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Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, January 6, was sworn into office for his 7th term by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, which marked the start of the 111th Congress. “We are beginning a new era of politics here in Washington, one where the needs of the American people will finally come first again,” Hinojosa said of the occasion. The new session marks Hinojosa’s 13th year as the U.S. Representative for the 15th Congressional District of Texas, which includes Edinburg, the largest population center. Hinojosa’s district office in Hidalgo County is located in Edinburg at 2864 Trenton Road (phone: 956/358-8400). Featured, from left: Pelosi, Marty Hinojosa, Karén Hinojosa, Rubén Hinojosa, and Kaitlin Hinojosa. See story later in this posting. 

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The McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce recently welcomed APEX Primary Care as their latest Copper Corporate Partner. APEX provides quality primary care for the aged and disabled in the Rio Grande Valley. “We’re excited about being part of a successful organization that represents all sizes of business both small and large” noted APEX owner Eric Flores. “The McAllen Hispanic chamber’s excellent reputation in Texas as well as in Washington, D.C. encouraged us to join up with a winning organization.” The MHCC was recently named the “National Medium Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for 2008” at the annual United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce National Convention, an honor that they have previously won three times. The MHCC has also been honored seven times by the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce as the Small Chamber of the Year for Texas. “We intend to become active with business and health concerns that affect the community” added Flores. For more information on how to become a Corporate Partner and/or member of the MHCC, call 928-0060. Featured, from left, at the check presentation: Orie Salinas, APEX public relations; Eric Flores, APEX owner; Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, MHCC president/CEO; Mario Flores, APEX administrator; and Jon Scepanski, APEX assistant administrator. 

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With Edinburg continuing to celebrate its centennial anniversary, neighboring San Juan is compiling a book for its own upcoming 100th birthday in 2010 – and the community, which dubs itself "The Spirit of the Valley", has its own connections to the three-time All-America City. "John Closner, one of the founders of Edinburg was also the founder and namesake of San Juan – “St. John” as deemed by his wife and citizens," said Myssie Cárdenas-Barajas, project specialist with the San Juan EDC, featured left with Miki McCarthy, standing, the organization’s executive director.  Both Cárdenas-Barajas, a former staff member with the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, and McCarthy have deep-rooted family ties to Edinburg. "We are working closely with the Museum of South Texas History and UTPA’s archives in making sure that the book is as accurate as possible," added Cardenas-Barajas. See story later in this posting. 

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The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Friday, January 9, named Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., a highly-regarded transplant surgeon and president of the University of Texas Health Science Center – San Antonio, as chancellor of The University of Texas System. “Dr. Cigarroa’s impeccable credentials, superior administrative skills and unparalleled passion for medicine and academia make him an outstanding selection to lead our university system,” said Regents’ Chairman H. Scott Caven, Jr.  “As president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, he has time and again demonstrated great business acumen and unmatched leadership, and it is our belief that Dr. Cigarroa will apply those same traits to continue to guide this system on a successful path, setting new benchmarks for excellence along the way.” Cigarroa, 51, will begin his duties as chancellor on February 2. His appointment was made official during a special called board meeting held in Austin. Regents last month named Cigarroa as the sole finalist for the position. See story later in this posting.

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Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, featured in this file photo addressing the McAllen Chamber of Commerce during a 2007 legislative update, says a law that he and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, created in 2005 provides the mechanism needed by McAllen to bring more graduate degree academic courses to the border region. "UT-Austin, Texas A&M, Rice, these are the flagship universities in the state, the ones with the national reputations, the biggest financial endowments, the most research-oriented," Flores noted. "Under this law, they can set up graduate programs in the Valley and the rest of the border region that otherwise could take years to materialize."  See lead story later in this posting. 

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Rep. Flores law makes it possible for STC, McAllen to provide graduate programs away from UTPA campus

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

A measure by  Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, unanimously approved by state lawmakers in 2005 makes it possible for any university in Texas to offer graduate programs in McAllen – or many other cities, for that matter. 

A graduate course is an area of academic study for a student who already has received a bachelor’s degree. Successfully completing graduate courses can lead to a Master’s Degree of Ph.D. 

That law, sponsored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, received scant attention four years ago as it traveled smoothly through the legislative process.   

But McAllen city leaders, who have been promoting the creation of graduate university courses in the City of Palms, now find that Flores’ law gives them the mechanism – and the legislative rationale – to bring more graduate courses to the Valley, thus expanding educational opportunities for the entire region. 

Such a facility, dubbed a "dual usage educational complex" under Flores’ House Bill 1737,  and passed into law on September 1, 2005, allows a junior college district, such as South Texas College,  to team up with a political entity, such as the City of McAllen, or an institution of higher education, to seek permission from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to set up a such a complex, which could involve offering graduate education programs. 

There are 50 community colleges in Texas. 

