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Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, featured at the podium during the fall 2005 dedication of the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery in Mission – the first such state facility built by Texas – continues to work on behalf of Texas’ military veterans and their families. On Thursday, January 22, Flores filed a bill that would provide Texas veterans, who are physically- or mentally-disabled, as a result of military service, with as much as a 100 percent exemption on their home property taxes. "We are pleased that Rep. Flores has carried this extremely important initiative for veterans of this state. This bill is long overdue and we know that Kino has always taken a proactive approach to help veterans," said Emilio De Los Santos, the Veterans Services Director for Hidalgo County. "This bill not only will help veterans of the past, but also veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars." Flores is a U.S. Army veteran. An identical measure, Senate Bill 469 by Sen. John Corona, R-Dallas, was filed on Tuesday, January 13. See related story later in this posting. 

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In an effort to recover local funds spent on federal levee rehabilitation, U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, featured left, on Thursday, January 22, introduced legislation that would enable the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) to reimburse Hidalgo County for expenses incurred. Hinojosa and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III, featured center, also met on January 22 with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, featured right, to discuss the reimbursement initiative and voice their commitment to repairing the Valley’s levees. Cornyn has introduced similar legislation in the Senate that would reimburse Hidalgo County for its work on federal levee projects. See related story later in this posting. 

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Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas, featured left, on Tuesday, January 20, announced she was retiring at the end of the month as a result of health concerns. She was praised by two area legislators as an inspiration to the region. "I am saddened by the unfortunate, but understandable, retirement of President Cárdenas. She has been an inspiration to me and to countless other people, not only in the Valley, but throughout the state," said Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview.  Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, also noted that "Dr. Cárdenas set a standard for academic excellence and continuous pursuit of self-realization and personal enrichment. During her tenure, Dr. Cárdenas led UT-Pan American’s efforts to further establish the university as a model institution of higher education, serving a highly diverse population and increasing the access to advanced degrees in South Texas." She is featured here, with Dr. Marla Guerra, superintendent for the South Texas Independent School District, at the university in one of her final public ceremonies on Thursday, January 22.  The two leaders signed a new partnership between UTPA and STISD to promote college readiness and success. See related stories on her retirement and on the partnership with South Texas Independent School District later in this posting. 

••••• 

Dr. Alejo Salinas, Ph.D., of Edinburg, accepts ties, in the college’s school colors of green and purple, on behalf of his colleagues on the South Texas College Board of Trustees from students, staff, and administration for helping steer the two-county higher education system through a successful 2008. “Last year was a wonderful year for the college with big growth in enrollment, launching our second bachelor’s degree, and kicking off our 15th anniversary celebration, but one thing is clear – none of this would have been possible without the support of the hardest working board of trustees anywhere in Texas,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president, also featured in this photograph. “Dr. Salinas is one of our biggest advocates and has been true to serving the interests of the constituents he represents. We thank him for the countless hours he spends safeguarding public funds and planning for the future of higher education in the Valley.” Salinas is superintendent emeritus for and a clinical lecturer at The University of Texas–Pan American, and former superintendent of Hidalgo I.S.D. He has served STC since 1996. As the District 5 representative on STC’s Board of Trustees, he represents northwest Hidalgo County, Edinburg, north San Juan, and northeast Pharr. “I sincerely thank the college community for this token of appreciation,” said Salinas. “The biggest and best reward for my work is watching our students cross the stage at graduation each May. I am so proud to be part of this dedicated board and look forward to another outstanding year of academic excellence from our students.” 

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The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce “Chamber Champions” Committee recently honored BBVA Compass Bank as Feature Business of the Month for January, 2009. BBVA is located on 2314 W. University in Edinburg, and may be reached at 956/926-4400. BBVA has been a member with the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce for many years, and has always supported community endeavors. They contribute to local scholarships and non-profit organizations, as well as support local businesses. The Chamber Champion’s Committee meets every first Wednesday of the month; to serve on the committee please contact the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce at 956-383-4974. http://www.edinburg.com 

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Monitor publisher Frandsen warns City of McAllen about decision by Mayor Cortéz to pull legal notices

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Legal notices, which generate millions of dollars annually for many cash-strapped Texas newspapers, usually don’t make headlines.

But a recent warning to McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz by M. Olaf Frandsen, publisher of the McAllen Monitor, may soon draw widespread attention to an important – and possibly threatened – source of revenue for many Texas daily newspapers, which are fighting to hang on to every dollar they can generate as their advertising revenues continue to diminish. 

Legal notices (also called public notices) are advertisements that, by statute or administrative rule, are required to appear in newspapers, according to the Texas Municipal League, an organization that lobbies for hundreds of local governments in the state.  

These notices are required of businesses, individuals and governmental bodies such as schools, counties, cities, and various taxing entities as a method of informing the general public of vital information, the TML notes. 

A legal notice can involve a local government asking for bids on major projects, setting up elections, announcing plans to expand the city limits, and holding public hearings on plans to rezone portions of a community.   

