Select Page

A high-resolution map of the proposed routes for the $650 million Hidalgo County Loop, including the northern loop that would impact Edinburg featured in this graphics, is now available on the Internet, either by clicking on the ad icon posted on the left side of this page, or by logging on to the web site of the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority.  Also, public hearing on the proposed routes have been scheduled for late July, including two that will focus on the northern loop near Edinburg, know as Section C and Section D. Section C proposes to connect U.S. Expressway 83 near Peñitas north to U.S. Highway 281 north of Edinburg. Section D of the planned loop – which proposes to connect from U.S. Expressway 83 between Alamo and Donna to U.S. Highway 281 near Edinburg. Section C will be discussed on Wednesday, July 23, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the John F. Kennedy Elementary Cafeteria, 1801 Diamond Avenue in Peñitas. On Tuesday, July 29, Section D will be reviewed in a public hearing to take place at the Edinburg North High School Library, 3101 N. Closner, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.  The Hidalgo County Loop is a planned $650 million to $750 million roadway system that will be designed to direct heavy commercial cargo trucks away from population centers as they transport their goods between Texas and Mexico. Persons interested in attending any of the five scheduled public hearings in Hidalgo (July 22), Peñitas (July 23), Donna (July 24), Edinburg (July 29), or McAllen (July 30) may contact the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority at 956/565-9813.

••••••

South Texas College on Tuesday, June 24, honored Edinburg native and Vietnam veteran Edward “Ned” Pillow Cooper, dedicating the college’s new 27,825 square foot Cooper Center for Communication Arts in his name and memory. Participating in the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Pecan Main Campus in McAllen included, from left: Dr. Alejo Salinas Jr. and Irene Garcia, members of STC’s Board of Trustees; Gary Gurwitz, vice-chair of STC’s Board of Trustees; and Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president. “Edward ‘Ned’ Cooper was born in Edinburg, attended the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo schools and eventually lived in McAllen.  He was well liked and respected by his classmates, friends and the community. As a Navy navigator, he gave his absolute best for his country,” said Salinas. “Mrs.  Edwynne Cooper, his mother, requested that ‘Ned’ be honored in some fashion for giving his life to his country during the Vietnam War.  The Board of Trustees of STC chose to honor both ‘Ned’ and his mother by naming the state of art building for the performing arts in their honor.”  Additional details and photographs of the new facility are available through the STC website by logging on to: http://www.southtexascollege.edu/coopercenter/gallery/photos/building/index.html. See story later in this posting.

••••••

Some of the members of the Edinburg Home Buyers Expo Committee, recently formed to help area residents overcome obstacles faced in trying to buy a new home, listened to Elva Jackson-Garza, featured at the podium addressing the Edinburg City Council on Tuesday, June 17. The citizens volunteer group announced it will sponsor the event on Saturday, July 26 at Edinburg North High School from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.  The sessions will allow any resident, at no charge, to learn about the home buying process, ranging from securing financing to understanding real estate terminology. From left are: Edna Peña with Horizon Properties; Manuel Cantú, Jr. with Rio Valley Realty; Elias Longoria, Jr., a member of the board of directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation; Ramiro Garza, Jr., EEDC executive director;  Marty Martin, Rio Valley Realty; and Sam Saxena, Rapid Mortage. There are almost 30 real estate industry professionals involved in the planning of the Edinburg Home Buyers Expo. See story later in this posting.

••••••

Screen Actors Guild performers Estephania  LeBaron and Valente Rodríguez, most famous for starring on ABC’s The George López Show, recently rehearsed a scene for an upcoming movie, The Red Queen, which is being filmed by University Theatre Productions at the University of Texas-Pan American. The movie, an action-thriller that focuses on a young woman’s search for the true identity of her deceased mother, is scheduled to complete location shooting the first week in July, with hopes that it can compete in major film festivals later this fall. On Tuesday, June 24, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation approved a $10,000 grant to help in the production of the film, which will include scenes that feature Edinburg, and also expose UT-Pan American on a national and level.  See lead story in this posting.

••••••

EEDC authorizes $10,000 investment  to help promote Edinburg through film, The Red Queen

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Add film-making as the latest innovative way being used by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation to promote higher education, cultural enrichment, fine arts, and a positive image of the three-time All-America City.

On Tuesday, June 24, the EEDC – the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council – approved investing $10,000 to help cover some of the production costs of The Red Queen, an action-thriller being filmed in and around Edinburg that is using major film personalities, such as Valley native Valente Rodríguez (The George López Show), Estaphania LeBaron (The Alamo), Óscar Torre (Cane) and Harley Jane Kozak (Parenthood).

The EEDC’s 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 A. Martínez, Ph.D., and Elias Longoria, Jr.

The Red Queen focuses on a young woman’s search for the true identity of her deceased mother.

David B. Carren, an associate professor in communications at the University of Texas-Pan American, is directing the film from his original screenplay, which is based on a story idea by a fellow UTPA faculty member – Dr. Jack Stanley – who is a professor in communications at the local higher education institution.

Carren’s credits as a writer/producer include Star Trek, the Next Generation, Walker, Texas, Ranger, and Diagnosis Murder.

Stanley is credited as the executive producer of the motion picture.

But his written pitch to the EEDC board of directors asking them to participate in the film’s success was good enough to draw the proverbial “Two Thumbs Up!” from the local municipal entity.

The request came from Stanley through University Theatre Productions, which is the dramatic production arm of the University of Texas-Pan American.

“A wide variety of promotional activities exists,” Stanley contended in his letter to the EEDC government board. “In addition to (Edinburg) being featured prominently in the film credits, product placement is possible in the filming by judicious use of signage as appropriate.”

Product placement is a growing and accepted trend by which manufacturers or advertisers pay a fee in order for branded products to be prominently displayed in a movie, TV show or other media production.

“The film itself features principally Edinburg locations and portrays the city in a positive light,” Stanley noted. “Furthermore, the University of Texas-Pan American and The University of Texas System make formal official recognition of each gift, in ways that vary with the size of the gift.  The EEDC will also be officially credited in the motion picture.”

The EEDC board of directors unanimously approved the request, which also included a recommendation for approval from Ramiro Garza, Jr., the EEDC executive director, who noted the movie will also promote economic growth.

In addition to the four professional actors already on board, filmmakers projected as many as 26 other area residents would play roles in the movie, along with non-speaking extras for certain scenes, according to Marion Monta, the movie’s casting director.

Also, more than 40 students were enrolled in a filmmaking summer course at UTPA, assigned to handle every aspect of pre- and post-production, as well as work all the various crews during the shooting schedule. They were going to be acting, doing makeup, running cameras and sound equipment, and performing the myriad of tasks that go into the making of a movie,” she said.

Carren said the movie could soon be featured in various competitions nationwide, thus introducing countless new people to Edinburg and UT-Pan American.