Last November 11, Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, publicly announced plans by McAllen to build a 100,000 square-foot complex to provide Valley residents a new site to seek master’s and doctoral degrees currently not offered by the University of Texas-Pan American or South Texas College. 

That complex envisioned by McAllen leaders fits well into the law created by Flores and Zaffirini. 

Flores said part of his strategy in passing the law was to encourage the wealthier state universities to build a presence in the rapidly-growing – and legislatively important – Texas border region. 

"UT-Austin, Texas A&M, Rice, these are the flagship universities in the state, the ones with the national reputations, the biggest financial endowments, the most research-oriented," Flores noted. "Under this law, they can set up graduate programs in the Valley and the rest of the border region that otherwise could take years to materialize." 

The wording of the law is such that any university, with approval by the Coordinating Board – which is the state agency that governs higher education in Texas – can team up with South Texas College and McAllen to bring additional graduate courses to the Rio Grande Valley. 

According to the bill analysis of the measure, the legislative intent of Flores’ HB 1737 is to establish guidelines for a junior college district to create an educational facility within its district and, in order to maximize and fully utilize the new facility, to open it to usage by other entities within the district or by educational partners throughout the region. 

UT-Pan American, which along with UT-Austin is part of the state’s largest university system, has already announced their hopes to bring graduate programs to McAllen, as well as to provide undergraduate courses in Weslaco, in conjunction with South Texas College. 

Next year, UT-Pan American is scheduled to open a $6 million upper-division (junior and senior courses) campus in Rio Grande City, said UT-Pan American President Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas. 

Cárdenas’ remarks about UTPA’s expansion goals came during a special work session at the Edinburg campus with the Edinburg City Council in early December. 

"One of the things we will be doing is we are diversifying our locations for offering classes," she told the Edinburg city leadership. "If you are a teacher in San Juan, and you teach all day, with three kids at home, and you want to get a Master’s Degree, (at the end of the day,) traffic is so tight it is going to take you about an hour to get to UTPA." 

As part of that vision, UTPA wants to provide almost two dozen undergraduate and postgraduate programs in McAllen. 

"We are looking at offering 10 to 20 sections of master’s and upper-division classes at some site in McAllen," Cárdenas said.   

She did not identify the site or the time frame for the graduate course program, but raise her concerns that if UTPA did not build a presence in other parts of Hidalgo County, much is at stake for the local university. 

"If don’t offer the classes, somebody else will," she said. "That’s where we are."   

The law by Flores and Zaffirin follows: 

SECTION 1.  Subchapter A, Chapter 130, Education Code, is  amended by adding Section 130.0103 to read as follows: 

Sec. 130.0103.  DUAL USAGE EDUCATIONAL COMPLEX.  (a)  The board of trustees of a junior college district may establish and operate a dual usage educational complex to provide a shared facility for the educational activities of the district and other participating entities.  The board of trustees may enter into a cooperative agreement governing the operation and use of the complex with the governing bodies of one or more of the following entities: 

(1)  a county, municipality, or school district located in whole or in part in the service area of the junior college district; or 

(2)  another institution of higher education with a campus or other educational facility located in the same state uniform service region as adopted by the coordinating board. 

(b)  The junior college district shall coordinate and supervise the operation of the complex.  The use and the costs associated with the establishment and operation of the complex shall be shared by the district and the other participating entities under the terms of the cooperative agreement. 

SECTION 2.  This Act takes effect immediately if it receives a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, as provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution. If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this  Act takes effect September 1, 2005. 

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Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, South Texas native, becomes first Hispanic to serve as chancellor of UT System

The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Friday, January 9, named Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., a highly-regarded transplant surgeon and president of the University of Texas Health Science Center – San Antonio, as chancellor of The University of Texas System. 

“Dr. Cigarroa’s impeccable credentials, superior administrative skills and unparalleled passion for medicine and academia make him an outstanding selection to lead our university system,” said Regents’ Chairman H. Scott Caven, Jr.  “As president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, he has time and again demonstrated great business acumen and unmatched leadership, and it is our belief that Dr. Cigarroa will apply those same traits to continue to guide this system on a successful path, setting new benchmarks for excellence along the way.” 

“He is, without doubt, the person most qualified and well suited to lead our 15 institutions to greater national and international prominence. We believe that the UT System and the people of Texas are fortunate to have him in this important position, and I know that all the members of this Board join me in congratulating him,” Caven said. 

Cigarroa, 51, will begin his duties as chancellor on February 2. His appointment was made official during a special called board meeting held in Austin. Regents last month named Cigarroa as the sole finalist for the position.

