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When then-Sen. Barack Obama came to the University of Texas-Pan American in late February, you could literally count on one hand the number of elected officials who endorsed the man who would be President – and three of them were from Edinburg. Edinburg Councilmember Gus García, Jr., featured here with his wife, Tonya, publicly supported Obama during his February 22 visit to the University of Texas-Pan American. Also endorsing Obama were Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Edinburg school board trustee Robert Peña, Jr.  The South Texas leaders astonished the Rio Grande Valley Democratic power brokers when they backed Obama against a hugely popular Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Almost a year later, their public support of Obama could help Edinburg and South Texas keep their presence and issues known to the newly-elected President, says the local councilmember. See lead story later in this posting. 

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Key legislators, featured in this file photo during the opening of South Texas College Technology Campus in McAllen in 2006, could soon be joining forces again to bring another higher education crown jewel to the Rio Grande Valley. Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview (third from left), says he is coordinating a public meeting with the City of McAllen, the University of Texas-Pan American, and South Texas College so McAllen officials, led by Mayor Richard Cortéz, may lay out their vision to bring graduate-level university courses to the City of Palms. "For some time now, the leadership of McAllen has been working on ways to continue bringing additional higher education opportunities for the people of South Texas," Flores said. "Under a state law I authored four years ago, the way has been paved for helping do just that." Joining the Palmview Democrat in this shot were, from left: Congressman Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Flores; Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen; Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco; and Cortéz.  Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, carried the Flores legislation in the Senate. See story later in this posting. 

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The University of Texas-Pan American has now made it easier for students to transfer from a two-year college to the University through the help of the newly opened UTPA Transfer Center. A grand opening was held Tuesday, January 13 at the center, which is located at Pecan Boulevard and 29th Street in McAllen. “It is this sort of partnership and teamwork that will pay off ‘en grande’ for the students of STC and most importantly for the economy and prosperity of the Rio Grande Valley,” UTPA President Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas said. “It has become far more urgent that we make sure students have the information they need in order to make efficient decisions in their college pathway.” Featured at the ceremony, from left: Mike Allen, board of trustees, South Texas College;  Dr. Magdalena Hinojosa, UTPA associate vice president and dean of admissions and enrollment services; Dr. Paul Sale, UTPA provost and vice president; Cárdenas; Dr. Shirley Reed, STC president; Alejo Salinas, board of trustees, South Texas College; and Mike Pérez, McAllen city manager. See story later in this posting. 

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Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, featured right, will be in Weslaco on Thursday, January 22, as part of a major legislative tour coordinated by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, according to Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, featured left. Straus will be joined by dozens of other state lawmakers for the only scheduled visit into Hidalgo County, according to the tentative schedule that has been distributed to state senators and representatives by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. The speaker and the legislators will meet for a reception with mayors of Hidalgo County at 7 p.m. at the home of Patti and Larry Dittburner at 2912 S. International Boulevard, according to Peña. Later in the week, the legislative delegation will primarily visit key points in Cameron County. The Rio Grande Valley Partnership is hosting the tour for dozens of legislators from across the state from Thursday, January 22 through Sunday, January 25. "Joe Straus is a good friend and I congratulate him on his unanimous election as our new speaker," said Peña. "We have been able to succeed in the past because of our willingness to work with members on both sides of the aisle. In these dire economic circumstances and with our state facing a grim budget outlook it becomes so much more important to put aside partisanship and do what is best for the state of Texas. That is why I invited Speaker Straus to join our colleagues in a tour of the Rio Grande Valley." Featured, from left: Peña; Straus; Aaron Peña III; and Aaron Austin Peña. See story later in this posting. 

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Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, featured third from right, on Tuesday, January 13, was sworn in for another four-year term representing Senate District 21, which includes Starr County.  Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst presided during Opening Day Ceremonies, officially gaveling to order the 81st Texas Legislative Session. "I truly am delighted to renew my unwavering support for all families in our district," Zaffirini said. "I especially look forward to prioritizing education and health and human services and to ensuring the health and welfare of Texans, especially those whom I represent."  She returns as the highest-ranking senator for Bexar County and the border region. including Starr County. Featured, from left: Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte; Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo; Zaffirini, D-Laredo; Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston; and Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio. See story later in this posting.

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In break from majority, Councilmember  García rolled the dice and won big with President Obama

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

When then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, came to the University of Texas-Pan American in late February, you could literally count on one hand the number of elected officials who endorsed the man who would be President – and three of them were from Edinburg. 

Edinburg Councilmember Gus García, Jr., Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Edinburg school board trustee Robert Peña, Jr. astonished the Rio Grande Valley Democratic power brokers when they publicly backed Obama against a hugely popular Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-New York, for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. 

Almost a year later, their public support of Obama could help Edinburg and South Texas keep their presence and issues known to the newly-elected President. 

A few days after Obama became President-Elect, the local city councilmember shared some of his views of what he hopes will come from taking the political risk, and backing Obama when all other major leaders in the Valley had thrown their support behind Sen. Clinton, who is now Obama’s pick for U.S. Secretary of State. 