“If our schedule holds up and we don’t run out of funding, we expect to have it ready to enter into various competitions, like the Sundance Film Festival, this fall,” Carren said. “We want to get the university and the theatre-television-film program here all the national exposure we can.”

The Sundance Film Festival, which takes place once a year in Utah, is the largest  independent cinema festival in the U.S.  It is considered the premier showcase for new work from American and international independent filmmakers.

••••••

Edward ‘Ned’ Pillow Cooper, Edinburg native and Vietnam War hero, honored with South Texas College building dedicated in his memory

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

South Texas College on Tuesday, June 24, honored Edinburg native and Vietnam veteran Edward “Ned” Pillow Cooper, dedicating the college’s new 27,825 square foot Cooper Center for Communication Arts in his name and memory.

Cooper was killed in a tragic accident during his service as a navy navigator in the Vietnam War. His mother Edwynne Cooper bequeathed more than $1.3 million to STC to honor her son as a man of bravery and as a great communicator.

Born in Edinburg in 1945, Cooper was an honors graduate of Pharr–San Juan–Alamo High School, the president of the student body and a drummer in the band. He was an avid outdoorsman and athlete who loved to ski and play tennis, golf and basketball.

He had a flare for adventure, which led to his time as a foreign exchange student in Germany and his extensive travel within the United States. His eye for the unique and appealing helped him land a photo assignment with National Geographic to capture the beauty and mystery of underwater life in the Bahamas. After his graduation from high school he attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, later transferring to The University of Colorado at Boulder where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Finance.

Cooper was also very grounded, practicing his devout faith at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Pharr, Texas. This spiritual nature made him a sensitive soul who understood the beauty of self expression. He was an avid reader of the classics and loved the flow and expression offered by poetry; an outlet he often used to express his own feelings and observations about the world.

“It is very fitting that we are honoring Edward Pillow Cooper by dedicating our new Center for Communication Arts in his name because he was a very talented writer, poet and photographer and we have learned that he also served as a public affairs officer during his time in the military,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president. “I know that Mr. Cooper is someone our students can aspire to, not only because of his obvious talents in communication arts, but because of his bravery and commitment to academics during his life. We know that our communication arts students, faculty and staff will help his memory live on through their hard work.”

STC’s Cooper Center for Communication Arts offers students a chance to learn theater craft in a high-tech, state-of-the art performance theater. The 197-seat theater is supported by professional-quality catwalks for lighting and special effects, a programmable lighting system, a projecting stage, as well as a 20-foot screen and projection system. The building also offers a black-box instructional theater, a costume shop, set workshop, 180+ person capacity conference center, classrooms and several faculty and staff offices.

Dr. Alejo Salinas, Jr. of Edinburg, who serves on the STC Board of Trustees, reflected on the highest values of service, sacrifice, and selflessness demonstrated by Cooper and his surviving family.

“I am most impressed with the generosity of the Cooper family to South Texas College,” he said. “The Cooper Center for the arts program will serve as a legacy to a family that gave their best to the Edinburg, Pharr and McAllen communities. Edward ‘Ned’ Cooper was born in Edinburg, attended the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo schools and eventually lived in McAllen. He was well liked and respected by his classmates, friends and the community.”

Salinas noted that  as a Navy navigator, Cooper “gave his absolute best for his country. Mrs.  Edwynne Cooper, his mother, requested that ‘Ned’ be honored in some fashion for giving his life to his country during the Vietnam War.  The Board of Trustees of STC chose to honor both ‘Ned’ and his mother by naming the state of art building for the performing arts in their honor.”

Salinas gave special acknowledgment to fellow STC board member Gary Gurwitz “for guiding Mrs. Cooper’s wishes and suggesting the name for the center.  This magnificent facility will honor and acknowledge the Cooper family in a most deserving way.”

••••••

Business leaders organizing Edinburg Home Buyers Expo on Saturday, July 26 at Edinburg North High

A citizen based group with a vision to stimulate the housing market in Edinburg has formed the first Edinburg Home Buyers Expo committee.

“This is a testament to what can happen when two people have a common goal and ask the question “what can we do?” and then taking action,” commented organizer Elva Jackson Garza of Edwards Abstract and Title Co.  “Marty Martin of Rio Valley Realty called me one day, we had a conversation, we invited some real estate industry leaders to meet and here we are.”

The Edinburg Home Buyers Expo committee will sponsor the event on Saturday, July 26 at Edinburg North High School from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  They have partnered with the Edinburg school district superintendent Gilbert Garza and ENHS principal Ramiro Guerra to use the facility’s library as the main presentation area and some classrooms for one-on-one meetings with interested residents and local real estate professionals.

“The core group of volunteers have a vested interest in helping our community grow and prosper because the majority of us live, work or have businesses established in Edinburg,” said Martin. “As volunteers, we are taking a proactive approach to the recent slow down in the housing market in an effort to share positive information and to generate interest in home ownership in Edinburg, a city with one of the lowest tax rates in Hidalgo County.”

The main focus with this project is to educate and inform Edinburg residents about many topics regarding the housing market. The potential of home ownership in Edinburg is very viable due to various subdivisions established, lot availability in Edinburg, various price ranges in the re-sale market for first time home buyers and investors.

The Edinburg Homebuyers Expo will offer valuable information and resources to prospective home buyers from all income levels ranging from low-, middle- and higher-income groups.

The program and presentations include lots and property availability, mortgage pre-qualification, loan application requirements, the loan process, consumer and credit counseling, title insurance education and buyers assistance programs that are available through the City of Edinburg and Hidalgo County Urban County Program for residents outside the city limits.

Several of the leading area lenders such as Inter National Bank, Texas State Bank and International Bank of Commerce will be on hand as program presenters and to meet with residents and answer questions regarding mortgages.  Rio Valley Realty and Horizon Properties will coordinate presentations with local builders and developers regarding property available in all segments of the community.

Credit scores and credit repair are a big concern to many residents and SARMA will be on hand to educate the public about the credit process and protecting your purchasing power.

For more information about the Edinburg Home Buyers Expo, please contact Jackson Garza at 383-4951 or Martin at 687-7653.

••••••

Edinburg 4.6 percent May unemployment rate keeping pace with Texas, better than U.S. level

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg posted a 4.6 percent unemployment rate in May 2008, about the same as the Texas rate, and better than the national unemployment level, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

The latest showing by the three-time All-America City also represented the second lowest-unemployment rate in May among the major Valley cities.

The unemployment rate is a key indicator of the strength of the local economy. The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

The EEDC’s five-member governing board includes Mayor Joe Ochoa; former Mayor Richard García, who is president of the EEDC board of directors; and Fred Palacios, Elias Longoria, Jr., and Dr. Glenn A. Martínez, Ph.D.