“I am honored and privileged to be taking on this important leadership role for The University of Texas System, which has 15 outstanding institutions and plays such a pivotal role in the intellectual and economic vibrancy of Texas and the everyday lives of its people,” Cigarroa said. “The UT System is a leader in higher education, health care, research and service, and is an immense resource for our state, nation and world.  I look forward to working with the Board of Regents, System leadership, presidents, faculty, staff and students in promoting the goals and missions of the institutions, which includes advancing excellence on our campuses and ensuring that our universities continue to be affordable and accessible to students of all backgrounds. The UT System makes lives better every day and gives sustainable hope to our future.”  

A Laredo native, Cigarroa has served as president of the UT Health Science Center – San Antonio since 2000.  He becomes the 10th chancellor since the Board of Regents created the position in 1950. 

More than 50 applicants and nominees were considered for the chancellor’s post.  Dr. Kenneth I. Shine, the UT System’s executive vice chancellor for health affairs, has been serving as interim chancellor since Mark G. Yudof’s departure last June to serve in a similar role at the University of California system. 

“This board also owes its deepest gratitude to Dr. Shine for his outstanding leadership during this time of transition in the system,” Caven said. “His stewardship as executive vice chancellor for health affairs and as interim chancellor has served our system well and has set a fine example for future leaders. We are grateful that he will continue to serve in his role as executive vice chancellor overseeing our outstanding health institutions.”  

A member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine, Cigarroa is a recognized pediatric transplant surgeon and researcher whose articles on the principles of surgery in infants and children have appeared in several scientific publications.  During his tenure as president of the health science center, sponsored research expenditures increased from $86.1 million to $146.3 million.  

He joined the health science center faculty in 1995, where prior to his appointment as president he was director of pediatric surgery and director of abdominal transplant surgery.  He serves on the medical staffs at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital, CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital and University Hospital, among others. 

An accomplished fundraiser, Cigarroa was the first Hispanic appointed to lead a major academic health center in the United States, and his appointment as chancellor makes him the first Hispanic to head a major public university system in the country. He announced last October that he would be stepping down as president of the health science center. 

Cigarroa is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a diplomate of the American Board of Surgery.  He serves on the boards of several organizations, including the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

Cigarroa received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his medical degree from UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.  He was the chief resident at Harvard University’s teaching hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and he completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  

Cigarroa and his wife, Graciela, an attorney, have two daughters. 

The UT System will announce the appointment of an interim president for the UT Health Science Center – San Antonio within a few days.  An advisory committee was established in December to begin searching for Cigarroa’s successor at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio.  

The chancellor of the UT System serves as the chief administrative officer of one of the largest public systems of higher education in the nation, overseeing nine universities and six health institutions.  The UT System has an annual operating budget of $11.5 billion (FY 2009) including $2.5 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. Student enrollment exceeded 194,000 in the 2007 academic year. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and educates nearly three-fourths of the state’s healthcare professionals annually. With more than 81,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state. 

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Edinburg’s retail economy in November 2008 up more than 15 percent over same month in 2007

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Edinburg’s retail economy during November 2008, as measured by the amount of local and state sales taxes generated by a wide range of local businesses, was up more than 15 percent over the same month in 2007, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced. 

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 A. Martínez, Ph.D.; and Elias Longoria, Jr. 

For the month of November 2008, Edinburg generated $1,197,370.03 in local sales taxes, compared with $1,040,411.98 in November 2007 – an increase of 15.08 percent. 

From January through November 2008, Edinburg generated $15,412,734.51 in local sales taxes, compared with $$14,456,157.67. 

According to the comptroller’s office, Hidalgo County reported a drop of 1.4 percent in total local sales taxes collectively generated by the cities in the county during November 2008. The county itself does not collect a local sales tax. 

For the month of  November 2008, all cities in Hidalgo County generated more than $9.7 million in local sales taxes, down 1.4 percent compared with November 2007, which reached more than $9.9 million. 

Also showing a monthly downturn was Cameron County. 

In November 2008, all cities in Cameron County generated almost $4.6 million in local sales taxes, compared with almost $5.1 million during the same month in 2007, a decrease of almost 8.2 percent. 

Cameron County also does not collect a local sales tax. 

McAllen – the largest economic engine in South Texas – for the month of November – also showed a drop in the monthly sales tax figure: minus 5.62 percent. This represented the second consecutive monthly decrease for the City of Palms. The October 2008 sales tax figure was minus 1.55 percent from the same month in 2007. 

Brownsville, the largest city in the Valley, also reported a drop in local sales tax activities. In November 2008, Brownsville generated more than $2.4 million in local sales taxes, a decrease of 14.5 percent over the same month in 2007, which registered more than $2.8 million in local sales taxes. 

Harlingen showed a decrease, too.  In November 2008, Harlingen reported generating more than $1.4 million in local sales taxes, compared with almost $1.5 million in November 2007 – a decrease of almost 1.6 percent. 