Question: 

When then-candidate Barack Obama came to UT-Pan American on Friday, February 22,  I noticed that there were only four elected officials who played a part in welcoming him to Edinburg: yourself, Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, and Edinburg school board trustee Robert Peña, Jr. This group decided early on to back him for president. Now, that decision has come full-circle, and Obama is President-Elect. How do you feel about that? 

Councilmember Gus García

I think it is good, for the sake of the Valley, that there were a few elected officials from the Valley who reached out to Barack Obama. 

I really, really like Sen. Hillary Clinton, and I had the opportunity to meet with her when she came down here to campaign for (U.S. Democratic candidate) Rick Noriega. In meeting with her, she is an intelligent, bright woman, I think she represents a lot of good ideals very similar to Barack Obama. 

But I also felt that we were neglecting the fact that Barack Obama was a potential choice for the Democratic Party. I thought that as a community, we would be remiss if we did not reach out to him. 

Aside from the fact that my political views were very similar to his, as far as change is concerned, and what people from all walks of life shared with him, I just felt that he was more about what I call the American movement of change. I will use (former U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell’s words: He was "a transitional candidate." He appealed more to what Americans were looking for in this country’s economy, foreign affairs,  world view, and other issues. 

The only issue I think he has to hammer hard on is the North American Free Trade Agreement. He needs to realize how important NAFTA is to our community, and what the impact we would have if we were to significantly change the way we do business with Mexico.  Everyone knows Mexico is a partner for us.  We really need to reach out, and thank goodness, we have a few elected officials who have reached out to him, and can talk to his people, and get those relationships started. 

Question: 

What is the significance of a minority, a black man, being elected president? 

Councilmember Gus García: 

It shows the country has come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s, when there was segregation. Hispanics, too, were segregated from whites. I don’t want to say that (Latinos) were oppressed, but we struggled. Our struggle is very similar to the struggles that the African Americans have faced in the United States.  That’s not to say that we are not being given fair treatment now, but there is a plight that minorities, in general, across the United States have experienced that non-minorities have not. 

Even though we are making huge leaps forward in progress, the very fact that we had a minority, a person of color, to the highest office in the nation, shows that America has taken a huge step. It makes me, my family, feel that anything is possible in American, anyone can be elected President. 

Question: 

What message did the election of Barack Obama send to the world? 

Councilmember Gus García: 

Barack Obama is a communicator, obviously.  He does a very good job of reaching out and touching people, their hearts and minds. I think he will be able to communicate and hear what they have to say, and they will reciprocate. We are going to work out a lot of issues. 

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Rep. Flores to coordinate McAllen, STC, UTPA meeting to review graduate school vision

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

The leadership of McAllen, South Texas College and the University of Texas-Pan American will soon meet to hear a plan being promoted by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz, which could eventually bring graduate-level university courses to the City of Palms, said Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview.

Flores’ House District 36 includes a large section of McAllen. 

No time, date, or location has yet been set for the gathering, but Flores said he will be working with the three public entities to coordinate the session at the earliest convenience.   

He also said he wants the meeting to be open to the public. 

"For some time now, the leadership of McAllen has been working on ways to continue bringing additional higher education opportunities for the people of South Texas," Flores said. "Under a state law I authored four years ago, the way has been paved for helping do just that." 

Flores’ measure, carried in the Senate by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was unanimously approved by state lawmakers in 2005. That law 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. 

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. 

Cortéz: Ready to move forward

On Monday, January 12, the McAllen mayor announced that city’s desire to lay out its vision for creating the educational complex. 

"What we would like to do is have (City Manager) Mike Pérez to contact UTPA officials to have a meeting," Cortéz said. "We would also like for them to meet with South Texas College officials so we can all have a very clear understanding what the goals and objectives are, and how they would affect all other educational institutions in the city of McAllen so we can move forward in an orderly way. 

In early December, UTPA president Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas, during a work session with the Edinburg City Council at the campus, said that she wants to establish a presence for the university in McAllen. 

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

100,000 square-foot complex envisioned 

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. 

Flores/Zaffirini law paved the way 

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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"Change or more of the shame?" Senate voting  tradition eliminated to force passage of "Voter ID" proposal

By SEN. JUAN "CHUY" HINOJOSA 

To many Texans, the Wednesday, January 14 debate on the Senate floor might not have made a lot of sense.  I would think most Texans believe that their Texas legislators meet every odd-numbered year for 140 days to address priority issues like health care, public and higher education, tax relief, transportation; in short, issues that impact our lives, our families, and our pocketbooks. 

But on that day, however, the Texas Senate spent the entire day working on politics, not policies.  A group of state senators, led by partisan motives, carved out an exception to a decades-old Senate tradition known as the two-thirds rule.  The two-thirds rule requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate – or 21 members – before a bill can be taken up by the Senate as a whole.  The rule is designed to compel senators to work the entire membership in order to bring a bill up for debate by the entire body.  The rule, as it was written, was the prime reason why the Texas Senate was known for civility and bipartisanship. 