All cities in Hidalgo County for May 2008 had a combined 6.1 percent unemployment rate, compared with a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in April, a 6.4 percent rate in March, a 6.6 percent level in February, and a 7.3 percent rate in January, 2008.

For May 2008, all cities in Cameron County had a combined 5.9 percent unemployment rate, compared with 5.4 percent in April, 5.8 percent in March, 5.9 percent level in February, and 6.5 percent in January.

For all of 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg averaged 4.8 percent, according to the latest state figures compiled by the TWC.

In 2006, the city’s unemployment rate averaged 5.3 percent, while in 2005, Edinburg’s unemployment rate averaged 4.9 percent.

The best showing in history for Edinburg came in November 2007, when the unemployment rate dropped to 3.7 percent.

The highest unemployment rate in the past year for Edinburg came in July 2007, reaching 5.8 percent.

The May 2008 unemployment rate in Edinburg represents a growth of  2,711 jobs since May 2005, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

In May 2008, there were 28,351 people employed in Edinburg.

In May 2007, there were 27,665 people with jobs in the three-time All-America City. In May 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.4 percent.

In May 2006, there were 26,656 people employed in Edinburg. In May 2006, the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent.

In May 2005, there were 25,640 people employed in Edinburg. In May 2005, the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent.

Those levels represent some of the lowest unemployment rates and the largest numbers of people employed in the city’s history.

The unemployment rate is the number of persons unemployed, expressed as a percentage of the civilian labor force.

The civilian labor force is that portion of the population age 16 and older employed or unemployed.

To be considered unemployed, a person has to be not working but willing and able to work and  actively seeking work.

McAllen, which usually has the lowest monthly unemployment rates in the Valley, had the best showing among major Valley cities in May 2008 at 4.3 percent, compared with 3.9 percent in April, 4.3 percent in March, and 4.5 percent in February.

Harlingen had the third-lowest jobless rate among Valley cities in May 2008 at 5.3 percent, compared with 4.8 percent in April, five percent in March, and 5.1 percent in February.

Among the Valley’s largest cities in May 2008, Weslaco posted a 6.1 percent unemployment rate in May, compared with 5.5 percent in April, followed by Brownsville with a six percent rate in May, compared with a 5.5 percent rate in April.

Mission posted a 5.2 percent unemployment rate in May 2008, compared with a five percent rate in April, while Pharr reported a 5.5 percent unemployment rate in May, compared with 4.6 percent in April.

The breakdown of Edinburg’s unemployment rate for the past 17 months follows:

  • May 2008, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.6 percent.
  • April 2008, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.1 percent.
  • March 2008, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.5 percent.
  • February 2008, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.4 percent.
  • January 2008, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.9 percent.
  • December 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.7 percent.
  • November 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 3.7 percent.
  • October 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.4 percent.
  • September 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 5 percent.
  • August 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.9 percent.
  • July 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 5.8 percent.
  • June 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 5.5 percent.
  • May 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.4 percent.
  • April 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.3 percent.
  • March 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.4 percent.
  • February 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.8 percent.
  • January 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.9 percent.

Also according to the Texas Workforce Commission:

Texas’ seasonally adjusted nonagricultural employment grew by 8,700 jobs in May.

Texas employers now have added 238,700 jobs in the past 12 months for an annual job growth rate of  2.3 percent, compared with a 0.2 percent annual job growth rate nationally. After a record low Texas  unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in April, the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 4.5 percent in May, up from 4.4 percent a year ago.

The U.S. seasonally adjusted unemployment  rate was 5.5 percent in May, up from five percent in April 2008.

“Job growth in Texas remained strong, outpacing the national trend,” said Texas Workforce  Commission (TWC) Chairman Tom Pauken. “Despite the fact that the number of those seeking work went up this month, the Texas unemployment rate remained at historically low levels, staying below  the five percent mark for nearly two years.”

The Midland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) experienced the lowest unemployment rate in the  state at 2.7 percent (not seasonally adjusted). The Amarillo and Odessa MSAs were second at 3.1 percent, respectively.

The Education and Health Services industry saw the biggest job gains with 5,400 positions added in May, for an over-the-year increase of 38,500 jobs. Professional and Business Services followed with 1,700 jobs added for an industry gain of 64,500 positions in the past year.

“Across nearly every industry, Texas employers added jobs at a stronger pace than the nation as a whole,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ron Lehman. “For example, our Natural  Resources and Mining industry reached an annual job growth rate of 6.8 percent, followed by  Professional and Business Services at five percent, and Leisure and Hospitality at four percent.”

Leisure and Hospitality grew by 1,300 jobs in May, adding 38,900 positions in the past 12 months, followed by Construction, which grew by 1,100 jobs this month for an annual gain of 23,300 jobs.

“The state continues to gain jobs, providing opportunities for those seeking work,” said TWC  Commissioner Representing Labor Ronny Congleton. “In May, Texas recorded the largest number ever in the civilian labor force at 11.7 million people.”

••••••

Texas GOP claims that Democratic put-down against Sen. Cornyn was racist, insensitive against Hispanics

The Republican Party of Texas on Thursday, June 26, called on The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its chairman, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, to withdraw e-mail and blog publications attempting to ridicule a traditional Hispanic festival in South Texas,

“Any party that claims to be sensitive to minorities should know better than to perpetuate the sort of ethnic and racial assaults represented in this week’s DSCC releases,” said GOP spokesman Hans Klingler.

The ostensible target of the DSCC attack was Cornyn, who was featured in a state GOP convention video wearing a Tamaulipeca jacket at this year’s Charro Days celebration in Brownsville. The jacket was designed in the Hispanic tradition by a local artist and businessman, Don Breeden, and was designated as the official costume of the Charro Days event.

Cornyn is being challenged in the November general election by Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston.

In an e-mail Thursday, June 26, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee allegedly denigrated the traditional Hispanic jacket, writing that it appears Cornyn “raided the wardrobe closet for the Kilgore Rangerettes.” He included with his message, sent to news media, a video link to a cable show that included what GOP leaders contended were racially and ethnically based attempts at humor.

The comments by Miller “were out of line,” according to Diane M. Garza, a Charro Days official. In a letter to Schumer, Garza urged Schumer to “repudiate the remarks of Mr. Miller, and to remind him of the need for sensitivity, integrity and inclusiveness even in the world of politics.”

The 71st annual Charro Days Grand International Parade was held this year on March 1 in Brownsville. It featured dozens of floats, marching bands, and civic organizations in a celebration of Hispanic culture. Cornyn and his wife, Sandy, walked much of the parade route, shaking hands, hugging and greeting celebrants.

Film footage of the parade was included in an introductory video played at the Texas Republican Party Convention in Houston earlier this month. It has made its way to the Internet, and the video has attracted more than 75,000 views.

