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Valley Land Title and Lone Star National Bank recently contributed monetary donations that will be awarded as scholarship funds to 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners of an essay contest that will be part of the city’s centennial celebrations scheduled to begin in October. All ECISD 5th graders are encouraged to participate in the contest. The topic is Edinburg. Featured in this photograph are, from left: Paul Rodríguez and Susan Valdéz with Valley Land Title; and Elias Longoria, Jr. with Lone Star National Bank. Longoria is also on the board of directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.  See related story later in this posting.

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The Museum of South Texas History,  with its Upper Old Jail Gallery included in this postage stamp, will celebrate its hometown of Edinburg’s 100th anniversary in October with a week of activities coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce and the Centennial Committee. A special exhibit entitled, Edinburg: A Centennial Salute, 1908-2008, has been created to commemorate the historic event.  Installed in the Upper Old Jail Gallery, this exhibit presents a sampling of photographs and artifacts from the museum’s collections and is organized into four themes.  Those themes are education, government, civic life, and commerce. See related story later in this posting.

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The McAllen Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Council hosts monthly meetings featuring local elected officials, providing them the opportunity to reach out to McAllen Chamber of Commerce members among their constituents. On Wednesday, September 24, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce will welcome Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, as guest of the Governmental Affairs Council. Guillen will speak about his perspective of the major issues, challenges, and opportunities of the upcoming legislative session.  Featured making preparations for the event are Matt Z. Ruszczak, vice-president of governmental affairs, and Eva-Jean Radle,  vice-chair of the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Council.  See related story later in this posting.

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In Texas alone, more than 7,000 people are on the waiting list for life saving transplants. Knowing that the public has the power to donate life, the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Donate Life Texas Organization are hosting an informative workshop to educate the public and dismiss the myths on being an Organ Donor on Thursday, September 25, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the MHCC Board Room, located at 24 N. 12th Street in McAllen. Texas Health Spring will co-sponsor the workshop and offer light dinner refreshments.  There is limited seating so reservations are required by calling the MHCC office at 928-0060. Featured making preparations for the free workshop are, from left: Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, president/CEO of the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Trisha Barrera, Donate Life Texas; and Rose Ramírez, MHCC Vice Chair of Health Issues and Texas Health Spring representative.

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Edinburg prepares for legislative session, EEDC, city government to split lobbyist’s $60,000 annual fee

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Elvia Caballero López, who has represented the interests of the city government before the Texas Legislature and major state agencies since 2000, has been kept on for another 12-month term with a contract worth $60,000, plus expenses.

López, who has more than 20 years experience at the State Capitol, first as a legislative staff member and then as a legislative consultant, had her latest contract unanimously renewed by the Edinburg City Council during its Tuesday, September 2 meeting.

“Her background and experience have provided her with thorough knowledge and understanding of the legislative process,” said City Manager J.J. Rodríguez. “It is with the assistance of Ms. López that Edinburg has established a know presence at the State Capitol in Austin.”

Her most recent efforts on behalf of the city and the EEDC involved coordinating with local leaders and the governor’s office earlier in the summer to help land the planned $180 million denim manufacturing plant, which will be built in the North Industrial Park in north Edinburg.

The EEDC owns the North Industrial Park.

The plant, once completed over the next three years, is projected to employ 800 workers.

The first phase of the sprawling plant, which will be built in three stages, is slated to open in 2010.

When the three phases are completed in 2014, the foreign-owned enterprise, which will include a treatment plant, will eventually encompass about 400,000-square-feet of manufacturing space.

López interacted with the governor’s office to help Edinburg leaders convince Gov. Rick Perry to provide a $1.65 million financial incentive to Santa Textiles Corporation of Brazil to build its first American plant in the three-time All-America City.  The EEDC is donating a 23-acre tract of land at the industrial park as part of the deal.

The announcement, which took place on July 2 at the University of Texas-Pan American, drew an appearance by Perry, by the owners of the plant, and numerous state and local officials.

The city government and the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council, will split her fee for the coming year.

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.

López’ contract is effective on October 1, and will run through September 30.

It represents an extension of her current contract.

Her services are described as a “Legislative Assistance Contract”.

Under the terms of the contract, López will have two major responsibilities:

  • Keep the administrative staff of the City and the EEDC aware of all pending bills which might impact the city and the economy, the business development of the EEDC’s future; and
  • Advocate or oppose legislation on behalf of the city and the EEDC.

Despite the wording of the duties, the city and EEDC must still prepare a written account of what will be its legislative agenda. With more than 5,000 bills filed during a regular session, it is impossible for any one lobbyist to report all pending bill which could affect their clients – there are simply too many bills and amendments that will try to make it through the complicated legislative process which would affect Edinburg.

As she has done since 2000, she will be required to submit monthly reports to the city government and the to EEDC regarding her activities, along with all required reports she must file with the Texas Ethics Commission, which maintains detailed information on the activities of all registered lobbyists in Texas.

The Texas Legislature begins its five-month regular session on Tuesday, January 13, and will wrap up the session in the waning days of May.

