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The family of former Rep. Cullen Looney, D-Edinburg, and his wife, Carol Lynn, gathered on Thursday, September 18, for the dedication of the Will Looney Legacy Park, which is an addition to the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg.  The highlight of the evening was the unveiling of a bronze sculpture entitled, “Texas Legacy.”   The sculpture depicts with great detail a young man mounted on horseback respectfully clasping the hand of an elderly woman standing next to the horse and rider. The figures represent the late Will Looney and his grandmother, the late Margaret Montgomery Looney. The sculpture is a gift from the Looney family. Featured, from left, are: Cullen Looney; Carol Lynn Looney; Cortney Looney; Forrest Runnels holding Forrest Runnels Jr.; and Lorin Looney holding William Cullen Runnels. See story later in this posting.

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The Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court on Tuesday, September 23, passed a balanced budget for the second year in a row. The 2009 general fund budget is roughly $162 million, an overall increase of 9.3 percent from 2008. “This is the second time in more than 20 years that Hidalgo County has had a balanced budget. The first time was last year,” said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III, featured here during a recent appearance at the University of Texas-Pan American. “I am extremely pleased with the leadership of the court and the understanding and carefulness with which the budget department and department heads developed this balanced budget.”  See story later in this posting.

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Gov. Rick Perry, featured in this file photo during his visit to Edinburg earlier this summer, on Friday, September 26, encouraged the continued support of research in cancer prevention and treatment during the groundbreaking of the Baylor Cancer Center in Dallas.  “Baylor’s new facility will be an essential part of our statewide effort to eradicate this indiscriminate killer,” Perry said. “The brilliant ideas in cancer research developed at this center will move us closer to discovering a cure, bringing an end to cancer’s deadly role in our society.”  The governor noted that facilities like the Baylor Cancer Center combined with funding provided by Proposition 15, will launch Texas to the forefront of biomedical research and innovation. Proposition 15 was created by the Texas Legislature at Perry’s request through House Bill 14 and approved by voters in November 2007. It established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, enabling the issuance of $3 billion in bonds over the 10 years to fund cancer research at institutions throughout the state. See story later in this posting.

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Newspaper carriers file $100 million lawsuit against flagship newspaper of Freedom Communications, Inc., owner of McAllen Monitor and others

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Many of the hundreds of thousands of American newspaper delivery professionals may be closely watching a $100 million class-action lawsuit filed in Southern California that could have an impact on the already-struggling newspaper publishing industry.

In most cases, newspaper delivery workers, also known as carriers, are classified as independent contractors by the newspapers, freeing the publications from providing financial and legal benefits that most American workers take for granted.

Classifying carriers as independent contractors also shields the newspaper industry from paying payroll taxes, unemployment taxes, and providing workers compensation insurance.

According to the Newspaper Association of American, newspapers in the U.S. represent a $55 billion industry.

But on Monday, September 30, the issue of whether newspaper carriers should be treated, under California law, as employees of the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California finally goes to trial.

The Orange County Register is the flagship newspaper of Freedom Communications, Inc., which also owns the McAllen Monitor, the Valley Morning Star, the Brownsville Herald, and the Mid-Valley Town Crier in Weslaco.

Daniel Callahan, of the Santa Clara-based law firm, Callahan and Blaine, is representing 6,000 current and former Orange County Register carriers, against Freedom Communications, Inc.’s premier newspaper.

In a statement he released last year, when he filed the lawsuit, Callahan contends that the level of control that the newspaper has over the carriers’ activities means they are employees of the newspaper, not independent contractors.

The lawsuit, originally filed on July 7, 2003, is styled as González v. Freedom Communications, Inc., 03CC0756.

It involves carriers for the Register who worked anytime from July 7, 1999 through June 2000.

On Friday, September 27, the presiding judge in the lawsuit issued an order prohibiting the newspaper from covering the trial following allegations by the carriers that the Register was biased in its reporting of the case.

Orange County Superior Court David C. Velásquez issued his order, reportedly after Callahan also contended that the newspaper’s coverage of the story could influence a jury.

According to the Reporters Committee for the Press, “the court’s order prohibits the parties from discussing any non-expert testimony given at the trial. It extends to ‘all means and manner of communication whether in person, electronic, through audio or video recording, or print medium.'”

That ruling by Velásquez has been appealed to a state higher court.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee, decried what the journalists’ advocacy group claimed was a ‘gag order’

“The United States and California supreme courts are both unequivocal on this point – gag orders are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights, and they are impermissible in all but the direst of circumstances,” she said. “This is a run-of-the-mill lawsuit, and a gag order under these circumstances is unprecedented and utterly baseless. I think the judge should brush up on his constitutional law.”

According to his official website, Velásquez is currently the Supervising Judge of the Orange County  Superior Court Complex Civil Panel.

He most recently collaborated on an article for the Orange County Lawyer Magazine entitled “The Watchdog Role of the Court-Determination of fairness of  proposed class action settlements.”

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Goldman Sachs selected to help Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority secure funding for loop

By JIM MOORE

The Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority (HCRMA) was informed on Thursday, September 25, that Goldman Sachs has been selected by Hidalgo County Road Builders (HCRB) to execute the financing of the Hidalgo Loop Project. Goldman, which was chosen out of 14 financial services firms being considered, will be responsible for the marketing and sale of quality bonds at affordable interest rates for residents of Hidalgo County.

