the loan forgiveness provision of the Texas B-On-Time Loan Program to allow students who are graduated within five years from an eligible four-year institution with at least a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) to have 50 percent of their loans forgiven.

SB 1496 builds upon the success of SB 4 (2003) by Zaffirini, which created the B-On-Time Loan Program. It provides Texas students with a zero-interest higher education loan and requires them to be graduated with a 3.0 GPA within four years for a four-year degree or within five years for a five-year degree to have 100 percent of their loans forgiven.

“This legislation is a priority of Lt. Gov.  David Dewhurst,” Zaffirini said. “The bill would promote timely graduation, ease the cost of higher learning and increase higher education access.”

SB 1496 would encourage students to complete their degrees timely and make the requirements for loan forgiveness less stringent. Its purpose is to increase student participation.

Several universities and community colleges throughout the state reported recently that work-study and low-income students seldom take out student loans. These students, many of whom must work, claim the loan forgiveness criteria of B-On-Time are difficult to satisfy. SB 1496 would enhance higher education access and affordability by modifying the B-On-Time program to make loans more appealing to students.

“I truly am delighted this bill was passed by the Senate, and I appreciate especially the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dewhurst in including the B-On-Time loan program among his higher education priorities,” Zaffirini said. “We created B-On-Time to make college more affordable and to encourage students to be graduated timely.”

The bill must be passed by the House of Representative before it can be sent to Governor Rick Perry for final approval.

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CVS/pharmacy cited by Attorney General Abbott for allegedly exposing hundreds of customer records

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott took legal action on Tuesday, April 17, against CVS/pharmacy for allegedly exposing its customers to identity theft.

According to court documents filed by the Attorney General, CVS violated a 2005 law requiring businesses to protect any customer records that contain sensitive customer information, including credit and debit card numbers.

Investigators with the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) discovered that a CVS store in Liberty, near Houston, exposed hundreds of its customers to identity theft by failing to properly dispose of records that contained sensitive information. The investigation was launched after reports indicated that bulk customer records were tossed in a dumpster behind the store. Investigators also found several medical prescription forms that included each customer’s name, address, date of birth, issuing physician and the types of medication prescribed. The documents obtained by OAG investigators also contained hundreds of active debit and credit card numbers, complete with expiration dates.

“Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States,” Attorney General Abbott said. “Texas law protects sensitive personal information in order to prevent this widespread crime. Texans can rest assured that we will continue aggressively cracking down on vendors who jeopardize the confidentiality of their clients’ sensitive information.”

CVS is accused of violating the 2005 Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act, which requires businesses to protect and properly dispose of documents that include clients’ sensitive personal information. Under the law, the OAG has the authority to seek penalties of up to $50,000 per violation.

The Attorney General also charged CVS with violating Chapter 35 of the Business and Commerce Code, which requires businesses to develop retention and disposal procedures for their clients’ personal information. The law provides for civil penalties of up to $500 for each abandoned record.

Attorney General investigators are also working to determine if any exposed data has been used illegally. Consumers who interacted with CVS’ Liberty location should carefully monitor their bank, credit card and any similar statements for evidence of suspicious activity. Customers should also consider obtaining free copies of their credit reports.

Consumers who wish to file a complaint may contact the Office of the Attorney General at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint online at http://www.oag.state.tx.us. Consumers can also obtain information on how to detect and prevent identity theft.

The April 17 legal action against CVS is the fourth identity theft enforcement action by the Office of the Attorney General in recent weeks. On April 2, Attorney General Abbott took legal action against Fort-Worth based RadioShack Corporation after a Corpus Christi-area store improperly dumped several boxes of receipts that contained customer-identifying information.

On March 14, the Attorney General took legal action against Jones Beauty College in Dallas for improperly discarding student financial aid forms with Social Security numbers and other personal information. Also in March, Attorney General Abbott took legal action against On Track Modeling, a North Carolina-based talent agency that abruptly shut down its Grand Prairie office and abandoned more than 60 boxes containing hundreds of confidential client records.

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Senate approves Sen. Lucio’s bill to create address confidentiality program to protect crime victims

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. announced the Senate has approved his bill that would create an address confidentiality program to assist eligible victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Currently, an address confidentiality program does not exist for victims of family violence in Texas. According to the Texas Council of Family Violence, 143 women died in 2005 as a result of domestic violence, some of which might have been avoided if the addresses of family violence victims had been kept confidential.

In cases of family violence, the violence often escalates when victims leave the relationship and seek a new address.

Without the existence of such a program, many victims of family violence do not obtain a driver’s license or register to vote, for fear of making their address open to the public. There is an increasing need for address confidentiality for victims of family violence due to the public’s increased accessibility to personal information.

The purpose of an address confidentiality program would be to protect the identity of victims of family violence, sexual assault, and stalking through the establishment of a confidential mailing address. Such programs protect these victims by allowing them to conceal their whereabouts so their assailants cannot locate them.

Lucio’s Senate Bill 74, which was approved by the Senate on Thursday, April 12, would direct the Attorney General to establish the program by designating a substitute post office box address that a victim of these crimes can use in lieu of a physical address.

“There is currently no mechanism in Texas designed to help victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking from keeping their locations confidential to protect them from their assailants,” said Lucio. “This program affords such protection.”

These particular crimes are intrusive to the victims because of the ongoing threat that those who harmed or stalked them can still locate them. “I think about the address confidentiality program as something which could have saved my grandmother’s life if it had been available to her,” said Donna Bloom of the Texas Advocacy Project, who testified in support of SB 74 and whose grandmother was killed in her home by her grandfather after she had ended the relationship.

Lucio added, “Often, victims of these crimes remain in danger even if they move, so if we can create a safety net for them through this program, then perhaps we can protect more lives.”

The bill must now be considered in the House.

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles. D-McAllen, is carrying an identical measure – House Bill 569 – which was approved by the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, April 4.

Gonzáles is the primary author of HB 569, while Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, are joint authors of the Gonzales measure.

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Rep. Martínez appointed to Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures

By SCOTT JENKINES

Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, on Wednesday, April 18,  was  appointed by House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, to serve on the Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) “Strong States, Strong Nation” 2007 annual meeting on August 5-9 in Boston, Massachusetts is expected to draw more than 7,000 attendees, including state legislators, legislative staff and private sector representatives.

“It is an honor to have been appointed to serve on the Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures,” Martínez said. “I feel the issues facing this committee directly affect us all no matter where we reside, we are all affected.  I am proud to be serving this federal responsibility to this extent.”

Martínez said the National Conference of State legislators will have the opportunity to share ideas and learn from experts about how to build and maintain strong state governments.  The annual conference provides several forums to discuss legislation on various specific public policy issues including: higher education, civic education, health care and state economies.

“Knowledge and accessibility to health care is not only an issue affecting my district, but one that affects all Americans,” Martínez observed.  “It is my hope that I, along with my fellow colleagues, will be able to compare and share innovative public policy on health care, so that all children and adults will have an opportunity to access quality and affordable health care.

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