In addition to a long list of clients she has represented for many years, López, a Weslaco native, has held leadership roles serving on the legislative staffs for then-Rep. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Rep. Renato Cuellar, D-Weslaco, and Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville.

Hinojosa now serves as the state senator for most of Hidalgo County, including Edinburg, and Oliveira remains as the longtime state representative for the Brownsville region.

Cuellar passed away several years ago; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, is a nephew of Cuellar.

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ECISD board adopts $1.1898 property tax rate to help pay for $307 million school district operating budget

By GILBERT TAGLE

The Edinburg school board has formally adopted the 2008 property tax rate of $1.1898, which is among the top five lowest school tax rates in Hidalgo County, announced Rigoberto Abrego, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations.

The new tax rate will fund a $307 million budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year adopted by the school board on Aug. 26th, and includes the first payment on the $111,920,000 schoolhouse bond issue passed by voters last May, said Abrego.

The district has been approved by the Texas Education Agency to receive Instructional Facilities Allotment (IFA) funding to help repay 52 percent of the $111,920,000 in bonds. Abrego said the IFA program, which was enacted by House Bill 1 of the 75th Texas Legislature, provides funding to school districts for the purchase, construction, renovation, and expansion of instructional facilities. A district uses the IFA funding to make debt service payments on qualifying bonds.

Property taxes will be calculated at the 2008 tax rate of $1.1898per $100 property valuation. The district’s 2007 tax rate was $1.11 per $100 valuation.

A school district’s tax rate is made up of two parts – Maintenance and Operations (M&O) and Interest and Sinking (I&S). The M&O portion of the tax rate funds the day-to-day operations of a school district including salaries. The I&S tax rate funds capital improvements like new schools and renovations.

Abrego said that a breakdown of the proposed $1.18 tax rate shows that $1.04 dollars on each $100 of assessed valuation levied for 2008 will be used for general school purposes and to pay for the current operating expenses of the school district for the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2009. Of the same tax rate, $0.1498 will be for the purpose of maintaining an  I&S fund with which to pay the interest and retire the principal of the valid bonded and warrant indebtedness of the school district, said Abrego.

“The ECISD’s proposed tax rate is one of the lowest school tax rates in the Valley,” said Abrego. “McAllen’s tax rate is $1.37 on each $100 of assessed valuation’ Pharr-San Juan-Alamo’s is $1.28; La Joya’s is $1.32; and Mercedes’ is $1.29,” said Abrego.

Abrego said the reduced tax rate will mean the average Edinburg homeowner with a $65,000 home will pay $38.80 more ($3.23 monthly) in school taxes yearly. A homeowner with a $125,000 home will pay $85.36 more ($7.11 monthly) in school taxes yearly..

The assessed valuation of real and personal property subject to taxation by the district will be 100 percent of its fair market value, which is determined by the Hidalgo County Appraisal District.

Under state law, the dollar amount of school taxes on the residence of a homestead of a person 65-year-of-age or older or of the surviving spouse (if he or she was 55-years-of-age or older when the person died) will not be increased above the amount paid in the first full year after the person turned 65, regardless of changes in tax rate or property value.

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ECISD’s $112 million construction bonds sold at a premium rate, which lowers the cost to taxpayers

By GILBERT TAGLE

With a “AAA” rating by Fitch Ratings in its portfolio, Edinburg CISD has sold the $111,920,000 in school bonds approved by voters last May at a premium rate, announced Rigoberto Abrego, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations.

Abrego said the ECISD bonds sold at a 3-to-1 level of demand. “There was more demand for the ECISD bonds than there were actual bonds to sell,” said Abrego. The “AAA” rating gave the district a strong credit rating and confirmed it’s sound financial condition.”

Abrego said the school district was able to sell the bonds at a premium rate which enabled ECISD to sell the bonds with enough money left to pay all administrative expenses and have an overage of $310,000. The district sold the bonds at an interest rate of 4.87 percent.

The bond funds are scheduled to be delivered to the school district in early October, said Abrego.

“A strong credit rating such as the one assigned to the Edinburg CISD bonds means that when the district issues the bonds, the cost of borrowing is lowered, thus saving taxpayer dollars to repay the debt,” said Abrego. Bonds are direct obligations of the district, payable from and secured by an unlimited property tax levied against all taxable property within the district, said Abrego.

Fitch officials said “the underlying rating reflects the district’s expanding tax base, moderate debt burden substantially supported by the state, and healthy financial condition despite enrollment growth pressures and capacity restraints.”

“The Outlook was recently revised to the Positive reflecting the service area’s expanding and diversifying economy, the district’s solid voter confidence as reflected by the recent elections results, and additional maintenance tax capacity created by refunding the district’s lease revenue bonds with voter-approved general obligation (GO) bonds,” wrote Fitch officials.

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Return Texas teachers to teaching curriculum versus test taking

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

Although Texas is considered a leader in public school accountability, we must find a more comprehensive and user-friendly diagnostic system.

Remember when teachers taught and administrators facilitated learning? Not so anymore. Administrators statewide function as compliance officers rather than educational leaders, and teachers as drill sergeants rather than educators. Even school counselors spend more time administering tests than providing counseling and academic advising. It started a while back with good intentions.