Texans would ask why Senate Republicans (except for one Republican from Dallas) voted to set aside a rule that creates an atmosphere of bipartisanship in the Texas Senate.  Texans would be right to ask that when the results of the general election this past November gave legislators a clear mandate: Enough with the politics. Let’s get to work. 

Was it to make sure the Senate could vote on revisiting the new margins tax that is having a disproportionate impact on Texas’ small businesses? 

To guarantee a freeze of public university tuition rates and fees given the 53% increase since 2003? 

To ensure the state fully funds public schools so every child in Texas receives a quality education in preparation for entering college and an increasingly competitive job market? 

Or maybe to expand health care coverage for Texas children by increasing enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program? 

None of the above. 

Republicans created an exception to the two-thirds rule to bring up a divisive partisan issue – a voter identification bill – and gave that issue priority status. 

When asked by Senate Democrats to validate the urgency of dealing with voter fraud, Republicans did not produce any data. Republicans presented no evidence proving that Texas experiences voter fraud of any significance. When Democrats reminded Republicans that voter fraud is already illegal, Republicans shrugged and continued their political theater.  At no point did Republicans discuss facts or cite statistics, nor were they willing to include other issues in their rule change. 

Senate Republicans voted against including veteran’s benefits, children’s health insurance, tuition rate freezes, and fully funding public schools in the same category as voter identification. This at a time when the country is in a recession, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been eliminated as companies down-size, and record numbers of foreclosures choke off access to credit for millions of Americans. 

Yet Republicans voted as a solid bloc to keep economic issues in second place on the priority list. 

What impact does this rule change have on you? The impact on Texans and their families will be felt as the legislative session moves on. Republican partisans have effectively set their priority:  Partisanship.  Health care, roads, schools, and the economy will have to wait. 

I ask you to remember this when the last weeks of the legislative session are upon us. When Republicans say, "We just don’t have enough time to address issues that matter to middle-class, working families." 

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Rep. Gonzáles says character trumps experience in selection of Rep. Straus as Speaker of the House

(Rep. Gonzáles was one of a handful of state representatives – and the only one from the Rio Grande Valley – asked by newly-elected Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to second his nomination for one of the most powerful positions in state government. Her remarks, made before the House of Representatives on Tuesday, January 13, follow.) 

By REP. VERÓNICA GONZÁLES 

In the city of San Antonio, there is a family that has lived out what it really means when we say that Texans stand tall. They’re the type of people who are not comfortable sitting on the sidelines. They don’t expect government to solve all our problems and they’re not going to wait for somebody else to step up. I am speaking of the Strauses. 

Joe and Joci Straus, Joe’s parents, actively devote their time and considerable talents to improving their community. Tackling tough problems, from helping prevent teen pregnancy to stepping up to support the arts, Joe and Joci Straus have made it their mission to make their community a better place to live, work, and raise a family. What is clear to every member of this body is that Joe and Joci Straus instilled in their son those same values. They ’re here today and for the example that they ’ve set for all of us and for the legacy they’ve left us in their son and our colleague Joe Straus, I ask you to join me in recognizing them. 

Over the last year, the words "hope" and "change" have been widely used, some may say over-used. But one thing we can definitely take from that is whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, as I am proud to be, the status quo is no longer acceptable. This has been the trend nationwide, and it is no different here in Texas, or for that matter, in the Texas House of Representatives. Change has occurred. 

Our body is now made up of 74 Democrats and 76 Republicans. As a Democrat, naturally I had hoped that we’d be electing a Democratic speaker this session, but with numbers so close, I take comfort in knowing that bills will live or die based on their merit and not based on party affiliation, and that members will, by necessity, be required to work together. And under such an atmosphere, it is more critical than ever that our leader, our speaker, be an advocate of the same spirit of cooperation. 

That is why I am honored today to second the nomination of Rep. Joe Straus of San Antonio as Speaker of the House. The last week-and-a-half has been a whirlwind for the members, for the media, but most particularly, I imagine, for Rep. Joe Straus. Joe has been referred to as moderate, young, energetic, well-rounded, independent, a man of integrity, easy-going, and a person willing to work with others. 

Critics have pointed out that he has only two sessions under his belt and say he is politically inexperienced, but I see it differently. Joe Straus is relatively young. I can tell you that I view the ’40s and ’50s much differently now that I’ve crossed over that side of the hill. Joe has shown himself to be independent on more than one occasion, voting against what might be viewed as his party ’s position. And if you ask anyone who has worked with Joe, he is always willing to extend his hand and to work alongside you to make a bill better or to advance good public policy. 

And as for experience, well, I for one do not believe that political experience equates to effectiveness. Rather, I believe it is the character of the man or woman that should be judged. Joe Straus is a real leader, evident from the fact that he has the confidence to surround himself with others who can challenge his opinion. One of Joe Straus’ first hires is former Democratic member Clyde Alexander as his chief of staff. That’s a sign not just of bipartisanship, but of intellectual maturity. It is that spirit of cooperation that the country and that our constituents have been yearning for. It is that spirit of cooperation and that desire to do what ’s right that will hopefully restore civility to the Texas House. 

