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On Monday, November 10 – the first day of pre-filing for the 81st Legislative Session – Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, filed Senate Bill 105, a tuition moratorium bill. Hinojosa’s proposal would establish a two-year moratorium on tuition rate hikes and limit future increases to key economic indices. Hinojosa believes the current tuition rate-setting scheme fails Texas’ college hopefuls. "There is something fundamentally wrong with the current system. We tell high school students that hard work earns them passage to a public university in Texas," he said. "Once these graduates meet that standard, they are priced out of the very opportunity that motivated them in the first place. The ‘work hard and get ahead’ story has become a false promise for Texas high school seniors."  Also on Monday, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, introduced measures to create a University of Texas medical school, UT law school, in the Valley.  See top four stories later in this posting.

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With the Texas Legislature set to convene in January for its five-month regular session, the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a legislative dinner for Tuesday, November 11, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Club at Cimarron in Mission. Area state lawmakers will get to discuss issues that remained unresolved from the 2007 regular session, as well as address new legislation that they will be presenting. Attendees will get to ask questions and/or inform them of their concerns as well. Individual tickets for the event are available for purchase at $25 each. Major sponsors will get a legislator sitting at their table during dinner. Sponsorships levels are $5,000, $2,000, $1,000 and $500. So far sponsoring the event are CP&L, the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, TXU, McAllen–Hidalgo Bridge, and Coca-Cola. For sponsorship information and/or to buy tickets, call the MHCC office at 928-0060. Featured, from left: McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz; Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen  Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview; and Carlos J. Gutiérrez, legislative aide representing Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. Not present, but scheduled to attend the legislative affair are: Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen; Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Rep. Armando Martínez, D-Weslaco; and Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg.

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Two Edinburg physicians – Dr. Ben Garza, a family practice doctor and Dr. Carlos Manrique, an ophthalmologist – are the winners to 2008 Medical Awards bestowed by the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The two men, along with other area health professionals, will be honored by the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce during the 2nd Annual Medical Awards Banquet on Saturday, November 15, at The Embassy Suites in McAllen.  “We recognize that the medical community plays a very important part in our lives, thus the McAllen Hispanic Chamber wanted to recognize the leaders in the certain categories as per the community.” noted Rose Ramírez, MHC Vice Chair of Health Issues. “The purpose of the award is to identify and honor the professional or organization who exemplifies the dedication and continued growth of the professional and/or organization in a specialized field and the contributions of that person/organization to the continued good health of the people of the Rio Grande Valley. Seated, from left, are Manrique, named best Specialty Physician of 2008, and Garza, recognized as this year’s top General Physician. Back row, from left, are other winners in their respective categories: José Galaviz, Heart Hospital Director of CV Surgery; Gilda Romero, Heart Hospital Marketing Director; Elmer Esguerra, Heart Hospital, Director of PCCU; Orlando Vázquez, Physician Assistant with Dr. Enrique Griego; Hari Namboodiri, Las Palmas Administrator; Letty López Hernández, Las Palmas Marketing Director; and Cynthia Tucker Wilcox, Las Palmas DON.  Not shown are: Alejandra Ritchie, Las Palmas Assistant Director of Nursing; Leticia Chávez, Las Palmas Rehabilitation Program Manager; and Jean Calvert, Nurse of the Year.

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Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who represents Senate District 21, which includes the western portion of the Valley, on Wednesday, November 5, celebrated her re-election with many of her supporters. The senator carried her home county, Webb, with 78 percent, and reached totals as high as 90 percent in Starr and Zavala counties. Featured, from left, are: Sergio Mora, Webb County Democratic Party chair; her son, Carlos Zaffirini, Jr.; and Zaffirini.  See story later in this posting.

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Flo Prater, featured fourth from left, was named Chamber Champion of the Year at the 2008 Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet held on Thursday, October 30, at the the Echo Hotel and Conference Center. Prater is a co-owner of Rio Valley Realty and has been involved with the Chamber of Commerce for several years. Prater served on the Edinburg Centennial Committee, Chamber Champion Committee, Texas Cook’Em Committee, Fiesta Edinburg Committee, Tourism Committee, and also volunteers her time with other various chamber events. Sharing in the big day for her were, from left: Elva Jackson Garza; Letty González; Cris Torres (outgoing chamber chairman); Flo Prater; Keith Prater; Hayden Prater; and Brandon Prater.  See story later in this posting.

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Where the Ox Does Not Plow, an autobiographical ethnography, consists of twenty-six life episodes that chronicle Manuel Peña’s transformative journey from an impoverished migrant worker to a career in academia. An ethnograpy is the branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures. Inspired by his experiences and those of the people around him in Texas and California, Peña, a Weslaco native, reflects on a wide range of issues arising from the historically marginalized condition of Mexicans and other Latinos in the United States. The narrative will engage readers with a broad range of human experiences, from race relations and economic exploitation to the intimacy of familial and romantic love. See story later in this posting.

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Sen. Hinojosa, with support from other Democratic, Republican leaders, pre-files legislation to freeze tuition rates for two years at public universities

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS

On Monday, November 10 – the first day of pre-filing for the 81st Legislative Session – Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, filed Senate Bill 105, a tuition moratorium bill. Hinojosa’s proposal would establish a two-year moratorium on tuition rate hikes and limit future increases to key economic indices.

Tuition rates are currently set by the regents of the state’s public university systems, authority granted to them by House Bill 3015 in the 78th Regular Session in 2003. Since then, combined tuition and fees at public, four-year universities have increased 53 percent, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Hinojosa believes the current tuition rate-setting scheme fails Texas’ college hopefuls. 