In 1993, the Texas Legislature enacted statutes mandating the creation of a public school accountability system in an effort to rate school districts and evaluate campuses. Reforms included the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) that replaced the earlier Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS). In 2003, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test was administered, and thus the new accountability system began in earnest. School ratings using this newly designed system were first issued in 2004.

The TAKS was also in response to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001, a federal law intended to improve America’s public schools and accountability standards. To meet the requirements of the NCLB, the U.S. Department of Education in June 2003 enacted a plan, the Adequate Yearly Progress report (AYP), to annually evaluate all public school districts, campuses and state education as a whole.

Texas set goals to improve student achievement, increase the number of high school graduates and reduce the performance and high school completion gaps among student groups.

An unforeseen effect of these stringent mandates was a shift from educating and preparing our students for a global economy to a pursuit of achieving labels or displacing negative labels for their students and schools.

For example, at a July hearing in Brownsville of the Select Committee on Public School Accountability chaired by Sen. Florence Shapiro, we learned that while Brownsville ISD has 37 campuses rated exemplary or recognized, with two of their schools in the U.S. News and World Report list of best high schools, the district will still be rated academically acceptable, instead of recognized or exemplary.

Even more ironic, BISD is also one of this year’s finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, the nation’s largest education award for which school districts must be nominated. Despite all these efforts, the district receives less funding per child than Austin ISD, Plano ISD and other districts.

We must fund our schools more equitably. During a 2006 Special Session, the Legislature directed school districts to reduce property taxes, decreasing local public school funding. The language in the Education Bill included a “hold harmless” provision to ensure districts were not hindered by the reduction in local collections and provided that the state would make up the funding difference. For hold harmless, the participation rate is recalculated for districts and campuses that do not meet the AYP participation standards, negatively affecting schools challenged by high poverty rates and English language deficiencies. The large funding discrepancies between districts often stem from hold harmless provisions. Sen. Shapiro and I both oppose those provisions.

The growing need for remedial education at institutions of higher education would be lessened through equitable funding of innovative programs that help struggling students prepare for college and the global economy.

We should better prepare our students for higher education and the workforce. Student desire to learn should be stimulated instead of stifled. We can help students achieve yet still find ways to lessen test-taking anxieties. High stakes tests can be emotionally challenging to students who are not good test takers.

No one can argue that accountability has worked to a certain extent, especially since minority student populations, particularly Hispanics, have shown remarkable improvements in reading and math scores, but a better assessment method is needed for all grades.

As Beto D. González, the BISD Deputy Superintendent and a member of the Public School Accountability Committee, tells us: “We welcome and embrace accountability.”

We can still accomplish our goals by developing a better system through support and proper recognition versus punitive ratings and sanctions.

With participation from our education community and parents, we will find the solutions that keep Texas in the higher ranks for accountability and raise our academic performance.

I concur with Mr. González, that we have “both the responsibility and opportunity to ensure our state’s public school accountability model is relevant, rigorous, and also fosters the learning climate needed for children to compete and prosper in the 21st century.”

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Valley Land Title and Lone Star National Bank contribute to Edinburg’s Centennial essay contest

By EVANA VLECK

Edinburg will celebrate a very special birthday from Sunday, October 5 through Saturday, October 11, when the three-time All-America City is turning 100 years old.

Part of the festivities include an essay contest, organized by the Edinburg Centennial Committee, Flo Prater, a member of the centennial committee, and the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District.

Valley Land Title and Lone Star National Bank recently contributed monetary donations that will be awarded as scholarship funds to 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners of the contest. All ECISD 5th graders are encouraged to participate in the contest. The topic is Edinburg.

“We are grateful to our sponsors for supporting our children with scholarship money for the Centennial essay contest. we look forward to the big day  – (Wednesday) October 8 – when we announce the winners,” said Flo Prater, a member of the city’s Centennial Committee.

The winner of the essay contest will be invited to read their essay at the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Depot on Friday, October 10, as part of a ribbon cutting and locomotive reenactment to be hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, Prater added.

Organizers of the event are The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, the Edinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Edinburg, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, the Museum of South Texas History, the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library, the Daughters of American Revolution, and Edinburg Volunteer Fire Department.

For more information on the Edinburg Centennial, interested persons may call 9546-383-4974 or log on to http://www.edinburg.com.

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Museum of South Texas to help celebrate Edinburg’s centennial, including presenting historical exhibit

By JOEL A. GARZA

The Museum of South Texas History will celebrate its hometown of Edinburg’s 100th anniversary in October with a week of activities coordinated by the Chamber of Commerce and the Centennial Committee. The Museum of South Texas History is pleased to be a part of the festivities.

A special exhibit entitled, Edinburg: A Centennial Salute, 1908-2008, has been created to commemorate the historic event.  Installed in the Upper Old Jail Gallery, this exhibit presents a sampling of photographs and artifacts from the museum’s collections and is organized into four themes.  Those themes are education, government, civic life, and commerce.

One of the largest artifacts in the exhibit is a mural depicting students and those representing academic subjects.  This mural was painted by Joseph Brennan and Humberto Cavazos and was presented to Edinburg Junior College by Emil Fossler, president of the sophomore class.