“Our task is an important one,” said Richard Ramírez, Vice President and General Manager of Goldman Sachs Houston office. “The objective we intend to achieve is to provide and execute a financial plan to deliver this important transportation project at the lowest cost possible. We’ll find the lowest cost capital available in the market.”

Gerry Pate, who heads up HCRB, announced the selection of Goldman Sachs at the meeting of the HCRMA at Hidalgo City Hall.  According to Pate, HCRB is on target to submit a full financial plan to the county in early 2009.

“Goldman is the perfect choice for this project,” Pate explained. “Even in these historically difficult times on Wall Street, Goldman continues to be well capitalized and has avoided the losses that have harmed or destroyed other firms in recent weeks. They continue to proactively manage business and make money for investors. And they know we want to build an affordable project that provides great value to Hidalgo residents.”

Analysts indicate Goldman Sachs has not suffered during the current financial crisis on Wall Street because the company’s risk managers hedged other investments to offset exposure on bundled sub-prime securities.  Warren Buffet recently invested $5 billion in Goldman stock, which has  maintained most of its value during the current economic downturn.

“It’s great to have this level of expertise on our project,” said Dennis Burleson, chairman of the HCRMA. “We are trying to finance this road locally so we can control our own transportation and economic future and its great to have a tested a reputable firm like Goldman working at our side.”

The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. is a bank holding company and a leading global investment banking, securities and investment management firm. Goldman Sachs provides a wide range of services worldwide to a substantial and diversified client base that includes corporations, financial institutions, governments and high net worth individuals. Founded in 1869, the firm is headquartered in New York and maintains offices in London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong and other major financial centers around the world.

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Latino leaders register more than 5,000 new voters in Valley, hope to add as many as 10,000 new voters

By LYDIA CAMARILLO

Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), the country’s leading Latino voter

registration organization, announced on Tuesday, September 23, that it had reached 68 percent of the targeted goal to register 7,500 Latino voters in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties in advance of the November election.

SVREP conducts nonpartisan voter registration efforts with participation from local businesses, colleges and high schools, churches and communities.

“This is an historic moment for the Latino electorate,” said Antonio González, SVREP President. “We anticipate that Tejanos will reach 2.5 million registrations and cast nearly two million votes in November, making certain that our community’s voices will make a difference in the critical upcoming elections.  Latinos want to reactivate the economy, end the war in Iraq, increase access to health care, improve public education and legalize undocumented immigrants.”

As of September 22, SVREP had registered 5,181voters, of the 7,500 it projects to register. SVREP has registered 734 voters through the businesses, 1,170 students at high schools and 3,277 through the SVREP nonpartisan community base projects.

Community Based Projects

SVREP has formed nine steering committees in the community and will form another six steering committees. These committees have registered 3,277 since July. The structure of the steering committees consists of committee leaders, paid coordinators and volunteers.  The volunteers,

led by paid coordinators, target places of commerce, colleges and universities, high schools, technical and vocational institutions, sports events and events where large numbers of Latinos and other potential voters gather.

The Business Campaign

SVREP has partnered with Lone Star National Bank, First National Bank, IBC, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance (DHR), and Rio Grande Pharmacy Association to train 203 employees to conduct voter registration efforts at their place of business.  To date, Lone Star National Bank has registered 279 voters, First National Bank 418, DHR 20 and other 17.

Youth Vote Campaign

SVREP organized nine school districts (13 high schools) during the months of April and May.  During this phase, SVREP registered 1,170 high schools students. SVREP will continue to register high school students this September and October.

SVREP is a national, nonpartisan organization committed solely to the political empowerment of Latino communities. SVREP was established in 1974 by the late Willie Velásquez to encourage civic and political participation in Latino and other underrepresented communities. Since its inception, SVREP had registered over 2.3 million Latino voters.

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Edinburg maintains second-best showing in Valley with 5.4 percent unemployment rate in August 2008

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg posted a 5.4 percent unemployment rate in August 2008, the second best showing among the major Valley cities, and about the same level for the previous two months, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

By comparison, Texas unemployment rate in August was five percent, while the U.S. unemployment rate that month was 6.1 percent, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

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.

In August, there were 28,329 persons employed in the three-time All-America City, while 1,603 were actively looking for work.

The August 2008 unemployment rate in Edinburg represents a growth of 2,949  jobs since August 2005, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

So far this year, the city unemployment rate has averaged slightly more than 4.8 percent.

In 2007, the city’s unemployment rate averaged 4.8 percent.

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.

All cities in Hidalgo County for August 2008 had a combined unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, compared with 7.7 percent in July, 7.2 percent in June, 6.1 percent in May, 5.7 percent in April, 6.4 percent in March, 6.6 percent in February, and 7.3 percent in January.

In August, there were 259,949 persons employed in Hidalgo County, with 21,885 actively looking for work.

For August 2008, all cities in Cameron County had a combined 7.4 percent unemployment rate, compared with seven percent in July, 6.8 percent in June,  5.9 percent in May, 5.4 percent in April, 5.8 percent in March, 5.9 percent in February, and 6.5 percent in January.

