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Homeland Security bill signed

Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, June 6, was in Edinburg to sign into law Senate Bill 11, creating the Border Security Council, which will help him in allocating border security funding. The ceremony, which featured local lawmakers and border county sheriffs, took place at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office in Edinburg. Area dignitaries featured with Perry, from left, include Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville (behind Perry), the governor, Rep. Aaron Peña, Jr., D-Edinburg, and Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen. Not shown, but also at the event, was Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, and Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos. See story later in this posting.

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Business Expo

An estimated 1,000 people will be showing up in McAllen on June 20 – 21 for the South Texas Business Contracting Expo, which will include visits from Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen. Featured here are members of the 2007 STBBCE Planning Committee. Seated, from left, are Minnie Lucio, Cameron Works; Desiree Méndez-Caltzontzint, Office of Congressman Hinojosa; Cynthia Sakulenzki, McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Froy Garza, Office of U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar; and Elizabeth C. Martínez, The Business Times of the Rio Grande Valley. Standing, from left, are Esperanza Pérez Delgado, University of Texas-Pan American Small Business Development Center; Mary Garza, Texas State Technical College; Matt Ruszczak, UTPA SBDC; Alex Valdéz, UTPA Hub Program; Johnny Clark, Thomas/Price and Associates; María Juárez, UTPA SBDC; Mark Winchester, UTPA SBDC; Gisela Palacios, UTPA Veteran’s Business Outreach Center and Jessica Salinas, UTPA VBOC. See story later in this posting.

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Legislature good for the valley

Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, reviews some of his legislation on the House floor earlier this spring. Flores said South Texas came out very well during the five-month regular session of the Texas Legislature, which concluded May 28. “Although there is always more work to do, I’m pleased by the results of this session, especially when you consider how my district stacks up against other districts across the state,” said Flores. “From education to health care to economic development, I’m proud of the measures that I worked hard to get passed that will undoubtedly improve the quality of life for my constituents.” See story later in this posting.

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Gov. Perry signs Texas Youth Commission reform legislation authored by Sen. Hinojosa

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, June 8, signed into law Senate Bill 103, an overhaul of the Texas Youth Commission (TYC) that will drastically improve youth and correctional officer safety, the investigation and prosecution of alleged crimes and accountability at the agency.

SB 103 was authored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

After two years of comprehensive work on youth corrections reform, Hinojos said he is pleased that Perry signed the bill. The comprehensive TYC reform bill became a priority issue during the 80th legislative session and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers.

“Today marks a new beginning for the troubled Texas Youth Commission. It officially sets us in a new direction in making fundamental changes within the TYC,” Hinojosa said on Friday, June 8. “I will continue monitoring the progress of the TYC so that we have a humane system for rehabilitating youth that is accountable to the people of Texas.”

The governor said the legislation will have a major impact on criminal justice in the state.

“This legislation will change the broken culture at the youth commission so that it can fulfill its mission of rehabilitating troubled youth,” Perry said. “Because of these reforms, safety will improve for youth offenders and correctional officers, allegations of criminal conduct will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted, and a full-time executive commissioner will provide the leadership and accountability needed at TYC.”

SB 103, which takes effect immediately, implements the following reforms:

  • Authorizes the governor to appoint an executive commissioner once the agency is out of conservatorship, and to appoint an ombudsman;
  • Establishes an advisory board to the commission consisting of 9 members, with the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker each appointing 3 members;
  • Requires TYC to maintain a ratio of one correctional officer for every 12 youth;
  • Controls size of future population by requiring misdemeanor offenders to be held in local county probation detention centers instead of TYC;
  • Requires TYC to evaluate minimum lengths of stay unique to each offense and to discharge youths at age 19;
  • Establishes inspector generals, who must be peace officers, to investigate allegations of criminal conduct in the agency and all contract facilities;
  • Requires ombudsman and the TYC chief inspector general to submit reports on investigations to the executive commissioner, advisory board, governor, lieutenant governor, speaker, Texas Department of Criminal Justice Special Prosecution Unit, state auditor, and appropriate legislative committees with TYC oversight.
  • Requires TYC to implement strict guidelines to separate and group committed youth by age; and
  • Authorizes the TDCJ Special Prosecution Unit to prosecute crimes that occur in the agency or contract facilities.

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Homeland security legislation signed into law by governor during ceremony in Edinburg

Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, June 6, signed Senate Bill 11 into law creating the Border Security Council, which will assist the governor in allocating border security funding.

The ceremony, one of several related events by the governor throughout South Texas, was held in Edinburg at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

SB 11 also establishes procedures for first responders to work together to provide mutual aid in times of an emergency, and expands law enforcement agencies’ ability to use wiretapping to detect and deter serious crimes.

“We must tighten the law enforcement noose on drug cartels, human smugglers and criminal enterprises that exploit our porous border, poison our children and destroy our way of life,” Perry said. “Thanks to actions taken by the 80th Legislature, more officers will be positioned along the border to stop criminal enterprises, more tools and technology will be used to assist in the fight, and more surge operations will be funded to close down key trafficking corridors.”