For decades, the publishing of legal notices has been a sacred cash cow for daily newspapers, which were assured by state requirements that local governments would have to buy advertising in their publications. 

Now, evidently, at least one city – McAllen – has challenged that presumption, according to the publisher of the McAllen Monitor, who contends the City of Palms is treading on thin legal ice. 

Frandsen objects that the mayor supposedly made the decision to pull the city’s legal advertising from any local publications owned by Freedom Communications, Inc., which include the McAllen Monitor, Valley Morning Star in Harlingen, the Weslaco Mid-Valley News, and the Brownsville Herald.   

Those legal notices are instead being published in a Pharr-based newspaper, although Frandsen did not identify that publication by name.   

Threat of lawsuits 

Frandsen did issue a thinly-veiled threat of pending legal action against Cortéz and the city for that decision. 

"I am unaware of the reasons for your decision," Frandsen writes to the McAllen mayor. "The decision has left the city vulnerable to voiding a number of actions that either are in process, or planned for the immediate future," Frandsen states, adding, "I would welcome a conversation to rectify, and perhaps reverse, your decision before the city faces a challenge from a person or organization who discovers this lapse in legal requirements."

Frandsen argues that McAllen is in violation of the law. 

According to Frandsen: 

"State law requires municipalities to place legal advertising in a newspaper of general circulation, preferably a daily newspaper, that is distributed principally within the boundaries of the city." 

"Your staff has been placing legal advertising in a weekly newspaper in Pharr, which does not circulate, principally, within the boundaries of the City of McAllen." 

"That renders all legal advertising placed in the Pharr publication, or any other publication, to date, in violation of state law, and thus jeopardizes all actions, bids, meetings and any other functions conducted by the City of McAllen that require the publishing of legal advertising. Technically, all said publications outside city boundaries render city actions null and void." 

The McAllen Monitor publisher encouraged Cortéz "to call me at your leisure, and perhaps we can mutually resolve the issue." 

Website option 

As Frandsen tries to handle this local dispute, he and other daily newspaper publishers statewide have another unsettling financial roadblock, also dealing with legal notices, that will be grabbing more headlines, thanks to the Internet and Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio. 

Corte has filed House Bill 45, which is opposed by the Texas Daily Newspaper Association, which would give municipalities in Texas the option to drop certain legal advertising in local newspaper in favor of posting those notices on those government’s websites. 

In general, zoning involved the power of the government to control the type of structures, such as homes and businesses, that can be built in a certain segment of a city or county. 

HB 45, filed November 10, does not yet have a Senate companion bill.  

Text of Frandsen’s letter 

Both the text of the letter from Frandsen to Cortez, and the text of House Bill 45, follow: 

Frandsen’s letter, dated December 19, and sent to Cortéz’ as a public document by the city on December 22, lays out the local publisher’s contentions: 

Frandsen writes: 

Dear Mayor Cortéz: 

It has come to my attention recently that you have instructed city staff not to place legal advertising with The Monitor or any associated publications.  I am not entirely sure why that decision was reached since I have not heard any communication from you, but if you would allow me to point out a few things: 

1. State law requires municipalities to place legal advertising in a newspaper of general circulation, preferably a daily newspaper, that is distributed principally within the boundaries of the city.  

2. Your staff has been placing legal advertising in a weekly newspaper in Pharr, which does not circulate, principally, within the boundaries of the City of McAllen. 

3. That renders all legal advertising placed in the Pharr publication, or any other publication, to date, in violation of state law, and thus jeopardizes all actions, bids, meetings and any other functions conducted by the City of McAllen that require the publishing of legal advertising.   Technically, all said publications outside city boundaries render city actions null and void. 

Richard, again, I am unaware of the reasons for your decision. But as noted above, the decision has left the city vulnerable to voiding a number of actions that either are in process, or planned for the immediate future.  I would welcome a conversation to rectify, and perhaps reverse, your decision before the city faces a challenge from a person or organization who discovers this lapse in legal requirements. 

Please feel free to call me at your leisure, and perhaps we can mutually resolve the issue. Thanks for your time. 

Best regards,

M. Olaf Frandsen

Publisher/The Monitor

Regional Vice President/Freedom Communications, Inc. 

Text of House Bill 45 

(Editor’s note: All words that are boldfaced and underlined represent a proposed addition to existing law.  All words that are struck through represent a proposed deletion to existing law.) 

A BILL TO BE ENTITLED

AN ACT relating to notice requirements for certain municipal zoning actions. 