In August, there were 134,841 persons employed in Cameron County, with 10,810 actively looking for work.

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

In August 2007, there were 27,040 people with jobs in the three-time All-America City. In August 2007, the unemployment rate was 5.1 percent.

In August 2006, there were 26,399 people employed in Edinburg. In August 2006, the unemployment rate was 5,9 percent.

In August 2005, there were 25,380 people employed in Edinburg. In August 2005, the unemployment rate was 5.1 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 August 2008 at 5.3 percent, compared with 5.1 percent in July, 4.8 percent in June, 4.3 percent in May, 3.9 percent in April, 4.3 percent in March, 4.5 percent in February, and 4.8 percent in January.

Harlingen had the third-lowest jobless rate among Valley cities in August 2008 at 6.2 percent, compared with six percent in July, 5.9 percent in June, 5.3 percent in May, 4.8 percent in April, five percent in March, 5.1 percent in February, and 5.4 percent in January.

Among the Valley’s largest cities in August 2008, Mission posted a  6.8 percent unemployment rate, compared with 6.7 percent  in July, and 5.9 percent in June, while Pharr reported a seven percent unemployment rate, compared with 6.8 percent in July, and 6.4 percent in June.

Brownsville posted a 7.5 percent unemployment rate in August 2008, compared with 7.2 percent in July and   seven percent in June, followed by Weslaco, which reported an 8.1 percent unemployment rate in August, compared with 7.9 percent unemployment in July, and 7.4 percent in June.

The breakdown of Edinburg’s unemployment rate for the past 20 months follows:

  • August 2008: 5.4 percent.
  • July 2008: 5.3 percent.
  • June 2008: 5.3 percent.
  • May 2008: 4.6 percent.
  • April 2008: 4.1 percent.
  • March 2008: 4.5 percent.
  • February 2008: 4.4 percent.
  • January 2008: 4.9 percent.
  • December 2007: 4.7 percent.
  • November 2007: 3.7 percent.
  • October 2007: 4.4 percent.
  • September 2007: 5 percent.
  • August 2007: 4.9 percent.
  • July 2007: 5.8 percent.
  • June 2007: 5.5 percent.
  • May 2007: 4.4 percent.
  • April 2007: 4.3 percent.
  • March 2007: 4.4 percent.
  • February 2007: 4.8 percent.
  • January 2007: 4.9 percent.

Also according to the Texas Workforce Commission:

The Texas seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased to five percent in August, up  from 4.7 percent in July 2008 and 4.3 percent in August 2007.

Texas’ unemployment rate remained well below the national rate of 6.1 percent. Seasonally adjusted nonagricultural employment in Texas  grew by 6,700 jobs in August. Texas employers now have added 252,000 jobs over the past 12 months  for an annual job-growth rate of 2.4 percent.

“The rise in the Texas unemployment rate for August reflects the economic challenges facing our  nation as a whole,” said Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Chairman Tom Pauken. “While  employment figures nationally have turned negative, here in Texas, employment growth continued  with 6,700 new jobs.

“For Texas employers and workers affected by Hurricane Ike, TWC stands ready to provide  employment assistance,” added Pauken.

The Midland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) experienced the lowest unemployment rate in the  state at 3.1 percent (not seasonally adjusted). The Odessa MSA was second at 3.7 percent, followed by  the Amarillo MSA at 3.8 percent.

Trade, Transportation and Utilities posted gains of 3,200 positions in August, for a total of 41,500 jobs  created since August 2007. Education and Health Services increased by 2,900 positions last month, for  a total of 38,700 jobs added in the past 12 months. Professional and Business Services saw gains of  2,000 positions in August, with 61,600 jobs added over the year.

“Although the Texas unemployment rate of 5.0 percent is below the U.S. rate of 6.1 percent, it is still a  matter of concern,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Ronny Congleton. “TWC staff at  more than 250 local workforce centers across the state can provide help for all Texans searching for  work, especially those impacted by Hurricane Ike.”

Natural Resources and Mining increased by 1,500 jobs this month, adding 15,800 in the past 12 months. Financial Activities also saw increases of 1,200 jobs in August, with gains of 10,500 over the past year. Leisure and Hospitality added 1,100 positions this month, for an increase of 38,800 jobs since August 2007.

“Despite a rise in the unemployment rate, a strong 2.4 percent annual job growth rate is encouraging with employers continuing to add jobs,” said TWC Commissioner Representing the Public Andrés Alcántara. “Our state will face economic challenges in the coming months with many employers and  workers rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike.”

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Hidalgo County Commissioners Court adopts balanced budget for second consecutive year

By CARI LAMBRECHT

The Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court on Tuesday, September 23, passed a balanced budget for the second year in a row. The 2009 general fund budget is roughly $162 million, an overall increase of 9.3 percent from 2008.

“This is the second time in more than 20 years that Hidalgo County has had a balanced budget. The first time was last year,” said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III. “I am extremely pleased with the leadership of the court and the understanding and carefulness with which the budget department and department heads developed this balanced budget.”