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 November 2008 figure represents local sales taxes generated by monthly filers, and reported to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts in December.  Then, in January, the state sent the November 2008 local sales tax revenue back to the city in the form of a rebate. 

Other major cities in Hidalgo County reported the following monthly sales tax figures. 

• Weslaco’s retail economy generated more than $705,000 in local sales taxes in November 2008, compared with almost $693,000 in November 2007, an increase of 1.75 percent; 

• Mission’s retail economy showed a drop of more than 1.7 percent in November 2008, when it generated $1 million in sales tax revenue, compared with $1.02 million in November 2007; 

• Pharr’s retail economy also showed a decrease.  In November 2008, Pharr reported almost $846,000 in local sales tax revenue, down almost 3.9 percent from November 2007, when it generated almost $881,000 in local sales tax revenue. 

According to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs: 

The state collected $1.86 billion in sales tax revenue in December, up two percent compared to December 2007. 

December state sales tax collections and January allocations to local governments represent sales that occurred in November. 

“State sales tax collections have grown 3.9 percent for the first four months of state fiscal year 2009,” Combs said. “Growth in overall collections has slowed compared to recent years, while remittances from key sectors such as construction and retail trade have declined.” 

Combs sent cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts their first sales tax allocations of 2009 — $459.2 million, up 2.4 percent compared to January 2008. 

Combs sent January sales tax allocations of $309.9 million to Texas cities, up 2.2 percent compared to January 2008. Texas counties received sales tax payments of $29 million, up 8.2 percent compared to last January. 

In addition, $18.3 million went to 148 special purpose taxing districts around the state, up 23.5 percent compared to last January. Ten local transit systems received $101.9 million in sales tax allocations, down 1.4 percent compared to a year ago. 

For details of January 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

For details of December 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 next local sales tax allocation will be made on Friday, February 13. 

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What happens during legislative session, which begins on January 13 in Austin, is vast and varied 

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR

The 81st Legislative Session that runs from January 13 to June 1 will be full of excitement, long arduous hours of work and constant consensus-building. 

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will continue to preside over the Senate, while the House will have a new Speaker. By all accounts it appears likely that Rep. Joe Straus from San Antonio will be the nominee. 

I look forward to working with the Lieutenant Governor and Speaker, as well as my colleagues on both sides of the political aisle and in both Chambers. 

It is my opinion, as well as that of many in the public and private arenas, that the more we work in a cooperative fashion for the good of all Texans, the greater the likelihood that we will accomplish our goals. It is certainly my intent to do so. 

Just as we begin to gear up, South Texas will host its 2009 Legislators’ Tour from January 22 to 25. The biannual event – the Legislature meets every odd-numbered year – is hosted by Bill Summers, president and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, with many others providing assistance and input. 

This year the tour will focus on Cameron and Willacy counties, but regardless of whether the tour takes place in the Upper or Lower Valley, the needs of all of South Texas will be presented. It is also an excellent opportunity for us to do as the old cliché suggests, "put our best foot forward" and let the rest of the Texas Legislature see first-hand that we are a thriving, vibrant community of hard-working individuals wanting to improve our own lives, that of our families and communities, and of the entire state. And we can show them we have the population, willpower and determination to do so. The well-organized and highly informative tour is a classic example of how we can work together, and often do, for the good of the area. 

This part of the state will also be heavily impacted by what is approved in the state budget, which alternates each session as to its chamber of origin. The appropriations bill will be heavily debated in both the Finance Committee, on which I sit, and the House Appropriations Committee, before it is finalized. Passing the state budget is really the only Texas Constitutional requirement for every legislative session. It is up to the State Comptroller to inform the Legislature every session of how much money we have to spend. 

As part of the budget decision, our state agencies, universities and other state-funded entities will give us an accounting of their spending and submit their appropriations requests for the next biennium. 

We will also be proposing, amending, voting on and passing or killing thousands of bills. Oftentimes a bill is amended onto another bill if it is germane. As of Jan. 7, we have filed 884 bills, and this is just a drop in the legislative bucket. The 80th Legislature filed 6,190 bills, passed 1,481 of them and the governor vetoed 51 of those passed. 

To keep up with what we’re doing in Austin, you can log onto the Legislature online at http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/  and obtain extensive information on every bill filed, as well as on schedules for every committee, and for the full House and Senate. Alternatively, the Texas Bill Status at 877/824-7038 (toll-free) or 512/463-2182 will be available January 13 at noon to coincide with the first day of session. 

I look forward to this session and what it promises for South Texas. In the Senate we will also be confirming gubernatorial appointees to state boards, commissions and councils. 

But my favorite part of this whole affair is welcoming our many groups and individuals to "their" Capitol, who come to either conduct business or just say hello and offer support. And I am always deeply touched and filled with pride when I honor constituents with memorial and congratulatory Senate Resolutions. 