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS: 

SECTION 1. Section 211.006(a), Local Government Code, is amended to read as follows: 

(a) The governing body of a municipality wishing to exercise the authority relating to zoning regulations and zoning district boundaries shall establish procedures for adopting and enforcing the regulations and boundaries. A regulation or boundary is not effective until after a public hearing on the matter at which parties in interest and citizens have an opportunity to be heard. Before the 15th day before the date of the hearing, notice of the time and place of the hearing must be published: 

(1) in an official newspaper or a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality; or 

(2) on the municipality’s official website

SECTION 2.  Sections 211.021(a) and (d), Local Government Code, are amended to read as follows: 

(a) The governing body of a municipality with a population of more than 290,000 that has adopted a comprehensive zoning ordinance under Subchapter A may, by ordinance, divide the municipality into neighborhood zoning areas after a public hearing on the matter at which parties in interest and citizens have an opportunity to be heard. Before the 15th day before the date of the hearing, notice of the time and place of the hearing must be published: 

(1) in an official newspaper or a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality; or 

(2) on the municipality’s official website. 

(d)  On the filing of a zoning change application with the zoning commission, the zoning commission shall provide the appropriate neighborhood advisory zoning council with a copy of the application.  The zoning council shall conduct a public hearing on the application and before the 10th day before the date of the hearing must publish notice of the time and place of the hearing: 

(1)  in an official newspaper or a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality; or 

(2)  on the municipality’s official website [before the 10th day before the date of the hearing]. 

SECTION 3.  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, 2009. 

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Rep. Flores files legislation for disabled veterans, wants Gov. Perry to deem it an emergency measure

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A measure that provide Texas veterans, who are physically- or mentally-disabled as a result of military service, with as much as a 100 percent exemption on their home property taxes has been been filed by Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview. 

An exemption reduces or eliminates the payment of taxes – in this case, property taxes on the principal residence of qualified military veterans in Texas.  

Under current law, a totally disabled veteran only can receive an exemption of up to $12,000 from the property’s value, according to Flores. 

But his measure, House Bill 742, would allow a qualified veteran who is completely unemployable as a result of medically-documented disabilities to be free of paying any property taxes on their homestead. 

For other veterans who have partial disabilities, they would receive tax breaks of between $5,000 and $12,000 a year on their principal residence. 

For those veterans, the legislation would remove a significant burden for those whose ability to earn an income is severely hindered, according to a bill analysis of the legislation. 

HB 742 was introduced on Thursday, January 22 by Flores, a U.S. Army veteran. 

"We are pleased that Rep. Flores has carried this extremely important initiative for veterans of this state. This bill is long overdue and we know that Kino has always taken a proactive approach to help veterans," said Emilio De Los Santos, the Veterans Services Director for Hidalgo County. "This bill not only will help veterans of the past, but also veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars."   

An identical measure, Senate Bill 469 by Sen. John Corona, R-Dallas, was filed on Tuesday, January 13.  

HB 742 and SB 469 represent the second major effort in the past two years to bring the property tax exemption to deserving military veterans, said Flores. 

In 2007, Flores sponsored the same version of the bill, which was approved by the Senate, but it was killed, along with hundreds of other bills, in the House of Representatives by a legislative bottleneck.   

"Every session, thousands of proposals are filed in the Legislature, and that means that even a bill like this one, which should get unanimous support from lawmakers, can die because of the way the legislative system works," Flores noted. "But the people of Texas have given the governor the authority to put such a noble measure on the legislative fast-track." 

Flores said he will be working with Perry, along with Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to encourage the governor’s involvement in the success of the veterans legislation. 

"These two men, along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, hold the power in their hands to make sure this bill becomes law," Flores said. "Ideally, we can get this measure through the legislative process early on, and avoid the avalanche of bills later this spring that can doom it." 

According to the bill analysis, the legislation, which also defines a "disabled veteran", features the following provisions: 

• Authorizes the legislature by general law to exempt from ad valorem taxation all or part of the market value of the residence homestead of a disabled veteran who is certified as having a service-connected disability with a disability rating of 100 percent or totally disabled and to provide additional eligibility requirements for the exemption. 

• Authorizes a veteran having a disability rating of not less than 10 percent but less, rather than nor more, than 30 percent to be granted an exemption from taxation for property valued at up to $5,000.   

• Authorizes a veteran having a disability rating of not less, rather than more, than 30 percent but less, rather than not more, than 50 percent to be granted an exemption from taxation for property valued at up to $7,500.   

• Authorizes a veteran having a disability rating of not less, rather than more, than 50 percent but less, rather than not more, than 70 percent to be granted an exemption from taxation for property valued at up to $10,000.   

• Authorizes a veteran who has a disability rating of 70 percent or more, rather than more than 70 percent, to be granted an exemption from taxation for property valued at up to $12,000.   

•••••• 

Congressman Hinojosa, Sen. Cornyn, Judge Salinas join forces to push for federal levee reimbursements

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

In an effort to recover local funds spent on federal levee rehabilitation, U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, January 22, introduced legislation that would enable the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) to reimburse Hidalgo County for expenses incurred.

Congressmen Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, joined Hinojosa as original cosponsors of the bill.

Hinojosa and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III also met on January 22 with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to discuss the reimbursement initiative and voice their commitment to repairing the Valley’s levees. Cornyn has introduced similar legislation in the Senate that would reimburse Hidalgo County for its work on federal levee projects.