The adopted budget for 2009 is based on a tax rate of $0.59 per $100 in valuation. This tax rate has remained steady since 2003. The increase in total tax collections is $13.8 million ($133.3 million in FY 2008 to $147.1 million in FY 2009), of which only 2.9 percent, or $404,693, comes from tax increases on existing residential property. Most of the new revenues are a result of new residential and commercial property or improvements and additions. On average, homeowners’ property taxes will increase $13.04 next year. The county’s fiscal year runs from January to December.

The general fund unreserved fund balance is estimated to total $25.6 million on December 31, 2008. This “rainy day fund” is up from $14.8 million in 2008.

“The fund balance has been reached thanks to the fiscal responsibility of the court,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Héctor “Tito” Palacios. “We are not only working within our means, but managing to save dollars which enhances our ability to obtain low interest rates for needed capital improvement projects as well as sock away money for unforeseen disasters like we’ve experienced lately.”

The budget includes a cost of living adjustment of 5 percent for all county employees (including elected officials) or a minimum of $2,000 for employees earning $30,000 or less. The COLA for employees is based in part on actual changes in the consumer price index for the period of July 2007 to July 2008. The CPI for this period is 5.8 percent. The COLA is not intended to be an increase in employee salaries, but an adjustment to assist employees with the loss of purchasing power from inflation.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Joe Flores said his biggest concern with the budget was making sure the lowest paid employees would not suffer at the hands of a weakening economy.

“Special consideration was given to them,” he said, “to help them cope with higher inflation levels, higher energy and food costs, and of course, higher gasoline and fuel costs.”

“The budget represents a five percent cost of living adjustment for county employees to offset the higher expenses we’re all experiencing these days, and it brings parity to a handful of elected positions,” said Pct. 1 Commissioner Sylvia Handy. “Those elected officials who are getting greater than a five percent adjustment in January will have their salaries brought in line with what they should be earning based on population of the area they serve.”

Other elected officials filed grievances and argued their proposed salary increase before the grievance committee, which is composed of nine randomly selected grand jury members. The committee heard from all but one justice of the peace. The committee unanimously approved salary increases for the JPs.

Note: Pct. 4 Commissioner Óscar Garza did not vote to approve the 2009 budget as proposed because of the inclusion of salary increases above 5 percent. He did note, however, that “The county has never been in a better position from a savings standpoint.”

Left out of the budget are 87 requested positions and 75 position re-classifications. The requested positions will be reviewed by the budget department and may be funded based on sweeps of unused salaries (vacant positions) in the first quarter of the new year. The budget department is also working on a step-and-grade plan for all county employees to bring parity across departments and precincts, making re-classifications at this time unnecessary.

“Last year — the first balanced budget — was our benchmark,” said Valde Guerra, Commissioners Court executive officer. “From day one, when the budget department was created, a balanced budget was our goal. It took four years to get there, but now we are two for two. All of this could not have been done without the support of the court.”

Salinas adds: “It is this forward thinking and this attitude of fiscal accountability that will lead Hidalgo County into the future. Consistently low taxes is what makes Hidalgo County attractive for business, and the boom of business is what enhances our quality of life. I thank the taxpayers for putting their trust in us.”

For more information, visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us

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Will Looney Legacy Park, honoring Edinburg family, dedicated by Museum of South Texas History

By JOEL GARZA

On Thursday, September 18, the Board of Trustees of the Museum of South Texas History hosted an event to dedicate the newest addition to the museum’s campus: the Will Looney Legacy Park.

Donors to the Park and FRIENDS of the Museum participated in the event. The Park is located on the corner of Closner Boulevard (Business 281) and McIntyre Street in downtown Edinburg.

The highlight of the evening was the unveiling of a bronze sculpture entitled, “Texas Legacy.”

Former Rep. Cullen Looney, D-Edinburg, and his wife, Carol Lynn Looney, and their daughters, Lorin Runnels and Courtney Looney, released the cover to reveal an exquisitely sculpted work of art by renowned Western artist Deborah Copenhaver-Fellows.

The sculpture depicts with great detail a young man mounted on horseback respectfully clasping the hand of an elderly woman standing next to the horse and rider. The figures represent the late Will Looney and his grandmother, the late Margaret Montgomery Looney.  The sculpture symbolizes the spirit of legacy which one generation passes to the next.  The title plaque reads: Texas Legacy – Our ancestors have given us a unique legacy; what we do with it is the gift we leave our children.

The sculpture is a gift from the Looney family.

Following the unveiling, guests meandered through the park watching for native animal tracks randomly placed along the trails.

The paths are surrounded by native plants and trees donated by First National Bank and lead to circular pads that are destined to become educational activity stations for visitors to enjoy.

An archeological dig pit is also in the future plans. These elements will be funded by a future Phase II campaign. At the end of the trail, set against a leña fence backdrop, a 55 foot antique wooden windmill stands with its fan spinning in the South Texas wind.  A water tank and pump is attached to the windmill for visitors to learn how a windmill works. The windmill purchase was made possible by a gift from the McAllen Ranch and is dedicated to the early vaqueros whose labors built the cattle ranches of South Texas.

The Will Looney Legacy Park will officially open to the public on Sunday, October 5 in conjunction with the Edinburg Centennial Open House from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

As a gift to the community, the Museum will be opened free of charge for this event.