I know this session will bring many challenges. Our national economy is extremely weak, and while Texas has not felt the effects to the same degree as other states, we too have limited dollars to fund unlimited needs in a state that is highly diverse and that continues to grow in population. Whether you live in North, West, East, or South Texas, as I do; whether your city borders Oklahoma or New Mexico or the country of Mexico, as mine does; whether you are rural or urban or a combination of the two, as my area is; we share many values, to provide a good and equitable education to our children; to take care of the health needs of Texans, especially the youngest and the oldest; to create jobs that fuel our economy; permit families to put a decent roof over their head and provide for themselves; to keep our citizens safe; and the list continues. 

I hope that this session those shared values that unite us will be bigger than us and more important than the past struggles that have divided us. I appreciate the immense responsibility that awaits us and what better way to start than to elect as Speaker of the House a man who may not have all the experience in the world, who has not been grooming himself for this position, but who has a strong admiration for this institution, who views diversity as an asset, not a liability, and who is willing to step up to make Texas better for all Texans. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we ’ve had "Joe the Plumber," and now please join me in electing Joe Straus as Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. May God bless each of you, and may God bless Texas. 

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New House Speaker Straus, legislators to be hosted on Thursday in Weslaco as part of major Valley tour

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, will be in Weslaco on Thursday, January 22, as part of a major legislative tour coordinated by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, according to Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg. 

Straus will be joined by dozens of other state lawmakers for the only scheduled visit into Hidalgo County, according to the tentative schedule that has been distributed to state senators and representatives by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.   

The speaker and the legislators will meet for a reception with mayors of Hidalgo County at 7 p.m. at the home of Patti and Larry Dittburner at 2912 S. International Boulevard, according to Peña. 

Later in the week, the legislative delegation will primarily visit key points in Cameron County. 

The Rio Grande Valley Partnership is hosting the tour for dozens of legislators from across the state from Thursday, January 22 through Sunday, January 25. 

Straus succeeded former Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who did not have the minimum 76 House members pledged to vote for him for reelection. The Speaker of the House, who has the power of life and death over all legislation in the House, is elected every two years, on the first day of the five-month legislative session. 

"Joe Straus is a good friend and I congratulate him on his unanimous election as our new speaker," said Peña. "We have been able to succeed in the past because of our willingness to work with members on both sides of the aisle. In these dire economic circumstances and with our state facing a grim budget outlook it becomes so much more important to put aside partisanship and do what is best for the state of Texas. That is why I invited Speaker Straus to join our colleagues in a tour of the Rio Grande Valley." 

The Rio Grande Valley Partnership brings a delegation of lawmakers down to South Texas every two years, during the start of the regular legislative session, but because the region is so large geographically, the legislative delegation visits western Hidalgo County and Starr County one session, then two years later – as is the case this week – lawmakers cover the eastern portion of the Valley. 

Peña said soon after Straus announced he had the votes to be elected Speaker of the House by his fellow state representatives, Peña secured a commitment from Straus to join the Valley tour. 

Three of the members of the Partnership board of trustees have Edinburg connections: Humberto Garza with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance; J. Humberto Rodríguez with Exquisita Tortillas; and

E. Linda Villarreal, M.D., P.A., with Memorial Medical Clinic. 

The Rio Grande Valley Partnership, headquartered in Weslaco, for more than 60 years has served as a chamber of commerce for the entire Valley, coordinating programs and relationships that advance regional economic development. 

The tentative scheduled tour for the legislators, according to the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, follows: 

THURSDAY, JANUARY 22 

• 11:30 a.m.   

Legislative delegation will depart the Capitol by bus to Austin/Bergstrom Airport for a flight on Southwest Airlines to Valley International Airport in Harlingen. 

• 2:15 p.m.   

Arrive at Valley International Airport.

Welcome Ceremony: Mayor Chris Boswell of Harlingen; Ruthie Ewers, Chairwoman, Harlingen Area

Chamber of Commerce; Crisanne Zamponi, executive director, Harlingen Area Chamber of

Commerce; Nat López, president, Harlingen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce; Michael Browning,

director of aviation, Valley International Airport; and other city, county and state dignitaries.       

• 3:15 p.m.   

Depart for Texas State Technical College-Harlingen 

• 3:30 p.m.   

Arrive at TSTC where the delegation will be welcomed by new president Dr. César Maldonaldo, P.E

A briefing will also be delivered by Pat Bubb, executive director of Tech Prep of the Rio Grande Valley 

• 4:30 p.m.   

Depart for Valley Baptist Medical Center Harlingen. Hosts will be Dan McLean, senior vice-president and CEO of Valley Baptist Medical Center Harlingen and Jim Eastham, president and CEO of Valley Baptist Health System 

• 5:30 p.m.   

Depart for hotel and check in at the Best Western Casa Villa Suites in Harlingen 

• 6:45 p.m.   

Leave hotel for an evening of food and fellowship at Summerwinds, the home of Larry & Patti Dittburner, which will feature a night of interacting with the board of directors of the  Rio Grande Valley Partnership, along with area, city, county and Valley officials. 