Every odd-numbered year I am reminded that serving in the Legislature is northing short of a privilege and an honor. 

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U.S. House Speaker Pelosi administers oath of office to Congressman Rubén Hinojosa for his seventh term

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Monday, January 5, was sworn into office for his seventh term by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, R-San Francisco, in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, which marked the start of the 111th Congress.  

“We are beginning a new era of politics here in Washington, one where the needs of the American people will finally come first again,” Hinojosa said of the occasion. 

The new session marks Hinojosa’s 13th year as the U.S. Representative for the 15th Congressional District of Texas.  

“In the coming year, we face difficult challenges, but also enormous opportunities. Our first order of business is to work with President-elect Obama’s team to create a fiscally responsible stimulus plan that will generate and save millions of jobs in the next two years – and make our economy stronger in the long run. I look forward to working with the President-elect and my fellow Members of Congress on an agenda to get Americans and our economy back on track again,” Hinojosa stated. 

“While this is the worst financial crisis that our nation has seen in a generation, it provides us with the rare chance to build a foundation for a stronger, more competitive nation. By modernizing our infrastructure to create jobs and grow small businesses across America, we can better ensure that the turmoil we have seen in recent months does not happen again. We will strengthen the middle class, not just Wall Street CEOs and special interests in Washington. We will work hard to ensure maximum return for every taxpayer dollar that we spend,” continued Hinojosa. 

“As a senior member of the Education and Labor Committee, I will continue to fight to make a quality education available to every American student. This session we will work to make sure that we invest in and fully implement the new Higher Education Act. We will look closely at how to improve the No Child Left Behind law so that it results in real academic success for all our students. In the coming months, I will also spearhead efforts to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act to modernize our job training programs and expand adult education. The time has never been more critical to make sure that more students graduate prepared for a 21st century economy,” Hinojosa concluded. 

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Senate Finance Committee finishes interim work

By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES 

The Senate Finance Committee adopted recommendations on Wednesday, January 8, from interim studies conducted over the past 18 months. These will be considered by the committee during the upcoming 81st legislative session, and many will be rolled into prospective legislation. While the state economy has fared relatively well in recent months, lawmakers are still concerned about how the state spends its money as the national economy continues to cool. Approved recommendations covered all aspects of the state’s budget, from transportation to health care. 

The committee adopted a recommendation to increase transparency in transportation funding and to make the Texas Department of Transportation more accountable to the legislature. Should TxDOT wish to move money around in its budget, from one line item to another, it would have to have approval from the Legislative Budget Board. It would also require the department’s budget to reflect project costs beyond construction, including maintenance and other costs for future years. In an effort to decrease diversions of state money dedicated to transportation to other purposes, the committee adopted a recommendation to study ways to focus state highway fund dollars on highway construction and maintenance. 

A more controversial recommendation was one to allow cities and counties to raise the local sales tax rate by a quarter-cent in order to provide property tax relief. This increase is subject to approval by the local voters and is contingent on reducing the rollback rate from 8 to 5 percent. Some committee members worried that increasing the sales tax increases the tax burden on lower-income individuals. " I really, truly don’t believe that Texas families would see proportional property tax relief, compared to the financial impact of an increase in the sales tax," said Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. "Furthermore, the increase in the sales tax would negatively impact local economies because of the increase in the cost of goods and services." Committee Chairman Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, noted that this increase could only occur if the local voters approved. 

These recommendations may or may not become part of Texas law. They would be subject to approval by committee, then both chambers of the Legislature before the governor could sign them into law. Interim studies are intended to look at problems facing the state and to direct debate as the Legislature moves into the upcoming session. 

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Sen. Cornyn delivers legislative update to Harlingen chamber, focuses on disaster, levee reimbursements

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Friday, January 9, met with area leaders in Harlingen and discussed a number of issues of importance to businesses and families in the Rio Grande Valley. In his legislative update to the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce, Cornyn stressed his efforts on the federal level to strengthen the local and national economy and updated the group on the status of President-elect Barack Obama’s economic stimulus proposal. 

“Getting our nation’s economy back on the right track is my top priority, and I will continue to push for pro-growth, common-sense solutions, such as lower taxes on small business and families,” Cornyn said. “We need to put tax dollars back where they belong – in the pockets of the hard-working Americans who earned them. I will work to ensure that Texas families are the focus of any economic plan, and that Texas businesses have the tools they need to grow and create jobs. I also applaud the President-elect’s pledge to embrace transparency and his promise to reject earmarks and frivolous spending. Taxpayers deserve to know how the federal government is spending their hard-earned money. Given our economic challenges, we can no longer afford business-as-usual in Washington.” 