SB 11 does the following:

  • Creates the Border Security Council to advise the governor on how best to allocate border security funds along the border. The governor appoints all members and the chair;
  • Streamlines procedures for local government entities to engage in local mutual aid agreements. This includes defining the role of emergency management directors, creating disaster districts, outlining the process for political subdivisions to request and provide mutual aid assistance, and providing for the reimbursement of costs;
  • Expands the Department of Public Safety Commission from 3 to 5 commissioners;
  • Outlines provisions for amateur radio station license holders to participate in emergency management activities;
  • Expands the use of wiretaps to include kidnapping, aggravated kidnapping, human trafficking and money laundering;
  • Authorizes the Health and Human Services Commission to maintain a registry of certain immunization and medication administered during a disaster;
  • Enhances information that can be collected in the criminal street gang database; and
  • Requires the Governors Division of Emergency Management provide crisis management training to appointed public officers whose job duties include emergency preparedness or response.

Since 2005, Perry has spearheaded the state-led strategy of putting more boots on the ground, more helicopters in the sky, and more resources in the hands of border law enforcement in order to curb criminal activity along the Texas – Mexico border.

Local sheriffs’ offices and police departments have worked side-by-side with their state and federal partners during these highly successful border security operations, including Operation Linebacker, Operation Rio Grande and, most recently, Operation Wrangler.

Perry also noted the importance of local governments now being able to sign mutual aide agreements so that first responders from surrounding communities can immediately come to the aide of their neighbors in a time of crisis.

“If a city has been hit by a wildfire, a chemical spill, a biological threat, or an act of terrorism, bureaucracy should not impede compassion,” Perry said. “This bill removes bureaucratic hurdles when seconds count and lives are in jeopardy.”

SB 11 takes effect September 1, 2007.

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Texas Border Coalition urging Gov. Perry to approve CHIP legislation; would add 127,000 more children

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Texas border leaders are calling on Gov. Rick Perry to sign into law a plan that would add almost 130,000 children of working families to the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides comprehensive and affordable health insurance protection.

CHIP is designed for families who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, yet cannot afford to buy private insurance for their children.

CHIP coverage provides eligible children with coverage for a full range of health services including regular checkups, immunizations, prescription drugs, lab tests, X-rays, hospital visits and more.

Under CHIP, most co-payments for doctor visits and prescription drugs range from $3 to $10.

Authored by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston – and includes Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, as a joint author – HB 109 is being reviewed by Perry’s office for his approval or veto.

Under legislative rules, the governor has until June 17 to take action on the measure.

HB 109 is being supported by the Texas Border Coalition, an alliance of mayors, county judges, and economic development leaders from the 11 Texas counties which border Mexico. TBC represents more than two million Texans.

In May, there were 305,991 children enrolled in CHIP, a decrease of 17,078 from the previous month. That drop was the second largest number of children to lose coverage in one month, but HB 109 is intended to reverse that trend.

José R. Rodríguez, the El Paso County Attorney, also serves as the chairman of Texas Border Coalition’s Committee on Border Health, which made HB 109 one of its top legislative priorities.

Border region would benefit

For the border region in particular, HB 109 would have a profound and positive impact at many different levels, said Rodríguez.

“The Texas border has the highest rates of uninsured in the nation, approximately one third of the population,” he noted. “HB 109 represents not only more health insurance coverage for children, thus closing the gap on the uninsured, but also an investment in the healthy workforce Texas needs to compete in the global economy. Because the border has the fastest growing young population in the nation, it is good public policy to invest in the healthcare of America’s future workers.”

HB 109 also requires the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to conduct a community outreach and education campaign, including a toll-free hotline.

HB 109 will dedicate $75 million to CHIP in the next biennium, which begins September 1.

The TBC leader’s sentiments are echoed by key border lawmakers.

“This bill will result in the coverage of significantly more children and should stop the alarming decline we’ve seen in CHIP coverage,” said Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Currently, families are required to reapply for coverage every six months, which was causing thousands of qualified children to be dropped from coverage, according to supporters of HB 109.

The 12-month eligibility will involve an income review for families whose income is 185 percent or above the federal poverty level.

The 90-day waiting period will now only apply to children who had health insurance during the 90 days prior to applying for CHIP.

Rodríguez emphasized the importance of easing the reapplication requirement.

“In my view, the most important element of HB 109 is the 12-month continuous coverage because it allows children to have access to a consistent medical home reducing the need for hospital emergency room visits, reduces medical costs as a result of covered children getting care when needed, and reduces the state’s administrative costs associated with eligibility renewals,” Rodríguez said.

The assets limitations were also softened so that HB 109 will increase the family allowable asset limit from $5,000 to $10,000 and allow the ownership of a second vehicle by a family.

Restoring CHIP to 2003 level

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr, D-Brownsville, along with Hinojosa and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, served on the Senate Finance Committee, which provided Senate funding for the measure.