Earlier this week, comedian Jon Stewart on The Daily Show played sections of the video, singling out the Tamaulipeca jacket Cornyn was wearing, and adding racially-tinged comments about Cornyn’s mythical Senate opponent. The DSCC has been circulating the Stewart segment, trying to get mileage out of it.

“The Charro Days event has a long and proud history celebrating Hispanic contributions to Texas and America,” said Kevin McLaughlin, the communications director for Cornyn. “It is to be expected that entertainers in Los Angeles and New York would want to take pot shots, but the DSCC should be careful in lending its name to efforts that essentially disparage an important part of our culture.”

••••••

County Judge Salinas elected 2nd Vice President of the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association

By CARI LAMBRECHT

Hidalgo County J.D. Salinas III on Wednesday, July 25, was elected unanimously as the 2nd Vice President of the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association on Wednesday, June 25, 2008, during the group’s 74th annual conference. His installation took place that evening at the Freeman Colliseum.

The South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association connects county elected officials in order to promote continuing education and participation in governmental affairs, the sharing of best practices and communication of similar issues facing counties today.

The South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association is part of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, which serves all 254 counties in the state, or 1,270 judges and commissioners. The V.G. Young Institute of County Government, a part of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service of Texas A&M University, partners with the association to provide continuing education to all statewide county elected officials.

Among Salinas’ responsibilities, he will plan for future educational opportunities and champion county perspectives on behalf of the group. According to the organization’s by-laws, officers move up in rank yearly. Therefore, in 2009-2010,  Salinas will become 1st Vice President, and in 2010-2011, Salinas will lead the organization as its president. Salinas will then become eligible to serve as an officer of the statewide association.

“Being elected by my peers as a leader of this prestigious organization is an honor. The South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association is a voice for county issues, and being part of this group’s leadership team will give me the regional perspective to lead my own county better. It will also give Hidalgo County and the rest of Deep South Texas a platform with which to influence the Texas Legislature in the upcoming session,” said Salinas. “Several issues we face are what do about appraisal caps on property taxes, unfunded mandates, public safety and development in rural areas, indigent health care, economic development, and transportation funding.”

Salinas thanked the nominating committee of the South Texas County Judges and Commissioners Association and promises good things for the future.

“I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues — incoming President Debbie Gonzáles Ingalsbe, Hays County Commissioner; incoming First Vice President Roger Galván, Calhoun County Commissioner; and immediate past President Evan Gonzáles, Lee County Judge,” Salinas said. “Together, we will continue to raise the level of professionalism and cooperation in the organization and make sure our residents are getting the best service we can provide.”

••••••

Congressman Hinojosa takes action to bring down gasoline prices by supporting key legislation

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

With gas prices in Texas averaging $3.83 per gallon, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, June 26, backed three pieces of legislation that will help make America become more energy independent and help provide relief to Americans struggling with high gas prices.

“Every day, families and businesses in Texas struggle with record prices at the gas pump,” said Hinojosa. “Today, Congress took action to crack down on Wall Street speculators who experts say are driving up the price of oil and to make public transit more affordable.”

Bills considered on the House floor on June 26 included:

• The Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008. This bill gives grants to mass transit authorities to reduce public transit fares, giving consumers a cost-effective alternative to $3.83 per gallon gasoline. The bill’s $1.7 billion in mass transit grants for the next two years could also be used to expand transit services and for the escalating operating costs of public transportation and would be available to both rural and urban areas.

• The Energy Markets Emergency Act. The Act directs the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to use it full authority and most potent emergency tools to curtail excessive speculation and other practices distorting the energy market. Rampant speculation has been cited as one cause of the spike in gas prices.

Prior to the June 26 votes, Democrats have taken action to make America more energy independent and bring down the cost of gasoline. Democrats have previously passed legislation that has been signed into law that will suspend the filling of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve from June 30th through the end of the year, creating more supply—and potentially putting the brakes on higher prices.

The House also approved the Gas Price Relief for Consumers Act of 2008.  The legislation gives U.S. authorities the ability to prosecute anticompetitive conduct committed by international cartels, like OPEC, that restricts supply and drives up prices.

••••••

Gov. Perry thanks Texas military veterans for fighting for freedom

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, June 28, thanked war veterans for answering the call of duty to protect America’s freedom and called for continued assistance of veterans’ rehabilitation programs.

“Throughout our nation’s history, each generation has stepped forward to accept the torch of freedom from those who preceded them and advance the cause of liberty to even greater heights,” Gov. Perry said. “America is proud of the men and women in uniform who answer the call and uphold the sacred oath to defend freedom no matter the cost.”

The governor spoke to the 90th annual convention of the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary, Department of Texas, praising their efforts in assisting veterans returning from active duty, and commending their work promoting the armed forces and recruiting volunteers.

The American Legion, Department of Texas is one of 55 organizations that comprise the national organization of the American Legion, the largest wartime veteran’s organization in the world. The American Legion promotes understanding of the principles of democracy, instills appreciation of the benefits of American citizenship and serves the needs of veterans and their families.

“I thank you for your ongoing support of our veterans, and I hope you will continue to recruit volunteers from your ranks, neighborhoods, churches and workplaces,” Perry said. “The freedom we enjoy in each of those places was won for us by veterans, and although we can never match their sacrifice, we must continue to give back to them in every way possible.”

••••••

University leaders testify before Senate Higher Education Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Zaffirini

By CELESTE VILLARREAL

Testimony regarding the financial structure for colleges and universities and capital funding highlighted two higher education hearings at the Texas Capitol on Wednesday, June 25.

The Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee held a hearing to address the interim charges issued by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst about higher education financing and to make recommendations regarding any necessary changes in the structure and organization of higher education.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature appropriated $16.5 billion for higher education during the current biennium, which runs from September 1, 2007 through August 31, 2008.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chair of the Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee, presided during the hearing to discuss research and financing for capital projects for academic, health-related institutions, and flagship research universities.

The Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee looked at the advantages and disadvantages of the system method of university organization. All but four of the state’s 35 undergraduate universities are organized into one of seven systems, the two largest being the University of Texas and the Texas A&M University systems. Each system has one main “flagship” institution and several other campuses.

Testimony was offered by representatives from Texas A&M System, Stephen F. Austin State University, University of Texas at Austin, Prairie View A&M University and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

After the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Higher Education committee adjourned, the Senate Higher Education Subcommittee convened to hear testimony regarding the need for new higher education institutions, long-term strategic planning, medical education, and the value of associating a medical school with a top-tier academic campus.

“Each session we focus on financing higher education and the need for new campuses to expand higher education opportunities for Texans,” Zaffirini said. “We must continue to focus on options for improvement of the current funding structure so that the needs of students and universities are fulfilled.”

Mike McKinney, chancellor of the A&M system, testified that the system method gives a number of advantages to institutions of higher education. An outside audit of his system showed that economies of scale save the constituent institutions about $24 million per year. The systems also allows institutions to pool resources, offer advanced centralized services and better strategic planning, plus see an increase in bond rating and a decrease in bank services.