Cornyn also discussed his efforts to see that communities in the Valley receive needed federal assistance, including an 18-month waiver of the FEMA match requirement for hurricane-stricken Texas counties. On Tuesday, January 6,  Cornyn joined several of his colleagues in sending a letter to Peter Orszag, President-elect Obama’s nominee to serve as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, urging him to include this assistance in the proposed economic stimulus package. This waiver would provide much-needed relief to counties in the Valley that did not receive the 100 percent match following the devastation brought by Hurricane Dolly. Cornyn also discussed the waiver request Thursday in a private meeting with Orszag. 

Finally, Cornyn discussed flood control, a vital issue for the region. He stated his intent to reintroduce in the 111th Congress his levee reimbursement bill, which would allow county governments in the lower Rio Grande Valley to make immediate repairs to their outdated levee system, and be reimbursed by the federal government at a later date. The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) reported five years ago that the levees along the Rio Grande River were inadequate to protect Texas communities in a 100-year flood event, and a number of levees would have to be raised to protect against flooding. 

“Hurricane assistance and flood control remain top concerns for the Rio Grande Valley, and ensuring the local communities get their fair share of federal assistance to address these issues is a responsibility I take very seriously,” Cornyn continued. “Several communities are still struggling to recover from the devastation brought by Hurricane Dolly, while the levees along the Rio Grande River have been deemed inadequate to protect against future flooding. Local leaders need assistance from the federal government now, and I will continue to be your strongest advocate on the federal level when it comes to these serious issues.” 

Cornyn was joined at the legislative updated by Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell, Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos, Hidalgo County Judge JD Salinas, U.S. Border Patrol RGV Sector Chief Ronald Vitiello, and other local leaders.  

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San Juan, founded by one of Edinburg’s pioneers,  working on centennial book about its own history

The City of San Juan will be celebrating its 100 year birthday in the year 2010.  The San Juan Economic Development Corporation is seeking local historians and volunteers to assist in authoring a book commemorating the centennial celebration of San Juan.  

“We need business, event and family photos of all decades in order to tell the true story of San Juan to the rest of the world.  So much has happened here,” said Myssie Cárdenas-Barajas, project specialist with the San Juan EDC. “A photographic history that accompanies the stories that each one of our families and friends share around the dining table is what we would like to showcase. We really encourage our community to tell their stories and share their photos with us. The entire city has the ability to become the author of this treasured book." 

The 100 year history of San Juan is expected to be published late summer of 2009 and will be available for purchase by the public. Arcadia Publishing will be printing the book and are no strangers to telling the history of small towns in the Rio Grande Valley.  They have already published histories of the County of Hidalgo, the City of Weslaco and the City of Donna. 

“Photos will be returned to you immediately after being scanned. We do not need for them to be donated. However, we do ask that you have them packaged in an envelope and labeled with your contact information and with as much information as possible about the photos that are being submitted,” Cárdenas-Barajas continued.   

She did not want to discourage participation in the book because of the fear of parting with precious heirloom photos of family members. 

“Photos can also be scanned from your home and emailed to me at myssie@sanjuan-edc.com or saved onto a CD and brought into the SJEDC office but they have to be scanned at a resolution of 300 dpi and saved in a grayscale TIFF format," Cárdenas-Barajas explained. 

Area residents who would like to become a volunteer committee member or would like to offer stories and photos are encouraged to contact the San Juan EDC at 783-3448.  

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Attorney General Abbott urges parents to protect young cell phone users from tech savvy predators

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is encouraging parents to utilize tools that can help protect young mobile telephone users from harmful content and child predators. Citing a recent increase in young cell phone users–and increasingly versatile wireless devices’ potential for exploitation by sexual predators–the Attorney General urged parents to protect their children in the wireless world. 

“With so many young Texans using mobile telephones, it is critically important for parents to protect their children from technology-savvy sexual predators,” Abbott said. “By implementing parental controls and learning more about the potential dangers facing young cell phone users, well-informed parents can help keep their children safe. As increasingly sophisticated criminals use new technology to communicate with potential victims, parents and law enforcement must harness all available resources to ensure children are protected.” 

According to a September 2008 study by Harris Interactive, an international research firm, approximately 79 percent of teenagers ages 13 to 19 have mobile devices. As a result, a steadily increasing percentage of children are using cell phones to communicate and access the Internet. By implementing parental controls on their child’s wireless communications device, parents can block young users’ access to potentially dangerous Web sites, such as chat rooms. 

The Attorney General’s Cyber Crimes Unit routinely conducts sting operations in chat rooms, where highly-specialized investigators create online profiles falsely indicating that they are children. Frequently, sexual predators communicate with the undercover officers and ultimately attempt to establish a time and place where the predator intends to meet and sexually assault the “child.” Since Abbott established the Cyber Crimes Unit in 2003, more than 100 online predators have been arrested for soliciting or attempting to sexually assault children. 