“From the budget that will be going to the governor’s desk, we made it possible to add 127,000 more youngsters to the Children’s Health Insurance Program by allowing a one-year enrollment period rather than the six-month period, which caused many children to be dropped from the rolls,” Lucio explained. “We funded CHIP at $2.1 billion, representing an increase of $213.2 million for perinatal services, dental premiums, caseload increases, cost growth, as well as rate restorations and increases. This appropriation also includes an increase of $89.5 million to change certain CHIP eligibility standards.”

The increased funding would bring back CHIP to the level it was in 2003, when a $10 billion state budget shortfall caused funding to be slashed for many major state programs.

Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, was a co-author of HB 109, along with the rest of the border legislative delegation.

“Restoring CHIP back to where it was in 2003 has been one of my goals since I took office in 2005,” Martínez said. “It has been a long and difficult road, but the children of Texas can never be forgotten.

It is comforting to know that those who can least take care of themselves, the children of Texas, will have access to affordable healthcare,” Martínez added.

Turner, Dewhurst, Craddick praised

Rodríguez acknowledged the roles played by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker of the House Tom Craddick – both Republicans – in moving the legislation through both chambers.

“Speaker Craddick was instrumental in making sure that HB 109 passed,” Rodríguez noted. “The House, from the beginning, was especially committed to improving CHIP. I’m glad that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and the Senate eventually determined that CHIP needed to be fixed.”

Rodríguez was especially appreciative of the efforts by Turner, who also serves as Speaker Pro Tempore – second in command to Craddick.

“Rep. Sylvester Turner deserves TBC’s praise for carrying the water on HB 109 and essentially convincing the Legislature that it made a terrible mistake when it cut CHIP in the 2003 session,” Rodríguez said.

In addition to Rodríguez, other members of TBC include Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, who serves as TBC chairman; Brownsville Mayor Eddie Treviño, Jr. (until his successor is selected in a runoff later in June); Cameron County Judge Carlos H. Cascos; Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa; El Paso Mayor John Cook; Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz; Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas; Maverick County Judge José Pepe Aranda; McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz; Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas; Pharr Mayor Leopoldo Palacios, Jr; Rio Grande City Mayor Kevin Hines; Roma Mayor Rogelio Ybarra; Val Verde County Judge Manuel “Mike” Fernández; Weslaco Mayor Joe V. Sánchez; Mike Allen of McAllen, a member of the South Texas College Board of Trustees, and Pat Townsend Jr., president and CEO of the Mission Economic Development Agency, and other community leaders.

The Texas Border Coalition maintains a web site at http://www.texasbordercoalition.org.

(Melissa Del Bosque, Doris Sánchez and Scott Jenkines contributed to this article.)

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Author of CHIP legislation said he begged Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to support program; would do it again

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

In a political arena more known for brass-knuckle politics, Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, told a hushed audience in the House of Representatives chamber that he begged Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to support Turner’s legislation to improve the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and he would do it again.

Turner, at the time the top lieutenant to embattled Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, delivered one of the most moving speeches in recent memory when on Sunday, May 29, he urged fellow House members to approve the proposed state budget, which contained funding for CHIP.

His remarks came as the fate of the state budget was in doubt, as Republican and Democratic political enemies of Craddick were looking for ways to unseat the speaker, and killing the state budget would have bought Craddick’s adversaries more time to remove him from that leadership role.

Turner, who now says he is running against Craddick for Speaker of the House, asked state representatives to vote for the budget – imperfect as they always are – so that the expansion of CHIP to another 127,000 children would not be jeopardized.

A key change in Turner’s CHIP bill involved allowing qualified families to reapply for the coverage once a year, instead of every six months, which Turner believes causes thousands of children to lose the health insurance coverage for many reasons caused by the shorter reapplication period.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst contended that keeping the six-month reapplication period was needed in order to avoid fraud, and that qualified families are responsible enough to meet all paperwork requirements.

In the end, a compromise was reached that will allow families to reapply once a year, instead of every six months.

Turner said he was not too proud to ask for Dewhurst to change his mind.

“It hasn’t been easy. I’ve had many, along with others, many conversations with this speaker, with the people on the Appropriations Committee, and yesterday, I walked over and had a conversation with the governor, the lieutenant governor,” Turner told a hushed House chambers.

Then, striving to keep his emotions in check, Turner admitted, “And I did something I’ve not done many times in my 18 years. And I pleaded with him for the children. I pleaded with him for the children who do not have insurance. And I said to the lieutenant governor that for 18 years I’ve been at this house, and I’m asking you to do it not for me, but for those kids that do not have it, because I used to be one.”

Turner asked the warring House of Representatives, which was embroiled in an eventually-unsuccessful effort to strip Craddick of his office, to not threaten CHIP by voting down the state budget.

If the state budget had not been approved, the governor would have had to call a special session of the Legislature, a move that could have given Craddick’s detractors the time needed to oust him from office. But a special session may have resulted in the fragile agreement on CHIP to be dismantled.

In the end, both CHIP and Craddick survived the final two days of the regular session.

“You may want a special session, and you may want it for your own political agenda. That is your right,” Turner told House members as the session approached the end. “But…for the thousands of kids in this state who do not have (CHIP), I’ll take your arrows politically, I’ll take your criticisms, you can do whatever you will politically, but if that means that 127,000 kids will have insurance so that come the fall they can go to school healthy, I’ll take your arrows and I’ll take your criticisms. We have fought and come too far to be able to give children what they need.”