The exhibition officially opened on Wednesday, September 10 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce and an Evening with FRIENDS.  The exhibit is scheduled to run through May 2009.

The Centennial week will begin with fanfare at the museum on Sunday, October 5, with an Open House event featuring a special exhibit, family activities like Edinburg Trivia and an Edinburg Activity book, entertainment, refreshments, and, of course, a few shared words to commemorate the occasion. As a gift to the community, admission to the museum is free for this event.

On Saturday, October 25, the centennial celebration will culminate with ¡Fandango!: Celebrating Our Hometown Centennial.

For more information on Edinburg: A Centennial Salute or the Museum of South Texas History, call 956/383-6911 or visit http://www.mosthistory.org.

The Museum of South Texas History is located on the square in downtown Edinburg.

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Former U.S. Senate candidate Radnofsky criticizes Sen. Hutchison for “proposing to quit less than two years into a six-year term” to run for Texas governor

By KATIE FLOYD

On September 8, 2008, an article posted on The Hill.com on Sen.  Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) gubernatorial aspirations stated that she “strongly considers leaving the Senate early to pursue the bid.” The Hill.com quoted Hutchison, 65, as saying “My decision, which I’m on the road to making, is based on what I’d like to do for Texas.”

In 2006, Hutchison’s Democratic opponent, Ann Radnofsky, 52, predicted that Hutchison would quit in the middle of her term and Texas would lose the chance to build seniority in the Senate. As the Associated Press reported on October 25, 2006, Radnofsky Dallas market T.V. commercials said of Hutchison: “She will resign from the Senate if elected. She’ll cut and run from the Senate at her earliest opportunity.”

When asked about the recent quote from Hutchison on running for governor: “I think people know that I’m very much looking for that, hoping to do it. Yes,” Hutchison was recently quoted, according to Radnofksy.

“Running on a platform, in 2006, that her senior role would help Texas, Sen. Hutchison is now proposing to quit less than two years into a six-year term,” Radnofsky said. “She is quitting without delivering the promised VA Hospital for South Texas, leaving Texas taxpayers as net donors to the rest of the country with our gas tax dollars, and with Texas leading the nation in uninsured adults and children.”

During the 2006 Senate debate, Hutchison justified her broken promise on term limits, claiming that her seniority would help Texas.

According to Radnofksy, Hutchison said: “What I found out after I got there is that if you have term limits for one state but not the others, it disadvantages the state. So, I have decided to run for a third term because I want to do what I think is best for Texas.”

Radnofsky was the first to forecast that Hutchison would resign her seat before her term expired, declaring in the October 19, 2006 debate “Seniority and the advantage of being a senior senator means nothing when the senator will not pledge to spend the next six years in office.”

Radnofsky concluded: “That’s like promising the coaches, your team, and your fans that you’ll lead the home team to the Super Bowl, and then quit after training camp. The Hutchison of 2008 has a different idea of what’s best for Texas than the Hutchison of 2006.”

Radnofsky is a wife, mother, teacher, mediator and lawyer. In 2006, she was the first woman in history to serve as the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Texas. Practicing on both sides of the docket, she has been listed in every one of the last 15 years in “Best Lawyers in America”.

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Sen. Hutchison announces VA debt eliminated for military personnel killed in combat

By MATT MACKOWIAK

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Ranking Member of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations subcommittee, on Wednesday, September 10, announced that Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. James Peake used new authority granted by Congress to forgive the debt owed to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) by service members killed in combat. This policy was first advocated by Sen. Hutchison in January 2008 in legislation that she introduced. Sen. Hutchison attached it to the Supplemental Appropriations bill which was signed into law on June 30, 2008.

“I commend Secretary Peake for using the authority given to him by Congress to forgive debt owed by soldiers killed in combat,” said Hutchison. “Our troops deserve nothing short of the utmost respect and gratitude for the sacrifices they make in serving our nation. With today’s action, we can honor our fallen heroes by treating the families they leave behind with dignity and respect.”

Before the September 10 announcement, if a member of the U.S. Armed Forces was killed in combat and had outstanding debts owed to the VA, the Secretary of VA was required to contact the family for collection.

To date the VA has sought to receive debt from 22 deceased soldiers, with most debt resulting from college education loans. There are cases in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Illinois, Iowa, Connecticut, Nebraska, Colorado, Michigan, Washington, California, New York, Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina. Three of the 22 cases occurred in the State of Texas, more than any other state.

The original bill, S. 2550, the Combat Veterans Debt Elimination Act, relieves grieving families from paying such debt and remove the provision in law that requires the VA to seek the collection of such debt. It is retroactive to September 11, 2001.

Hutchison is a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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Comfort Inn/Edinburg cited by Attorney General Abbott for rate hikes during Hurricane Dolly

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Tuesday, September 9, charged an Edinburg motel operator with price gouging. The state’s enforcement action, which stems from the defendant’s conduct while Texans fled Hurricane Dolly last July, names Binning Hospitality, L.L.C., the owner and operator of Comfort Inn in Edinburg at 4001 Closner (Texas Highway Business 281).