“For too long, South Texas has been at serious risk of flooding due to the deterioration of the levee system. Unfortunately, year after year, the IBWC has failed to secure the funds needed to properly protect our residents,” Hinojosa said. “I want to commend Judge Salinas’ initiative in taking over the federal responsibility to reconstruct the levees. Senator Cornyn, the South Texas delegation, and I will do all we can to make sure Hidalgo County is reimbursed for its work. They should not be left empty-handed because the IBWC has failed to live up to its responsibilities.”

In 2005, the IBWC completed a study with the Army Corps of Engineers that concluded that many sections of the levees are sub-standard and would not hold up under severe rain events. The study concluded that a substantial federal investment would be needed to adequately remedy all documented shortcomings. To date, however, the IBWC has not received the federal funding necessary to complete the required assessments and design for critical levee rehabilitation.

"I remain committed to securing much-needed federal funding for this important project. These levees serve a critical role for the safety of Valley residents, and also play a significant role in our national security," Cornyn said. "I want to also thank my fellow Texans in the House of Representatives, Congressmen Hinojosa, Ortiz and Cuellar, for their work to help ensure that local leaders have additional funding to safeguard and protect their communities and local taxpayers are reimbursed. I know that by working together we can ensure the levees protect Valley residents from flooding, help boost security and provide the federal support these communities need."

“Speaking for the entire Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, we are encouraged today that Sen. John Cornyn and Congressman Ruben Hinojosa have so quickly filed levee reimbursement language that will help Hidalgo County recover local funds spent on federal projects,” Salinas said. “We are hopeful that this time around, the levee reimbursement language will gain traction in Congress.”

In addition to introducing the levee reimbursement legislation, Hinojosa has urged lawmakers to include money for the underfunded IBWC so that flood control systems along the Rio Grande could finally be repaired. The stimulus plan unveiled two weeks ago 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 more than a decade. 

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

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Rep. Flores praises legacy of President Cárdenas, pledges public’s involvement in selecting successor

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas, retiring president of the University of Texas-Pan American, on Wednesday, January 21, was praised by Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, for her service on behalf of Texas and for her vision to continue expanding the reach of the Edinburg-based university throughout the region. 

Flores also said he will work closely with fellow legislators and the UT System leadership, including newly-appointed UT System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, in the selection process of an interim and permanent successor for Cárdenas. 

"We will make sure the public is fully informed on how these major steps are taken, and how people from all walks of life from South Texas can participate in selecting the new leadership of our great university," Flores said.  

Paul Sale, UTPA’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, will assume the duties of the presidency until such time as the UT System appoints an interim president, according to H. Scott Caven, Jr., chairman of the UT System Board of Regents.  

Caven added that the UT System "will move quickly to appoint an interim president and I will announce the formation of a presidential search advisory committee as soon as possible to aid in the national search for her successor.”  

Cárdenas, 64, on Tuesday, January 20, announced her retirement effective January 31, citing health concerns. 

"The pressures of the last several months have seriously taxed my health and well-being and impaired my ability to lead the university with the intensity and focus I believe necessary,"  

Cárdenas said in a statement issued on the university’s website. 

She underwent heart surgery in 2007. 

"I am saddened by the unfortunate, but understandable, retirement of President Cárdenas. She has been an inspiration to me and to countless other people, not only in the Valley, but throughout the state," Flores said. "In her four-and-a-half years as leader of one of the best universities in Texas, President Cárdenas has created a legacy that will continue to help current and future generations of the Valley’s best and brightest university students and their families." 

Caven shared Flores’ assessment of Cárdenas’ leadership. 

“On behalf of the UT System, I would like to express our appreciation to Dr. Cárdenas for her service as president of UT Pan American,” Caven said. “She has been an inspirational leader throughout her career in education and public service, and her commitment to higher education has been a tremendous asset to the local community and region. The institution has seen remarkable growth and we are confident it will continue on that trajectory." 

Expanding UTPA’s reach 

Flores, a 14-year legislative veteran and a former member of the House Appropriations Committee – which secured hundreds of millions of dollars for UT-Pan American – has been a strong supporter of  Cárdenas’ efforts to bring a graduate school facility to McAllen. 

Much of McAllen is in Flores’ House District 36. 

"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."

One of her many achievements will be the establishment of graduate school programs in McAllen, Flores predicted.  

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.  

In 2005, Flores authored a measure, carried in the Senate by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which makes it possible for any university in Texas to offer graduate programs in McAllen – or in many other cities, for that matter.  That measure was unanimously approved by lawmakers and became law on September 1, 2005. 

The graduate programs can be offered in a facility, dubbed a "dual usage educational complex" under Flores’ House Bill 1737,  by allowing 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. 

There are 50 community colleges in Texas.  

100,000 square-foot McAllen complex envisioned 

In early December, 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."     