"There is something fundamentally wrong with the current system.  We tell high school students that hard work earns them passage to a public university in Texas," he said. "Once these graduates meet that standard, they are priced out of the very opportunity that motivated them in the first place. The ‘work hard and get ahead’ story has become a false promise for Texas high school seniors."

The bill would impose a two-year moratorium on tuition increases at Texas’ public universities. Following the two-year freeze, university regents could increase tuition rates only once a year, and increases would be capped by the yearly increase in the Consumer Price Index, an inflation tracker. As for fees, the bill would allow only for fees approved by the majority of student voters unless the fees are required or allowed by statute.

Hinojosa is joined by a coalition of bipartisan support, including Senators Tommy Williams, R-Woodlands, Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, Dan Patrick, R-Houston, Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, Chris Harris, R-Arlington, Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Dr. Robert Deuell, R-Greenville.

Hinojosa believes that his motivations for filing this bill are on solid policy footing given the bipartisan backing he has received.

"This is not a political issue.  It is simply an issue of accessibility.  State universities supported by the Texas taxpayer should be affordable for the children of working-class families.  An investment in their education is an investment in Texas’ future.  The tuition deregulation policy is making the dream of a college education only that – a dream," Hinojosa said.

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Rep. Peña introduces legislation to create a University of Texas medical school for the Valley

By ORLANDO SALINAS

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, on Monday, November 10, filed legislation that would create a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley. Peña filed House Bill 110 on the first day lawmakers are able to file legislation for the upcoming 81st Legislature, which begins on January 13, 2009.

"It is time for the Rio Grande Valley to begin training and educating its own doctors," said Peña. "The success of the medical research and education programs provided by the Regional Academic Health Center proves that we are ready for a full-fledged, stand-alone medical school."

The Texas Legislature established the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) as a medical education and research program serving Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy Counties. The Legislature specified that the RAHC would work with local hospitals to provide undergraduate clinical education, graduate education, including residency training programs, and other levels of medical education.

The medical education component of the RAHC is based in Harlingen with Valley Baptist Medical Center serving as the primary teaching hospital for medical students receiving their 3rd and 4th year of education. The medical research division is located in Edinburg. The RAHC is administered by the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.

"We have proven, working partnerships with Valley Baptist, the University of Texas Pan American, the cities of Edinburg and Harlingen and others,” said Peña. “Now is the time for us to bring in the federal government and develop a veteran’s hospital to complement a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.  South Texas has the social, economic and human capital to make this succeed.”

A recent report by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommends that the next medical school built in Texas should be in the Rio Grande Valley.  For years Rio Grande Valley veterans have traveled to San Antonio to receive hospital services. Peña has called on the federal government to join a coalition of state and local resources committed to providing care for our veterans while training and educating generations of home-grown doctors. 

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Sen. Lucio pre-files six bills, including measure to create a UT medical school in the Valley

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, on Monday, November 11, pre-filed his first six bills for the upcoming 81st Legislature, which convenes on Tuesday, January 13.

"I am pleased to file these initial bills for the upcoming session," noted Lucio. "I think these early bills reflect some of the top priorities of the citizens of Senate District 27 and Texas, and for health care, children and education, consumer rights and insurance reform. I feel that we are off to a good start for South Texas and will accomplish a great deal next session."

His measures are:

• Senate Bill (SB) 98 allows the University of Texas Board of Regents to establish The University of Texas Health Science Center-South Texas. The Health Science Center would comprise a medical school and other health-related degree programs. The opening of a medical school in South Texas would help recruit doctors to an underserved area and provide students in the region with an opportunity to attend a professional school.

SB 98 was the first bill I filed because it is my top priority," explained Lucio. "I can think of nothing more important than bringing top-flight higher education to South Texas. We need to graduate our own doctors and keep them in our communities to ensure the very best quality healthcare for our residents."

• He also proposed the Wireless Phone Lemon Law, or SB 99, which allows consumers to break their contracts with a wireless provider if on three or more occasions the same phone needs repair or replacement.

"Wireless phone companies are asking consumers to sign longer contracts, and when phones break, they have no incentive to replace that phone as quickly as possible," said Lucio. "Wireless phones are an essential part of our lives, and if you don’t pay your bill for a defective phone the company won’t replace without charge, the provider can cancel your contract and penalize you. It’s only fair that if wireless providers don’t live up to their end of the bargain, that you be able to fire them too."

• To continue his mission of helping students with disabilities, Lucio’s SB 100 directs the Commissioner of Education to establish professional development institutes for teachers and paraprofessionals who work with students with disabilities, including students with autism spectrum disorders, so they can learn research-based education practices to implement in their classrooms. The training would be voluntary and carry stipends upon completion.

"Federal requirements mandate that students with disabilities be educated in the least restrictive environment," said Lucio. "Most of these students spend all or part of their school day in general education classrooms. This bill would benefit teachers with no special education background or experience with certain disabilities, as well as paraprofessionals who assist them in providing these direct services to children with extensive needs."

• To offer Texas cities and schools the opportunity to share in the experience and economic benefits of hosting University Interscholastic League (UIL) competitions, Lucio is proposing in SB 101 "that the UIL annually rotate the locations of their academic, athletic and music events. Students would benefit from this exposure to other cities when traveling to compete, and a school district’s travel expenses may be reduced if they host an event in their area."

• To help lower skyrocketing insurance premiums in this state, Lucio is proposing two measures to help stabilize and lower rates for the Texas consumer. SB 102 would provide for standardized insurance policy forms. Prior to 2003, insurers were required to offer a number of standardized policies, so consumers knew that certain policies contained the same coverage and they could shop for the best price among different insurance companies.  After 2003, insurers were allowed to provide "a la carte" policies, making it more difficult for consumers to shop and compare. Reinstating standardized policy forms will help consumers make the best affordable decision.