Because of the dangers posed by online predators, Abbott recently urged the Legislature to update Texas’ sex offender registration laws. If enacted, the Attorney General’s proposal would require that sex offenders register their e-mail addresses, mobile telephone numbers, social networking aliases and other electronic identification information. 

For tips parents can use to keep their children safe in a wireless environment, visit The Wireless Foundation’s Web site, http://www.wirelessfoundation.org

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El Paso businessmen plead guilty in PSJA school board bribery scheme involving public officials

Two El Paso businessmen have entered pleas of guilty to charges alleging conspiracy to commit mail fraud involving items of value given to public officials in exchange for help in obtaining Pharr San Juan Alamo Independent School District construction contracts, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Monday, January 5. 

Steven Sambrano, 49, and Ramiro Guzmán, 62, both of El Paso, entered guilty pleas on January 5 before U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa in McAllen. They pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide public officials on the board of trustees at PSJA-ISD with items of value in exchange for help in getting contracts for a corporation headed by Sambrano to build two elementary schools and a maintenance building for PSJA.  

Sambrano admitted being an officer with the Sambrano Corporation (commonly referred to as SamCorp) while Guzmán admitted his role was as a consultant for SamCorp and that he aided in obtaining these contracts. During the process of obtaining these contracts and the time period when SamCorp constructed two schools and a maintenance facility, Guzman admitted to providing items of value to PSJA officials. Sambrano admitted approving the reimbursement of corporate funds to Guzman for these items.  

Both men admitted the items included tickets to a San Antonio Spurs game for three board members, clothing purchased for two board members, tickets to Houston Astros games for a board member, tickets to an Oscar De la Hoya boxing match held in Las Vegas, Nev., at a cost of $6500 for various officials with PSJA and, a “Final Four” package (tickets and hotel rooms) to the NCAA basketball tournament in San Antonio provided at a cost of more than $14,000 for a board member. Most of these acts were alleged to have occurred in 2003 and 2004. 

The conspiracy count to which both men entered pleas carries a potential maximum sentence of five years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. There is no parole in the  federal system. Hinojosa set the sentencing date for April 2009 and allowed both men to remain free on bond pending sentencing.  

The case was investigated by agents with the McAllen Office of the FBI, the McAllen office of Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations Division 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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Four Valley residents sentenced for roles in firearms purchases which were transferred to drug cartels

Four people have been sentenced for their roles in the purchase of firearms that were transferred to drug cartels in Mexico, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Thursday, January 8.  

Ramón Lancet Mariscal-Orlandes, 32, a resident alien from Mexico residing in Pharr, received 87 months; Ramón Baltazar Peña, 24, of Mission, was sentenced to 24 months; Marc Anthony Arce, 25, of Pharr, received 57 months; and Apolonia Blanco, 21, of Pharr, was sentenced to four years probation with 12 months of electronic monitoring.  

United States District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa handed down the sentences late Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2009.  

Following an investigation by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in April 2008, the defendants were charged in a second superseding indictment on June 4, 2008, with 13 counts relating to the purchase of firearms destined for Mexican drug cartels.  

On July 1, 2008, Mariscal pleaded guilty to receiving and possessing a machine gun he ordered from a cooperating federally licensed firearms dealer. Mariscal was taken into custody on April 21, 2008, after he had paid the dealer and took possession of the machine gun. Mariscal was also charged with aiding and abetting the making of false statements with regard to 17 other firearms. 

On Sept. 3, 2008, Peña pleaded guilty to making a false statement on ATF Form 4473, stating he was the actual purchaser of a pistol when he was, in fact, not. Peña was also charged with making false statements regarding the purchase of eight other pistols. Also on that day, Arce and Blanco pleaded to knowingly making and aiding and abetting the making of a false statement on ATF Form 4473 when Blanco stated on the form she was the actual purchaser of two Colt AR-15s when she was not.  

Arce and Blanco were also charged with the making and aiding and abetting the making of false statements with regard to the purchase of six other Colt AR-15s. 

Evidence showed that Mariscal hired Peña, Arce and Blanco to purchase firearms that would then be taken into Mexico and delivered to drug cartels. Mariscal, with the assistance of Arce, would then direct the other defendants as to the types and quantities of weapons that were to be purchased. Peña and Blanco would then complete ATF Form 4473, falsely stating Peña and Blanco were the actual purchasers when they knew Mariscal was the actual purchaser. 

At sentencing, the court found Mariscal responsible for more than 25 firearms taken into Mexico while the other defendants were held responsible for more than eight but less than 24 firearms. Evidence adduced at the sentencing hearing showed that Mariscal had inquired as to the purchase of 40 or more additional firearms, all of which would have been destined for Mexico.  