Turner paused for several minutes, his hand moving as he tried to contain his emotions, flanked by House members who came to his side at the House podium.

Then, tossing aside the political thinking that displaying his emotions reflected weakness, Turner said, “And if I have to beg people for it, then I’ll do it. And yesterday I did it, and to tell you the truth, I’d do it again. I’ll vote for this budget, not for the speaker, not for a special (session), not for the governor, not for the lieutenant governor, and not for you. I’ll vote for it for children who need insurance, and they are depending on people like you and I to give it to them. I shall vote yes, and I’ll vote proudly yes.”

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Construction activities in Edinburg approach $90 million through April

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

The value of construction activities in Edinburg during the first four months of 2007 almost reached $90 million, with two construction facilities each worth more than $1 million leading the way as the most valuable projects for the month of April.

During the same period in 2006, total construction activities in Edinburg had passed $76 million.

For the month of April – the latest figures available from the city government – Edinburg generated more than $13 million in total construction, compared with more than for $24 million in April 2006.

The latest numbers, compiled by the city’s Code Enforcement Department, were released by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

The EEDC is governed by a five-person board of directors, which includes Mayor Joe Ochoa, former mayor Richard García, who is the EEDC board president, and Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.

The estimated value of construction for a project is included when the city issues a building permit.

A building permit is permission issued by a city’s planning department to oversee and approve any changes to structures.

They are documents designed to guarantee that any construction work, from remodeling to demolition to building a new home or business facility, meets the city’s building codes.

The building permit does not include the value of the lot.

A breakdown of the major construction categories year-to-date and by month in Edinburg includes:

•Total new construction, January through April, was $89,721,630, compared with $76,712,735 during the same period in 2006. In April, total new construction was $13,056,149, compared with $24,072,090 during the same month last year;

•Total new commercial construction, January through April, was $49,376,650, compared with $29,299,000 during the same period in 2006. New commercial construction in April reached $2,792,275, compared with $4,510,000 in the same month in 2006;

•Total new construction of single-family homes, January through April, was $22,242,963, compared with $24,870,675 during the same period in 2006. New construction of single-family homes in April totaled $6,610,897, compared with $6,992,686 in the same month last year;

•The number of single-family homes built in the first four months of 2007 totaled 223, compared with 282 from January through April 2006. In April, construction began on 69 new homes, compared with 78 new homes in the same month last year;

•Total new construction of multi-family residences (duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and apartments), January through April, was valued at $4,649,000, compared with $3,287,000 in the same period in 2006. New construction of multi-family residences in April totaled $2,121,000, compared with $971,000 in the same month last year;

•The number of multi-family residences built, from January through April, totaled 48 (46 duplexes, two triplexes/fourplexes), compared with 37 (36 duplexes, one triplex/fourplex) in the same period in 2006. New construction of multi-family residences in April totaled 22 (all duplexes), compared with 8 (all duplexes) in April 2006;

•Total residential alterations, January through April, were valued at $2,326,717, compared with $2,324,681 during the same period in 2006. Total residential alterations in April were valued at $1,211,677, compared with $1,125,829 in April 2006;

•Total commercial alterations, January through April, were valued at $1,267,800, compared with $5,025,379 during the same period last year. Total commercial alterations in April were valued at $320,300, compared with $4,472,573 during the same month in 2006; and

•Construction of nontaxable facilities – churches, schools and other government buildings, not including work at the University of Texas-Pan American – totaled $6 million from January through April, compared with $8,996,000 during the same period last year.

The two $1 million+ construction projects authorized in April both belong to McAllen developer Alonzo Cantú.

He was issued a building permit for work valued at $1,084,800 for a business complex located at 4104 Crosspoint Blvd. in the Crosspoint Subdivision, and a building permit for work, also valued at $1,084,800, for a business complex located at 4103 Crosspoint Blvd. in the Crosspoint II Subdivision.

Adrian Esparza was issued a building permit for work valued at $700,000 for remodeling/repairs on a single-family home located 2523 W. Rogers Road in the Tex-Mex Subdivision.

The fourth-most valuable project in April to receive a building permit belongs to Fadi Torres, for a home, valued at $373,205, located at 3600 Kiskadee Trail in the Cheyenne Ranch Subdivision.

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Congressman Cuellar announces new passport and travel procedures for air travel to Mexico, Canada

By LAUREN SMITH

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Friday, June 8, announced that due to long processing times for passport applications, the federal government is making an accommodation for air travel. U.S. citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda will temporarily be allowed to travel with government-issued photo identification such as a drivers’ license and U.S. Department of State official proof of a passport application.

To obtain proof of a passport application, individuals should visit http://www.travel.state.gov and click on the “Click Here for Proof of Application” link. By providing the last name, date of birth, and last four digits of a traveler’s social security number, citizens can locate and print official proof of their pending application. Children under the age of 16 who are traveling with a legal guardian will be allowed to travel with child’s proof of application.