"This measure also complements legislation I passed in 2007 to establish an online resource for Texans shopping for home or auto insurance. The website, http://www.helpinsure.com, launched in September, helps consumers compare insurance rates from most insurance companies, including financial ratings, complaint ratios, and recent rate changes," Lucio explained.

• Another bill addresses current law that permits insurance companies to vary rates within a county by any amount that is actuarially sound as long as it is not greater than 15 percent. SB 103 would establish specific guidelines for the Commissioner of Insurance to allow a variance greater than 15 percent for a single county upon an insurer’s request. Limiting the variance, except under specific circumstances, allows insurers flexibility when dealing with riskier or more congested areas of the state while moderating the economic impact on the insurance rates of Texas policyholders.  

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Rep. Lucio, III re-introduces legislation to create a University of Texas law school in the Valley

By RUBEN O’BELL

Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, on Monday, November 10, filed the first of his major bills for the 81st Legislative Session. Lucio filed four bills that are a major part of his legislative agenda for next session, including bills that would create a medical school and law school in South Texas and a bill that would create a Medicaid buy-in program for families of children with disabilities.

The second-term lawmaker is the son of Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville.

"I am looking forward to the upcoming session,” said Lucio. "These bills are only the first of my legislative agenda and I am confident that they will bring about real progress and make a difference to the people of the Rio Grande Valley and to the entire state of Texas.

Lucio, recently re-elected to another term, has long been an advocate for higher education in the Valley. Currently, there is no public medical or law school in deep South Texas. He said he "is committed to working tirelessly towards the creation of a law school and medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

"Establishing a fully developed medical school in the Valley is my number one priority for next session," said the state lawmaker. "The creation of such a school would have a tremendously positive impact on our area, which is currently facing some of the greatest economic and health challenges in the state." 

Lucio first filed bills to establish a medical and law school during the 80th Legislative Session in 2007.

Lucio is also continuing to work for better healthcare services for children with disabilities. His bill filed today would create a Medicaid buy-in program for families of children with disabilities that currently do not qualify for coverage under the program. Often times these children require specialized ongoing care early in life in order to avoid serious medical conditions when they are adults. Unfortunately, the incredible costs of these services are often financially crippling to Texas families.

"This is a bill that I am extremely passionate about. The families of these children are amazingly courageous and hardworking, and deserve to have access to quality healthcare to meet the special needs of their children," explained Lucio. "The difference that this bill can have in the lives of Texas families is truly exciting, and I am hopeful that this session we can expand access to healthcare for these families."

Lucio first filed the bill during the 80th Legislative Session.

Lucio also filed legislation to ensure fairness and equity in the selection of host locations for U.I.L. extracurricular competitions.

“Over the years the Valley has developed into an area that is more than capable of hosting major events such as regional tournaments. I am proud to join with our local school officials and community leaders in fighting for the opportunity to host such events.”

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Edinburg’s retail economy in September 2008 up almost 11 percent over same month in 2007

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg’s retail economy during September 2008, as measured by the amount of local and state sales taxes generated by a wide range of local businesses, was up almost 11 percent over the same month in 2007, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

From January through September, the local sales taxes generated were more than 4.5 percent than during the same period in 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

The September 2008 figure represents local sales generated by monthly filers, along with July, August and September sales reported by quarterly tax filers, and reported to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in October. Then, in November, the state sent the September 2008 local sales tax revenue back to the city in the form of a rebate.

For the month of September 2008, Edinburg generated $1,409,055.43 in local sales taxes, compared with $1,272,468.02 in September 2007 – an increase of 10.73 percent.

From January through September 2008, Edinburg has generated $12,972,913.58 in local sales taxes, compared with $12,412,768.50 during the same period in 2007 – an increase of 4.51 percent.

McAllen – the largest economic engine in South Texas – for the month of September showed the smallest monthly increase of all major cities in the Valley: less than one percent.

McAllen’s economy generated almost $5.1 million in local sales taxes in September 2008, compared with more than $5 million during the same month in 2007, an increase of only .76 percent.

According to the comptroller’s office, Hidalgo County reported an almost 5.8 percent increase in total local sales taxes collectively generated by the cities in the county. The county itself does not collect a local sales tax.

For the month of September 2008, all cities in Hidalgo County generated almost $11 million in local sales taxes, up 5.79 percent compared with September 2007, which reached more than $10.3 million.

Year-to-date, all cities in Hidalgo County have generated more than $115 million in local sales taxes, up almost four percent over the same period in 2007, when total local sales taxes were more than $111 million.

For the month of September 2008, all cities in Cameron County generated more than $5.6 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $5.2 million during the same month in 2007, an increase of almost eight percent.

Cameron County also does not collect a local sales tax.

Year-to-date, all cities in Cameron County collected more than $58.7 million in local sales taxes, compared with almost $56 million during the same period in 2007.

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

• Weslaco’s retail economy generated more than $818,000 in local sales taxes in September 2008, compared with almost $671,000 during September 2007, an increase of almost 22 percent. The improvement was the best among all major Valley cities.

• Brownsville’s retail economy generated $2.9 million in September 2008 – more than 6.7 percent better that the September 2007 level of more than $2.7 million.

• Harlingen’s retail economy generated almost $1.8 million in local sales taxes in September 2008, compared with more than $1.6 million in September 2007 – an 11.49 percent improvement.

• Mission’s retail economy showed an almost 4.2 percent increase in its monthly sales tax revenue during September 2008, generating more than $1.1 million, compared with $1,057,801.51 in September 2007.

• Pharr’s retail economy generated more than $966,000 in local sales taxes in September 2008, compared with almost $891,000 during the same month in 2007, an increase of almost 8.5 percent.