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A top legislative priority will be a South Texas medical school for Legislature later this spring

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

A top legislative priority of mine since I began public service has been to increase the health care and education infrastructure of South Texas.

That is why I authored Senate Bill 606 in the mid 1990s to establish our Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) in the Rio Grande Valley.  Additionally, that is why for the last 10 years I have fought tirelessly to continue increasing our state’s support and resources to strengthen our RAHC.

Working together with our Valley delegation, local officials, and medical community and education leaders has proven invaluable toward this endeavor.

During this coming 2009 Legislative Session, as Chairman of the International Relations and Trade Committee, I will fight to implement the recommendations in our forthcoming interim report of converting our RAHC into a medical school.

Complementing our effort, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) in their upcoming study, “Projecting the Need for Medical Education in Texas,” is reporting that although more Hispanics are graduating from medical school, those increases have not kept pace with the Hispanic population growth in the state.

The Texas comptroller reported earlier this year that South Texas is 81 percent Hispanic and relatively young compared to the state, which implies a greater demand for educational services.

Because of the high Hispanic concentration in our area, the THECB’s findings and recommendations should not be taken lightly, especially the following compelling recommendation: “If the Legislature is able to fully support the existing commitments in the state and decides to establish an additional medical school in Texas, the South Texas region remains a feasible location.”

The THECB study further reveals that while 35.7 percent of the 2007 general population in Texas was Hispanic, only 11.6 percent of the first-year medical school students and 10.8 percent of active primary care physicians were Hispanic, far below their non-Hispanic counterparts

We cannot encourage our youth along the border to pursue careers in the health fields if we deny them access to medical education. The time is right and we have the studies and experts to justify such an endeavor.

While the need for both medical and law schools in our area is great, the need for more physicians and other health practitioners is greater and continues to grow. To worsen matters, physicians are aging and their retirement will leave a greater void in our area’s health care system that is already so troubled.

And it isn’t just doctors who are aging. In South Texas, our population age 65 or older is expected to increase by 68.9 percent from 2000 to 2020, creating more and different health care demands. Additional strains on our health care system originate from doctor-to-patient ratios, especially in South Texas where the number of physicians per 100,000 residents is 57, compared to the state’s average of 70 or above in urban areas.

We are making inroads into expanding health care services in our region. The RAHC now provides the academic medical infrastructure needed to help recruit and retain physicians.  New residency programs in pediatrics, obstetrics/gynecology and surgery are under full consideration. We are building the foundation that can produce a full medical program.

As the Coordinating Board reported that with a medical program in the Valley “students from the local and surrounding communities would have greater opportunities to attend medical school and would likely remain or return to the area to practice.”

We could achieve our two-fold goal: offer medical education opportunities to South Texans and increase the number of physicians/medical professionals in one of the poorest and most under-served regions of the country.

We’re on the right pathway to a full-fledged medical school, and our regional collaboration will ensure that we finalize this endeavor.

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Baylor Cancer Center in Dallas to receive funding support through state’s $3 billion cancer bonds

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, September 26, encouraged the continued support of research in cancer prevention and treatment at the groundbreaking of the Baylor Cancer Center in Dallas.

“Baylor’s new facility will be an essential part of our statewide effort to eradicate this indiscriminate killer,” Perry said. “The brilliant ideas in cancer research developed at this center will move us closer to discovering a cure, bringing an end to cancer’s deadly role in our society.”

The governor noted that facilities like the Baylor Cancer Center combined with funding provided by Proposition 15, will launch Texas to the forefront of biomedical research and innovation. Proposition 15 was created by the Texas Legislature at Perry’s request through House Bill 14 and approved by voters in November 2007. It established the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, enabling the issuance of $3 billion in bonds over the 10 years to fund cancer research at institutions throughout the state.

“When completed in 2013, it will be our goal to be a nationally and internationally renowned cancer care destination, building on Baylor Dallas’ commitment to providing advanced cancer treatments and leading the charge of improvement in cancer care through research,” said Joel T. Allison, president of Baylor Health Care System.

The Baylor Cancer Center is the first dedicated cancer center in North Texas, and will serve six million people. The construction and remodeling will be undertaken in three phases, and the center will feature inpatient, outpatient, research and educational facilities.

The $350 million complex will centralize many of the Baylor Health Care System’s cancer care resources, and provide multi-disciplinary care through patient treatment, clinical research, medical education and community outreach.

The new cancer center will allow for a more comprehensive personalized medicine program, including areas of research such as targeted therapy. Targeted therapy allows physicians to analyze a patient’s genes and determine what type of treatment will work best for that particular patient.

“These approaches will move the entire field forward, and we’re already applying them in certain kinds of leukemia, lymphoma, breast, lung and colon cancer,” said  Marvin Stone, M.D., medical oncologist and chief of oncology on the medical staff at Baylor Dallas. “There’s going to be a tremendous increase in our ability to make more accurate diagnoses and target therapy in individual patients. This technology will be more effective and produce fewer side effects.”

Stone is also the director of the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center, which opened in 1976.