This new procedure is effective immediately and will remain so until Sept. 30, 2007. After that date, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) stipulation to present a passport for travel to those locations will be required.

“In the face of record-breaking demand for passports, people have been experiencing delays in receiving their passports. I have been working to help my constituents resolve their passport issues, and I am glad that the government is taking steps to allow people to travel,” said Cuellar.

The WHTI was mandated by Congress in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to strengthen border security and facilitate entry into the United States for citizens and legitimate international visitors. The WHTI requirements for air travel took effect on Jan. 23, 2007. Under these new stipulations, air travel to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda now require travelers to present a valid passport.

“With the new travel regulations in place, it was becoming problematic for many people to obtain a valid passport in time to complete their travel. My office has been working diligently to try to help my constituents resolve their passport issues, and we will continue to assist with the process,” said Cuellar.

As early as January of 2008, passports will be required for land travel to these locations as well.

“I appreciate the State Department making these changes, but I am concerned by the delays caused by the increased demand for passports. I can only imagine that when passports are required for land travel, the processing of passport applications will come to a halt. I urge the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department to take proactive steps to prevent this situation from repeating itself,” said Cuellar.

Earlier this week, Cuellar sent a letter to the State Department inquiring what action was being taken to relieve the backlog of passport applications and end the delays.

Cuellar is a member of the House Homeland Security, Small Business, and Agriculture Committees in the 110th Congress; accessibility to constituents, education, health care, economic development and national security are his priorities. Congressman Cuellar is also a Senior Whip.

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U.S. citizens with pending passport applications allowed travel flexibility within western hemisphere

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Friday, June 8, applauded the announcement today by the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security to allow U.S. citizens traveling to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda who have applied for but not yet received passports to temporarily enter and exit the United States by air with a government issued photo identification and a State Department official proof of application for a passport.

The federal government is making this accommodation through September 30, 2007 for air travel due to longer than expected processing times for passport applications in the face of record-breaking demand.

“I am happy to hear that the Department of State and Homeland Security have finally recognized the immense problems and frustrations our citizens are encountering in their efforts to obtain a passport,” said Hinojosa. “”These backlogs indicate that the Departments were far from ready to implement these restrictions and I only hope that this announcement is a first step toward fixing what currently is a nightmarish process.”

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) was mandated by Congress in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 to strengthen border security and facilitate entry into the United States for citizens and legitimate international visitors. WHTI requirements for air travel took effect on January 23, 2007.

Adults who have applied for but not yet received a passport should present government-issued photo identification and an official proof of application from the U.S. Department of State. Children under the age of 16 traveling with their parents or legal guardian will be permitted to travel with the child’s proof of application. Travelers who have not applied for a passport should not expect to be accommodated. U.S. citizens with pending passport applications can obtain proof of application at: http://travel.state.gov.

This accommodation does not affect entry requirements to other countries. Americans traveling to a country that requires passports must still present those documents.

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Texas public school students will be safer in school buses using seat belts beginning in the fall of 2010

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

Common sense has finally prevailed, and as a result, Texas school children will soon be safer in school buses than ever before

On Friday, June 8, the Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill I authored along with Rep. Mike Hamilton (R- Mauriceville) to require all new school buses purchased after Sept. 1, 2010, to be equipped with three-point (lap and shoulder) seat belts for each passenger and bus driver.

The technology of current school buses is 30-years-old, and when compared to how cars have changed for that period, school buses aren’t safe enough. Just think about how much your automobile’s safety features have changed over the years. Even airplanes require passengers to buckle up during takeoffs, landings or turbulent conditions. Today’s grocery carts often include baby seats or toddler straps.

While today’s buses are safe, they are specifically designed for frontal impacts, and not for accidents involving side impacts or rollover collisions. With nothing restraining them in their seats, students can be thrown around the inside of a bus, collide with hard surfaces, or be ejected from the vehicle.

Though we cannot protect children from all the dangers of the world, we do have the duty to get them to and from school as safely as possible. Parents who rely on school transportation for their children want the security my bill provides. It also reassures them that discipline will improve simply because their children will be restrained properly in their seats.

This new law is also a bittersweet victory for the parents of Ashley Brown and Alicia Bonura, two Beaumont students from West Brook High School who were killed in a bus accident last year. They and the parents of other students who were involved in this crash, with some injured seriously, turned their grief into advocacy. I admire the West Brook Bus Crash Families for working so hard and campaigning so actively to pass this important legislation.

Texas will be the second state to require the newer three-point seat belts in new buses. This technology is considered the most effective means of crash protection available for bus passengers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Additionally, charter buses, the least safe of all buses, used by a school district on or after Sept. 1, 2011, will also have to be equipped with these safety belts.

The bill also permits and encourages people to donate these three-point safety belts for individual school buses with approval by the school board. If accepted, the donor’s name will be placed on a small sign on the side or back of the bus.

While we lay the foundation for safer buses, we did not lay down an unfunded mandate on our school districts. The Legislature will have to appropriate the necessary funds to ensure that school bus rides are safer.