The Attorney General’s investigation revealed that Binning Hospitality and Comfort Inn charged $149.99 for rooms with two queen beds and one sofa bed. The usual rate for such rooms is $79.99. According to the state’s investigation, the defendant also excessively raised its rates for one- and two-bed rooms during and after the storm.

Motels and other businesses are prohibited from charging dramatically increased prices once the governor issues a disaster declaration. A gubernatorial disaster declaration triggers price-gouging penalties under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA). These penalties help protect affected Texans by deterring businesses from charging or demanding exorbitant fees for necessities.

The Attorney General enforcement action seeks civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation and a penalty of up to $250,000 if the conduct was designed to harm a person aged 65 and over.

Texans who believe they have been deceived by fraudulent business practices may call the Office of the Attorney General’s toll-free complaint line at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint online at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

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Federal district judge dismisses Border Wall lawsuit filed by El Paso County; appeal could go to high court

By ELHIU DOMÍNGUEZ

El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez announced on Friday, September 12, that U.S. District Judge Frank Montalvo has dismissed a lawsuit filed by El Paso County, the City of El Paso, the El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1, and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, among others, against the construction of the border fence in El Paso County.

Montalvo granted the Department of Homeland Security’s motion to dismiss based on the merits of the case on a final judgment issued on September 11.

In his ruling, Montalvo held that the waivers used by the Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to expedite the construction of the border fence were constitutional because “…Congress constitutionally delegated its authority in the Waiver Legislation.”

Montalvo further ruled that the waiver legislation did not violate the 10th amendment because the waivers were issued with the intent to “preempt state and local laws, which would interfere with Congress’s objective to expeditiously construct the border fence.”

El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez explained that, according to the law, the plaintiffs have 90 days to file an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. The law firm Mayer Brown LLP of Washington D.C., who is handling the litigation, is already working on the appeal, which the County Attorney will encourage El Paso Commissioner’s Court to join.

The lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security was filed on June 23, 2008, and challenged Chertoff’s statutory authority to issue a waiver of more than 30 federal laws, as well as any state and local laws related to such federal laws, to accelerate the construction of a border fence in El Paso County.

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Texas Border Coalition urges Congress to crack down on Border Wall “cost overruns and waste”

A coalition of Texas border mayors, county judges and economic development associations on Wednesday, September 10, urged Congress to reject a Bush Administration request for more federal funds to cover a $400 million cost overrun to pay for its $50 billion border wall.

Although originally estimated to cost about $3 million per mile, some sections of the wall now exceed more than $16 million per mile, said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition.

In addition, Richard Stana, the Government Accountability Office’s director of homeland security, testified to Congress today that the average cost is now estimated at $7.5 million per mile.

“It would be a taxpayer travesty for Congress to reward DHS for its inability to control spending and appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars more of the public’s money for them to waste,” Foster wrote in a letter to House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.

“DHS’ failure to appropriately supervise and control construction costs is reaching legendary status,” he added.

For example, Foster noted that DHS recently paid contractor Kiewit Corp. $48.6 million to fill in a canyon with over 2 million cubic yards of earth near San Ysidro, Calif.

Lack of attention to detail in the construction of fencing in Nogales, Ariz., has also resulted in more than $8 million in damage to private property when the ill-designed structure created severe flooding in nearby neighborhoods and businesses. The project was engineered to place a wall inside a storm sewer in Mexico without permission from the government of Mexico or the International Boundary Water Commission, the U.S. agency charged with approving such border structures.

Meanwhile, DHS says it will construct 14 miles of fencing that can be removed when a hurricane bears down on Roma, Rio Grande City and Los Ebanos in Texas. The movable wall would be made of 89,000 steel bollards, each 18 feet above ground. Each bollard, filled with concrete to 10 feet high, would weight about 1,700 pounds. To achieve its goal of removing the wall during a hurricane, DHS would have to haul away 151 million pounds of unwieldy pipe filled with concrete in 24 hours.

“No one with experience managing an evacuation in advance of a hurricane believes that the DHS plan has any foundation in reality,” Foster said. “DHS planners have engineered a fantasy.”

For months, TBC has recommended workable, effective alternative solutions to secure the Texas-Mexico border, including an expanded Border Patrol, ground sensors, radar, observation from the air, and remote video surveillance.

Coalition members also believe the Laredo Vega and the Brownsville Weir projects to deepen and widen the Rio Grande, coupled with the removal of salt cedar and carrizo cane vegetation along the riverbank, would make it a more formidable barrier and would eliminate hiding places that illegal crossers use.

“In the end, illegal border crossing won’t be controlled until the U.S. has a well-run immigration system that expands avenues for legal workers and cracks down on illegal hiring,” Foster said. “When immigration is reformed, we won’t need a border fence, although we will continue to require beefed up Border Patrol and Customs forces to halt terrorists and illegal drug smuggling.”

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Senate Finance Committee contemplates funding for disability programs, waiting lists

The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony Tuesday, September 9, about the state of funding for Texas Department of Aging and Disability (DADS) services, especially with respect to the size of waiting lists for these services. According to DADS Commissioner Addie Horn, more than 79,000 people are on various waiting lists for these services, and often wait eight years for a slot to open up.