According to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs:

The state collected $1.73 billion in sales tax revenue in October, up 5.2 percent compared to October 2007.

“Sales tax collections grew in the first two months of fiscal 2009, however, at slower rates than generally seen over the past three years,” Combs said. “Collections have continued to increase overall, but remittances from the key retail trade sector have begun to decline slightly as consumers grow increasingly cautious and confidence erodes.”

On Friday, November 7, Combs distributed $548.3 million in November sales tax rebates to cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts. Local sales tax allocations are up 4.4 percent compared to November 2007.

Combs sent Texas cities $373.8 million in sales tax allocations, up 4 percent compared to November 2007.

So far this calendar year, city sales tax allocations are up 5.2 percent compared to the same time period last year. Texas counties received November sales tax allocations of $33 million, up 8.7 percent compared to one year ago. For the calendar year-to-date, county sales tax allocations are running 7.6 percent ahead of 2007.

The 137 special purpose taxing districts around the state received $20.5 million in sales tax, up 23.4 percent compared to last November. Ten local transit systems received $120.9 million in November sales tax rebates, up 1.7 percent compared to a year ago.

October state sales tax collections and November sales tax allocations to local governments represent September sales reported to the comptroller in October by monthly tax filers and July, August and September sales reported to the comptroller in October by quarterly tax filers.

For details of November sales tax payments to individual cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose districts, locate the Monthly Sales and Use Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports on the comptroller’s Web site at http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/allocsum/compsum.html.

The comptroller’s next local sales tax allocation will be made on Friday, December 12.

Find details on all the services of the comptroller’s office at http://www.window.state.tx.us, including a transparent look at state spending at http://www.window.state.tx.us/wherethemoneygoes.

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State agency approves bid supported by Sen. Hinojosa and Rep. Ortíz to bring mechanical engineering bachelor’s program to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Solomon  Ortíz, Jr., D-Corpus Christi, on Friday October 31, announced that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) gave preliminary approval to Texas A&M University Corpus Christi’s (TAMUCC) efforts to offer a Bachelors Degree in Mechanical Engineering.

The unanimous vote allows the university to move forward and develop the degree program for TAMUCC.

"The Texas economy continues to grow because of the friendly business climate that we in the legislature have helped create. However, with those jobs also comes the demand for an educated and skilled workforce, and those demands can only be met by allowing our institutions of higher education to offer educational opportunities that meet the needs of the market place," said  Hinojosa. "Today’s unanimous vote by the THECB certainly will help us meet the demand for the future of Corpus Christi, and I am looking forward to making sure we obtain the necessary funding to make this engineering school a top-flight program."

"This is a great day for the Coastal Bend," added Ortíz. "Today’s unanimous vote is the result of two years of hard work, and I am prepared to continue the effort to ensure final approval of the program."

TAMUCC will now develop a mechanical engineering curriculum and submit a plan for approval by the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents. The Board of Regents and Chancellor Mike McKinney have previously voiced support for the program. Following this step, the matter will be brought back to the THECB for final approval. It is conceivable that TAMUCC could begin accepting students for the program in the fall of 2009.

Hinojosa and Ortíz thanked the Corpus Christi legislative delegation for their support, as well as Bernard Paulson, the Port Industries, and the Port of Corpus Christi. These and other local donors have already pledged funds to help with the creation of the engineering program.

"The local support has been tremendous," said Hinojosa and Ortíz jointly. "We are proud that our community is committed to expanding opportunities for the Coastal Bend."

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South Texas College approved $500,000, not $700,000, for major study on possible expansion, says STC President Reed

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

South Texas College approved $500,000 for a major study on possible expansion of the two-county community college system, not $700,000, as previously reported by STC president Dr. Shirley Reed.

Reed initially said last month that the STC Board of Trustees in May negotiated a contract, worth $700,000, with Freese and Nichols, Inc., for the Texas-based engineering, architectural, and environmental science consulting firm to conduct a year-long study of growth issues facing STC and to make recommendations.

However, she later double-checked the agreement and realized the fee was actually $500,000.

Previously, she explained that STC was able to negotiated a much more favorable fee for taxpayers because the consulting firm initially was seeking a fee of more than $1 million.

For that price, Freese and Nichols, Inc. will complete a wide array of duties, including providing an update to the STC board at the beginning of 2009, and a final report, with recommendations, by May.

“By January, we are supposed to have their preliminary information on their fact-finding, their data-gathering. Then, I believe they are going to spend another four to five months and formulate recommendations,” Reed said. “In addition to the recommendations, they are going to have to translate the data into buildings: what buildings do we need, how much acreage do we need, how many cars are we going to have to park, so they can use that to determine the capacity issue of each campus.”

The STC president said the consulting firm was brought on board because of projected enrollment increases for the STC system in the next dozen years.

"In terms of projected enrollment, we do believe it could be in the neighborhood of 37,000 students to 42,000 students by 2020. This is based on a 40 percent increase in the Census data every 10 years for our region," she said. "We have gone from 48 percent of our high school graduates go to college now to 52 percent in both Hidalgo and Starr counties. Increased numbers are choosing to stay home (because of ) affordability, price of gasoline."

In addition, Reed contended, "the credibility of STC has just changed dramatically in the last 10 to 12 years. A lot more people are recognizing that STC is a good place to get an education, and to go into some really good Workforce programs. All that is happening, and that’s why we have the experts to help us sort through all of this and come up with a plan that makes sense."

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Hidalgo County judges, commissioners praise new program designed to help families raise children

By CARI LAMBRECHT

The Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court and the Hidalgo County Board of Judges on Thursday, November 6, praised a new program designed to help divorced, separated or unmarried parents develop a co-parenting relationship that allows them to work together to raise their children.