The price of this new technology, available since 2002, though not free, is reasonable. It will cost between $7,000 and $10,000 to install these lap-shoulder restraints on a new bus. That’s less than 10 percent of the total amount for a new bus, or about two to three cents per student rider per day. Compared to the staggering cost of even one accident, the expenditure is certainly justified.

Beaumont Independent School District learned from their tragedy how critical it is to equip school buses with seat belts. While this accident was indeed a tragedy, Texas has learned from Beaumont’s example and passed a law making buses safer and improving discipline in them.

Harriet Beecher Stowe once said, “Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done.” Our constant message to youngsters for years has been to buckle up, yet the rules change when they climb aboard a school bus. We have confused our future drivers with a double standard. This new law will end the confusion. It makes sense.

I thank the West Brook Bus Crash Families, my colleagues in the Senate and House, especially Rep. Hamilton and the many supporters who helped us enact this much needed reform. Texas children deserve no less. Ashley and Alicia deserved more.

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Sen. Zaffirini passes 72 bills during 2007 legislative session, focused on education and human services

By NICK ALMANZA

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, passed another 72 bills during the five-month long 2007 legislative session, which ended May 28, bringing her total to 587 since 1987. This legislation will enhance border communities and colonias; strengthen laws that protect children; provide much needed resources for state health and human services; and increase higher education access, affordability and excellence.

“By working closely with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, coalitions from city and county governments within SD 21, higher education representatives, committed advocates within the state health and human services community and my colleagues in the Senate and House,” Zaffirini said, “we continued to make a difference for families, students, persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities and Texans most in need of health and human services.”

Bills passed by Zaffirini include:

•Senate Bill 6, which protects Texas children and families from sexual communication and solicitation via the internet. Part of Dewhurst’s Texas Children First plan, it will make the internet safer for Texas children. SB 6 was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg;

•The bill increases the penalty for sexually explicit on-line communications with a minor who is from 14 to 16 years old from a state jail felony to a third degree felony and increases the penalty for on-line sexual solicitation of a minor who is from 14 to 16 years old from a third degree felony to a second degree felony;

•Procedures for collecting and analyzing information relating to sexual offenses will be improved with the passage of House Bill 76 by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin and Zaffirini. HB 401 by Rep. Betty Brown, R-Athens, and Zaffirini allows law enforcement officials to consider the use of text messages or other electronic message services when investigating the offense of online solicitation of a minor;

•Zaffirini’s bills passed relating to border affairs and enhancement of colonias include SB 99, which will support persons living in Texas’ most impoverished communities by increasing the number of state agencies required to submit data about projects that serve colonias. SB 99’s House sponsor was Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. The bill also will increase accountability of the logistical and financial reports regarding colonia improvements made by agencies and by state and local governments;

•SB 893 by Zaffirini and Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, authorizes counties along the Rio Grande to construct a railroad toll bridge;

•Higher education affordability, access and excellence greatly was improved with the passage of SB 1050 by Zaffirini and Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, which creates new work-study opportunities by developing a program through which students could serve as peer mentors and tutors as part of their work-study financial aid program;

•SB 1051 by Zaffirini and Guillen, which provides waivers to the core curriculum for foreign students enrolled in international institutions in a joint-degree program with Texas colleges and universities;

•SB 1053 by Zaffirini and Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, which requires the Higher Education Coordinating Board, advising professionals and higher education representatives to develop an assessment of advisors at institutions of higher education to improve the quality of advising;

•HB 1427 by Rep. Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, and Zaffirini provides resources for recruiting economically disadvantaged students to the profession of optometry; and

•HB 1775 by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Nacogdoches, and Zaffirini authorizes the issuance of $13 million in tuition revenue bonds to expand the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Nursing.

Zaffirini also passed bills that support local governments in her Senate District 21, including:

•HB 2322 by Rep. Guillen and Zaffirini exempts Zapata County from the four percent limit on its hotel occupancy tax, which will increase revenue for the county to fund economic development activities.

•Improving access to and the quality of state health and human services always are among Senator Zaffirini’s highest legislative priorities. HB 246 by Rep. Alonzo and Zaffirini increases the frequency and efficiency of health authority reports to the Department of State Health Services regarding cases of diagnosed HIV and AIDS infections.

•HB 3619 by Raymond and Zaffirini creates a bilingual coordinated health program in South Texas school districts.

•Collection and analysis of data regarding early childhood education and bilingual education strategies will be improved by provisions within SB 1871 by Zaffirini and Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. HB 1137 BY Hochberg and Zaffirini will prevent incidents of school dropout by allowing older students to be admitted to public schools and receive high school diplomas.

•SB 61 by Zaffirini and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, authorizes Texas counties to adopt internal response plans for catastrophic events or declared disasters. The bill empowers counties and municipalities with the authority to adopt a comprehensive plan for the continuity of government functions during a declared disaster or other catastrophic event such as a bio-terror attack or dangerous outbreak.

•SB 64 by Zaffirini and Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, requires general-purpose political committees (PACs) to disclose contributions of more than $5,000 during the last nine days of a campaign. It closes a loophole that allowed large contributions to general-purpose PACs to go unreported for months after a general or primary election.