Senators at Tuesday’s meeting searched for ways to decrease the number of people on these lists and the time eligible individuals have to wait, while maximizing the effect of taxpayer dollars in these programs.

Texas spends more than a billion dollars every year on state facilities to care for mentally and physically disabled individuals. There are two primary types of these facilities: state-run schools and private Intermediate Care Facilities for the Mentally Retarded (ICF/MR), which receive some Medicaid funds. A State Auditors Office report found that state-run schools cost twice as much per patient than ICF/MRs, due to higher administrative costs. Officials from DADS countered that state facilities have a much higher percentage of more-severely disabled individuals, whose care is more expensive.

Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee,  charged DADS officials to bring forth recommendations on increasing the efficacy of state dollars at state facilities, and ways to improve client services at these facilities. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, vice-chair of that Senate panel, asked for suggestions on what level of funding is necessary to reduce or eliminate waiting lists within ten years.

In addition to Ogden and Zaffirini, the Finance Committee include: Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville; Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay; Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas; Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco; Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano; Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston; Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville; and Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington.

Session video and all other webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website’s audio and video archive pages.

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Rep. Guillen to give preview in McAllen on Wednesday, September 24, of upcoming Texas legislative session, which begins in early January

By MATT Z. RUSZCZAK

The McAllen Chamber of Commerce is the leading promoter of the growth and success of local entrepreneurs, and a strong advocate for issues at the foundation of our local community, and the economic growth and prosperity of the McAllen area, as well as the Rio Grande Valley as a whole.

As part of a multiplicity of efforts, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Council hosts monthly meetings featuring local elected officials, providing them the opportunity to reach out to McAllen Chamber of Commerce members among their constituents. On Wednesday, September 24, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce will welcome Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, as guest of the Governmental Affairs Council.

Guillen will speak about his perspective of the major issues, challenges, and opportunities of the upcoming legislative session.

For additional information on the McAllen Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Council, or how to become a member of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, please contact Matt Z. Ruszczak at 956/682-2874 or matt@mcallenchamber.com.

According to a biographical sketch that Guillen maintains on MySpace.com:

A native of Starr County, Guillen represents House District 31 in the Texas Legislature. Beginning in 2003 with the 78th Session, he has served for three regular and seven special sessions in the House of Representatives, where he has demonstrated his commitment to South Texas families by fighting for legislation to improve their lives.

Guillen and his wife Dalinda were reared in Rio Grande City where they attended public school. He completed his education with a B.S. degree from Texas A&M University in College Station. His family includes many generations of teachers and ranchers, traditions that he continues.

During the 80th Legislative Session, Guillen served as vice-chair of the Appropriations Committee and as a member of the Calendars and Natural Resources Committees. He was also appointed to the Select Committee on Higher and Public Education Finance, which was created by the Speaker of the House at the close of the regular session in May. In addition to these duties, Guillen is a member of the Democratic Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus.

In 2007, Guillen was appointed to The Energy Council, a multi-state board that meets to collaborate on energy policy for the future. He also represents the Texas House of Representatives as a member of the Border Legislative Conference, a bi-national program that brings together legislators from ten U.S. and Mexico border states to resolve problems, to address environmental issues, and to leverage economic opportunities for citizens on both sides of the international border.

David A. Díaz contributed to this article.

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Sen. Cornyn seeks criminal investigation of corporate officers at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

Citing past examples of corporate malfeasance by Fannie Mae, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Vice-Chair of the Senate Republican Conference, announced on the Senate floor on Wednesday, September 10, that he has sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey requesting the Department of Justice begin a full-scale criminal investigation into the corporate activities of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Cornyn is facing a challenge in the November 4 general election from State Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston for a six-year term.

In 2006, a report showed that Fannie Mae intentionally overstated its earnings by $10.6 billion to hit projected targets. Yet, while top executives received civil fines, no criminal charges were ever pursued.

“No one actually knows how much this bailout is going to cost the American taxpayer…. Yet, certainly the taxpayers were not there to share in the profits during the heyday of these government-sponsored enterprises,” Sen. Cornyn said on the floor this morning. “I have written a letter to the Attorney General of the United States asking him to conduct a criminal investigation into the activities of corporate officers and anyone else who may have contributed to the overstatement of assets on the books of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I want to make sure that a thorough criminal investigation is undertaken and that those responsible for violating any criminal laws of the United States be held accountable.”

The full text of Cornyn’s letter to the Attorney General is as follows:

The Honorable Michael B. Mukasey

Attorney General

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear General Mukasey:

The recent government takeover of the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac”) raises serious concerns whether a well-documented culture of corporate executive corruption at these organizations contributed to the mortgage giants’ collapse. I request that the Department of Justice begin a new, full-scale investigation into accounting fraud and other corrupt practices perpetuated by top executives—and coordinate efforts with the Department of Treasury and other regulatory entities to determine to what extent any illegal activities led to the institutions’ failure. The public deserves a full understanding of the events surrounding the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and, furthermore, corporate executives must be held accountable to the American people.

