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Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, on Friday, February 22, brought his presidential campaign to the University of Texas-Pan American, where he urged the crowd to believe that the impossible is within their reach, to dare to think big. “Yes, we can! Si se puede,” Obama said. “Texas, this is our moment, this is our time. If you are willing to work for me, I promise you, we will win the nomination in Texas, we will win in the general election, and you and I, together, we will change this country, and we will change the world.” See related story. Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, are the two presidential candidates seeking the Texas Democratic Party primary nomination on March 4. See lead story later in this posting.

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In an apparent attempt to let South Texans know he knows about struggles in life, Obama made sure to highlight his own life story in a 37-minute long speech at the University of Texas-Pan American that also included many of his campaign platform goals. “I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two. I never knew him. I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. They didn’t have money, they didn’t have fame. But what they did have was they gave me love, they gave me an education, they gave me hope.” See lead story later in this posting.

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Edinburg City Councilmember Gus García, Jr., in dark suit, and other area residents reach out to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, as the Democratic Party presidential candidate prepares to address thousands of supporters at the University of Texas-Pan American on Friday, February 22. García, along with Mayor Joe Ochoa, Edinburg school board trustee Robert Peña, Jr., Rep. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-San Benito, and Rep. Aaron Peña, Jr., D-Edinburg, were among the elected officials who showed up for the political rally. Obama is facing Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, who along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are hugely popular, with a long history, among the Hispanic population in the Valley and Texas. See lead story later in this posting.

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“One of my primary interests and concerns as a presidential candidate and hopefully as president will be to make sure that we are opening access to a college education for everybody,” Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, told about two dozen students from the University of Texas-Pan American during a meeting before his rally on February 22 at the Edinburg based campus. Obama reported that college costs are up 40 percent and the average Texan leaves school more than $18,000 in debt, One of his proposals includes a $4,000 tuition credit for every student every year. See story later in this posting.

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Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, shows off a carving board bearing the All-America City symbol of Edinburg given to him during his visit on Wednesday, February 20, to the University of Texas-Pan American. Kennedy, part of an iconic American political family that includes his slain brothers, President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, was in the three-time All-America City to rally advance support for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, who along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, is seeking the March 4 primary nomination for president. Kennedy’s visit was hosted by Mayor Joe Ochoa, featured to Kennedy’s left, and City Councilmember Gus García, Jr. Obama visited Edinburg on Friday, February 22.

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The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is proud to announce that Soledad O’Brien and John Quiñones will headline NAHJ’s 19th Annual Scholarship Banquet on March 13 in New York. That night, NAHJ will pay tribute to Rubén Salazar. In April, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp in his honor. Salazar (1928-1970) was the first Mexican-American journalist to have a major voice in mainstream news media. His writings in the Los Angeles Times and segments at KMEX-TV on the Chicano movement of the 1960s added richly to the historical record. While in Los Angeles covering a Vietnam War protest, Salazar was killed by a tear gas projectile. See story later in this posting.

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The American Heart Association is hosting a 2008 Tailgate Gala to benefit area children on Saturday, April 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the McAllen Country Club. “The purpose of this event is to raise funds to further the AHA’s mission to help people live healthier lives free from cardiovascular disease and stroke,” said AHA Director Rebecca Taylor. The event will feature two very special families that both have children that have survived multiple heart surgeries. They will share their stories with gala guests and provide a better understanding on the effects of heart disease and what we can do to increase awareness. The money that is raised will stay in the community and be used to help educate people on their risk and help save the lives of those that are honored that evening. Sponsorships and tickets are available by calling Rebecca Taylor, director of the American Heart Association, at (956) 984-1213. Featured, from left, are: AHA Chair Michele Sparks, Pickles and Ice Cream; AHA board member JoAnn Wright, Edinburg Regional Medical Center; AHA volunteer Kristi Collier, Super Savings; Taylor; and AHA board member Elizabeth C. Martínez, The Business Times of the Rio Grande Valley.

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Sen. Obama, who has risen against all odds, urges thousands in South Texas to do the same

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, brought his presidential campaign to Edinburg on Friday, February 22, calling on an estimated three thousand supporters in attendance at the University of Texas-Pan American – and countless more watching live television coverage – to vote for a dramatic change of direction for the nation.

Obama is facing Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, who along with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are hugely popular, with a long history, among the Hispanic population in the Valley and Texas.

Obama and Clinton are battling in Texas for the March 4 state Democratic Party nomination as part of their larger efforts to win enough delegates to be nominated by the national party this summer.

Area dignitaries who participated in the politically rally for Obama included Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa, Edinburg Councilmember Gus García, Jr., Edinburg school board trustee Robert Peña, Jr., Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito.

In previous debates between the rival senators, both have acknowledged they share many of the same priorities.

But in an apparent attempt to let South Texans know he knows about struggles in life, Obama made sure to highlight his own life story in a 37-minute long speech that also included many of his campaign platform goals.

“The odds of me standing here are very slim,” he said. “I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two. I never knew him. I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. They didn’t have money, they didn’t have fame. But what they did have was they gave me love, they gave me an education, they gave me hope.”

Obama, who has made “hope” a cornerstone of his speeches, said his vision for America was based on the nation’s history, and not on wishful thinking.

“Hope is not being blindly optimistic, hope is not ignoring the challenges that stand between you and your dreams,” Obama said, emphasizing that if the enormous problems facing health care, education, and the economy were easy, they would already have been solved.

“But I also know that nothing worthwhile in this country every happened except somebody, somewhere was willing to hope. That’s how this country was founded,” he said. “That’s how slaves and abolitionists fought against that wicked system. That’s how women won the right to work, how workers won the right to organize, how young people travelled south to march in the cities, and some went to jail, and some died, for freedom’s cause. That’s what hope is.”

He dismissed criticisms that he is too young, inexperienced, impatient, or grabbing for political power.

“I announced this unlikely journey to change America. When I made this announcement that I was running for President, there were a lot of people who said, ‘You know, you’re still a young man. Why are you deciding to run this time? Why don’t you wait. You can afford to wait,'” Obama said. “I told these people, ‘I’m not running because I have these long-held ambitions – I know people have been looking at my kindergarten papers – but that’s not why I decided to run. I’m not running because I think it’s somehow owed to me, or because I think its my turn. I’m running because of what Dr. (Martin Luther) King called ‘The Fierce Urgency Of Now.'”

He portrayed himself as a person who is honest, plays by the rules, works hard, and has been blessed with lucky breaks that have allowed him to succeed in life and in politics.

“Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when given a chance,” he promised.

He said Americans are tired of business as usual in national politics, crediting the majority of U.S. citizens for demanding a sweeping change in how national politics are conducted in the corridors of power.

“I am here to say, UT-Pan American, that after a year of crisscrossing the country, my bet has paid off, my faith in the American people has been vindicated, because everywhere I go, people are standing up and saying, ‘We want something new, we want to go in a new direction, we want to write a new chapter in American history,'” proclaimed Obama.