Beyond targeted therapy, the new cancer center will allow clinicians to engage in further cancer research, focusing on breakthroughs that directly affect patients, whether through a more accurate diagnosis or more effective treatment. In addition, clinical trial participation will be expanded beyond the more than 150 studies already offered to Baylor patients.

Baylor conducted a thorough analysis of national cancer rates, as well as regional and local needs in planning the new cancer center and cancer hospital. In Texas, 97,281 new cancer cases are expected to be diagnosed in 2008, according to the Texas Cancer Registry. In Dallas County, 8,451 new cancer cases are expected in 2008.  According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of developing cancer is 1 in 2 for men and 1 in 3 for women.

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McAllen Chamber of Commerce says City of Palms economy prospers despite U.S. financial problems

By MATT Z. RUSZCZAK

Even with nation’s deteriorating economy, McAllen and the surrounding communities have continued to weather the storm. The region is going strong with stable job growth, high-tech industry expansion, and low foreclosure rates, all while maintaining a comfortable, low cost living.

Recent McAllen economic highlights include:

  • The McAllen MSA ranked 7th overall out of  the 250 best performing U.S. metropolitan areas, including 3rd for job growth, and 1st in high technology sector growth
  • McAllen ranked 7th overall in the lowest cost of living among 318 areas studies throughout the nation with McAllen being one of the least expensive places for groceries, ranking 2nd lowest.
  • The McAllen MSA has one of the lowest foreclosure rates in the nation, ranked 92nd out of 100 major metropolitan areas.

The Milken Institute and Greenstreet Real Estate Partners Best Performing Cities Index ranks U.S. metropolitan areas by how well they are creating and sustaining jobs and economic growth. Among 200 largest metropolitan areas, the McAllen MSA was ranked 7th in the nation on an overall average of components that include job, wages, salary, and technology growth. On a more detailed note, the McAllen MSA ranked 3rd on job growth in a five year period (2002-2007), and also ranked 1st for High-Tech sector output growth relative to the United States average between 2002 and 2007. McAllen is an excellent place to live, as well as start, expand, or relocate a business, as McAllen still continues to experience economic prosperity not found in other parts of the nation.

The American Chamber of Commerce Research Association, or ACCRA, measures regional differences in cost of consumer goods and services. 318 urban areas were studied in the Q2/2008 ACCRA Cost of Living Index, and McAllen was recognized as the 7th least expensive area to live in anywhere in the nation. This index is based on six components: housing, utilities, grocery items, transportation, health care and miscellaneous good and services. McAllen stood out as the 2nd least expensive places for groceries. With McAllen offering its residents a low cost living, it only provides another great reason to make McAllen the place to raise a family.

According to the RealtyTrac.com Q2/2008 U.S. Foreclosure Market Report, where foreclosure filings were reported at 739,714 United States properties during the second quarter of this year, national foreclosure rates rose at 14 percent from the previous quarter, and 1 out of every 171 U.S. household received a foreclosure filling during this time period. Yet, the McAllen MSA raked only 92 out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, with a quarterly foreclosure decrease of -25.62% from the first quarter of 2008, and only 1 out of 612 household receiving a foreclosure filling.

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TxDOT to hold November 5 town hall meeting on area’s transportation concerns at STC/McAllen

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will hold three town hall meetings in locations across the state to give citizens an opportunity to talk to the agency about local transportation needs.

Meetings are scheduled in Abilene, Midland/Odessa and McAllen during October and November. TxDOT and local transportation representatives will be on hand to answer questions and provide information on projects and funding, including a brief perspective on regional infrastructure requirements for the future.

“Based on the Sunset Advisory Commission’s recommendations and a hard look at our own internal efforts, we know we haven’t been as effective in engaging the public as we need to be. This is an excellent opportunity for the citizens of Texas to provide feedback on regional transportation needs,” said Amadeo Sáenz, TxDOT executive director. “The information we bring back will be used to shape our discussions on the future of mobility in Texas.”

Sáenz noted that the meetings are the first in a series of communications opportunities to encourage public dialogue on transportation infrastructure around the state.

“This is a start and a great opportunity for TxDOT to open up the lines of communication with the public,” he added.

Meetings are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the following locations:

  • Abilene—Wednesday, October 8City Council ChambersAbilene City Hall

    555 Walnut Street

  • McAllen—Wednesday, November 5Copper Center for Communication ArtsSouth Texas College

    3200 W. Pecan Blvd.

  • Midland/Odessa—Thursday, November 13The Center for Energy for Economic Diversification (CEED)University of Texas Permian Basin

    1400 North FM 1788

    Midland, Texas

For more information contact Government & Public Affairs Division, at (512) 463-2406 or the website 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 preserving the value of the state’s transportation assets. Find out more at http://www.txdot.gov.

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Attorney General Abbott calls for state pension plan accountability in the wake of Wall Street instability

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday, September 24, launched a user-friendly new Web page to help taxpayers and public employees better understand government pension plans. In the wake of recent instability in the country’s financial markets, Abbott reiterated the importance of accountable, transparent taxpayer-funded pension plans.

According to data obtained from the Texas Pension Review Board, more than 80 taxpayer funded pensions have unfunded liabilities that exceed $20 billion. The Office of the Attorney General’s new pension plan Web page can be found on the agency’s Web site at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov.