In May 2006, a report by Fannie Mae’s oversight authority, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO), noted that “[b]y deliberately and intentionally manipulating accounting to hit earnings targets, senior management maximized the bonuses and other executive compensation they received, at the expense of shareholders.” The investigation into illegal accounting practices resulted in fines levied on Fannie Mae and three of its top corporate officers—but no criminal charges. While the three corporate officers who overstated Fannie Mae’s earnings by approximately $10.6 billion may possess some form of prosecutorial immunity, it is imperative that there is accountability for each and every fraud perpetrated upon shareholders and the public. Moreover, the efficacy of prior investigations by OFHEO and Justice are further called into question in light of evidence of disturbing allegations of active interference on the part of Fannie Mae lobbyists. According to the OFHEO report, Fannie Mae “sought to interfere” with the OFHEO investigation by petitioning Congress to conduct a separate investigation of OFHEO. Furthermore, they allegedly lobbied Congress to cut OFHEO’s funds for failure to fire the top official responsible for investigating Fannie Mae.

As the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is debated, it is essential for Congress to shine more light on the culture of corruption that plagued these institutions. But federal prosecutors and regulators also must vigorously investigate these institutions with the utmost urgency. Shareholders—indeed, all taxpayers—are entitled to a critical examination of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in light of the huge costs they are forced to bear as a result of the mortgage companies’ demise.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

JOHN CORNYN

United States Senator

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Rick Noriega releases plan to improve education for Texas families

By MARTINE APODACA

There is no more important investment that we can make than in our children’s education, said Rick Noriega said on Monday, September 8, at Sánchez  Elementary School in Austin, as he announced his plan for improving education for Texas families.

Noriega, a Houston Democrat and incumbent state representative, is challenging Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the November 4 general election for a six-year term in the U.S. Senate.

Noriega’s plan will:

  • Expand access to early childhood education;
  • Reform No Child Left Behind;
  • Value and attract the best teachers; and
  • Make higher education more affordable.

“Let me be clear, there is no more important investment that we can make than in education. Nothing plays a larger role in our state’s future competitiveness and success than expanding opportunities and improving education for Texas children today,” said Noriega. “They should be our first priority and when I am your United States senator, they will be.”

Noriega has a strong record on improving education during his time in the Texas Legislature. His accomplishments include passing an across the board pay raise for Texas teachers, fighting for more funding for Texas public schools, and for a fairer, more accurate accountability system to replace the misuse of high-stakes standardized testing. He spoke out against higher education tuition deregulation to keep college affordable for Texas families and worked to get more accurate count of the young Texans who drop out of school.

“I believe that Texas families are going to start asking themselves a simple question: is my family better off today than six years ago with John Cornyn went to Washington? Sadly, the answer is no,” said Noriega.

“This is the best opportunity Texas educators have had in a long time to elect a good friend and strong ally to represent our state in the U.S. Senate. We need to do all we can to make that happen,” said Texas State Teachers Association President Rita Haecker.

“In his 10 years as a state legislator, Rick Noriega demonstrated consistent commitment to Texas school children and educators. His education plan reflects that commitment and his real-world experience teaching in our public schools. Rick proposes proven and practical solutions to the most important challenge we face – educating the next generation of Texans and Americans,” said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.

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Texas probation officials begin preparations for upcoming state legislative session

By SALLY VELÁSQUEZ

Texas probation officials are preparing to be on the front lines to advocate and influence the 2010 – 2011 proposed funding levels authorized by Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board. Its recommendations were submitted on September 11 to the Legislative Budget Board in Austin.

More than $71 million in requested funding increases to the adult probation system are included in the proposed budget.  These funds are for programming directed under the leadership of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Community Justice Assistance Division (CJAD),

Basic supervision is the foundation operational function of probation and is the most elevated proposed needed funding category. Increases are aimed at ensuring Texas citizen’s safety through accountability and effectiveness of the supervision of offenders.

“We must convince legislators that when licensed probation officers change offender behavior, public safety is served,” said Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, Chairman of the House Corrections Committee.

A culmination of many key probation department officials in coordination with the Texas Probation Advisory Committee, (PAC) including the support of the Texas Judicial Advisory Council  (JAC), worked diligently to identify the core issues.  These groups met on a consistent basis to position the issues of probation professionals to ensure the LAR reflected funding levels to increase the fundamental needs of probation.

“As a criminal justice professional association, we are committed to target the state budget process as a priority by advocating for our members’ professional needs, ” said Roxane Marek, President of the Texas Probation Association.

Recruiting and retaining high-quality community supervision officers and staff to provide vital offender supervision is critical in this specialized corrections system.  The residential facilities are being considered a priority for improvement of quality staff retention and basic infrastructure needs.  This issue is the number one item next session for probation officials.

“During the interim of the State Legislature, the Texas Probation Association and key members of probation departments continue to provide testimony to legislative committees by voicing that more action needs to be taken to address employee turnover rates, retention and recruitment related issues,” said Rodney Thompson, Texas Probation Association Legislative Co-Chair.

In past legislative sessions, the probation system was reformed with policies.  Now, this system is being challenged to make their operations more efficient with less money. The proposed TDCJ – LAR will bring much relief if state leaders recognize and approve budget increases to funding levels when they reconvene in 2009.