Baker Pattillo, president at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, testified on behalf of the four independent state universities. He testified that the independent model works well for his university, and he would prefer it stayed by itself. Pattillo said the independent system offers his institution “the best of both worlds”. While SFA still collaborates with other universities in the state and implements best-practices polices from other institutions, his university’s independence offers more local control for administrators. It also allows regents to work closer with faculty and staff, and gives trustees a “hands-on” understanding of university operations.

The committee was also briefed on the current state of capital funding projects at universities. There are many sources of funds for high-cost university projects, from federal funds to special state-created funds, but recent legislation has permitted institutions to turn more and more to tuition revenue bonds, loans to universities secured by future tuition earnings. First issued in Texas in 1971, a bill passed in the Third Called Session in 2005 permitted the issuance of 63 bonds for a total of $1.86 billion, bringing the overall tuition revenue bonding capacity to just above $4 billion.

In addition to Zaffirini, the Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee is  consists of Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan.

(Senate Media Services contributed to this article.)

••••••

Former Hidalgo County jailer sentenced to two years in federal prison for attempting to sell marijuana

A former Hidalgo County Correctional Officer has been sentenced to two years in federal prison, without parole, for conspiring to sell marijuana to an undercover Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent, United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle announced on Tuesday, June 24.

José Armando Sánchez, 29, of Alton, was sentenced today by U.S. District Judge Randy Crane.

Sánchez pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy charge December 4, 2007.

In imposing the 24-month sentence, Crane took into consideration Sánchez’s former position with the county and that he was the one who negotiated the drug deal with the undercover officer. Sánchez is the last of four persons indicted in October 2007 to be convicted of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana and to be sentenced.

Eric Pérez, 25, and Eric García, 25, both of Mission, and Francisco Alejandro Cedillo, 20, of Palmview, pleaded guilty  December 3, 2007, and were sentenced in April 2008. Pérez and Cedillo were each sentenced to 24 months imprisonment, while García received a 30-month term. Each defendant, including Sánchez, was further ordered to serve a three-year-term of supervised release upon completion of the prison term.

On September 18, 2007, Sánchez offered to sell approximately 100 pounds of marijuana for $16,000 to a buyer, who was actually an undercover ICE agent. Plans were made for Sánchez to meet the agent at a McAllen area restaurant where they would wait while the buyer’s vehicle was taken by one of Sánchez’s associates to be loaded with the contraband and then returned.

In anticipation of the undercover contraband buy, ICE agents with the assistance of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, established surveillance in and around the restaurant. Sánchez, accompanied by García, was seen arriving and entering the restaurant to meet with the ICE undercover agent. Meanwhile, mobile surveillance followed García, who had entered the agent’s vehicle, to Sanchez’s residence in Alton, Texas.

After approximately 20 minutes, the agent’s vehicle, now driven by Pérez and containing the marijuana, was seen leaving the residence accompanied by two other vehicles. García, accompanied by Pérez, occupied a pickup truck and appeared to be leading the other vehicles. Cedillo followed behind the agent’s vehicle in yet another vehicle.

All three vehicles arrived at the restaurant parking lot approximately 15 minutes later where, upon arrival, investigating agents approached the defendants. Sánchez and Cedillo were immediately taken into federal custody; however, García and Pérez fled the scene in the pickup truck but were later stopped and apprehended.

Sánchez has been in custody since his Sept. 2007 arrest.  The other three defendants are presently serving their sentences.

This investigation was conducted by special agents of ICE with assistance from local law enforcement with Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. The case was prosecuted by Assistant U. S. Attorney Juan F. Alanis.

••••••

Former Children’s Rehab Clinic founder in McAllen sentenced to 10 years in scheme defrauding Medicaid

The former president and primary stockholder of McAllen-based Just for Kids rehabilitation center was sentenced on Monday, June 23, to 10 years in prison for defrauding Medicaid and misapplication of fiduciary property. Eliseo Sandoval, 38, was also sentenced to two years in prison on two counts of tampering with a government document. The sentences will run concurrently.

Sandoval pleaded guilty to Medicaid fraud in April after he admitted to filing inflated cost reports with the program in order to receive more tax-payer funded reimbursements than he was owed. The defendant used proceeds from his illegal scheme to support a lavish lifestyle and fund personal business ventures, including real estate and sporting goods enterprises.

Sandoval admitted that he used more than $4 million in fraudulent, inflated Medicaid reimbursements to acquire a Brooks County ranch, a McAllen office building, several sports cars, a motorcycle and high-end sport utility vehicles. He also used the ill-gotten Medicaid funds to cover mortgage payments and construction costs on his McAllen office building, which doubled as a rehabilitation center for children.

“This defendant was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defrauding the taxpayers,” Attorney General Abbott said. “By lying about his qualifications and the services he rendered Medicaid patients, the defendant funded a luxurious lifestyle at taxpayers’ expense. The Office of the Attorney General will continue aggressively cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse in the Medicaid system.”

Abbott added, “We are grateful to the Travis County District Attorney’s Office for their assistance with this case.”

The Sandoval investigation and prosecution was a joint effort between Attorney General Abbott’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. Auditors with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General uncovered the defendant’s fraudulent Medicaid cost-report scheme.

Sandoval pleaded guilty to three separate charges, including misapplying Medicaid funds through his business; filing false, excessive cost reports with Medicaid for salary compensation; and falsely claiming college degrees from the University of Texas Pan American and St. Edwards University. According to investigators, Sandoval claimed two college degrees in order to illegally profit from a Medicaid provision entitling multiple degree-holders to higher reimbursement rates.

In July 2004, the Just for Kids pediatric rehabilitation center filed for bankruptcy, despite having received more than $10 million annually from Medicaid payments. Shortly after Sandoval completed construction of the $3 million rehabilitation center, he filed for personal bankruptcy and sought bankruptcy protection for other businesses he controlled.

These businesses included Fishing Properties, which owned the building leased to Sandoval’s McAllen sporting goods enterprise, Rio Grande Outfitters. Sandoval also owned Genesis Pediatric Development, a real estate company that owned the Just for Kids rehabilitation office complex. Just for Kids, in turn, paid rent to Genesis and Sandoval. The defendant also profited from a Medicaid billing company that exclusively serviced Just for Kids, charging the organization 15 percent of its Medicaid-billed amounts for its billing service.

In 2006 alone, Texas spent more than $17 billion to fund its portion of the Medicaid program. To save taxpayer dollars and protect Texas seniors, Attorney General Abbott dramatically expanded the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

The unit has established field offices in Corpus Christi, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, Lubbock, McAllen, San Antonio and Tyler through authorization and funding from the 78th Legislature. It works with federal, state and local agencies across the state to identify and prosecute those who defraud the Medicaid program.