Dramatic change will happen “because we are a decent and generous people, we are willing to work hard and sacrifice for future generations. If we could just come together, (end) all the divisions, challenge the special interests in Washington, but also challenge ourselves to be better, there is no problem we cannot solve, there is no destiny that we cannot fullfill.”

Obama continued: “I am here to say, UT-Pan American, that after a year of crisscrossing the country, my bet has paid off, my faith in the American people has been vindicated, because everywhere I go, people are standing up and saying, ‘We want something new, we want to go in a new direction, we want to write a new chapter in American history.'”

He urged the crowd to believe that the impossible is within their reach, to dare to achieve greatness.

“Yes, we can! Si se puede,” Obama said. “Texas, this is our moment, this is our time. If you are willing to work for me, I promise you, we will win the nomination in Texas, we will win in the general election, and you and I, together, we will change this country, and we will change the world.”

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Sen. Clinton campaign rally highlights education, health care during stop at UT-Brownsville

By LETTY FERNÁNDEZ

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton received a raucous UTB/TSC welcome on Wednesday, February 20, at an evening campaign rally on the Student Union Lawn at The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.

“(For Clinton) to be here at UTB/TSC, that’s pretty good,” said Julian Salinas, 21, a senior kinesiology major from Brownsville. “She might win the election and be the next president.”

Clinton told the more than 5,000 students and residents she first came to the Valley more than three decades ago to register people to vote. She said it was her first political job.

“I met some wonderful people and I had a great time,” Clinton said. “I ate some good food and listened to some great music.”

Clinton said she would consider the Valley in bringing a full-service veterans hospital to the region and studying the current controversial border fence planned by the federal government, which, when constructed, could divide a portion of campus.

“I will listen to the people of the Valley and hear what you say and how we can reform immigration,” Clinton said.

She wants to eliminate the federal No Child Left Behind Initiative and put more money into education programs such as GEAR-UP and Head Start.

And, Clinton said she wants to bring troops in Iraq home within 60 days of her taking office next January. The troops, like all residents, deserve universal healthcare coverage, she said.

“We need a president who is ready on day one,” Clinton said.

Campaign workers led the audience in cheers and threw out T-shirts before her arrival. They also handed out red, white and blue campaign signs for people to wave during the event.

Gaby Zavalla German, 25, a biology major from Brownsville, said she was glad Clinton chose to campaign in Brownsville.

“It shows us down here being in the tip of Texas that we are not insignificant,” German said. “She makes us feel like part of the political process.”

Several area government officials attended the rally to support Clinton, including U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortíz, D-Corpus Christi and Texas Rep. René Oliviera, D-Brownsville. Henry Cisñeros, the first Hispanic mayor of San Antonio and the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton, also attended.

The UTB/TSC Student Government Association and League of Student Voters sponsored Clinton’s visit. The groups also sent invitations to all presidential candidates to speak on campus.

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Sen. Obama discusses college affordability with students at University of Texas-Pan American

By GAIL FAGAN

In a visit to The University of Texas-Pan American Friday, February 22, Barack Obama, candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, spent his first hour on campus hearing from 20 Rio Grande Valley college students about the problems they and others faced in financing a college education.

Obama, who entered the Visitors Center with two busloads of staff and an estimated 60 members of the national media, sat with the students and recalled his own family members’ needs for financial assistance and loans in order to attend college. He then heard the students’ stories of problems ranging from the complexity of financial aid applications to the soaring credit card debt that some have incurred to pay for their education.

“One of my primary interests and concerns as a presidential candidate and hopefully as president will be to make sure that we are opening access to a college education for everybody,” he said.

Citing statistics revealing that college costs are up 40 percent and the average Texan leaves school more than $18,000 in debt, Obama described some of his educational affordability proposals, one of which is a $4,000 tuition credit for every student every year. For that $4,000 each student would participate in 100 hours of community service, such as working in a homeless shelter or veterans home.

“The idea is this – if we invest in the young people of America, they invest back in America and move the country forward,” he said.

UTPA student Tony Martínez, a U.S. Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq and helped organize the candidate’s visit, questioned Obama about the adequacy of GI benefits for education assistance for veterans who entered the military as reservists and do not enjoy the same coverage as active duty military personnel.

“I think we need to create a new GI Bill of Rights,” Obama said, noting his grandfather who served in WWII had all his college costs paid for when he returned home. In light of the number of reservists who have been in combat in the past five years, he said he’d make it a priority for the Pentagon to review how these veteran benefits are being determined.

UTPA senior Ellen Fagala, a non-traditional, older student at UTPA who also told Obama about her financial problems going to school, said she was very impressed that Obama sat down and talked with them.

“He was willing to make eye contact with us and to listen to our questions and answer them,” she said. “He stayed over the time when his aides were trying to pull him away and continued to speak with us. He made sure that he got to hear us and we got to hear him,” she said.

Obama later addressed a crowd of 3,000 in the University’s Chapel Lawn, where he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves under the warm South Texas sun.

“Thanks for the weather because I’ve been cold all winter,” he said. “I’m glad to be in South Texas.”

Obama gave a rousing, 45-minute political speech about current challenges and issues America faces and some of his proposals to address them. He said he’s been asked by many why he decided to run for president at such a young age.

“I’m running because of what Dr. King called the fierce urgency of now,” he said.

Obama evoked the familiar phrase of César Chávez – “Si, Se Puede (yes, we can)” – several times in his speech and ended his talk with a message about the realization of hope.

“Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened until someone, somewhere was willing to hope,” he said.

Fagala said Obama’s visit brought awareness to our community and to the students.

“We had a candidate that was willing to come to the Valley and to this campus for the first time in 20 years. That says something about the voice we have right now,” she said.

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Sen. Hinojosa, Reps. Peña and Gonzáles, County Judge Salinas among Edinburg leaders to endorse Sen. Clinton for President

Texans for Hillary on Friday, February 15, announced the endorsement of dozens of Rio Grande Valley elected officials, a list of supporters that continues to grow. In a show of support, the Rio Grande Valley elected officials stood behind Hillary Wednesday, February 13, at her South Texas Kick-off Event in McAllen.

Among the local and Hidalgo County leaders supporting the New York senator are Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; County Judge J.D. Salinas; District Attorney Rene Guerra; Sheriff Lupe Treviño; District Clerk Laura Hinojosa; Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg; Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen; Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; and Precinct 4 County Commissioner Óscar L. Garza .

“The people of the Rio Grande Valley know Hillary Clinton, view her as an adopted Texan, and have witnessed first-hand her commitment to improve their quality of life. They know that she is the best candidate to deliver solutions in the future, because she has been delivering needed change to their lives for over 30 years,” said Rubén Hinojosa.

“Hillary will work to fix our economy, expand access to affordable health care, and protecting our nation’s soldiers. We stand with Hillary because she has and will continue to stand with us. They know she did not have to discover South Texas on a map when it came time to run for President. I think South Texas will play a big part in helping her carry Texas on March 4,” the congressman added.