“Together Time,” which launched on Friday, November 1, is a Boys & Girls Club of McAllen initiative and consists of co-parenting education classes and a neutral exchange site for stressed parents needing to make visitation exchanges without conflict.

“This program has the attention of the court and was also endorsed by the county’s Board of Judges back in May when this program was in its ‘idea stage’," said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III.  "Both boards know that in our court system, we see children negatively affected by the way their parents interact, so with the program ‘Together Time’, we can hopefully provide a safe environment for children and an encouraging environment for parents."

Laura Reagan-Porras is a sociologist and the Chief Professional Officer of the Boys & Girls Club of McAllen. She said that children will benefit from “Together Time” when parents learn to understand that children are part of both parents and that they love and need both parents. Children learn respect for others when parents communicate respectfully with each other, she said.

“When in the pain of divorce or separation, parents sometimes struggle against each other to the detriment of their children,” Reagan said. “Even if young parents choose not to marry when a baby is on the way, they must establish parenting behaviors that work.”

398th District Judge Aida Salinas Flores said the county’s Board of Judges if firmly behind the program.

“We have so many parents that don’t get along. We recognize that there is a need to exchange children and have supervision," she said. "This setting is less stressful for the children and is viable alternative to those police station and fast food restaurant drop-offs."

For more information about “Together Time’s” co-parenting classes and the visitation exchange site, please call the Boys & Girls Club of McAllen at (956) 605-6616.

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

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Flo Prater receives the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s Chamber Champion of the Year Award

By EVANA VLECK

Flo Prater was named Chamber Champion of the Year at the 2008 Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet held on Thursday, October 30, at the the Echo Hotel and Conference Center.

Prater is a co-owner of Rio Valley Realty and has been involved with the Chamber of Commerce for several years. Prater served on the Edinburg Centennial Committee, Chamber Champion Committee, Texas Cook’Em Committee, Fiesta Edinburg Committee, Tourism Committee, and also volunteers her time with other various chamber events. 

Aside from that, she was also selected to serve on the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors for the 08/09 year, and will join Lee Castro, as he leads the chamber as the Chairman for the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.

“Mrs. Prater serves as wonderful support to the chamber, as her time and hard work certainly provides a winning example to other chamber and community members," said Letty González, chamber president. “Flo is very productive; her efforts reach above and beyond, and her work ethic is one of pride and dignity. Her participation adds momentum to each project she’s involved with, and is a vast asset to the Edinburg Chamber. Flo is dependable and most certainly deserving of this award."

For more information on the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce please call 956/383-7974.

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Dr. Manuel Peña, author of Where the Ox Does Not Plow, to speak November 18 in MOST in Edinburg

BY JOEL A. GARZA

On his first day of school, Manuel Peña was as excited as any other child.

At midday recess, he joined his new friends and proudly produced a bean and potato taco from his brand new metal lunchbox. His friends erupted with laughter and taunted his odd meal as they ate their white bread and bologna sandwiches. That evening, he tearfully told his mother of the ridicule, and proclaimed he would never again take a taco for lunch. The next day, Manuel proudly produced a white bread and bologna sandwich from his lunchbox. No one laughed, no one jeered. He was now one of them.

The Museum of South Texas History’s (MOST) Sunday Speaker Series on Sunday, November 18, will welcome Dr. Manuel Pe?a, who will discuss and autograph his latest work, Where the Ox Does Not Plow: A Mexican American Ballad. The program will take place from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Where the Ox Does Not Plow chronicles Peña’s personal experiences and those of people around him through 26 life episodes. Addressing such issues as interethnic conflict, cultural and class integration, family relationships, romantic encounters, and personal crises, Where the Ox Does Not Plow will engage readers in a wide range of issues arising from the historically marginalized condition of Mexicans Americans in the United States.

Peña is a Weslaco native and former member of the Matadors, a well-known music group throughout the South Texas region. He received his Ph D. from the University of Texas at Austin, where he was a professor of anthropology and music. Pe?a is a recognized authority on Mexican American music. His book The Texas-Mexico Conjunto was the first of its kind, and received the prestigious Chicago Folklore Prize. He now lives in California, but remains close to his family in the Rio Grande Valley.

Where the Ox Does Not Plow: A Mexican American Balladis available for purchase in the Museum Store, and a 10% discount is extended to all FRIENDs of the Museum. Admission to the Sunday Speaker Series program is included in the regular museum fees, and all FRIEND patrons of the Museum are admitted free.

For more information on the book signing or becoming a FRIENDs of the Museum, phone 956/383–6911 or visit http://www.mosthistory.org. The Museum of South Texas History, on the square, in downtown Edinburg.

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Taumalipas Gov. Flores donates two crafted copper bells as landmarks for Mercado Delta in Edcouch

By DESIRÉE MÉNDEZ-CALTZONTZINT

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, November 4, announced that the Honorable Eugenio Hernández Flores, governor of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, has generously donated two crafted copper bells to the Mercado Delta, which is located in Edcouch.

The Mercado Delta, a $3.1 million project, is a unique, multi-purpose public market where entrepreneurs, farmers, and artisans can sell their goods and services. Phase 1 of the Mercado Delta will consist of an area of about 48,000 square feet featuring an outdoor market, a farmers market and permanent vendors.

The bells are unique and were made by Mexican artisans from Tlaxaca, Mexico, Hinojosa said.

“This is a symbol of the strong friendship and respect that exists between our neighbor to the south and our communities," Hinojosa said. "This historic project reflects the hard work of so many community members and sends a powerful example of what we can accomplish when we work together to improve the future of our region.”

A bell will be installed at each tower at the entrance of the Mercado Delta and will sound on December 6 to mark the grand opening of this new market.

Hinojosa will be on hand to witness the delivery of the bells.