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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Sen. Hinojosa characterizes retirement of UTPA president Cárdenas as a "significant loss" for region

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, issued the following statement regarding the announced retirement of Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas, president of the University of Texas-Pan American, effective January 31, 2009: 

"Dr. Cárdenas’ departure signals a significant loss for the University of Texas-Pan American and South Texas. Dr. Cárdenas set a standard for academic excellence and continuous pursuit of self-realization and personal enrichment. During her tenure, Dr. Cárdenas led UT-Pan American’s efforts to further establish the university as a model institution of higher education, serving a highly diverse population and increasing the access to advanced degrees in South Texas. I wish Dr. Cárdenas the best in her future endeavors and congratulate her on her commitment to the South Texas community.  She brought us a wealth of experience, perspective, and capacity for leadership.  Dr. Cárdenas served as more than just president of UT-Pan American. In every way, she formed part of our culture, our community, and our everyday lives." 

•••••• 

Rep. Gonzáles says state agency will distribute additional $40 million for Hurricane Dolly victims

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Wednesday, January 21, announced the Rio Grande Valley is slated to receive $55 million in federal funding for Hurricane Dolly relief, nearly $40 million more than originally earmarked for the area. 

The increase in hurricane relief funding comes weeks after Gonzáles corresponded with Charlie Stone, executive director of the state Office of Community Rural Affairs (ORCA), asking the agency to reconsider its plan to distribute $1.3 billion in federal funding to areas affected by Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. The draft plan, released in late November, set aside a combined $15 million for the three Rio Grande Valley counties struck by  Hurricane Dolly in July 2008. 

Responding to the draft plan’s allocation for the Valley, Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas told area leaders that Hidalgo County alone suffered $230 million in county-estimated damages from the hurricane, which also devastated parts of Cameron and Willacy Counties. After meeting with Salinas, Gonzáles sent a letter to ORCA  requesting the agency reconsider the funding distribution, pointing out that the plan designated nearly 20 percent of the money for administrative and planning costs that could better serve Hurricane victims. She also spoke with Stone to discuss the possibility of increasing the Valley’s portion of the funding. 

The agency responded by reducing administration costs and transferring $100 million to hurricane relief. The revised funding plan adds nearly $59 million for Housing Tax Credits, and more than $41 million to hurricane damaged regions, of which the Rio Grande Valley will receive nearly $40 million. 

"I am so pleased the Office of Community and Rural Affairs listened and reconsidered the amount of funds going to help Rio Grande Valley hurricane victims," Gonzáles said. "Instead of spending millions of tax-payer dollars for administrative costs, now the money will go to actually help Hurricane Dolly victims." 

In November, the state Office of Rural and Community Affairs introduced a draft plan to allocate $1.3 billion across the state for Hurricane Ike and Dolly disaster recovery. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties) was set only to receive a mere $15.3 million, despite Hidalgo County estimates of more than $230 million in damages. At that time, county leaders jumped into action to educate ORCA about the damages sustained in the Rio Grande Valley by Hurricane Dolly.  

"The fact is, we went to that public hearing in Harlingen well-prepared and with our own comprehensive assessment numbers. We also had the backing of the state and federal legislators who understand our needs. That’s how we got to this point today, where Valley residents will see increased disaster relief," said Salinas. "More money is actually going to help our Valley communities, instead of the administrative coffers of state government." 

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council was scheduled to meet Friday, January 23, to discuss the allocation of $55 million in local disaster recovery funds. 

"Collectively, Valley leaders will ensure that these funds will be maximized in areas of greatest need and that local administrative costs are kept to a bare minimum," Salinas said.   

(Carri Lambrecht contributed to this article.) 

•••••• 

Three Mercedes men sentenced for carjacking, conspiracy to carjack, by U.S. Attorney’s Office

Alfredo Rodríguez, Jr., 20, Jose De La Luz Reyna, 22, and Aaron Ortiz, 20, have been sentenced to 84 months, 108 months and 27 months, respectively, for carjacking and conspiracy to carjack, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced. U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa sentenced the three residents of Mercedes late Wednesday, January 21.

At the hearing, Rodríguez and Reyna were sentenced to nine and seven years, respectively, for carjacking, while Ortiz was sentenced to 27 months for conspiracy to carjack. All three are to serve a three-year-term of supervised released following completion of their prison terms. After hearing arguments from defense counsel and the government, Hinojosa sentenced the three men for taking a motor vehicle from a male victim by the use of force, violence and intimidation. The court considered the extent of each defendant’s involvement in the carjacking, noting that Rodríguez and Reyna had physically beaten the man. 

The three pleaded guilty to their respective charges October 6, 2008. At that hearing, the United States presented evidence showing that on July 29, 2007, the victim was driving his vehicle on FM 491 in Mercedes when he pulled over to assist the defendants and two other individuals whose vehicle had run out of gas. He offered to take a female to a gas station in order for her to purchase gasoline for their vehicle. When the man returned, Rodríguez began beating him with a ball-peen hammer and Reyna began beating him with his hands and feet, all while Ortiz was putting the fuel in their vehicle. Shortly after, Reyna and Ortiz fled the scene in the man’s vehicle, while Rodríguez and the others fled in their own vehicle. The victim sustained several injuries which included a laceration to his head that required seven staple stitches. 