To obtain more information about the Attorney General’s efforts to fight Medicaid fraud, access the agency’s Web site at:

http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

••••••

Hidalgo County received grant/loan package to buy six new vehicles for sheriff’s department

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, January 24, announced that Hidalgo County has received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant for $46,308 and a loan for $225,000. The loan and grant will be used to purchase a fully equipped 2010 Chevrolet 4×4 F150 Crime Scene Investigation Unit and two equipped 2009 4×4 Ford F150 Crew Cabs.

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department responds to areas along the Rio Grande River and other secluded areas where the terrain is often unpredictable. Some of these areas of have steep banks and ditches that cannot be driven on with the current fleet of vehicles. The purchase of these six vehicles will allow the Sheriff department to respond to all calls throughout rural Hidalgo County. The population served by this project is 6,822.

“We must do everything we can to guarantee that our first responders have the equipment they need to protect our communities,” said Hinojosa.  “This grant and loan will provide our Sheriff’s Department the tools they need so they can best do their job and protect the rural residents of Hidalgo County.”

••••••

Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa introduces “Blues for Bucks”, a workplace fundraising campaign to benefit local charities

By RICARDO CONTRERAS

The Hidalgo County District Clerk’s Office on Wednesday, June 25,  introduced Blues for Bucks, a workplace fundraising campaign to benefit local charitable organizations. The program allows department staff to wear jeans every Friday in exchange for a $5 donation.

“I think that the Blues for Bucks campaign will be a positive and rewarding experience for our office,” said Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa. “I am confident that it will help to motivate and further engage our employees in our organization as well as getting them involved in the community.”

The District Clerk’s Office kicked off their charitable efforts on February 1 as a part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign to increase awareness of heart disease.  The office expanded their efforts through the creation of a “charitable organizations list” of which staff randomly selects a recipient every six months.

“I’m happy to be participating in Blues for Bucks and have been contributing my $5 pretty  much every Friday.  In addition to helping others, I also think its helped to boost morale in the office,” said Victor Sánchez, Deputy Clerk, an employee of the county for the past sixteen years. “I like jeans and look forward to wearing them to benefit the organization of my choice.”

••••••

Sens. Cornyn, Boxer introduce amendment to strengthen financial disclosures by Congress

As part of a continued effort to strengthen public disclosure and increase transparency in Congress, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Vice-Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, announced on Tuesday, June 24, that he and Senate Ethics Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-California, have introduced an amendment to the housing reform bill – currently under consideration in the Senate – which would require members of Congress to disclose residential mortgages as a liability on their financial disclosure reports.

Cornyn is facing a reelection challenge in November from Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston.

In addition to Cornyn and Boxer, the amendment is cosponsored by Senators Mark Pryor, Ken Salazar, Pat Roberts, and Johnny Isakson, who together compromise the full Senate Ethics Committee.

Currently, there is an exception to the disclosure requirement for residential mortgages. The Cornyn amendment provides that this exception will no longer apply to members of Congress.

“Accountability in government is only an empty promise without transparency and disclosure. The more information that we can put in the hands of citizens and journalists, the stronger our democracy will be, particularly as we take the necessary steps to rebuild the confidence of the American people in their government,” Cornyn said. “This amendment would close an unwarranted loophole and provide citizens and journalists with more complete information on financial disclosure forms. I appreciate the bipartisan support this amendment has received and I am hopeful it will be included in the housing reform bill.”

Boxer said, “Ethics in government is something that needs to be revisited continually. This update will help make our disclosure rules stronger, and I believe it is an important step forward.”

Under the Cornyn amendment, members of Congress will have to make a “full and complete” disclosure of residential mortgages. This will require Senators to disclose the date that the mortgage was entered, the range of the amount, the interest rate, the term, and the name and address of the creditor. It will take effect as Members of Congress file their financial disclosure forms next year.

Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. In addition, he is Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee’s Airland subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

••••••

Latest Texas Lyceum poll shows Democrat Noriega remains within striking distance of Sen. Cornyn

By HOLLY SHULMAN

A poll released on Wednesday, May 25, by Texas Lyceum, a statewide, non-partisan  leadership group, shows Rick Noriega in a dead heat race for the U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

The live interview poll has Noriega with 36 points and John Cornyn at 38 with still 24 percent undecided voters and a margin of error of 4.5 percent. Underscoring the deep desire for change in the state, according to Noriega campaign leaders, 70 percent of Texans believe the country is on the wrong track and only 23 percent say “things are moving in the right direction.”

This is the third independent poll showing a tight race between Cornyn and  Noriega.

See the poll at:

http://www.texaslyceum.org/media/staticContent/PubCon_Journals/2008/National%20Summary%20_day%202_%20final.pdf

This survey consisted of 1,000 Texans, selected randomly and interviewed via telephone.

••••••

Attorney General Abbott reaches agreement with EZPAWN to protect Texans from identity theft

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday, June 23, reached an agreement with two Austin companies – one with Rio Grande Valley ties –  that will protect Texans from identity theft.

The settlement resolves the state’s May 2007 enforcement action against EZMONEY, L.P. and EZPAWN L.P., which were charged with violating state laws governing the disposal of customer records containing sensitive personal information. Under Texas law, vendors must take specific precautions before discarding documents that include customers’ bank accounts, driver’s license and Social Security numbers.

The June 23 agreed final judgment requires that EZMONEY and EZPAWN overhaul their information security program and pay $600,000 to the State of Texas, which will help fund future identity theft investigations.

“Today’s agreement protects Texans from identity theft and ensures that the defendant will comply with important laws governing the disposal of sensitive customer information,” Abbott said. “Recognizing that identity theft is one of the state’s fastest growing crimes, the Texas Legislature enacted legislation to ensure that customers’ sensitive information is protected from identity thieves. The Office of the Attorney General will continue cracking down on identity theft.”

Under the agreement with the state, EZMONEY and EZPAWN must implement a new training program to inform its Texas employees about the companies’ enhanced information security procedures. The employee training program must provide employees with a review of the companies’ privacy procedures and a review of state laws governing the disposal of customer records. Today’s agreement requires that the training program explain identity theft, its costs to individual customers, and the importance of abiding by the company’s newly implemented document disposal protocol.

To further assure that employees comply with the protocol, each EZPAWN and EZMONEY store must post signs explaining records storage and disposal requirements. The companies must conduct unannounced compliance checks at all of its stores every six months and provide annual training to its employees, which will help ensure customers’ personal information is protected.

Investigators with the Office of the Attorney General discovered that several San Antonio EZPAWN stores improperly discarded business records. Documents containing sensitive customer information were found in easily accessible trash receptacles behind EZPAWN stores. According to investigators, the records included promissory notes and bank statements that contained names, addresses, Social Security and driver’s license numbers, and checking account information.