FRIDAY, JANUARY 23 

Breakfast at hotel. 

• 8:30 a.m.   

Depart for the Brownsville PUB Desalination Project, presentation by Bill Norris of NRS Engineers, designer and builder of the plant for the Brownsville PUB. and John Bruciak, president of Brownsville Public Utilities Board. 

• 9:45 a.m.    

Leave for Cameron Park, one of the many colonias in the Rio Grande Valley. 

• 10 a.m.   

Arrive at Cameron Park, a colonia that the state has appropriated funds to build streets, water and sewer lines. The delegation will also visit the section of the colonia that has not been improved to show the difference made in the quality of life for Texas colonia residents when the state invests funds to improve colonia conditions. 

•11 a.m.   

Depart for the University of Texas Brownsville/ Texas Southmost College. 

• 11:15 a.m.   

Arrive at the University of Texas Brownsville/Texas Southmost College where the delegation will be met by Dr. Juliet García, president of UTB, and Tony Zavaletta, vice president of external affairs of Texas Southmost College. Lunch will be provided as well as presentations. 

•1:30 p.m.   

Depart for the Port of Brownsville. 

• 1:45 p.m.   

Arrive at the Port of Brownsville where the delegation will be met by the Eddie Campirano, port director who also is a member of the board of directors of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, and the members of the board of directors for the Port of Brownsville, for a tour of the port. 

• 4 p.m.   

Depart for hotel to prepare for evening activities. 

• 6:45 p.m.   

Depart hotel for Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) and the South Texas Veterans Healthcare Center with Speaker of the House Straus. Hosted by Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito. 

• 7 p.m.   

Arrive at the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) and the South Texas Veterans Healthcare Center. Before dinner, Leonel Vela, M.D. MPH, dean of the RAHC, and Larry Alva, director for the South Texas Veterans Healthcare Center, will give provide tours of their facilities. 

SATURDAY, JANUARY 24 

• 2:30 p.m.    

Depart hotel to International Bridge Systems of Brownsville and Cameron County. 

• 3 p.m.   

Arrive at the International Bridge to show part of the Homeland Security Border Wall being built. The delegation will  will be hosted by Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos and Pete Sepulveda, Jr., director of the International Bridge. 

• 4:30 p.m.   

Depart for South Padre Island 

• 5:15 p.m.   

Arrive at South Padre Island. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will be the special guest. Event will be hosted by Bob Pinkerton, mayor of South Padre Island, Dewey Cashwell, city manager of South Padre Island, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Rep. Tara Ybarra Ríos, D-South Padre Island. 

SUNDAY, JANUARY 25 

Breakfast at the hotel. 

• 9 a.m.   

Depart for the Port of Harlingen 

• 9:15 a.m.   

Arrive at the Port of Harlingen, where at least 50 percent of the fuel for the Rio Grande Valley comes in by barge.  The legislative delegation will be met by Port Director Butch Palmer, a member of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership board of directors. 

•10:30 a.m.   

Depart for the Marine Military Academy, and take a tour of replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial.  The delegation will be hosted by Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Cheney, USMC (retired), President of Marine Military Academy and Col. R. Glenn Hill, USMC (retired), Superintendent of Marine Military Academy.  Lunch will be hosted following the tour. 

• 1 p.m.   

Depart to the Valley International Airport for a direct flight to Austin at 2:40 p.m. Upon arrival at 3:45 p.m., a bus will be waiting to take the delegation to the State Capitol 

For further information on the legislative tour, contact Verónica Villegas at 956/458-6557. 

•••••• 

Draft version of national stimulus package include $224 million for levee repairs in Rio Grande Valley, almost $40 million for Edinburg school district

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI 

South Texas is poised to gain significant amounts of federal funding according to details of the economic stimulus package released on Thursday, January 15, according to Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes. 

The House of Representatives made public their draft of the $825 billion, two-year American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which potentially includes hundreds of millions of dollars for levee repair, school districts, rural housing projects, and water projects in the Rio Grande Valley. The stimulus legislation is expected to receive consideration on the floor of the House of Representatives sometime in the two weeks. 

“This is great news for our district. We have a recovery package that not only calls for swift action, it calls for smart investments that will help build a stronger, more competitive nation,” Hinojosa said. “The time is now for our communities to take advantage of the opportunities this bill presents, especially the grants now available for projects that will create jobs and grow our local economy.” 

Over the past several weeks, Hinojosa has urged lawmakers to include money for the underfunded International Border and Water Commission (IBWC) so that flood control systems along the Rio Grande could finally be repaired. The stimulus plan unveiled on January 15 revealed that Hinojosa’s request was met and includes $224 million for IBWC levee repair. This represents more money for levee repair than the Commission has received in the past 20 years. 

“After years of having to make do with a budget that didn’t even allow for annual upkeep, this is a fantastic reversal of fortune for the IBWC,” Hinojosa said. “This federal money means that we can finally repair and raise the levees and ensure that the same catastrophe that happened in New Orleans does not repeat itself.” 