Other elected officials who represent all or portions of Hidalgo County that have endorsed Clinton include:

  • County Commissioner Joe M. Flores
  • County Commissioner Sylvia Handy
  • County Commissioner Hector “Tito” Palacios
  • County Democratic County Chair Juan J. Maldonado
  • County Clerk Arturo Guajardo
  • Constable Celestino Ávila
  • County Tax Assessor Armando Barrera
  • Former County Judge Ramón García
  • Former Democratic County Chair RD “Bobby’ Guerra
  • Former District Judge Fernando Mancias
  • Alamo Mayor Rodolfo Villarreal
  • Edcouch Mayor José Guzmán
  • Elsa Mayor Sejuvio Castillo
  • La Joya Mayor Billy Leo
  • La Joya City Alderwoman Angie Garza
  • McAllen City Commissioner Jim Darling
  • McAllen City Commissioner Aida Ramírez
  • Palmview Mayor Jorge G. García
  • Pharr Mayor Leo Palacios
  • San Juan Mayor San Juanita Sánchez of Hidalgo County
  • Edcouch/Elsa ISD School board trustee Juan J. Ibarra
  • McAllen ISD School Board Member Javier Farias
  • Mission ISD, School Board Member Noel Garza
  • Palmview ISD School Board Joel García
  • Sharyland ISD School Board Member Paul Rodríguez
  • Sharyland ISD School Board Member Rolando Peña
  • South Texas ISD, School Board María G. Leal
  • South Texas College, Board of Trustees Manuel Benavides
  • South Texas College Board of Trustees Irene García

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Eddie Sáenz claims Rep. Peña’s comments at Sen. Obama’s rally in Edinburg betrayed Sen. Clinton

By KELLY FERO

Democratic House challenger Eddie Sáenz on Friday, February 22, said that Rep. Aaron Peña’s appearance at a rally for Barack Obama and published comments against Hillary Clinton are the latest in a long line of flip-flops and outright betrayals of the voters of South Texas.

“Senator Clinton has now learned what our community learned long ago — you can’t trust Aaron Peña,” Sáenz said. “His word means nothing when his personal ambition gets in the way.”

Sáenz noted that Peña, D-Edinburg, has spent months representing himself as one of Clinton’s top Rio Grande Valley supporters and was even introduced by her during a rally on Wednesday, February 13, in McAllen. Yet, he appeared earlier Friday, February 22, at a rally for Clinton’s opponent, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and was quoted in a political newsletter saying that “it appears to be increasingly evident who is going to win.”

Peña was referring to Obama in the quote, said Sáenz.

“This latest flip-flop reminds voters of the only thing they can count on from my opponent — that he will flip-flop again when his Republican friends in Austin tell him to miss another vote on their voter I.D. bill to take away our rights,” Sáenz said.

Peña’s latest “betrayal” reinforces the continuing controversy surrounding his support for Republican politicians in Austin, including embattled GOP House Speaker Tom Craddick, and the tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash he has taken from top Republican donors, said Sáenz. A $50,000 check last month from Craddick is now the subject of an ongoing criminal charge filed with the Travis County District Attorney.

Sáenz is chairman of the board of governors – an advisory panel – for South Texas Health Systems and is a vocal advocate for a veteran’s hospital in Hidalgo County.

Sáenz is backed by mayors and community leaders throughout the district who are eager for a full partner in their efforts to create jobs, expand access to quality health care, improve public schools, make college affordable again for middle-class families, and improve vital public services.

Owner and chief executive officer of one of South Texas’ leading civil engineering firms, Sáenz is a recognized expert in helping cities, school districts, and other public entities improve their operations and basic services.

Saenz is a former chairman of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, the Texas Border Infrastructure Coalition Transportation Committee, and the Edinburg 2020 Action Committee. A graduate of McAllen High, he earned his degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1982. He is a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the Texas Society of Professional Engineers. He and his wife and child live in Edinburg.

The Democratic primary is Tuesday, March 4. Early voting started Tuesday, February 19, and continues through Friday, February 29.

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Liberal, conservative groups join forces to support contributions to Reps. Peña, Flores by PAC which was funded by Speaker Craddick

A broad-based coalition of plaintiffs on Wednesday, February 13, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Austin that challenges a state law blocking individuals and organizations in Texas from engaging in true public debate over the election of the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

The law, enacted in 1973, bans expenditures by organizations or “groups of persons” on “anything of value” to influence the election of the Texas speaker. Neither “anything of value” nor “group of persons” is clearly defined. The law further prevents an individual – other than a candidate for speaker – from spending more than $100 “for the cost of correspondence to aid or defeat the election of a speaker candidate.”

The penalty for violating the law is up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

“To anyone with even the slightest interest in the First Amendment, this law is a disgrace,” said plaintiff Kelly Shackelford, President of the Free Market Foundation. “Since when do legislators have the right to pass a law banning citizens from speaking about what those same legislators are doing? This law is flatly unconstitutional.”

Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said: “While the ACLU, the Free Market Foundation and the Texas Eagle Forum disagree on many issues, we are united in our conviction that this law is unconstitutional. The law chills the speech of any Texan who wants to engage in the political process and make his or her opinion on speaker candidates known. This law is an embarrassment to the State of Texas and an affront to the Constitution.”

As presiding officer of the Texas House, the speaker is one of the state’s most powerful and influential political figures. The speaker controls the legislative calendar, appoints House committee chairmen, and enjoys broad authority to set the lawmaking agenda for the state.

“The First Amendment protects nothing if not the rights of ordinary Americans to talk about their political representatives. Yet Texas law effectively forbids citizens from advocating who should be the next speaker,” said James Ho of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “If the government can stop individuals from discussing the vote for speaker, then there is nothing to prevent bans on speaking about any other matter before the Legislature.”

Hiram Sasser, Director of Litigation for the Free Market Foundation’s legal arm, the Liberty Legal Institute, said: “We’ve joined forces with some unlikely bedfellows to fight a clearly unconstitutional state law that muzzles the collective voice of Texas citizens.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction, then a permanent injunction, preventing the Texas Ethics Commission from enforcing the challenged law.

The suit was filed in the Austin Division of the Western District of Texas by the Free Market Foundation; ACLU of Texas; Texas Eagle Forum PAC; Shackelford, who lives in Allen, Texas; and David Broiles of Fort Worth, Texas. Broiles is Board Vice President-Legal for the ACLU of Texas, but is a party to this suit as an individual.

Defendants, who are named in their official capacities, are:

• David Reisman, Executive Director of the Texas Ethics Commission.

• Texas Ethics Commission members Raymond R. Davenport III, Wilhemina Delco, Ross Fischer, Jim Graham, Tom Harrison, Paula M. Mendoza, David Montagne and Nicholas C. Taylor.

• John Roach, District Attorney for Collin County, Texas, representing district and county attorneys in the State of Texas as a class.