“We must proceed in a strategic, organized and united position by influencing the legislative process properly and seriously,” said George Hernández, Texas Probation Association Legislative Co-Chair.

The Texas Probation Association will take the lead to influence state leaders and will call on its members to visit their local legislators to educate them on the importance of the proposed budget.

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Rep.  Martínez encourages area first responders to sign up for Fireman’s Challenge

By SCOTT JENKINES

Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, is asking all Rio Grande Valley first responders to participate in the Fireman’s Challenge, set for Saturday, September 27.

The Fireman’s Challenge is the first of three multi-sport adventure races that will take place along the Texas-Mexico border.  The Fireman’s Challenge will be held in conjunction with the up-coming Big River Festival, an event designed to encourage outdoor sporting activities on and along the Rio Grande River.

Martínez, who will serve as Race Marshall for the first two events, is also a Lieutenant Firefighter/Paramedic with the Weslaco Fire Department.

“Most individuals do not realize that approximately 85 percent of our fire station calls are for emergencies like heart attacks, not fires,” explained Martínez. “It is important that individuals participate in outdoor activities to improve their health.”

Martinez urges all Valley first responders to contact Los Caminos del Rio (956-776-0100) to sign up for the Fireman’s Challenge and participate in the Big River Festival.

He added that first responders are welcome to attend the Big River Festival planning meeting which will be held at the Pharr City Council Chambers, at noon, on Tuesday, September 16, 2008.

Following the  Fireman’s Challenge will be a second event, scheduled for Saturday, October 11, which will be held in the Hidalgo-Reynosa area. The third and final race, which culminates with a trophy and award of $1,000 to the winning team’s favorite charitable cause, is set for Saturday, November 1, at the Big River Festival.

This event is planned for Anzalduas Park and Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“The Rio Grande River is a historic river that has played a significant role not only with the Rio Grande Valley, but also for Texas, United States, and Mexico,” Martínez noted. “The Big River Festival is an excellent way to combine outdoor activities with the Rio Grande River.”

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Congressman Hinojosa honored for work on literacy

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, was honored on Wednesday, September 10, by the National Coalition for Literacy with its 2008 Literacy Leadership Award.  The event was held at the Library of Congress. The award recognized Hinojosa for his extraordinary contributions to improve literacy in the United States.  In particular, Hinojosa was honored for his congressional work in the field of adult education and family literacy.

“I am very proud to receive this award on behalf of all the children in America,” said Hinojosa. “I have seen first-hand the impact on our children, our families and our economy when we don’t ensure that everyone in this country can read.  Studies have shown that the leading factor for students dropping out of school is a low level of reading and writing literacy. We need to do something to improve the statistic that 38 percent of Texans are not literate.”

As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Hinojosa has introduced legislation to greatly expand access to adult education and English as a second language.  The Adults Achieving the American Dream Act (HR 2214) will double the authorization for adult education and Even Start Family Literacy programs and will provide tax incentives to employers who provide their workers access to English as a Second language and GED programs.

“We need to instill a love of reading in our children and make every parent aware of the importance of reading to their children. However, we also need to make sure that the parent’s themselves can read,” said Hinojosa. “In South Texas, we have created the South Texas Literacy Coalition to bring community partners together in a more focused and strategic way to improve the reading skills of our kindergarten through 6th grade students and their parents. We are working with organizations like Reading is Fundamental to help these children build their own home libraries. Together we can make a difference.”

The National Coalition for Literacy is made up of a variety of national literacy groups including the National Even Start Association, the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy and the American Library Association.

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Texas Border Coalition: Democratic, GOP platforms miss the point on immigration, border security

Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, on Tuesday, September 2, issued the following statement expressing disappointment over the immigration and border security planks in the 2008 Democratic and Republic Party platforms.

“The Texas Border Coalition has reviewed the Republican and Democratic Party platforms dealing with immigration and border security, and while we find a lot to admire in both, we also find both miss the point.

“The Republican platform supports giving border agents the tools and resources they need to protect our sovereignty, to secure the borders, and our ports of entry. We like this approach.

“The Democratic platform supports additional personnel, infrastructure, and technology on the border and at our ports of entry, more Customs and Border Protection agents equipped with better technology and real-time intelligence. It also commits to comprehensive immigration reform in the first year of the new Administration, legalizing the undocumented, a guest worker program, and tough enforcement on the border and in the workplace. We like that, too.

“However, some of the immigration planks proposed by Republicans are unnecessarily hostile in tone and fail to advance a civil dialogue about solving our nation’s immigration crisis.

“We are disappointed with the Democrats’ silence on the border wall. We disagree with the Republican call for completing the wall in haste.

“Illegal border crossing won’t be controlled until the U.S. has a well-run immigration system that expands avenues for legal workers and cracks down on illegal hiring. When immigration is reformed, we won’t need a border wall, although we will continue to require beefed up Border Patrol and Customs forces to halt illegal drug smuggling. The border fence will have to be torn down.

“Congress and the president – along with the nation’s two political parties – need to acknowledge that the border wall is a waste of money and join us in implementing alternatives that will achieve real border security.”

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