Under the plan, schools in Rio Grande Valley could potentially see an approximately $125 million increase in funds over two years to help low-income and students with disabilities. Schools would also receive roughly $92 million funds to help renovate and modernize their classrooms, labs, libraries, and other facilities over two years – providing students with technologically updated, energy-efficient schools to learn in and creating good construction jobs for local workers. 

“The only way we are truly going to regain our competitive footing is by investing in education,” Hinojosa said. “I am heartened that this stimulus plan recognizes the importance that education plays in our long-term economic security and I look forward to working with the President to make sure that we properly prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy.” 

Economists from across the political spectrum have recently told lawmakers that strategic investments in education will help Americans become stronger and more productive. By creating an economic stabilization fund to help states restore cuts in education, this package will also help local and state school officials keep teachers in District 15 classrooms. 

The following represents the amounts that each Rio Grande Valley school district would receive from certain aspects of the American Recovery and Reinvestment bill.  Specifically, the following figures represent what each school district would receive under the bill’s allocations for Title I ($13 billion), IDEA ($13 billion), and K-12 School Modernization ($14 billion) over FYs 2009 and 2010. These figures do not include the $80 billion State Stabilization Fund that will also be allocated to schools. These are estimates only based on available and current data: 

  • Donna ISD: $25,108,300
  • Edcouch-Elsa ISD: $10,392,400
  • Edinburg CISD: $39,879,400
  • Harlingen ISD: $20,894,600
  • Hidalgo ISD: $5,487,300
  • La Feria ISD: $5,010,300
  • La Villa ISD: $1,335,700
  • Mercedes ISD: $9,353,100
  • McAllen ISD: $26, 811,800
  • Monte Alto ISD: $1,285,100
  • Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD: $38,426,700
  • Progreso ISD: $3,900,600
  • Santa Maria ISD: $2,400,000
  • Weslaco $28,129,500 

Other infrastructure investments potentially affecting the Valley include: 

  • The Bureau of Reclamation: The nation’s water management agency is in position to receive $500 million to help with its enormous $1 billion backlog in water projects. This is good news for the Rio Grande Valley, Hinojosa said, because there are 19 irrigation canal lining projects in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties that are sitting in the Bureau’s backlog. The South Texas water infrastructure system currently loses 25 percent of the transported water to evaporation and seepage. Completion of these projects would significantly improve the conservation of the area’s scarce water resources. 
  • Border ports of entry: The stimulus plan sets aside $1.15 billion for the construction of GSA and Customs and Border Patrol land ports of entry. These funds would be used to improve border security and improve travel times across ports of entry. 
  • Affordable rural housing: The bill includes $500 million to support loans that will help rural families buy homes during the credit crunch. A few days earlier, Hinojosa sent a letter to U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President-elect Obama’s transition team urging the inclusion of rural housing funding in the economic stimulus package. 

•••••• 

Sen. Zaffirini, whose district includes Starr County, sworn-in as second-highest ranking senator

By CELESTE VILLARREAL 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the second longest-serving Texas state senator, on Tuesday, January 13, was sworn in for another four-year term representing SD 21. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst presided during Opening Day Ceremonies, officially gaveling to order the 81st Texas Legislative Session.

"I truly am delighted to renew my unwavering support for all families in our district," Zaffirini said. "I especially look forward to prioritizing education and health and human services and to ensuring the health and welfare of Texans, especially those whom I represent." 

She returns as the highest-ranking senator for Bexar County and the border region. including Starr County.

First elected in 1986, Zaffirini has received more than 600 awards and honors for her legislative, public service and professional work, including more than 100 awards for excellence in communications.

Her work ethic is reflected in her 100 percent voting record in the Texas Senate, having cast more than 38,530 consecutive votes since 1987. She has sponsored and passed 581 bills and 51 substantive resolutions and co-sponsored and passed another 278 bills.

Her 2007 legislative successes include sponsoring and passing Senate Bill (SB) 6, which protects Texas children and families from sexual communication and solicitation via the internet; SB 99, which supports persons living in Texas’ most impoverished communities by increasing the number of state agencies required to submit data about projects that serve colonias; SB 1050, which creates new work-study opportunities for college students by developing a program through which students could serve as peer mentors and tutors as part of their work-study financial aid program; and SB 1051, which provides waivers to the core curriculum for foreign students enrolled in international institutions in a joint-degree program with Texas colleges and universities.

Zaffirini pre-filed 49 bills before the 2009 session began, including many relating to higher education, public education, health and human services, juvenile and criminal justice, agriculture, transportation, judiciary and technology.

"I look forward to working with Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and my Senate colleagues to pass legislation that places families first, improves public and higher education and increases access and availability of quality health services," she said.

The lieutenant governor is expected to appoint new Senate committees this month. 

•••••• 

Sen. Hinojosa, Nueces County representatives file bills to create Dr. Héctor P. García Day

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS 

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Corpus Christ, Solomon Ortiz, R-Corpus Christi, and Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, on Friday, January 16, filed Senate Bill 495 and House Bill 661, respectively, creating a state holiday in honor of Dr. Héctor P. García, a Mexican-American civil rights leader who founded the American GI forum and contributed to the initial push for equal protection under the law for disenfranchised communities. 