“This certainly was a highly successful legislative session,” said Zaffirini. “I am grateful for Lt. Gov. Dewhurst’s leadership and for the opportunity to work with my colleagues in the Senate and House to enact bills that will benefit the families of SD 21 and our state.”

At the beginning of the legislative session, Dewhurst re-appointed Zaffirini Chair of the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee and Vice Chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He also appointed her to a seventh term on the Appropriations Conference Committee that wrote the state’s $153 billion budget.

She also served as a member of the Senate’s Education, Health and Human Services and Administration Committees.

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Rep. Flores: 80th Legislature to bring many real benefits to constituents, Rio Grande Valley

By ED SERNA

With the final gavel bringing the 140-day 80th Legislature to a close on Monday, May 28, Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, is back in his district building on the momentum generated in Austin and helping to ensure that his work is carried out for his constituents.

Flores said that the 80th Legislature was good for his district and that constituents will be pleased by the results.

“Although there is always more work to do, I’m pleased by the results of this session, especially when you consider how my district stacks up against other districts across the state,” said Flores. “From education to health care to economic development, I’m proud of the measures that I worked hard to get passed that will undoubtedly improve the quality of life for my constituents.”

Flores was once again active in the legislative process, authoring, coauthoring, and sponsoring many bills that made it through the treacherous legislative process and onto the governor’s desk to be signed.

“I was able to accomplish many important things for my constituents this session due to my knowledge of the process, leadership position at the Capitol, and tenure,” said Flores. “It’s an honor and a privilege to represent the Valley and I look forward to continuing to fight for my constituents and the betterment of the area.”

Legislation supported by Flores of Valleywide and statewide impact included the following measures:

•Restored CHIP funding that will benefit more than 127,000 children and extends eligibility from six months to 12 months;

•Supported raising teacher salaries and increasing contributions to retired teachers, including the issuance of a 13th check;

•Maintained Top 10% law to protect Valley students’ option of attending top-tier Texas universities; and

•Made more than $10 million available for local projects, including $6 million for the La Joya Water Supply Corporation and water infrastructure improvement projects.

Other bills by Flores that were approved by the Legislature include:

PUBLIC EDUCATION

•Early High School Graduation Scholarship Program

This legislation will make Texas students of migratory workers and military families eligible for the Early High School Graduation Scholarship Program. Language originally filed as HB 209 by Flores, was rolled into HB 2383 by State Rep. Eddie Lucio, III.

•Teacher Raise

Supported raising teacher salaries to the national average, but was forced to settle on an across-the-board teacher pay raise of $425 a year.

•Improved Teacher Retirement Benefits (13th Check For Retired Teachers)

Supported a bill to increase the state’s contribution to the Teacher Retirement System and also provides for the issuance of a 13th check made equal to the eligible retiree’s regular monthly benefit payment. The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.

•Protecting Public Schools

Voted to prohibit the use of public school dollars for private school vouchers, thereby protecting our neighborhood schools.

•Removed TAKS Test

Removed the TAKS test for public schools, opting instead to use end-of-course exams as a measurement for student performance.

•Concurrent Enrollment

Bill authored by Flores will allow high school students to take authorized “dual credit” courses off campus and still be eligible to participate in extracurricular activities or UIL competitions.

HIGHER EDUCATION

•Permanent Baccalaureate Program at South Texas College

Bill authored by Flores will make the baccalaureate programs at three junior colleges, including South Texas College, permanent. The measure now awaits Gov. Perry’s signature.

•Preserved Top 10% Law

Maintained the Top 10% law, protecting the right of all students from across Texas to attend Texas’ top tier universities.

•Increased funding for TEXAS Grants

Supported an increase of $93 million to the Texas Grant program, which increases the number of students receiving Texas Grants for college from 48,000 currently to 62,000 next year.

•Texas Tomorrow Fund II

Bill coauthored by Flores establishes the TTF2, creating new savings options to help families pay for higher education. Under this plan, families will be able to lock in today’s rates for tuition and required fees for their children’s future higher education needs, giving them more certainty about the cost of a college education.

HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES

•Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

Voted to restore some of the cuts made in 2003 for CHIP. As many as 127,000 more children will receive CHIP coverage thanks to actions taken during the session.

•Cancer Research

Voted to send a proposal to the voters to fund $3 billion in bonds for cancer research.

•Child Protective Services Reform

Passed legislation to continue reforms for Child Protective Services and strengthen oversight of the state’s foster care system.

Local economy and infrastructure

•Texas Parks and Wildlife Funding

Served on conference committee and voted for $140 million for state park funding, which will benefit the Valley’s World Birding Center — a critical part of the Valley’s ecotourism industry.

•La Joya Water Supply Corporation

The approved state budget includes a rider appropriating more than $6.2 million to the LJWSC for water infrastructure improvement projects.

•Travel Trailer Tax Exemption

Flores authored a bill to eliminate double taxation of certain travel trailers, which will help the Valley’s declining Winter Texan industry. The tax relief is expected to encourage economic activity and help local businesses.