The Rio Grande Valley will soon have a new attraction to help develop the economy of the region. The Delta Region Revitalization Corporation (DRRC) will host the grand opening for the upcoming Mercado Delta on December 6. The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. on the site next to the Edcouch-Elsa High School Fine Arts Building on Mile 4 West (Yellow Jacket Drive) and north of State Highway 107.

The Mercado Delta operations will be managed by the Delta Region Revitalization Corporation. This economic development project resulted from a strategic plan for the Delta Region, which came as result of Hinojosa’s leading initiative to do a regional plan for economic growth.

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Hispanic voters favored Obama/Biden by more than two-to-one margin, reports Pew Hispanic Center

Hispanics voted for Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden over Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin by a margin of more than two-to-one in the 2008 presidential election, 66% versus 32%, according to a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.

The report finds that eight percent of the electorate was Latino, unchanged from 2004.

Nationwide, the Latino vote was significantly more Democratic this year than in 2004, when President Bush captured an estimated 40% of the Hispanic vote, a modern high for a Republican presidential candidate.

Obama carried the Latino vote by sizeable margins in all states with large Latino populations. His biggest breakthrough came in Florida, where he won 57% of the Latino vote. President Bush carried 56% of the Latino vote in Florida in 2004.

Obama’s margins were much larger in other states with big Latino populations. He carried 78% in New Jersey, 76% of the Latino vote in Nevada, 74% in California, and 73% in Colorado.

This report contains an analysis of exit poll results for the Latino vote nationally and in the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and Texas.

The report is available on the Center’s website at http://www.pewhispanic.org.

The Pew Hispanic Center, an initiative of the Pew Research Center, is a nonpartisan,  non-advocacy research organization based in Washington, D.C. and is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

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Sen. Zaffirini re-elected in landslide, carries all 17 counties in District 21, which includes Starr County

By HAROLD COOK

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was re-elected on Tuesday, November 4, in a seventh landslide victory in which she carried all 17 counties in Senate District 21, something no one else has ever done.

“I thank the voters not only for their continued trust,” Zaffirini said, “But also for the opportunity to continue to make a difference for the families of our district. They can count on me to represent them anew with honesty, fairness and integrity.”

The senator carried her home county, Webb, with 78 percent, and reached totals as high as 90 percent in Starr and Zavala counties.

“Our victory reflects our collaboration with supporters throughout our district,” Zaffirini said. “Together we have addressed priority issues such as education, health, human services, economic development, job creation, water, natural resources and the economy. Now it’s time to prepare for the 81st Texas Legislature that convenes on Tuesday, January 13.”

The senator said her re-election was especially meaningful because of the strength of the Republican presidential candidate in many of her counties and because her campaign remained positive, in spite of incessant negative attacks from her Republican opponent since February, 2007.

“My staff and I are delighted to assist constituents and take pride in our responsiveness,” Zaffirini said. “We especially look forward to responding to suggestions for legislation and funding priorities during the next session.”

Zaffirini can be contacted via judith.zaffirini@senate.state.tx.us; 512/463-0121 (Capitol office) or 956/722-2293 (southern district office).

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PSJA ISD trustee Raúl "Roy" Navarro pleads guilty in bribery scheme related to alleged abuse of his office

Long-time Pharr San Juan Alamo Independent School District (PSJA-ISD) trustee Raúl "Roy" Navarro on Monday, November 3, pleaded guilty to bribery related to his official position with the school district, United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle announced.

Navarro, 59, of San Juan, was indicted in June 2007 along with then-PSJA trustees Rogelio "Roy" Rodríguez and Evangelina "Vangie" De León and former superintendent Arturo Guajardo and others. He pleaded guilty Monday afternoon before U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.

At his re-arraignment hearing, Navarro admitted he accepted a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, and tickets to a concert there from a contractor engaged in business with the school district in August 2002 in exchange for favorable, official votes and influence regarding PSJA-ISD contracts.

Navarro faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, without parole, and a maximum fine of $250,000 at a sentencing hearing set for February 19, 2009. Navarro has been permitted to remain free on bond pending his sentencing hearing.

The case was investigated by agents with the McAllen Office of the FBI, the McAllen office of the Criminal Investigations Division of the Internal Revenue Service and the Dallas office of the Department of Education–Office of the Inspector General. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Larry Eastepp of the Public Corruption Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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Former Border Patrol agent Santiago Pérez, 28, of Edinburg sentenced to prison for assault and battery

A former Border Patrol Agent convicted of violating the civil rights of two illegal aliens was sentenced in Houston to prison on Wednesday, November 5, United States Attorney Don DeGabrielle has announced.

Santiago Pérez, 28, of Edinburg, was charged by a criminal information in August 2008 with assaulting two illegal aliens on separate occasions while employed as a Border Patrol Agent. Pérez pleaded guilty the same day and admitted to assaulting and battering an illegal alien by striking him with a pistol in December 2006, and assaulting and battering yet another illegal alien with a pistol and a baton and threatening to kill the alien in September 2007.

On November 5, United States District Judge Nancy F. Atlas sentenced Pérez to 12 months and one day in federal prison without parole to be followed by a three-year-term of supervised release. Pérez has been permitted to remain on bond pending the issuance an order of the court to surrender to a Bureau of Prisons facility to be designated in the near future.

“Border Patrol agents are entrusted with tremendous authority and the enormous responsibility of securing our nation’s borders, making it a world-class law enforcement agency,“ said Ronald D. Vitiello, Chief Patrol Agent, Rio Grande Valley Sector. “Isolated incidents by Border Patrol agents who violate the trust of the citizens they swore to protect will be held accountable.”