About Free Market Foundation

The Free Market Foundation, founded in 1972, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting freedoms and strengthening families in Texas and nationwide. The foundation stands for First Amendment freedoms, less government and solid family values. Based in Plano, Texas, Free Market serves as the statewide public policy council associated with Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.

For more information, visit http://www.freemarket.org.

About ACLU of Texas

The ACLU of Texas, based in Austin, is the eighth largest ACLU affiliate in the United States, with more than 17,000 members and 14 chapters across the state. Sustained by a dedicated board of directors, a small staff and dozens of dedicated volunteers, the ACLU of Texas and its predecessor, the Texas Civil Liberties Union, have been at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in Texas since 1938.

For more information, visit http://www.aclutx.org.

About Texas Eagle Forum PAC

Texas Eagle Forum PAC is the political action committee of Texas Eagle Forum. The mission of Texas Eagle Forum is to enable conservative and pro-family men and women to participate in the process of self-government and public policy-making so that America will continue to be a land of individual liberty, respect for family integrity, public and private virtue, and private enterprise. Texas Eagle Forum is based in Dallas, Texas.

For more information, visit http://www.texaseagle.org.

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Ethics policy for Edinburg school board, audit panel recommended in independent report by CPA firm

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

An independent analysis presented recently to the Edinburg school board is calling for an ethics policy to be created for the seven-member governing board – most notably to avoid conflicts-of-interest and nepotism – and for the creation of an audit committee to work with the school district’s internal auditor.

The timing of the report, a document required by state law, comes as the local school board is beginning to ramp up political support – including through the use of public funds to issue press releases and newsletters on the “facts” relating to the issue – for a $112 million bond election on May 10.

That bond issue, if approved by ECISD voters, would pay the construction or renovation of numerous schools, plus buy the land for the new campuses.

On Tuesday, February 12, the local school board, led by President Carmen González, approved an order authorizing the bond election.

Only board member Robert Peña, Jr., who was excused on important business, did not cast a vote on the upcoming election, which will involve paying for the construction and equipping of six elementary schools, the conversion of Harwell Middle School into the district’s fourth high school, and for obtaining the land for the new facilities.

Under current state law, if the bond election is approved, the state would cover almost 50 percent of the costs.

The election will occur at the same time as two city council races are on the ballot – Mayor Pro Tem Alma A. Garza is facing Johnny Rodríguez, while Place 3 Councilmember Gene Espinoza is being challenged by Leonel Guerrero.

Supporters of the bond election contend the new facilities are crucial to the education of thousands of students by providing them with state-of-the-art classrooms, instead of placing them in portable buildings, which are both costly to taxpayers, and, bond supporters say, reduce the quality of education for many of Edinburg’s most deserving students.

While board trustees and their allies promote the bond issue, a November 5 annual audit of ECISD’s extensive financial activities is drawing attention to 18 recommendations, released in January to the school board, designed to help boost and keep the public’s confidence in how the school district handles its day-to-day financial affairs.

Those proposals were included as part of the 72-page Annual Financial Report, for the 12-month period that ended on August 31, 2007, that was prepared by Pattillo, Brown & Hill, L.L.P., a certified public accounting firm based in Brownsville.

Typically, an audit is defined as an independent review and examination of records and activities to assess the adequacy of system controls, to ensure compliance with established policies and operational procedures, and to recommend necessary changes in controls, policies, or procedures.

Conflicts of interest

In addition to the 72-page audit, the CPA firm provided a 12-page report, “Comments, Recommendations and Management Responses”, which noted areas where the school district — including the school board – could make changes for the better.

“During our audit, we became aware of several matters that, while not involving material weaknesses in internal accounting control, are opportunities for strengthening internal controls and operating efficiency,” CPA Carlos H. Cascos stated in his report, entitled “Comments, Recommendations and Management Responses”.

Cascos is also county judge for Cameron County.

“We have already discussed many of these comments and suggestions with various district personnel, and we will be pleased to discuss them in further detail at your convenience, to perform any additional study of these matters, or to assist you in implementing the recommendations,” he added.

In his recommendations, Cascos noted that “the district does not require board members to sign a conflict-of-interest form stating that they are aware of the conflict-of-interest and nepotism laws. We recommend that the district create and implement a conflict-of-interest form.”

According to the Texas Association of School Administrators:

Pursuant to Section 176.003, superintendents, school board members, and other designated employees are required to file a conflicts disclosure statement if the school district enters into a contract with a vendor or is considering entering into a contract with a vendor and the superintendent, school board member, or a family member of the superintendent or school board member within the first degree of consanguinity or affinity, except in limited cases of divorce or death, has an employment or other business relationship with the vendor and receives taxable income, other than investment income, that exceeds $2,500 during the 12-month period preceding the date that the superintendent or school board member becomes aware that a contract has been executed or the school district is considering entering into a contract with the vendor.

The disclosure requirement also applies if a vendor has given a superintendent, school board member, or family member of the superintendent or school board member one or more gifts [other than political contributions, food, lodging, transportation, or entertainment accepted as a guest] that have an aggregate value of more than $250 in a 12-month period preceding the date the superintendent or school board member became aware of the facts that require the filing of a conflicts disclosure statement.

The conflicts disclosure statement must be filed with the records administrator no later than 5 p.m. on the 7th day after the date the superintendent, school board member, or employee, if applicable, becomes aware of the facts that require the filing of a statement.

According to Section 176.003(c), it is a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine if the local government officer knowingly violates the requirement.

Nepotism

According to the Texas Classroom Teachers Association:

For school boards, the general rule is that a school board member cannot vote to hire a person who is related within a certain degree to that school board member or to any other member of the board.

The prohibition applies to persons who are related within the third degree by consanguinity or within the second degree by marriage.

The first degree is a parent or child.

The second degree is grandparent, grandchild, sister or brother.

The third degree is great-grandparent, great-grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew. For instance, a school board member could not vote to hire his/her nephew or the nephew of any other school board member. The school board members could vote to hire the nephew of one of their spouses.

Likewise, the school board members could vote to hire the wife of a nephew of a fellow board member.

Audit Committee

Cascos’ report covered numerous topics relating to the handling of financial affairs by the school district – which, with annual total revenues from state, federal, and local sources approaching $264 million – ranks as one of the larger employers and economic engines in Edinburg.

He found that the school district does not have an audit committee in its organizational structure.

“We recommend the district establish an audit committee,” Cascos stated, noting that the school administration responded that it will establish such an oversight panel to work with the internal auditor.

According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants:

A government audit committee should take an active role in the prevention, deterrence, and detection of fraud and encourage the government organization to establish an effective ethics and compliance program. The government audit committee should constantly challenge management and the auditors to ensure that the organization has appropriate antifraud programs and controls in place to identify potential fraud, and, that investigations are undertaken if fraud is detected. Also, the committee should take an interest in ensuring that appropriate action is taken against known perpetrators of fraud.