•City of McAllen Centennial Park Project

The approved state budget appropriates $2 million to assist in the city-owned Centennial Park project. The goal of the project is to increase the regional draw of visitors to McAllen and pump additional revenue to the Valley’s economy.

•Rio Grande Valley Border Security & Technology Training Center

The approved state budget appropriates $1 million to complete the Rio Grande Valley Border Security and Technology Training Center in Hidalgo. The primary focus of the center is the creation and retention of higher-skill, high-wage jobs, which will increase the productivity and competitive advantage of manufacturers, and will permit the Border Security and First Responders to meet today’s job market.

Other projects

•Support for Disabled Veterans

Flores sponsored the constitutional amendment and enabling legislation to exempt persons who are 100 percent disabled as a result of a service-connected disability according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) from all ad valorem property taxes on their homestead. Currently, soldiers returning from conflict due to injuries receive a grade from VA on the severity of their disability. The constitutional amendment passed and will go to Texas voters in November. Rep. Flores expects the enabling legislation to be reconsidered during the next legislative session.

•Funding for Tejano Monument

Secured more than $1 million to erect Texas’ first-ever Tejano monument on Capitol grounds. The monument will honor and pay tribute to the rich Mexican and Spanish traditions that have helped shape Texas. Flores has been involved with the Tejano monument since 2001.

Flores represents District 36, which includes parts or all of the Cities of Hidalgo, Granjeno, McAllen, Mission, Palmview, Penitas, and Pharr, and currently chairs the Committee on Licensing & Administrative Procedures.

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South Texas Business Contracting Expo expecting up to 1,000 attendees on June 20-21 in McAllen

By ELIZABETH MARTÍNEZ

The upcoming 2007 South Texas Border Business Contracting Expo (STBBCE) taking place on June 20-21 at the new McAllen Convention Center will provide a business networking forum for manufacturers and suppliers. The event is expected to include more than 100 exhibitors and up to 1,000 attendees.

On the list of exhibitors and registered attendees are local suppliers of raw materials; maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) companies; corporate buying agencies; and government purchasing agencies.

The conference will offer small businesses, suppliers and manufacturers an opportunity to explore the world of government and corporate contracting. Match-making sessions between suppliers and manufactures will be scheduled throughout the day, however, early registration is recommended for this portion of the event. Training seminars will be taking place throughout the day on various topics, such as How to do Business with Corporate America, Cash Flow for Contracting and How to do Business with Maquiladoras.

“Manufacturing is an important element to this region and we want to see this vibrant industry continue to grow,” McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and Chair of the STBBCE Planning Committee Cynthia Sakulenzki said. “Our honorary co-chairs of the 2007 STBBCE, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa and Congressman Henry Cuellar, see the dynamics of this area and share in the vision of providing unique business opportunities for our local business owners and manufacturers.”

Admission to the STBBCE Training Seminars and the Exhibitor’s Hall is free to the public. However, there is a $50 conference pass to attend the Welcome Evening Reception, the Opening Breakfast, and the luncheon.

To register or for more information on how you can participate in the 2007 STBBCE, please call the McAllen Hispanic Chamber at 956/928-0060 or visit http://www.borderbusinesscontractingexpo.com for more details.

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Arizona’s Rep. Grijalva introduces legislation to protect and conserve public lands along U.S. international borders

By NATALIE LUNA

Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, on Thursday, June 7, introduced legislation that will help secure and conserve public and tribal lands and natural resources along the international land borders of the United States.

The Borderlands Conservation and Security Act of 2007 will help mitigate damage to federal and tribal lands from illegal border activity and border enforcement efforts by increasing coordination and planning between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal land management agencies and tribes.

The legislation will also correct existing policies and allow the flexibility for a local approach to border security, instead of mandating an unrealistic and harmful wall.

“Current policy has driven crossing activity to remote isolated areas along the border, which in Southern Arizona, represent significant public and tribal lands,” said Grijalva. “Many of these lands have suffered extensive environmental degradation as a result of unauthorized activity and border security efforts. This bill is the first step in preserving our unique natural heritage while we protect our borders.”

The Borderlands Conservation and Security Act will:

•Develop a Border Protection Strategy that supports border security efforts while also protecting federal lands;

•Provide for flexibility rather than a one size fits all approach to border security by allowing experts at DHS to decide whether fences, virtual fences, border barriers or other options are the best way to address border security;

•Allow land managers, local officials, and local communities to have a say in border security decisions;

•Ensure that laws intended to protect air, water, wildlife, culture, and health and safety are fully complied with; and,

•Fund initiatives that will help mitigate damage to borderland habitat and wildlife.

The Secure Fence Act and REAL ID promote a “one fence fits all” solution and hamper the ability of local experts to implement security measures that would be more effective and low-impact in the border environment. Constructing a fence along the border would be completely impractical over the rugged terrain of the mountains and deserts and would be disastrous to the fragile border ecosystem.

“This multi-disciplinary approach is the correct path to address the growing crisis in a rapidly changing geopolitical reality,” stated Grijalva. “The Borderlands Conservation and Security Act will strengthen border security and protect the environment by allowing all the agencies to work together cooperatively.”

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