García served with distinction during World War II, receiving a Bronze Star with six battle stars for his actions. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan, the highest civilian award for distinguished service. 

Hinojosa and Herrero, Ortiz, and Hunter issued a joint statement regarding García’s legacy and the importance of honoring his contributions to the American civil rights landscape: 

"Dr. García embodies the spirit of selflessness and public service. As a private American citizen, Dr. García exercised his constitutional rights to elevate awareness about the plight of neglected Americans. As a physician, he provided access to medical care to a traditionally underserved community. As a soldier, he demonstrated valor and sacrifice as he fought to defend the world against tyranny.  Dr. García left us a legacy of discipline in our commitment to public service. In doing so, he defined for us the true meaning of liberty. Texas would be honored to recognize his work." 

The state holiday would be observed on the third Wednesday in September.  Public agencies and schools could observe the holiday with activities and ceremonies relevant to García’s efforts specifically and the civil rights movement in general. 

Cecilia Akers of San Antonio, daughter of the late García, commented on the proposed legislation that honors her father. 

"My family is grateful for the Nueces County delegation’s recognition of my father’s legacy," Akers said. This legislation would allow my father’s achievement to be celebrated in public schools and in communities across Texas so the impact of his lifelong work will be recognized. He improved the quality of life for all Americans. We hope for timely passage of these bills by the Texas Legislature and thank all those who are participating in getting these bills final approval." 

•••••• 

UT-Pan American Transfer Center offers transfer information for South Texas College students

By MELISSA C. RODRÍGUEZ 

The University of Texas-Pan American has now made it easier for students to transfer from a two-year college to the University through the help of the newly opened UTPA Transfer Center. 

A grand opening was held Tuesday, January 13 at the center, which is located at Pecan Boulevard and 29th Street in McAllen. 

“It is this sort of partnership and teamwork that will pay off ‘en grande’ for the students of STC and most importantly for the economy and prosperity of the Rio Grande Valley,” UTPA President Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas said. “It has become far more urgent that we make sure students have the information they need in order to make efficient decisions in their college pathway.” 

Mary de León, associate director of Admissions and New Student Services, said the center was developed to assist South Texas College students in the transfer process from STC to UTPA. 

“The center was created to provide students with UTPA information in the beginning of their freshman year at STC and to assist them in transitioning successfully to UTPA,” de León said. “This will allow them to plan early and to chart their path to success in their preferred field of study.” 

Dr. John Edwards, UTPA Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services, said the center, across the street from the STC campus, will provide a convenient place for students to get information. 

“We want to do anything we can do to help ease the transition for students coming from STC, or even for those preparing to transfer,” Edwards said. “An office right across the street will enable students to walk over and receive accurate information about all of the transfer processes.” 

STC President Dr. Shirley Reed welcomed UTPA to the neighborhood at the grand opening ceremony and said this act of customer service was to be commended. 

“Our students are consumers like any other consumers. They want convenient access to information and immediate gratification,” Reed said. “This is going to go a long way to serve the almost 7,000 students who have taken classes at South Texas College who are now at UT Pan Am pursuing many programs including master’s degree programs.” 

Transfer Center staff will provide assistance with admission and academic counseling as well as financial aid and scholarship information. The center is equipped with laptops to facilitate the processing of admission applications, FAFSA submittal, transfer orientation reservations and class registration. 

“More importantly, we will dedicate a lot of time to creating awareness of campus life services and programs such as housing, clubs and organizations, the Learning Assistance and Writing Centers, athletics and fine art events, and the Distinguished Speakers Series,” de León said. 

There will be two full-time staff members and two students housed at the center daily and admissions counselors will visit several times a week. The center will be open from 9 a.m.- 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on Friday. The staff will also collaborate with STC staff to schedule campus visits for students who are interested in learning more about UTPA. 

“The collaboration with STC is important because together we are affecting the lives of many students, and their families, and we’re also positively affecting the social fabric and economic structure of South Texas,” Edwards said. “We can provide help to even more students only through collaborative processes. Our goal is to encourage even more of the STC students to complete their higher education program following their work at the community college.” 

According to de León, approximately 1,000 students transfer from STC to UTPA each year. 

Edwards said students should take advantage of this center to begin learning about the positive benefits of receiving a bachelor’s degree from a university. 

“Through this center students can begin planning their entire higher education program early in their community college experience and ensure that the courses in which they enroll at STC will count toward fulfilling degree requirements at UTPA,” Edwards said. 

For more information about the UTPA Transfer Center, call 956/292-7441 or 956/292-7442. 

•••••• 

Sen. Zaffirini files bills spanning System Benefit Fund, children’s immunization, airport funding, emergency service district boards

By CELESTE VILLARREAL 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed legislation on Tuesday, January 13, to reconstitute the system benefit fund as a trust fund, give parents options for immunizing their children, secure aviation facilities development and establish the title of members of boards of emergency services districts. 