Cascos also cautioned that the school district did not have an accounting policies and procedures manual, which would provide written procedures, instructions, and written duty assignments that “can prevent and reduce misunderstandings, errors, inefficient or wasted effort, duplicated or omitted procedures, or other situations that may result in inaccurate or untimely accounting records.”

A well-devised account manual would also help to ensure that all similar transactions are treated consistently, that accounting principles are consistently applied and implemented, and that the accounting records produced are in the form desired by management, he added.

Such a financial manual would be especially useful to the school district’s financial record keepers, although Cascos acknowledged that developing the manuel will be time-consuming.

“However, we believe this time will be offset by the time saved later in training and supervising accounting personnel,” he stated. “In addition, while in the process of developing this manual, management may discover procedures that can be eliminated or improved to make the accounting process more efficient and effective.”

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Edinburg Review to host forum for legislative, constable, JP candidates Monday, February 25, from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. at Dustin M. Sekula Memorial Library

The Edinburg Review will host a “Meet the Candidates” forum on Monday, February 25, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dustin M. Sekula Memorial Library, 1906 S. Closner.

Candidates for Hidalgo County Precinct 4 constable, Hidalgo County Precinct 4, Place 1 justice of the peace, and District 40 state representative have been invited to attend and present their platforms.

The moderators for the forum will be Steve Johnson, the newspaper’s general manager, and Jeremiah González, general assignments reporter for the Edinburg Review. They will ask questions, taken from readers and the audience, relating to the positions being sought by the candidates.

The two-hour “Meet the Candidates” forum will be divided into three parts:

• At 6 p.m., candidates for State Representative, District 40, will kick-off the forum with a five-minute introduction of their platform, after which they will spend 20 minutes responding to questions. The two candidates for state representative, as they will appear on the ballot, are: Aaron Peña, Jr. (incumbent); and José E. Sáenz;

• Following the Q&A session with the legislative candidates, the justice of the peace candidates will also each have five minutes to introduce themselves, followed by 20 minutes answering questions. The two candidates for justice of the peace, as they will appear on the ballot, are: Charlie Espinoza (incumbent); and David Chavana;

•At 7 p.m., candidates for Hidalgo County Precinct 4 constable will take turns introducing themselves for five minutes each. Then, they, too, will have a chance to respond to questions regarding the constable position. The seven candidates for constable, as they will appear on the ballot, are: Andres “Andy” Ríos (Incumbent); Frank Cerda; Armando Patlán; Mateo Niño; J.E. “Eddie” Guerra; Ronny Pérez; and “J.P.” Flores

Only issue-related questions that are pertinent to the position will be accepted. Names of the candidates will be drawn at random to determine the order of their presentation. The Edinburg Review would like to thank library director Letty Leija for her support in allowing the newspaper to host this forum as a public service to the Edinburg community.

“The idea to hold a candidates forum came after someone called and said she didn’t know who to vote for because she didn’t know any of the candidates,” said Review editor Rey Guevara. “We contacted the library and they were happy to provide the backdrop for this community service.”

There are about 150 seats in the library’s meeting room, located on the first floor. Refreshments will be served.

The Review would like to encourage readers to send questions for candidates to: editor@edinburgreview.com. Questions also will be accepted at the forum.

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Edinburg’s retail economy generated $15.7 million in local sales taxes in 2007, up more than nine percent over 2006

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg’s retail economy in December 2007, as measured by the amount of local and state sales taxes generated by a wide range of local businesses, was up more than two percent over the same month period in 2006, and more than nine percent better in 2007 than in 2006, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Joe Ochoa, former Mayor Richard García, who serves as board president, Fred Palacios, Dr. Glenn E. Martínez, Ph.D., and Elias Longoria, Jr.

Between January 1 and December 31, 2007, Edinburg’s economy generated $15,774,035.55 in local sales taxes, compared with $14,301,902.86 during the same period last year, an improvement of more than nine percent.

For the month of December, Edinburg’s economy generated $1,317,879.91 in local sales taxes, compared with $1,290,247.84 in local sales taxes in December 2006, an improvement of 16.06 percent.

The latest monthly figure represents local sales taxes, mostly in December, sent to the state comptroller of public accounts in January, then sent back by the comptroller’s office to the Edinburg city government in the form of a rebate on February 8, 2008.

The local sales taxes are generated by the city’s 1 1/2 cent local sales tax and the 1/2 cent economic development sales tax that is administered by the EEDC.

Retail businesses are required to collect both the local and state sales taxes and send them to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The state government then sends the local share of the sales taxes to the communities in which they originated.

The local sales tax is used to help pay for dozens of major city services, ranging from new streets to city personnel.

McAllen’s economy generated more than $7.5 million in local sales taxes in December, compared with almost $7.3 million during the same month in 2006, an increase of 3.52 percent.

According to the comptroller’s office, Hidalgo County also showed continued prosperity.

In December 2007, all cities in Hidalgo County generated more than $14.2 million in local sales taxes, up almost 4.3 percent over December 2006, which reached more than $13.6 million.

Neighboring Cameron County registered smaller economic growth, according to the state figures.

In December, all cities in Cameron County generated more than $6.5 million in local sales taxes, compared with almost $6.5 million during the same month in 2006, an increase of slightly more than one percent.

Other major cities in Hidalgo and Cameron counties reported the following sales tax figures:

•Brownsville’s retail economy generated more than $3.6 million in local sales taxes in December 2007 – or about 1.1 percent percent better than the December 2006 level of almost $3.5 million.

•Harlingen’s retail economy actually showed a drop of .53 percent. That community generated slightly more than $2.03 million in local sales taxes in December 2007, compared with slightly more than $1.4 million in December 2006.

•Mission’s retail economy showed the best percentage increase among the major Valley cities, generating more than $1.3 million in local sales taxes in December 2007, compared with more than $1.1 million in December 2006, an increase of almost 14.1 percent.

•Pharr’s retail economy generated slightly more than $1.03 million in local sales tax activities in December 2007, compared with slightly more than $1 million during the same month in 2006, an increase of 1.3 percent.

•Weslaco’s retail economy generated more than $882,000 in local sales tax revenue in December 2007, compared with almost $870,000 during December 2006, an increase of 1.44 percent.

Statewide, the state comptroller’s office distributed $640 million in local sales taxes.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said on Friday, February 8, that the state collected $1.85 billion in sales tax revenue in January, up 5.2 percent compared to January 2007.

“State sales tax collections through the first five months of the fiscal year, September 2007 through January 2008, are up 6.8 percent compared to the same period last fiscal year,” Combs said. “While growth remains firm, it is slower than that of the past two years. This moderation is consistent with the slowing economy.”

Combs sent $640.8 million in local sales tax to Texas cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts, up 5.1 percent compared to sales tax distributions to local governments in February 2007.

January state sales tax collections and February’s local sales tax allocations primarily represent sales made in December, but also include earlier sales by businesses that report sales tax to the Comptroller on a quarterly or annual basis.