The investigation leading to the charges against Perez was conducted by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Professional Responsibility. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ruben R. Pérez and Trial Attorney Michael J. Frank of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division prosecuted the case. 

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Women faculty at UT-Austin make as much as $9,000 less than male counterparts, according to new report

The Gender Equity Task Force, created by the provost of The University of Texas at Austin in March 2007, has recommended in its report that the university develop and enact a 5-10 year gender equity plan to "reduce or eliminate faculty gender inequity—specifically with respect to hiring, promotion, salaries and governance."

The report, presented on Monday, November 3, to Provost Steven Leslie, found gender gaps at The University of Texas at Austin in areas of faculty representation, promotion and attrition for faculty advancing through the ranks, salary and leadership.

It also noted concerns about the "climate" for women faculty on campus, departmental governance structures, a lack of clear knowledge by faculty and administrators about "family-friendly policies" on campus, and a need to improve the situation of senior women faculty members. The report said senior women at the university are more likely to feel isolated and less recognized for their professional achievements and that they receive significantly lower salaries than do their male colleagues.

"I asked the task force to conduct a deep and thorough assessment of gender equity and work environment on our campus and they delivered one of the most probing and data-driven reports I have seen in all of higher education," said Leslie, who formed the task force a few weeks after he took office as provost of the university. "There are some recommendations that we will be able to address soon and others that will take a while to work through, but we will begin immediately to tackle the recommendations."

Recommendations on salary included a proposal that a "best-practice model" be established for awarding merit raises, endowed chairs and professorships in a gender equitable fashion. The report said that, on average across the university in 2007, female professors earned $9,028 less than men. Among non-tenure-track faculty, on average, female faculty members earned $4,507 less than their male counterparts, the report said.

The task force found women constitute a slightly smaller proportion of the tenured and tenure-track faculty at the university than they do at doctoral institutions nationwide. It said women constitute 19 percent of the full professors, 25 percent of the tenured faculty, and 39 percent of the university’s tenure track faculty. In comparison, at doctoral institutions nationwide, women constitute 26 percent of the tenured faculty and 41 percent of the tenure-track faculty. The report said American Association of University Professors data for 2006 show the university ranked 11th out of 12 peer institutions in the percentage of women ranked as full professors.

The "climate" survey included reports of harassment and discrimination and more than 14 percent of women faculty members said they have been subjected to sexual harassment. Women faculty members also were much more likely than male faculty members to report they have experienced discrimination related to gender, race, age or family status.

Addressing the "leadership gap," the report said women are underrepresented as department chairs, who can provide discretionary resources for faculty and are influential in hiring, salary and promotion decisions. It also noted that only 9 percent of the university’s endowed chairs are held by women, even though women constitute 19 percent of the full professors at the university.

The Gender Equity Task Force was convened at a moment when concerns about gender equity in higher education had risen nationally. Many of The University of Texas at Austin’s peer institutions over the last decade have conducted studies similar to the one conducted by the task force, finding similar problems and issues that were addressed to result in "substantial progress in recent years in increasing the level of gender equity within their faculties," the report said.

In forming the committee, Leslie asked the 22-member group to consider what work "remains to be done in order to make The University of Texas at Austin an inviting and productive place for women faculty members in all areas." Leslie’s creation of the task force was consistent with an announcement by the university’s new president, William Powers Jr., that recruitment and retention of a diverse student body and faculty body would be a core area of emphasis for his presidency.

"I applaud the work of the Gender Equity Task Force," said Powers. "Its members have performed a valuable service for the university by identifying issues we must address to support the professional growth of our faculty. In order to compete for, recruit and retain the very best faculty, we must be committed to policies, programs and leadership built on fairness, equity and equal opportunity."

The co-chairs of the task force are Professors J. Strother Moore, chair of the Department of Computer Science, and Gretchen Ritter, a professor of government and director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. The committee included faculty members from Architecture, Business, Communication, Education, Engineering, Fine Arts, Law, Liberal Arts, Natural Sciences, Pharmacy, Public Affairs and Social Work. Two deans, a vice provost, a graduate student, a staff member and a vice president also were members of the committee.

"Promoting gender equity is central to the university’s mission of becoming the nation’s leading public university," said Ritter. "Recruiting faculty from all sectors of the population allows us to draw on a broader pool of talent in building academic excellence. If we fail to recruit and retain women faculty in all fields, then we deny ourselves the opportunity to benefit from the talent and insights of half of the population."

"Gender discrimination is pervasive in our society, including in higher education," said Moore. "The university should be applauded for confronting such a problem head-on. As advances in fields like computer science shape our economy and our society, it is essential that women and minorities be recruited into those fields as scientific leaders."

Leslie has appointed Vice Provost Judith Langlois as administrative leader to oversee the next phase of implementing Gender Equity Task Force recommendations. He said Langlois, the Charles and Sarah Seay Regents’ Professor of Developmental Psychology, is highly regarded on campus for her vision and ability to get things done.

The findings of the Gender Equity Task Force will be presented to the university’s Faculty Council during a meeting in January, and will be discussed in a panel discussion with the Faculty Women’s Organization in February 2009.

Key recommendations of the task force report propose that the provost develop and enact a 5-10 year gender equity plan to reduce or eliminate faculty gender inequity—specifically with respect to hiring, promotion, salaries and governance. The task force said the plan should include a time line, an annual budget, ongoing accountability mechanisms and a budget justification. The committee said specific goals should be set with the dean of each school and college in the areas discussed. It also recommended that a Gender Equity Plan for the university, which should include goals and timetables for each school and college, be finalized and announced by the fall 2009.