The conviction for carjacking carries a punishment range of up to 15 years imprisonment, without parole, and a maximum fine of $250,000. Conspiracy to car jack is punishable by imprisonment of no more than five years and a maximum $250,000 fine. 

This investigation leading to the charges against Rodríguez, Reyna and Ortiz was conducted by FBI with the assistance of Mercedes Police Department and was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Leo J. Leo III. 

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New UTPA partnership with South Texas Independent School District focuses on enhanced student success

By GAIL FAGAN

Enhanced college readiness and success by Rio Grande Valley students is the goal of a new partnership agreement announced on Thursday, January 22 between The University of Texas-Pan American and the South Texas Independent School District (STISD). 

The partnership, titled “Pathways to Success,” will provide new programs at the district’s four high school campuses designed to ease the transition to and support the success of STISD students in postsecondary education. STISD high schools include South Texas Business, Education and Technology Academy (BETA) in Edinburg, South Texas High School for Health Professions (Med High) and Science Academy of South Texas, both in Mercedes, and South Texas Academy of Medical Technology (Med Tech) in San Benito. 

Dr. John Edwards, UTPA vice president for Enrollment and Student Services, described the agreement to signing ceremony attendees as historic. 

“I know of no other university/school district agreement like this one which provides three avenues or pathways to prepare different cohorts of students for enhanced success at the University,” he said. “This university, under both (UTPA presidents) Dr. (Miguel) Nevárez and Dr. (Blandina) Cárdenas, has effectively worked for many years to improve access to higher education but just as important we have promoted in the Valley factors for success because access to higher education without a good chance at success is no bargain.” 

The partnership, which was approved by the STISD Board on Monday, January 20, includes a “Summer Start Program” that will provide developmental courses to entering freshmen students who will need this assistance to be eligible to enroll in regular university classes. A “Summer University Prep Program” will provide specially designed short-term courses as well as tutoring, mentoring and career assessment to district identified students who have completed their sophomore year in order to better prepare academically for their remaining years in high school. 

Pathways to Success also creates a “South Texas Scholars Program,” which will enable high achieving students who have completed their sophomore year in high school and are in the top 25 percent of their class or have a 22+ ACT score or have a 90+ GPA to enroll both in Dual Credit classes at the high schools as well as in Concurrent Enrollment classes on the University campus or via interactive video. Students who complete the required 12 hours of Concurrent Enrollment courses would be eligible to apply to become University Scholars at UTPA and receive a $3,000 a year scholarship. 

Edwards said because of the partnerships and programs established over the years by UTPA with Valley schools, students are entering the University more prepared and pursuing not only baccalaureate degrees but are also going on to graduate school to earn master’s and doctoral degrees. 

“That will impact our Valley in ways that will be difficult for us today to see,” he said. 

University administrators said they approached the STISD for this collaboration because of its long track record of providing its students excellent preparation for college. STISD high schools consistently rank in the top tier of high schools in the state and nationally. The agreement states UTPA faculty will meet and work with selected STISD teachers who will be hired to provide developmental instruction or as adjunct professors to teach Dual Credit courses on the high school campuses. The initial goal is to start the programs in summer 2009. 

“The STISD has a pool of very talented educators who will work with our faculty to put together these programs for the benefit of our students in the Valley. We hope to see increased collaboration on research and increased collaboration on innovative teaching technologies. I think what you will see through this partnership is not just three programs but the enhancement of the opportunities and the access for our students,” said Dr. Paul Sale, UTPA provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. 

Dr. Marla Guerra, a UTPA alumna and STISD superintendent, said the district is excited about this first “official” partnership with UTPA and for the district’s teachers to have the opportunity to plan and collaborate with University faculty to make sure their students are prepared to perform successfully at the university level and to graduate. 

“Our ultimate goal is that they come back to the Valley and stay here and give back to the community to make the Valley a better place to live and work,” she said. 

Presiding over her last signing ceremony as UTPA president before her retirement on January 30,  Cárdenas said the partnership reflects the great commitment that Valley educators, educational institutions, and districts now have to high quality postsecondary education for its students. 

“Over the course of some years we have raised the bar, raised our vision to the notion that it is not about graduating kids from high school but it is about graduating our young people from college and beyond,” she said. “The most important thing a leader does is to reshape the belief of what is possible. Once you believe something is possible, you begin to act upon it. I’m delighted to be here today to celebrate our belief that anything is possible. Don’t let anyone ever tell you anything else.” 

For more information of the UTPA-STISD’s “Pathways to Success” partnership, contact Dennis McMillan, associate vice president for Enrollment and Student Services, at 956/381-2147 or e-mail dmcmillan@utpa.edu

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Gov. Perry urges Legislature to strengthen private property rights with constitutional amendment

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday, January 22, urged lawmakers to add an amendment to the state constitution to fortify property owners’ rights against abuses of eminent domain. The governor spoke at a press conference with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. 