The Comptroller sent $434.3 million in sales tax to Texas cities, up 4.8 percent compared to February 2007 payments. Texas counties received February sales tax payments of $37.7 million, up 6 percent compared to last February.

The 123 special purpose taxing districts around the state received $21.5 million in sales tax, up 14.9 percent compared to February 2007. Ten local transit systems received $147.2 million in February sales tax payments, up 4.7 percent compared to a year ago.

For details of February sales tax payments to individual cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose districts, locate the Monthly Sales Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports on the Comptroller’s Web site at:

http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/allocsum/compsum.html

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City awards Enríquez Enterprises $125,000 for additional work at Public Safety Complex

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

City leaders on Tuesday, February 20, approved an additional $125,152.80 contract with Enríquez Enterprises so the local firm can make needed improvements, notably relating to the parking lot, to Edinburg’s multi-million dollar expansion of the Public Safety Complex, which will house the police department headquarters and the municipal court.

With the additional expense, the new contract sum for the the facility rose to $2,436,291.60.

The additional work should be substantially completed by March 20, according to company officials and John Cavazos, the city’s project manager.

The contract amendment was listed on the consent portion of the city council’s agenda, which usually means there is no opposition to the measure or the item is non-controversial.

It was the fifth increase in the contract – referred to as a change order – for the complex.

Funding is available to cover the work from the 2006 Tax and Revenue Certificate of Obligations Construction Fund.

Gilbert Enríquez, owner of the Edinburg-based construction firm, was in attendance at the city council meeting, but he was not asked any questions by the city council. However, he has previously participated in a series of public work sessions with the city council to provide updates and answer any questions.

The contract was unanimously approved, with the exception of Councilmember Gus García, Jr., who was excused on important business.

Although there was no discussion on this latest cost increase to the project, City Manager J.J. Rodríguez provided background information in the council’s agenda packet.

“As part of the ongoing construction of the Public Safety Building, staff has reviewed the contractor’s Proposal Request No. 1 to determine the condition of existing chiller, temperature controls, including verification of manufactured ductwork and applications for considered additions, including verification for cohesive interactive performances of all HVAC system, in the amount of $37,464,” Rodríguez stated. “This process is necessary given the time lapses between completion of building addition and the scheduled completion of renovation project.”

HVAC stands for “heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system”.

The larger amount – $87,689.80 – is for parking lot improvements, including asphalt paving type 1 and 2, curb and gutter, demolition, pavement markings, wheelstops, traffic control, concrete paving and signage.

“Originally, this task was to have been completed with city forces,” Rodríguez noted. “However, given the timetables involved in completing other projects, it is prudent to look at the contractor as the best option to complete this phase of the project.”

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Rubén Salazar, “Voice of the Voiceless”, first Hispanic journalist to be memorialized in U.S. postage stamp

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is proud to announce that Soledad O’Brien and John Quiñones will headline NAHJ’s 19th Annual Scholarship Banquet on March 13 in New York. That night, NAHJ will pay tribute to Rubén Salazar. In April, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp in his honor. NAHJ has been giving out scholarships in Salazar’s name since 1987.

Salazar (1928-1970) was the first Mexican-American journalist to have a major voice in mainstream news media. His writings in the Los Angeles Times and segments at KMEX-TV on the Chicano movement of the 1960s added richly to the historical record. While in Los Angeles covering a Vietnam War protest, Salazar was killed by a tear gas projectile.

According to legislative archives in the California Senate:

Salazar was a well known Mexican-American journalist and Chicano activist who had a major impact on Southern California and Chicano politics in his short life.

After serving two years in the U.S. Army, Salazar earned his Bachelor of Arts in journalism at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in 1954. While at UTEP Salazar began his journalism career at the El Paso Herald Post, where he reported extensively on police brutality against Mexican-Americans. After college, he moved to California and worked at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and San Francisco News before heading south in 1959 to write for the Los Angeles Times.

During his years at the Times, Salazar authored award-winning columns and news articles that gave voice to the challenges and concerns of the Los Angeles Latino community. Internationally, he covered wars in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam and, as the first Mexican-American bureau chief of a major U.S. newspaper in Mexico City, he covered news throughout Latin America.

By late 1968, as the Chicano Movement gained significant momentum in California, Salazar returned to Los Angeles to focus on the Mexican-American community. In January 1970, Salazar became news director of KMEX-TV (Univision 34) while continuing to write his weekly column for the Los Angeles Times, where he paid particular attention to police abuses and the high Mexican-American casualty rate in the Vietnam War.

During the August 29, 1970, National Chicano Moratorium march and riot in East Los Angeles, Salazar took a KMEX news crew to cover the 20,000-person protest against the Vietnam War. As violence escalated in the streets, Salazar and his coworkers sought refuge in the Silver Dollar Café on Whittier Boulevard. Shortly after they entered, a deputy fired a teargas projectile into the café and hit Salazar in the head, killing him instantly.

In his life’s work, Salazar condemned racism, prejudice and segregation while interpreting Chicano life and culture to the greater Los Angeles community. His articulate calls for social change inspired many Latinos to follow in his footsteps in the field of journalism. Salazar has been recognized and honored posthumously with awards, a park, a library, a community center and more established in his name.

Salazar is one of five journalists who risked their lives reporting some of the most important events of the 20th century receive their stamp of approval in April. The five stamps honor:

• Martha Gellhorn (1908-1998) covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War in a long career that broke new ground for women. With her constant focus on harm to civilians, her reporting was considered a morally courageous model.

• John Hersey (1914-1993) was a versatile writer whose most famous work, Hiroshima, describes what happened when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city that gave the work its title. It has been acclaimed as the greatest work of journalism of the 20th century. Hersey’s work appeared in various publications, including Time, Life and The New Yorker.

• George Polk (1913-1948) was a talented young CBS radio correspondent who filed hard-hitting radio bulletins from Greece describing the strife that erupted there after World War II. He was working on reports of corruption involving U.S. aid when he disappeared. His body was found a week later. The exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

• Eric Sevareid (1912-1992) was a writer for the New York Herald Tribune and later a broadcast journalist for CBS radio recruited by Edward R. Murrow. He covered World War II, reporting on the approach of the Germans to Paris, the exodus from the city and on life in London during wartime. In 1943, while en route to China, Sevareid parachuted from a disabled plane and emerged from the jungle on foot some time later. His later television commentaries in the 1960s and 1970s on the CBS Evening News were widely admired.

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Congressmen Hinojosa, Castle introduce legislation to set up one-stop centers for veterans in college

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

Congressmen Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and Mike Castle R-Delaware, in late January introduced legislation that will help America’s returning veterans successfully transition to college life. H.R. 5143, the Securing Success for Veterans on Campus Act, will provide resources to establish one-stop support centers on campus designed to help veterans successfully complete a higher education.