Investigators also found evidence of improper document dumping at a dozen other EZPAWN locations around the state, including locations in Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Lubbock and the Rio Grande Valley. In all, investigators found evidence that 483 individual customers’ records were improperly discarded.

Although the investigation revealed no confirmed incidents of personal information being misused, customers who interacted with EZPAWN stores should carefully monitor bank, credit card and any similar financial statements for evidence of suspicious activity. All EZPAWN customers should also annually obtain free copies of their credit reports to guard against this growing crime.

Consumers who wish to file a complaint may contact the Office of the Attorney General at (800) 252-8011 or do so online at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov, where they can also obtain information on identity theft detection and prevention.

••••••

Gov. Perry challenges youth to give back through public service at 2008 Texas Bluebonnet Girls State

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday, June 23, challenged young Texans to make a lasting contribution to the future well-being of Texas through public service.

“Public service is an honorable calling that must be answered by honorable men and women,” Perry said. “Your presence at Girls State signifies you’ve already learned that what matters most is not what you get for yourself, but what you give back to your country and your fellow Americans.”

The governor spoke to an audience of young girls participating in the 2008 Texas Bluebonnet Girls State. Kelley Norton, a graduate of the Texas A&M University George Bush School of Government and Public Policy and analyst at the U.S. Department of Justice, served as this year’s speaker of the Girls State House of Representatives.

Sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary, Department of Texas, the Girls State program educates young women on the duties, privileges, rights and responsibilities of American citizenship by giving participants the opportunity to organize their own city, county and state governments for one week each year. The program concludes with a visit to the Texas State Capitol where the girls are given the opportunity to meet state officials.

Perry encouraged the girls to look past criticism of their youth and actively pursue goals and innovative ideas. He also reminded them that the right to participate should not be taken for granted, and that they were responsible for creating opportunities for the next generations.

“All each of us can do is use the one life we have, the one opportunity we are given, to leave a lasting imprint on the world around us,” Perry said. “Texas needs your leadership and idealism, so whatever your dream, pursue it with vigor and intensity, and use it to improve our nation and our state.”

••••••

Senate Education Committee, which includes Sen. Zaffirini, takes a look at special education in Texas

By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES

The Senate Education Committee considered the state of special education in Texas at a hearing on Monday, June 23, as part of its interim duties. The hearing focused on transition planning, that is, preparing learning or developmentally disabled student for life after high school.

About 194,000 kids received transition planning services through their public schools last year, according to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Coordinator for the Texas Education Agency Kathy Clayton. The quality of this planning varies from district to district, depending of resources, with a large disparity between urban and rural districts.

Laura Buckner, of the Arc of Texas, testified that mandatory training for teachers and administrators, teaching them about the need and the effectiveness of transition planning for special needs students, is one of the best ways to improve special education services in Texas.

The Senate Education Committee is chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and consists of: Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston; Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio; Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco; Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan; Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; and Sen. Royce West, D-Houston.

••••••

Social work degree gives South Texas College students opportunities to give back to community

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

Since South Texas College started offering its new associate’s degree in Social Science with a concentration in Social Work in fall 2007, more than 200 students have made the decision to pursue the degree.

“It’s amazing the response we have seen in just one year,” said Dr. Eric Rettinger, chair of the program. “We knew that there was wide interest in the program before we started offering it, but the degree’s popularity is astounding. I have spoken with some of the students and it seems to be a trend that they all want to be active and involved in giving back to the community. They see social work as a way to positively impact the lives of others and a long-term career that can take them anywhere they want to go.”

Students will be able to take a variety of courses for the major including Introductory Sociology, General Psychology, Introduction to Social Work, Marriage and the Family and Social Welfare as a Social Institution. The program requires 60 hours of credit to complete and is transferable to a variety of colleges and universities, such as The University of Texas-Pan American.

“I come from a migrant family and we were able to receive various forms of assistance. It was not always easy to find the help we needed; especially with so many obstacles to overcome,” said Erica De La Cruz, STC Social Work Program student. “I currently work for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and I have found that the situation in searching for assistance for many of the families we serve is similar to what me and my family went through. They are not always aware of the program and what we do. This has motivated me to pursue this career path. I know that I have the ability to make a difference in the lives of others and I want to make that my life’s work.”

Upon completion of the program, students will be better prepared to work in a variety of public and private human service settings, including programs in schools and hospitals; juvenile detention and residential facilities; crisis centers; information and referral programs; hospices; housing programs; nursing homes; home health agencies; adult daycare centers; and numerous other organizations and agencies which offer services to humans in need. The program is also ideal for human service workers who wish to improve knowledge, skills and/or advance in currently held employment.

For additional information about the program contact Rettinger at 872-2672.

••••••

UTPA President Cárdenas, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst among scheduled speakers for August 21 – 22 economic summit in Laredo

By VERÓNICA CANTÚ

The board of directors of Future of the Region, Inc. (FORI) recently gathered at La Posada Hotel in Laredo to formally announce their upcoming economic development conference for South Texas and border region, which will feature speakers such as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Dr. Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas, president of the University of Texas-Pan American.

The economic development conference will be held August 21 and 22 at the historic La Posada Hotel in Laredo.

In addition to Dewhurst and Cárdenas, other guest speakers will include  Steve Murdock, director of the U.S. Census Bureau; economist M. Ray Perryman; and Blake Hastings, Vice President in Charge of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ San Antonio Branch, among others.

FORI is a nonprofit corporation that seeks to build a prosperous and united South Texas by mobilizing its resources, assets, and leadership to address key issues impacting the 47 counties in the South Texas region.

“The FORI conference is an opportunity for us to engage and find opportunities to advance our communities in the areas of health, education, manufacturing, infrastructure and workforce development,” said this year’s FORI President Blas Castañeda. “Our mission is to bring all our regional resources together and be able to network and collaborate on our goals and objectives for a better South Texas and border region.”

FORI has been a key think-tank organization for over 18 years.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; former HUD Secretary and former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, and others who wanted to develop an overall strategic focus for South Texas and the border – in which community leaders from these areas could focus and pursue – started the organization.

FORI seeks to develop a quality, high-skilled workforce, create a region-wide sustainable economic growth process, protect the region’s unique environmental assets, ensure the provision of adequate health care and services for all citizens and develop world-class infrastructure to support future growth. Indeed, this conference will be an opportunity to share ideas, network, and receive information from guest speakers and region leaders.