“Through Senate Bill 7, we made it clear that Texans will not tolerate taking land for economic development or giving it to a private developer,” Perry said. “Unless we take action on these protections, private property rights in Texas will begin to erode and undermine the very character of our state.” 

Senate Bill 7 was passed in 2005 during a special session of the 79th Legislature, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. New London ruled that government entities could use eminent domain authority for economic development projects rather than traditional public uses. The bill prohibits acquisition of land for non public purposes, such as commercial economic development or private use. 

The governor was joined by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. Rob Orr, R-Burleson, who will propose legislation to fortify property rights, and Susette Kelo, plaintiff in the Kelo v. New London case. Duncan will also propose a constitutional amendment to prevent private property from being taken for economic or private development purposes. 

Perry also cautioned against use of the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Hubenak v. San Jacinto Gas Transmission Co., which allows government entities to make an unreasonably low offer on a person’s property, and then respond to an owner’s refusal by taking the land. The governor also commended Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Dallas, for sponsoring the constitutional amendment adopted by voters in 2007, allowing landowners to buy back land at the price the government paid for it if it is not used for the project it was taken for. 

“Government shouldn’t use eminent domain to take someone’s land without trying to buy it from them first,” Perry said. “It is wrong for any government to make a lowball offer, then respond to an owner’s righteous refusal by taking the land. The government owes land owners a genuine good-faith negotiation, not a land grab.” 

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Sen. Hutchison’s ban on tolling federal highways supported by Transportation Secretary nominee

By JEFF SADOSKY

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, on Wednesday, January 21, pressed former Congressman Ray LaHood, the Transportation Secretary nominee, on his stance on imposing tolls on existing federal highways at a Senate Committee on Commerce, Transportation & Science hearing.  

LaHood agreed with Hutchison that tolling should not be imposed on existing roads that have already been paid for by taxpayers, unless a new lane is constructed and the same number of free lanes is maintained. 

“I think we have placed too much focus on private-financed toll roads to solve the problems of urban congestion. In many instances, this has become an abdication of private property rights," said Hutchison. "I am very concerned about our federal government giving incentives to promote toll roads and, in some instances, allowing tolls over every lane of a federal highway that the taxpayers have already paid for."

“The idea of taking…the interstate highway that’s already there and people are using and putting tolls on that… is not a good idea,” said LaHood. 

At the January 21 Commerce Committee hearing to consider his nomination to the post of Transportation Secretary on Wednesday, LaHood testified that out-of-the box thinking would be needed to face transportation challenges, and imposing tolls on existing highways that taxpayers are already using is not a good approach.  

LaHood agreed that tolls could be a viable option for new lanes, highways, or bridges. 

In 2007, Hutchison successfully passed legislation that prohibits the tolling of existing federal highways built with taxpayer dollars in Texas. Hutchison’s amendment passed and was signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2008 THUD Appropriations bill.  

The Senate extended the provision through September 30, 2009. 

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Laredo delegation heads off to Texas Capitol to push its legislative agenda, meet with state leadership

By XOCHITL MORA GARCÍA

It’s time once again for the bi-annual trip to Austin, where Laredo city leaders converge on the state’s Capitol to make sure that city issues are heard.  This year, the city’s delegation departed on Sunday, January 25, and is scheduled to return on Thursday, January 29. 

“Laredo is now the 10th largest city in Texas, and one of its most vital border communities,” said City of Laredo Mayor Raúl G. Salinas. “This trip serves to remind our state elected officials of the pressing needs for our community.” 

Assisted by Laredo’s state legislative consultant, Andrea McWilliams & Associates, delegates are scheduled to meet with various legislators and agencies that govern the issues which most impact Laredo, including water quality, health, and of course, homeland security.  Also assisting the city  with advocacy efforts is lobbyist Mario Martínez. The contacts made by this trip will impact Laredo now and in the future; securing and enhancing the long-standing working relationship already established between Laredo and the state government. 

“Because our state legislative body meets only once every two years, it is imperative that we travel to Austin to remind folks of who we are, meet any newly elected or appointed officials and remind them of the importance of Laredo to the great state of Texas,” said City Manager Carlos Villarreal. 

Highlights of the trip include meetings with Lt. Governor David Dewhurst; Secretary of the State Hope Andrade; Texas Director of Homeland Security Steve McCraw; Department of State Health Services Commissioner David Lakey; Texas Commission on Environmental Quality; and the Texas Water Development Board, to name a few.  Also scheduled are meetings with newly elected Speaker of the House Joe Straus and Senator John Carona and Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.   