“Our veterans returning home from war zones face undue challenges when trying to adjust to life on college campuses. Often there is little support to help them navigate the tricky world of student financial aid or find the health care they need,” said Hinojosa. “Our nation’s veterans and active duty service members deserve more. This bill will make certain that our troops have a strong support system in place so that red tape does not discourage them from their dream of a college education.”

“Since 1944 the GI Bill has helped cover the cost of college for millions of veterans. However, over the years I’ve talked to numerous service members who have experienced difficulties collecting GI benefits and navigating the complicated financial and academic eligibility requirements,” said Castle. “The bill Mr. Hinojosa and I introduced this week will make certain that veterans have the assistance they need when it comes to applying for and attending college. Our men and women in the military have committed themselves to protecting our security, and our government must be committed to assisting them with pursing a post-secondary education at the institution of their choice.”

Currently, 95 percent of Armed services personnel sign up for the GI Bill when they enlist. Nearly 440,000 service members are expected to seek its benefits this year, representing a 21 percent increase from 2001. Altogether, 1.6 million troops have been deployed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Myriad obstacles await these soldiers when they return home and attempt to pursue a higher education. Over the years, the GI Bill has become increasingly more complex to navigate and provides less money to cover college expenses in the face of skyrocketing tuition rates. Often, troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan need mental and physical health services that many campuses are unprepared to provide. Synchronizing veterans’ health and education benefits with student financial aid is often so wrought with difficulties that many veterans forgo benefits they earned in the field of duty. In some cases, active duty service members leave for a tour of duty, only to return and find that they must reapply for admission or owe an unjustified amount in student loans.

The Hinojosa-Castle legislation will enable colleges to set up “Centers of Excellence for Veteran Student Success” that will provide much-needed support programs to address the academic, financial, physical, and social obstacles veterans often encounter on campus. Campuses receiving funds will form veteran student support teams that include student financial aid officers, student health and disabilities representatives, academic advisors, and career advisors. These centers will make sure that veteran soldiers can focus on their studies and make as seamless a transition into academic life as possible.

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Government should assist and never become stumbling blocks to veterans’ goals

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.
D-Brownsville

The Texas Attorney General recently withdrew opinions on two cases declaring that a veteran must have been a U.S. citizen at the time of entry into the service to qualify for rights under the Hazlewood Act. The opinion meant that legal permanent residents who are not Texas citizens even though they had served honorably in the military could not qualify for tuition exemptions, which included 150 credit hours of free tuition at public colleges.

My goal is to co-author a bill with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee, during the upcoming 81st Legislative Session that will correct the unclear language “citizen of Texas,” and reinstate the Hazlewood benefit for Texas veterans who serve our country.

But some obstacles are harder to overcome than others. To our South Texas veterans, the greatest challenge presently is getting Washington to agree to a veterans hospital in the Rio Grande Valley.

I was recently invited by the Veterans’ Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley to offer them advice on how to advocate more effectively. Considering it’s been 50 years since the effort to build a veterans hospital here began, they felt that sharing our ideas may get us further.

First I said to the proud members of the Veterans’ Alliance, “Many of you may be asking yourselves how we can do this. How can we overcome the culture of complacency that plagues our region? The answer, my friends, is simple and known to every effective special interest group.

“Have you ever wondered why retired educators, law enforcement officers and doctors have so much political clout in Austin and in D.C.?” I inquired. “It’s not that they are better than you. It’s that they are more organized and mobilized than you.”

Another suggestion I offered was that they meet monthly with fellow veterans from all of the Rio Grande Valley counties and consider forming a regional non-profit organization that would include county, city and school board officials. The organization should create a database for mailers and newsletters to keep everyone informed and interested.

No group can make their voices heard by staying home, so I also encouraged them to travel to Austin and Washington. Hence there is a need for fundraising for travel expenses.

Next covered on the agenda was the importance of developing critical issues. They agreed that they must identify veterans’ issues, plus expand from the traditional issues to those important to their children, neighborhoods and community. The list may include the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), healthy lifestyles, tuition, scholarships, and public and higher education. Their stance on programs that promote economic development, increase skills training and result in job creation are important to the rest of the community.

Also noted in our discussion was that an integral component of their efforts must be the development of a legislative agenda. I explained to them how the aforementioned interest groups visit Austin every legislative year with their agendas that inform and persuade us to pass legislation that enables their causes. A veterans group would operate no differently.

They were encouraged to host a convention, perhaps annually, to formalize their federal, state or other agendas, and then distribute them to all their supporters. This tip included enlisting the help of the media, since the media informs the public, elected officials like me and fellow veterans.

I also strongly recommended them to register themselves, their families and friends to vote.

They were further reminded that after an election, it’s important to contact newly elected officials to discuss their legislative plan, especially at the start of a legislative session.

We also covered the importance of testifying at the appropriate committee hearings, but also monitoring these hearings, keeping track of key legislators’ voting records and writing an end-of-session report card evaluating the results.

I emphasized that by setting the groundwork for the next session/election, and with thorough preparation and organization, they will gain results not only for themselves, but for our soldiers fighting overseas. Today’s efforts will pave tomorrow’s futures for those who follow in their footsteps.

The Veterans’ Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley, along with their fellow South Texas veterans, if properly organized and united, can put a stop to 50-year waits to get Washington’s cooperation and attention. They’ve certainly got mine!

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Rep. Martínez appointed to House committee that will review Texas’ mental retardation facilities

By SCOTT JENKINES

Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, was recently appointed by Speaker Tom Craddick to the newly created House Select Committee on Services for Individuals Eligible for Intermediate Care Facility Services. The committee will evaluate the state’s infrastructure for serving persons with cognitive disabilities, and it will make recommendations for new strategies to improve the quality and availability of care in multiple settings.

“The Legislature recognized there were immediate needs in institutional care for Texans with disabilities,” Craddick said. “Though funding and supervisory changes have occurred, further attention is warranted for the issue of institutional care and for the range of these services for these Texans. I know and trust that Rep. Martínez will do his best to ensure that the level of care our citizens with disabilities receive is not only safe, but fair and right.”

The committee will specifically serve those who qualify for services through intermediate care facilities, which would include state schools as large ICFMR’s (Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded). In addition to its investigatory role, the committee will assess the risks to the health and well-being of those persons eligible for state services who are being cared for under the current system. The committee is also able to review the evaluation process used in determining eligibility for intermediate assistance and decide the state’s ability to comply with federal regulations regarding care for this disabled population.

“I am honored to be appointed to this very important committee,” Martínez said. “Serving those who are less fortunate, or have certain disabilities, has always been a cornerstone of my pledge to represent the constituents of District 39 and South Texas. I am proud to be their voice in Austin.”