“Improperly managed public pensions pose a financial threat to public employees and the taxpayers alike,” Abbott said. “With our nation’s financial markets in turmoil, now is the time to ensure taxpayer-funded pensions are transparent and accountable. Governments must meet their funding obligations, managers must wisely manage pension funds, and pensions must give taxpayers access to adequate information about their financial health.”

The Office of the Attorney General does not have direct regulatory authority over public pension plans. The Texas Pension Review Board is responsible for overseeing Texas pensions. However, to increase transparency and improve accountability, Abbott offered three simple steps that taxpayers and public employees can take to better understand government retirement systems:

• Review plan information. All public employees should carefully read and become familiar with the retirement benefits provided by their pension plans. Plan administrators often distribute important materials to their members through mail, e- mail, brochures and Web sites.

• Contact pension plan administrators. Public pension fund administrators can provide critical information about a particular plan, including fund performance measures, plan trustees and managers experience, and pensions’ unfunded liability data.

• Contact the Texas Pension Review Board. The Texas Pension Review Board (PRB) oversees state and local government retirement systems and is a clearinghouse for valuable information about each public pension fund. Texans can contact the PRB by telephone at (800) 213-9425 or online at http://www.prb.state.tx.us.

In 2007, Abbott made several recommendations for improving public pension fund management to attendees at the Texas Pension Review Board Conference annual meeting. Those suggestions included:

• Transparency – Public pension funds are responsible to the taxpayers and their resources belong to public employees. Public retirement systems should fully comply with a Texas law requiring them to file annual financial reports with the PRB. Lawmakers who wish to improve compliance could expand both the Attorney General and the PRB’s enforcement authority.

• Good governance – Effective investment decision-making requires a balanced viewpoint and analysis among pension board members and managers. Pension plans should balance trustees representing employer interests with those representing employee/beneficiary interests, while also having an independent trustee with investment and/or pension fund expertise. Public pensions should have at least one staff member with pension fund/investment expertise and should employ independent professional investment advisors.

• Realistic actuarial assumptions – Overly optimistic and unrealistic actuarial assumptions can lead to unfunded liabilities. All actuaries involved with public pension plans should be required to register with the PRB. The PRB should work with registered actuaries to develop standards and best practices that discourage unrealistic financial assumptions.

• Eliminate conflicts of interest – Conflicts of interest can impair investment decision-making. Pension board members and/or plan managers should be required to file conflicts of interest disclosures with the PRB. Pension plan board trustees and/or pension managers also should be subject to a revolving door policy. For a specific period of time, they should be prohibited from working with entities that conducted business with the pension board.

For more information on public pension plans, contact the Texas Pension Review Board at (800) 213-9425 or online at http://www.prb.state.tx.us.

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Monday, October 6 is deadline to register to vote for November election

By CELESTE VILLARREAL

Monday, October 6, is the deadline to register for the November 4 election, according to Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. Early voting begins on Monday, October 20, and ends on Friday, October 31.

“Qualified voters are U.S. citizens who will be 18 by election day; residents of the county for at least 30 days; not convicted felons (unless a person’s sentence is completed, including any probation or parole); and not declared mentally incapacitated by a court of law,” Zaffirini said.

Voters who haven’t received their orange registration cards or who need to change names or address also should contact their local voter registrars.

Voter registration cards are available at local voter registration offices, U.S. Post Office, libraries, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Human Services offices and the Texas Secretary of State’s website, http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/reqvr.shtml.

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UT-Pan American gears up for historical presidential election with voter registration, Go Vote rallies

By LORI PRADO

This year’s presidential election will make history, and The University of Texas-Pan American students, faculty and staff are gearing up to become more civically engaged, by attending the Register to Vote Rally on Wednesday, October,  from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Go Vote Rally on Tuesday, October 28 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., both held at the UTPA Chapel Lawn.

Voting rallies will be sponsored by the Civic Engagement Committee.

According to Jeanette L. Broshears, associate dean/interim dean of students, the Civic Engagement Committee is an adhoc committee made up of university students, staff and faculty, that was developed to try to increase engagement by the campus community in the civic process including community involvement, empowerment and citizenship.

“I think it is important for people to realize their voice is power. Their voice can be exhibited through their vote. If they feel certain things are important, then they need to find out which candidate, whether we are speaking about local elections or national elections, represent those issues and vote accordingly,” Broshears said.

For more information about the Civic Engagement Committee visit http://www.utpa.edu/civicengagement.

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UT-Pan American, South Texas College share in more than $1.8 million in federal money

By DESIRÉE MÉNDEZ-CALTZONTZINT

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, September 25, announced that the U.S. Department of Education has awarded The University of Texas-Pan American $1.2 million for the Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) Program under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act.

South Texas College will be awarded a grant in the amount of $661,361. It is anticipated that the grants will be for a total of two years.

The purpose of the grants is to increase the number of Hispanic and other low-income students attaining degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.

“This landmark investment is essential to harnessing the talent of our students in South Texas so that they are ready to answer the nation’s call for more scientists and engineers,” said Hinojosa.  “This grant will also strengthen the University of Texas – Pan American and South Texas College as they to continue to play vital roles in developing our human capital and making our regional economy globally competitive.”