The recommendations included hiring initiatives such as creating a provost’s opportunity fund for hiring and retention of faculty who contribute to intellectual diversity by, for instance, increasing the proportion of women in fields in which they are underrepresented. The report said progress toward gender equity in hiring by field should be benchmarked against the proportion of women faculty members at the top 20 research universities in a given field. The task force also suggested the provost’s office oversee a proposed program of training schools and colleges on the best practices for recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty. The report also recommended that a dual-career assistance office be created with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement to aid hiring efforts.

In the area of retention and promotion, the report said deans and chairs should be required to report and explain significant gender differentials in retention and promotion rates. It said gender equity should be part of the annual reviews for deans and department chairs and that the availability of supplemental resources for hiring and retention under the provost’s opportunity fund should be tied to a demonstrated commitment to the promotion of gender equity by deans and chairs.

The report said that, wherever possible, the task force endeavored to compare data from The University of Texas at Austin with information from the 11 public research universities typically treated as the university’s peer group. These include: the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Indiana University, Bloomington; Michigan State University; the University of Michigan; the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Ohio State University; the University of Washington, Seattle; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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Gov. Perry appoints three members, including Texas Railroad Commissioner Williams, to Texas Advisory Panel on Federal Environmental Regulations

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday, November 6, appointed three members to the newly created Texas Advisory Panel on Federal Environmental Regulations. The panel’s initial work will be to assess the potential impacts to Texas of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed framework for regulating greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act and to report to the governor on the findings. 

Bryan W. Shaw of Bryan is a commissioner of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and an associate professor in the Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department of Texas A&M University (TAMU).  He was formerly associate director of the Center for Agricultural Air Quality Engineering and Science, and formerly served as Acting Lead Scientist for Air Quality and Special Assistant to the Chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.  In December 2007 he was appointed by Governor Perry to the Texas Environmental Flows Advisory Group.  He is also a member of several committees for the EPA Science Advisory Board, including the Environmental Engineering Committee, Committee on Integrated Nitrogen, and an ad hoc panel for review of EPA’s Risk and Technology Review Assessment Plan. He is also a member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Air Quality Task Force. Shaw received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in agricultural engineering from TAMU and a doctorate degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He will serve as chairman of the Task Force.

Barry T. Smitherman of Austin is chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC), and has served on the PUC since 2004. He has held leadership positions in public finance with J.P. Morgan, Bank One, and Credit Suisse.  He is also a former Harris County prosecutor and a former adjunct professor of public administration at the University of St. Thomas. Smitherman is an ex officio board member of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, and a member of the State Bar of Texas and the Governor’s Competitiveness Council. He is also a member of the Regional State Committee for the Southwest Power Pool, Texas Regional Entity, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Committee on Energy Resources and the Environment, and serves as one of 30 inaugural members of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee. Smitherman received a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, a law degree from the University of Texas, and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University.  He will serve as a vice-chairman of the task force.

Michael Williams of Austin is chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates pipelines and energy resources, and has served on the Commission since 1999.  He led the Texas FutureGen effort, chairs the Governor’s Clean Coal Technology Council and initiated the Texas Breathe Easy Propane School Bus Tour, all of which focus on using Texas resources with clean technologies for improved air quality.  He also serves on the National Coal Council, an advisory board to the U.S. Secretary of Energy.  He represents the Governor and the Railroad Commission on both the Southern States Energy Board and the Interstate Mining Compact Commission.  Additionally, he chairs the Governor’s Competitiveness Council.  Williams received a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and law degree from the University of Southern California. He will serve as a vice-chairman of the task force.

Serving as staff to the Task Force will be David Schanbacher of the TCEQ; Leslie Savage of the RRC; Richard Greffe of the PUC; Dub Taylor of the State Energy Conservation Office with the Comptroller of Public Accounts, and Cary Dupuy of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

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Nadine Craddick and Eva Longoria Parker unveil 2008 Capitol ornament

By ALEXIS DeLEE

Nadine Craddick, wife of House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was joined by fellow Texan Eva Longoria Parker in the unveiling of the 2008 Texas Capitol Ornament on Saturday, November 8. This year’s ornament depicts the six seals of the countries whose flags have flown over Texas.

"This ornament celebrates the diversity of our heritage as Texans," Craddick said. "The six flags of Texas are a symbol of the great historic drama that is Texas History."

The ornament depicts the seal at the center of the Texas Capitol rotunda’s floor. That design includes the seal of the Republic of Texas, flanked by those of the United States of America, Spain, Mexico, France and the Confederate States of America. Texas is the only U.S. state that was once an independent nation.

"Christmas is a time of family, friends and charity, and this project is a great way Texans can celebrate their history while also helping a worthy cause," Nadine Craddick said.

The ornament raises funds for the restoration and preservation of historic Capitol artwork, furniture, artifacts and exhibits at the Capitol Visitors’ Center and other projects.

"This design symbolizes the culture and diversity that make our great state what it is today," Longoria Parker said. "Our capitol is a beautiful and unique symbol of Texas, and I encourage all Texans to join me in supporting its preservation through the capitol ornament project."

Longoria Parker will publicize the ornament project through a series of Public Service Announcements aired on cable television throughout the state. This has been made possible through the Texas Cable Association and its member companies, Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Suddenlink, Charter Communications and Cable One, who are partners in raising awareness of this important project. Additionally, members of the Outdoor Advertising Association are participating in the Public Service Announcements by utilizing billboards throughout the state.

Eva Longoria Parker is a native of Corpus Christi and attended Texas A&M-Kingsville before moving to Los Angeles to try her hand at acting. A series of roles followed which culminated in her starring role in the popular ABC hit "Desperate Housewives." She is married to San Antonio Spurs forward Tony Parker and supports a variety of charity projects.

Each ornament is $18 a piece. To purchase one go to: http://www.TexasCapitolGiftShop.com or call 1-888-678-5556.

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