According to the committee, the legislative panel’s jurisdiction will cover:

(1) investigating and recommending strategies to improve the quality of and availability of appropriate services for persons with cognitive and developmental disabilities who are eligible for the services of intermediate care facilities, while ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals being served in community settings and institutional settings;

(2) reviewing functional assessment tools used to assess persons with cognitive and developmental disabilities who are eligible for the services of intermediate care facilities;

(3) evaluating this state’s ability to comply with federal regulations and directives regarding services for persons with cognitive and developmental disabilities who are eligible for the services of intermediate care facilities and this state’s ability to implement generally accepted practices for those services;

(4) assessing the adequacy of the “community safety net” in this state’s mental retardation authority system after considering the increased longevity of persons with cognitive and developmental disabilities and their aging parents and other caregivers;

(5) reviewing the waiting lists for Medicaid home and community waiver services; and

(6) assessing the risks to the health and well-being of persons with cognitive and developmental disabilities who are eligible for intermediate care facility services that are not currently being addressed by this state’s current system of supports.

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Attorney General settles case with Caremark over drug switching practices; firm to spend $2.5 million to benefit low-income, senior, disabled Texans

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday, February 14, joined 27 states and the District of Columbia to settle an investigation of deceptive drug-switching involving cholesterol-controlling medications. The $22 million settlement with Tennessee-based Caremark Rx, L.L.C. also requires the pharmacy benefit manager to change its business practices and implement numerous consumer protections.

In Texas, Caremark has agreed to pay $2.5 million to promote lower drug costs for low-income, elderly or disabled Texans and to educate consumers about the cost differences among medications.

“This drug-switching scheme benefited the company at the expense of the Texans it purported to help,” Abbott said. “This settlement will help restore integrity to the process and better ensure that patients receive health care at a reasonable cost.”

As pharmacy benefit managers, Caremark and its subsidiaries, Caremark, L.L.C. and CaremarkPCS, L.L.C., contract with employers and government health plans to process prescription drug claims for patients enrolled in health plans. In this case, Caremark wrongly encouraged physicians to switch patients to different brand name cholesterol-controlling drugs, allegedly to save money for the patients and their health plans.

However, physicians were not adequately warned about the health effects of the switch and/or the actual costs of the switch. Moreover, Caremark neglected to inform the health plans that valuable rebates from drug manufacturers would accrue to Caremark from the drug-switching scheme, and that the company would retain those rebates instead of passing them on to health plans.

Under the terms of the settlement, Caremark may not solicit drug switches when:

• the net drug cost of the proposed drug exceeds the net drug cost of the originally prescribed drug, or when the cost to the patient will be greater;

• the originally prescribed drug has a generic equivalent and the proposed drug does not;

• the originally prescribed drug’s patent is expected to expire within six months, or;

• the patent was switched from a similar drug within the past two years.

The settlement requires Caremark to inform patients and drug prescribers about the effect the switch will have on the patient’s co-payment, and what financial incentives Caremark will realize for initiating a drug switch. Caremark must notify patients and prescribers that patients can be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses associated with drug-switching, and in addition, patients have the right to decline the drug switch.

The Office of the Attorney General continues its litigation against Caremark in a separate civil Medicaid fraud-related case. In that case, which is on file in a San Antonio federal court, the company is accused of failing to reimburse Medicaid for prescription drug payments of prescription drugs for individuals who were insured by one of Caremark’s health plans. The investigation unveiled a systematic effort by Caremark to allow Medicaid to pay for medications acquired by families who were dually covered by both Caremark and Medicaid. State and federal law require health benefit plans to reimburse Medicaid when a claim covered by insurance is paid for by Medicaid.

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Preparing for a smooth digital television transition

By SEN. KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON

R-Texas

On Thursday, February 7, an AMBER Alert message flashed across TVs all over Texas, as the Emergency Alert System (EAS) broadcast information on a 5-year old Austin boy who had been just been abducted. Thanks to the swift action of authorities and implementation of the AMBER Alert system, the boy was safely recovered thirteen hours later and returned to his family. For more than 40 years, variations of the EAS have worked in concert with radio and television broadcasters, cable companies, and satellite providers to inform the public of emergencies. Today, it warns citizens about severe weather hazards, helps mobilize communities to search for and recover kidnapped children, and enables the government to immediately address the nation in the event of a national emergency.

One year from now, on February 17, 2009, the nation’s full power broadcasters (large TV stations covering multiple cities) will switch from an analog to a digital broadcasting format. This change will dramatically enhance the clarity of television broadcasts, resulting in less interference, sharper pictures, and better sound. The efficiency of digital broadcasting may also allow for new and diverse television programming.

Most importantly, transitioning to digital television, or D-TV, will free up the frequencies on which data is transmitted to the public, otherwise known as broadcast spectrum, for important safety activities that will increase the nation’s ability to respond to terrorist attacks and national disasters. Digital broadcasting will continue to transmit emergency messages, like AMBER Alerts, but some of the spectrum space will be reallocated to implement a nationwide public safety communication system to support police, fire departments, rescue squads and other first responders. The challenges facing first responders on September 11, 2001, and during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita illustrate how badly this capability is needed, and the 9/11 Commission recommended a nationwide public safety system in its final report to Congress.

So what does the D-TV transition mean for you?

Nationwide, about 13 percent of homes have older television sets and receive over-the-air programming using antenna or “rabbit ears.” In Texas, this number is much higher, with more than 20 percent needing to take steps to prepare for the transition. These households will need converter boxes to change digital broadcasts into an analog format so their TVs can display public safety and emergency broadcasts. If a television is only equipped with an analog tuner, it will work as it does now until analog broadcasting stops at midnight on February 17, 2009. After the transition, consumers can keep their older, analog TVs if they obtain a set-top converter box.

A converter box will translate the digital broadcast signal into an analog signal that an older TV will display. Each television that is neither outfitted with a digital tuner nor connected to a cable or satellite service requires its own converter box. D-TV converters will be available nationwide at electronic stores and other U.S. retailers.

The coming transition poses special challenges for border communities. Last year, I introduced legislation that allows broadcasters along the southern border to continue analog broadcasts for five years, but maintains Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authority over broadcasts, based on public interest.

To help defray the cost of obtaining converter boxes, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will issue up to two $40 coupons per household to go toward the purchase of converter boxes. Consumers may apply for their coupons until March 31, 2009 by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009) or by visiting http://www.dtv2009.gov. The coupons must be used within 90 days of being issued.

Those subscribing to a cable or satellite television service may not be affected by the D-TV conversion, but consumers should contact their cable or satellite provider to make sure service will not be disrupted. Many newer televisions are already equipped with a digital tuner and will not require a converter box to function after the transition. If you are not sure, you should contact the manufacturer to check the capabilities of your TV.

I encourage consumers to arm themselves with information and prepare well in advance of the transition. There are a number of resources available to help consumers get ready. Learn more from the FCC at ww.dtv.com, or visit the broadcast industry’s D-TV website, http://www.dtvanswers.com. To speak with someone by phone, call 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322).

Not since the conversion from black-and-white to color television in the 1950s, or from multiple party line telephones to private household lines nationwide, has the U.S. communications industry undertaken such sweeping change. However, with the right information and preparation, consumers can have a smooth transition and continued access to the public information that helps keep us all safe.

(Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas.)

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