Of course, no trip would be complete without meetings with Laredo’s own elected-officials, including Senator Judith Zaffirini, who will be recognizing the Laredo delegation, along with the WBCA Ambassadors, on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday, and Rep. Richard Peña Raymond and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Roma, who sponsored a joint resolution on Monday to declare the day “Laredo Day in Austin.” Finally, the trip wraps up with the annual Laredo Day Reception, on Wednesday night, where all elected officials, directors and staff members stop by to mingle once more with City leaders in a more social atmosphere. 

“Having the city officials here in Austin, meeting with legislators and other state agencies and advocating on behalf of the city’s most pressing issues is very important for the citizens of Laredo, because that means Laredo can push for more state funds allocation, allowing for local tax dollars to be used for other local needs,” said Raymond, D-Laredo.   

Also traveling to Austin will be the Alexander High School Mariachi Band, who will perform in the rotunda of the Capitol on Tuesday and at the Laredo Day reception the next evening.

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Dr. Lorenzo Pace, noted sculptor and author, is featured speaker at Museum of South Texas History to help celebrate Black History Month on February 1

By JOEL A. GARZA

Jalani loved to play. Although his mother warned him not to wander alone, Jalani spent hours in the African jungle playing with his imaginary friends. One day, a strange man came upon him while he was at play and carried him away from the jungle and his friends. The man placed chains and locks on his little wrists and ankles and forced Jalani into a small box, locking the lid. When he was finally released from the awful box, Jalani did not recognize his surroundings. They were very different from his African homeland. In this new place Jalani was forced to work all day in the scorching sun for very little food and no pay. Jalani would never play again.   

To commemorate February as Black History Month, the Museum of South Texas History’s Sunday Speaker Series presents Dr. Lorenzo Pace in an interpretive performance of his children’s book, Jalani and the Lock. The program will take place Sunday, February 1, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

Jalani and the Lock is a children’s book based on the capture and enslavement of Pace’s great-grandfather, Steve Pace. Steve, like Jalani, was kidnapped in Africa and brought to America locked in a box. When Steve was finally freed from slavery, he kept the lock and key used to confine him on that terrifying journey. The lock has been passed from one generation to the next as a reminder of the family’s African roots. Pace currently has possession of the lock and will bring it with him for the program.  

Beautifully written and illustrated by Lorenzo Pace, Jalani and the Lock was named One of the Best Children’s Books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times and was the recipient of the Skipping Stone Honor Award. The book was recently made into an animated musical and performed in Amsterdam. It is presently touring in South America. Lorenzo Pace will perform an interpretation of Jalani and theLock using live African music and exciting visual effects. 

Lorenzo Pace was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He received his BFA and MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago and his doctorate in art education and administration from Illinois State University. Lorenzo Pace skyrocketed to national attention in 2002, when he was commissioned to build a sculpture in honor of the over 400 slaves found buried at New York City’s Foley Square. The result is a 300-ton granite sculpture named Triumph of the Human Spirit. Lorenzo Pace is currently a visiting professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Jalani and the Lock will be available for purchase at the Museum Store, with a special discount for FRIENDS of MOSTH. For more information, call 956/383.6911 or visit http://www.mosthistory.org. The Museum of South Texas History is located on the Courthouse Square in downtown Edinburg. 

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Gov. Perry honors Texas athletes who participated in 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday, January 22, honored Texas athletes and coaches who participated in the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics with proclamations recognizing their accomplishments at a reception and photo opportunity at the State Capitol. 

“This year’s Paralympic games engaged and inspired the world and reminded us of the resilience of the human spirit and the pride of accomplishment,” Perry said. “I’m proud of these Texans for representing the Lone Star State in Beijing and continuing the time honored tradition of sportsmanship and unity at the Paralympic Games.” 

The governor noted that Texas Paralympians are role models for all Texans, motivating others to live healthier lifestyles. For young Texans in particular, these athletes are an example of how discipline, strong character and dedication lead to success. 

An avid runner, Perry has made fitness and healthy lifestyle choices an important part of his healthcare initiatives. Too many Texans face serious health problems as a result of poor nutrition and lack of exercise. Complications from being obese cost the state billions of dollars each year from lost productivity and increased burden on the healthcare system. 

Recently, the governor participated in the Capitol Steps Challenge, a two week competition in which he challenged governors from the 49 other states and their teams to participate by wearing pedometers to clock their daily activity. The winning state team will be declared the Most Active Governor’s Team in the nation at the Capitol Steps Challenge Awards event February  21, 2009, in Washington D.C. They will also be presented with a $50,000 donation to their state’s childhood obesity program by Sir Richard Branson and Virgin HealthMiles. 

In 2004, Perry launched the Texas Round-Up statewide fitness initiative and 10K race to motivate and encourage Texans to become more active and to incorporate healthy choices in their daily lives. Today, Texas Round-Up is an independent not-for-profit organization working to improve the health of Texas through education and promotion of physical activity and healthy living. Texas Round-Up provides Texans with tools, opportunities, and programs that encourage and allow for Texans of all ages and fitness levels to participate. 

To view photos of the governor and Olympic participants, please visit http://www.governor.state.tx.us

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