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act, provides $200 million in competitive grants over the next two years to HSIs.  Priority funding will be given to HSIs that increase the number of low-income students attaining degrees in the fields of science, technology, and math.

Like other minority-serving institutions, HSIs are more likely to offer support services for Hispanic students, such as mentoring, tutoring and counseling programs, than are other institutions. HSIs enroll approximately one half of all Hispanic students in higher education.  To qualify as a HSI, Hispanic enrollment at an institution must be at least 25 percent of the total student enrollment and the institution must have a high percentage of needy students and low general expenditures.

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act was enacted in 2007 and provides the greatest increase in federal student aid since the GI bill, and at no new cost to taxpayers.

In addition to increasing aid for HSIs, the law also boosts the Pell Grant scholarship, cuts interest rates on need-based student loans and more. About 37 percent of Hispanic students receive the Pell Grant scholarship each year. About 25 percent of Hispanic students take out need-based student loans each year.

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Texas Department of Insurance cautions policyholders on replacement of AIG policies

The Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) has issued a statement and answers to some frequently asked questions regarding AIG insurance companies in Texas.

STATEMENT:

“AIG’s Texas insurance companies are currently financially sound and able to pay claims,” said Texas Insurance Commissioner Mike Geeslin. “Policyholders should not make any rash decisions about policies issued by an AIG insurance company as their covered claims will be paid and annuity checks will be distributed.

“Replacing or liquidating a life insurance policy or an annuity can incur hidden costs and carry tax consequences. Also, there may be a penalty for cancellation of certain types of policies. If you have a life insurance or annuity policy with AIG and someone tells you to replace it because of the troubles at AIG’s parent company, call TDI’s toll-free Consumer Help Line at 1-800-252-3439.”

Recent news regarding AIG largely concerns AIG’s non-insurance parent company, which is not regulated by TDI or other state insurance departments. The parent company is not held to the same investment, accounting and capital adequacy standards as its state-regulated insurance subsidiaries. The insurance subsidiaries are solvent and able to pay their obligations.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:

Question: Is my AIG insurance company going bankrupt?

Answer: Based on the information we have today, the AIG insurance companies are financially strong. AIG is an international financial holding company with numerous businesses.

Your insurance and annuity policies are written by AIG’s insurance companies, not the parent company. Those companies are financially strong and their assets are governed by state regulators.  Laws in each state protect policyholders by requiring insurance companies to have minimum capital, in addition to funds specifically reserved to pay claims. State laws prohibit the parent company from taking these funds from the insurance companies, even if the parent company were bankrupt.

Question: Are the insurance and annuity policies I purchased from AIG safe or will I lose my money?

Answer: Your policies are safe. AIG’s insurance companies are financially sound and able to honor policyholders’ claims. TDI and other state regulators continue to closely monitor the situation to ensure policyholders are protected and that there will continue to be sufficient assets to pay claims.

Question: Should I cash in my insurance and annuity policies and purchase insurance from another insurer?

Answer: Talk to your financial adviser before making any decisions. The AIG insurance companies are financially sound and the insurance policies they issued are not in jeopardy. Whether you should cash in your insurance policy or switch insurance to another insurer is, as always, a personal decision. Please be aware that some policies may contain surrender charges and/or cancellation penalties. Contractual terms governing surrender charges vary substantially from contract to contract. Make sure that you are aware of and understand all surrender/cancellation charges applicable to your contract.

For certain types of annuities and withdrawals, the receipt of annuity funds may be considered income and subject to federal taxation. Consult a tax advisor or the Internal Revenue Service for more details.

Contact TDI’s Consumer Help Line at 1-800-252-3439 to learn about what information you should discuss with your agent or broker before you make a decision. If you have an insurance policy with an AIG company and someone tells you to replace it because of the troubles at AIG’s parent company or supposed trouble at the insurance company, call TDI.

Question: Should I pay the insurance premium bill that I just received from AIG?

Answer: If you choose to continue your coverage with AIG, you will need to pay the insurance premiums. Failure to pay your premiums can result in the termination of your insurance policies by the insurance company.

Question: Would my insurance and annuity policies have been protected had AIG been declared insolvent and ordered to be liquidated by a court?

Answer: There are guaranty funds in place in all states which act as a safety net in the event an insurer becomes insolvent. Certain limits and exceptions may apply that vary by state. Additionally be aware that guaranty associations do not cover policies in which investment risk is borne by the individual, which may include variable annuities.

Question: I heard the government may take over AIG. What are state regulators doing to make sure AIG insurance companies will continue to be able to pay claims?

Answer: The agreement between AIG and the Federal Reserve protects the assets of the insurance companies so they will be available to pay claims. Any significant transaction affecting an AIG insurance company will need approval from state regulators.

Question: What can I do if I am having difficulty getting through to AIG on the telephone?

Answer: Check AIG’s website (aig.com) to see if it has the answer to your question. You can also contact your agent. TDI’s website has information about AIG at: http://www.tdi.state.tx.us/consumer/cpmaig.html.

You may obtain information about filing a complaint with TDI by calling the Consumer Help Line at:   1-800-252-3439.

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