Board members of the Future of the Region, Inc. include:  Dr. Federico Zaragoza, Alamo Community College District; Tammye Treviño, Futuro Communities, Inc.; Jerry L. Davidson, Atascosa County Economic Development Corp.; Mary Ann Rojas, Workforce Solutions of the Coastal Bend; Ernest Garlach, Economic Development University of Texas at San Antonio; Leodoro Martínez, Jr., Middle Rio Grande Development Council; Jim Huff, Live Oak County; Bettie Sifuentes, Middle Rio Grande Development Council; Dr. Estelle J. Sit, Alamo County College District; Jorge Treviño, St. Phillips-Southwest Campus; Rubén J. Cabello, University of Texas at Brownsville; Peggy Umphres-Moffett, Zapata Chamber of Commerce, Bob Zachariah, Laredo Hotel and Lodging Association, and José Reyes, Laredo Community College.

Rojas, Umphres-Moffet, Zachariah and Reyes are also serving as conference chairs with Castañeda.

The conference will be an opportunity for attendees to share ideas, network, and receive information from various guest speakers on an array of topics. One of the main goals of the conference is to develop a comprehensive legislative agenda that would be presented to members of the legislature during the upcoming 81st legislative session in Austin, which begins in January.

For more information on the FORI Economic Development Conference for South Texas and the border region, interested persons may call Yolanda Escobedo, FORI Administrative Assistant, at (956) 721-5102 or visit the FORI web-site at:

http://www.forionline.org.

••••••

Zachry American Infrastructure selected to develop Texas portion of I-69, including upgrading southern portion of U.S. Highway 77 to interstate standards

By CHRIS LIPPINCOTT

The Texas Transportation Commission on Thursday, June 26, approved the staff recommendation for a proposal by Zachry American Infrastructure and ACS Infrastructure (ZAI/ACS) to develop the Texas portion of Interstate 69.

The proposed ZAI/ACS master plan would develop the southern section of U.S. Highway 77 to interstate standards without tolling that portion of the road. The proposal advances planning for I-69/Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC), but additional commission action would be necessary before any construction could begin.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) selected the ZAI/ACS proposal over a proposal from Bluebonnet Infrastructure Investors. Both teams submitted proposals to TxDOT on March 26, 2008. The selection of ZAI/ACS for a development contract has no impact on TxDOT’s environmental study that will determine the route for I-69/TTC.

TxDOT will also continue its plans for upgrading U.S. Highway 281 which, along with U.S. 77, has been designated by the federal government as a possible future route for I-69 in Texas.

“All of the planning work completed by ZAI/ACS will be done within the constraints spelled out by the Texas Transportation Commission and state law,” said TxDOT Executive Director Amadeo Sáenz. “We will develop I-69/TTC using existing highway facilities wherever possible, and we will operate within the guiding principles the Commission adopted in May. The June 26 action by the Transportation Commission made it clear that our focus will be on planning for the statewide corridor and on bringing Interstate 69 to Texas.”

The contract will provide for ZAI/ACS to perform activities including the creation of a master development plan and master financial plan for the I-69/TTC project. The contract will also include the right of first negotiation for ZAI/ACS to perform work on certain projects. If TxDOT moves forward with the actual design, construction, financing, maintenance and operation of any specific projects identified in the master development plan, those projects will be governed by separate facility agreements that would require additional action by the Transportation Commission.

“This proposal gives us the best path to developing the long-awaited upgrades to U.S. 77 in South Texas and ultimately the I-69/TTC project,” said Sáenz. “The ZAI/ACS team’s proposal would use existing road alignments and engage local leaders to help direct this project with minimal cost to the state.”

The June 26 commission action allows TxDOT staff to negotiate a contract with ZAI/ACS. Once the contract between TxDOT and ZAI/ACS is signed, the two partners will begin work on a master development plan and master financing plan for I-69/TTC.

In addition and concurrently, TxDOT and ZAI/ACS will develop a specific plan for upgrading U.S. Highway 77 from Brownsville to Corpus Christi as an eventual part of I-69/TTC. That planning work would cost no more than $5 million. The contract would not allow any construction or property acquisition except as subsequently approved by TxDOT and the Commission, and under the conditions set out in the contract.

“The ZAI/ACS proposal includes innovative plans that would finally extend the Interstate system into South Texas,” said Transportation Commission Chair Deirdre Delisi. She noted that ZAI/ACS proposes coordinating with local authorities in the Rio Grande Valley and the Corpus Christi area to develop toll roads in South Texas that would help finance the initial segments of I-69/TTC without requiring tolls to be collected along long stretches of highway extending north from Cameron County.

“ZAI/ACS and TxDOT cannot develop their plans for the Texas portion of I-69 without input from the Corridor Advisory Committee and the Segment Advisory Committees,” said Transportation Commissioner Ted Houghton. “ZAI/ACS has already reached out to local leaders to help craft their proposal, and this is a promising start. Solving our state’s transportation challenges will require public awareness and public involvement.”

ZAI/ACS proposes working with local authorities to construct and operate $1.5 billion worth of toll projects in South Texas that would generate revenue to develop U.S. Highway 77 to interstate standards. The ZAI/ACS team is proposing to develop the West Loop and State Highway (SH) 550 / Five Mile Spur highway projects in Cameron County and the SH 358 Managed Lanes, SH 286 Managed Lanes, and Southside Mobility Corridor projects in Corpus Christi.

In addition, ZAI/ACS proposes tolled reliever routes on U.S. 77 in the communities of Riviera and Driscoll. ZAI/ACS proposes to develop these seven projects and use the toll revenues to help finance the sections of U.S. 77 that would be upgraded to interstate standards without the need for additional tolls on that highway.

Under the framework provided by SB 792 (80th Texas Legislature), the local toll roads proposed by ZAI/ACS could only be operated with the approval of local government entities. In its proposal, ZAI/ACS indicated that its team has already approached local leaders in South Texas about their interest in the plan. Although no agreements have been reached, discussions among community leaders, ZAI/ACS and TxDOT are expected to continue.

Transportation Commissioner Ned Holmes noted that while today’s commission action was significant, important work remains for the I-69/TTC project. “TxDOT can now move forward with this consortium of private sector experts that will develop a comprehensive plan to determine what projects need to be built in the near term. We still have critical decisions to make with our local partners about how we will connect our cities and ports to this vital new corridor.”

“This proposal moves us closer to building I-69/TTC. ZAI/ACS has shown that we can build this project while minimizing the need to purchase additional land and only limited, innovative tolling,” said Delisi. “We have heard from the public we should limit the amount of private property we need to acquire. We can accomplish this goal and virtually eliminate the need for tolls on the first leg of I-69/TTC in South Texas.”

The ZAI/ACS proposal, including maps, is available on the internet at http://www.keeptexasmoving.com.

The Texas Department of Transportation is responsible for maintaining nearly 80,000 miles of road and for supporting aviation, rail and public transportation across the state. TxDOT and its 15,000 employees strive to empower local leaders to solve local transportation problems, and to use new financial tools, including tolling and public-private partnerships, to reduce congestion and pave the way for future economic growth while enhancing safety, improving air quality and increasing the value of the state’s transportation assets.

Find out more at http://www.txdot.gov.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!