Additional evidence showed all defendants were aware the firearms were being trafficked to Mexico and that four of the AR-15s purchased by Blanco and Arce on March 18, 2008, and then transferred to Mariscal were recovered by Mexican officials when they raided a drug cartel stash house in Mexico. Officials recovered those firearms along with several other firearms and approximately 2000 rounds of ammunition and more than 7000 flash bang grenades. 

The investigation was conducted by ATF and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Steven Schammel.  

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Congressman Hinojosa announces Chemical Society scholarships available for minority students

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, announced on Wednesday, January 7, that Hispanic, African American and Native Indian students in Congressional District 15 studying chemistry, chemical engineering, biochemistry or a chemically-related science are eligible to apply for scholarships offered by the American Chemical Society Scholars Program.  

The scholarships range from $1,000 to $5,000, depending on college level and economic need. Applications are now being accepted through March 1, 2009, for the 2009-2010 school year. 

“These scholarships provide a wonderful opportunity for our area students who dream of pursuing a higher education and a career in chemistry,” Hinojosa said. “In turn, this opportunity will help prepare more students to answer the nation’s need for more scientists and engineers.” 

Applications and instructions are available online at http://www.acs.org/scholars.   

Applicants with questions can email scholars@acs.org or call toll free 1-800-227-5558, extension 6250. The ACS scholarship program is aimed at attracting Hispanic, African American and Native American students who are high school seniors, or college freshmen, sophomores or juniors. Community college students are also encouraged to apply. 

ACS, the world’s largest scientific society, began this scholars program in 1995 in an attempt to attract underrepresented minorities to the chemistry field and to build awareness of the many opportunities for a career in chemistry. To date, the ACS Scholars Program has awarded more than $10.8 million in scholarships to nearly 2,000 undergraduate students. 

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Attorney General Abbott defends constitutionality of prayer during presidential inauguration

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and a bipartisan coalition of Attorneys General representing all 50 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Thursday, January 8, took legal action to defend the constitutionality of prayer during President-elect Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration. In an amicus brief that was authored by Abbott and filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the state Attorneys General also defended the President-elect’s right to say the words “so help me God” while reciting the presidential oath of office. 

“Since President George Washington uttered the words ‘so help me God’ at his first inauguration in 1789, American presidents have a longstanding, historic tradition of invoking the Almighty at their inaugural ceremonies,” said Abbott. “Despite more than two hundred years of established tradition – and no legal precedent for their challenge – a group of activists have asked the courts to interfere with President-elect Obama’s right to pray and invoke God during his inauguration as forty-fourth President of the United States. Today’s legal action reflects a concerted bipartisan, fifty-state effort to defend a constitutional acknowledgement of faith during an inaugural celebration.” 

The states filed their amicus brief in an effort to defeat a legal challenge that activist Michael Newdow and several atheist organizations filed on December 31, 2008. Their lawsuit claims that the longstanding inaugural traditions — prayer and an oath of office that includes the words ‘so help me God’ — violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. 

Public acknowledgements of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding. President George Washington began an unbroken, 200-year tradition when he inserted the phrase “so help me God” at the end of his oath of office in 1789. Today it is common for prayers and oaths invoking God to be incorporated into swearing-in ceremonies across the country. For example, Article XVI, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution provides that all appointed and elected officers shall take an oath of office – and that constitutional oath includes the phrase “so help me God.” 

At the federal level, members of the United States Congress are also sworn-in using an oath that invokes the Almighty. When the 111th Congress convened Tuesday, the House and Senate Chaplains delivered a prayer just before Senators and Representatives recited an oath of office that incorporated the phrase “so help me God.” 

The constitutionality of public acknowledgements of God by governmental institutions has been repeatedly affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. In Marsh v. Chambers, the high court upheld the constitutionality of opening every legislative session with a clergy-led prayer. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has noted, such religious observances are used for “solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.” 

Explaining the states’ legal position, Texas Solicitor General James Ho said: “From daily prayers during legislative sessions to monuments on public property displaying the Ten Commandments, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of official acknowledgments of faith. Despite those high court precedents, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit challenges the President-elect’s inaugural ceremonies–and in effect attacks 25 state constitutional oaths of office. The plaintiffs are unable to cite a single legal precedent to support their challenge, so we are confident it will meet the same fate as their previous, legally baseless lawsuits.” 

The states’ brief in Michael Newdow, et al. v. Hon. John Roberts, Jr. reflects Attorney General Abbott’s latest effort to lead a multi-state defense of public acknowledgments of God. In a 2003 amicus brief that was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of all 50 states, Abbott successfully helped thwart Newdow’s attempt to remove the words “under God” from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. In 2007, he defeated a separate lawsuit attempting to remove the words “under God” from the Texas Pledge of Allegiance. 

Abbott also personally appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he successfully defended a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds. In that case, Van Orden v. Perry, the plaintiff sought to remove a Ten Commandments from the Texas Capitol, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the monument was constitutional.

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