Zaffirini’s Senate District 21 includes Starr County. 

“These bills focus on the priorities of District 21, balanced with those of the families of our great state,” Zaffirini said. “Each is simply a starting point and will evolve through constructive negotiation that is the hallmark of the legislative process. Accordingly, I urge anyone interested in any of my bills to contact me or my staff immediately so that we can consider any suggestions for improvement.” 

Senate Bill (SB) 464 would ensure that the System Benefit Fund, created in 1999 with electricity deregulation, will be used for its intended purposes of providing electric rate discounts and home weatherization upgrades to reduce electric bills of low-income customers. Since 2003 funds received through the System Benefit Fund have been diverted from these programs and applied to other state budget needs. 

SB 465 would change the title of members of emergency service district boards from "commissioner" to "director" to alleviate public confusion between the roles and responsibilities of emergency service districts and the county commissioners courts. 

SB 466 would protect voluntary exclusion rights of those who do not want to participate in the Texas Immunization Registry, while increasing the number of persons who are vaccinated fully. This is responsible public health policy that will decrease societal risk and exposure to increasing outbreaks of preventable diseases and their long-term impact. What’s more, this measure will require persons to demonstrate personal responsibility for ensuring their exclusion from the system. 

SB 467 would take any sales tax revenue generated from aviation or air traffic-related sales and place it in a special airport development fund. If passed, the bill would provide up to $50 million for airports statewide, more than three times the amount that the Texas Department of Transportation provides currently for airport funding. 

"I look forward to working with Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and my colleagues in the legislature to enact these and other bills that will address priority issues such as health, human services, economic development and the economy,” Zaffirini said. “The well-being of families and communities of Senate District 21 and Texas is my main focus." 

•••••• 

Attorney General Abbott supports court ruling allowing prayer in Presidential Inauguration

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott supported a Thursday, January 15 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton clearing the way for prayer at President-elect Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration and the presidential oath of office to include the phrase, “So help me God.” 

“The January 15 federal court decision marks an important victory for all Americans’ right to freely express their religious faith,” said Attorney General Abbott. “Since President George Washington first said ‘So help me God’ in 1789, American presidents have a longstanding, historic–and constitutionally established–tradition of invoking the Almighty at their inaugural ceremonies. Recognizing that right, the federal district court rejected the plaintiffs’ request and cleared the way for President-elect Obama to invoke God during his historical inauguration.” 

Abbott and attorneys general representing all 50 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands filed their amicus brief in an effort to defeat a legal challenge that activist Michael Newdow and several atheist organizations filed on Dec. 30, 2008. Late Thursday, January 15, Walton refused to grant the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction – an action which could have prevented President-elect Barack Obama’s oath from including the phrase, “So help me God,” and prayer during the inauguration. 

The states’ action in Michael Newdow, et al. v. Hon. John Roberts, Jr. reflects 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. 

•••••• 

Hearst Corporation could transform struggling Seattle newspaper to online-only publication

The Hearst Corporation on Friday, January 9, announced that it is offering for sale the Seattle PostIntelligencer (P-I) and its interest in the Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) under which the P-I and The Seattle Times are published. 

Hearst said that should a sale of the P-I not occur within 60 days, it will pursue other options for the property. These options include a move to a digital-only operation with a greatly reduced staff or a complete shutdown of all operations. In no case will Hearst continue to publish the P-I in printed form following the conclusion of this process. 

In Texas, Hearst Corporation owns the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, The Laredo Times, The Beaumont Enterprise, the Midland Daily News, and the Midland Reporter-Telegram. 

Regarding speculation over Hearst’s possible interest in acquiring The Seattle Times, Hearst said such an acquisition is not under consideration.

The P-I, which Hearst has owned since 1921, has had operating losses since 2000. The P-I lost approximately $14 million in 2008 and its forecast anticipates a greater loss in 2009.

“Our journalists continue to do a spectacular job of serving the people of Seattle, which has been our great privilege for the past 88 years,” said Steven R. Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers. “But our losses have reached an unacceptable level, so with great regret we are seeking a new owner for the P-I.”

Operating under a JOA since 1983, the P-I and the Times have maintained separate news operations, with The Seattle Times Company handling production, circulation, advertising sales and all other non-news operations for both newspapers. The agreement provides that the revenue taken in by the Times’ business operation, after deducting operating costs, is shared 60 percent to the Times newspaper and 40 percent to the P-I. The newspapers must then pay for their editorial operations from their shares of these funds.

The P-I, founded in 1863 as the Seattle Gazette, has daily circulation of 114,000, according to the most recent report from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The Sunday newspaper, which is a joint enterprise of the Times and P-I, has circulation of 382,000, according to the same report. Seattlepi.com, the newspaper’s Web site, had page views of approximately 500 million in 2008, and has an average of 4 million unique monthly visitors, according to the Web site’s internal logs.

Hearst has retained newspaper industry investment bankers Broadwater & Associates of New York to search for a buyer for the P-I.

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