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State Farm Insurance Company on Thursday, January 29, awarded $50,000 to The University of Texas-Pan American toward a project to promote service learning and safety awareness among South Texas educators and students. The twofold initiative, titled Project SELS (Service Learning and Safety), will incorporate workshops and other communication tools to engage more faculty, teachers and students in service learning activities related to their studied disciplines as well as opportunities for State Farm agents to promote safety awareness practices to create safer neighborhoods in South Texas. Area lawmakers, company officials, and university leaders were joined by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, during a press conference to announce the grant award. Featured, from left:  Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa; James Langabeer, UTPA Vice President for Business Affairs; Janice Odom, UTPA Vice President for University Advancement;  Congressman Rubén Hinojosa; Lyra Vela-Salazar, State Farm agent; and Amelia Folkes, State Farm public affairs specialist. 

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Community leaders from the City of Edinburg, including the majority of the Edinburg City Council, will be in Austin on Tuesday, February 10 to observe Edinburg Day at the Capitol, according to Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, featured center. The group will participate in legislative meetings with state leaders, visit with key lawmakers, and receive a special recognition in the House and Senate chambers. "Edinburg has much to be proud of and I am honored to once again host my hometown at our state Capitol," said Peña. "I want to thank those city leaders who will travel to Austin to help make this day a great success. It is important that other legislators hear about the great things happening in our community." With Peña, during a gathering last fall at Edinburg City Hall are, from left: Councilmember Alma Garza; Mayor Joe Ochoa; Peña; Councilmember Noé Garza; and Councilmember Gus García. The four city officials are part of the delegation scheduled to travel to the Capitol. See story later in this posting. 

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Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, featured during a reception in October at Edinburg City Hall, on Wednesday, February 4, voted to approve the final version of legislation that will provide health care to 11 million children in modest-income families. The bill was immediately sent to President Obama, who signed the legislation into law late that Wednesday afternoon. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) Reauthorization Act becomes the second bill that President Obama has signed into law since he became President. "We have a duty as a nation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. This SCHIP legislation does just that by providing health care to millions of children whose families otherwise would not be able to afford private insurance,” Hinojosa said. “It is simply unacceptable that America continues to be the world’s only developed nation that does not provide health care coverage to all children.” See story later in this posting. 

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Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, featured here with Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, M.D., the new chancellor of the University of Texas System, was recently appointed chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, which will have jurisdiction over many major issues facing public universities, medical schools, law schools, and community colleges in Texas. That and other Senate committee appointments were made on Friday, January 30, by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He reappointed her to the Senate Finance, Health and Human Services, and Administration committees and to the upgraded Economic Development Committee. "Because higher education issues are so important and timely, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst empowered us to address them more swiftly, efficiently, effectively and fairly," said Zaffirini. Her higher education committee will process legislation addressing pressing issues facing colleges and universities, including tuition deregulation, the top ten rule and the need for additional tier one universities. See story later in this posting. 

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Regional Mobility Authorities would post their full agenda packets under legislation being developed by Rep. Flores

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Texans would have advanced access, through the Internet, to the full agenda packets that are provided to the board of directors of all Regional Mobility Authorities under a measure being developed by Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview. 

"The work of the RMA leadership is of such vital public interest that, under my measure, all Texans would have the ability to begin viewing on the Internet, three days before an RMA meeting, the full agenda packet from which the RMA board members make their critical decisions." 

A Regional Mobility Authority is a public entity that can be created to serve one or more counties on crucial transportation issues. 

Currently, RMAs – and the majority of other public bodies, such as school districts, city governments, county commissioners courts, universities and community colleges – are only required to provide an advance notice of their agendas on their respective Internet web sites. 

These basic agendas offer a very limited view to the public meetings, only revealing the list of items to be discussed at a scheduled meeting, along with the time, date, and location of the meeting. 

But under his planned measure, Flores would greatly expand the information available to the public relating to the scheduled activities of a Regional Mobility Authority. 

"A RMA is a very important public body with a governing board of directors, whose members are appointed by elected leaders, that has the power to raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on major projects, including toll roads," said Flores. "Since RMAs have and will have a great impact on our present and future roads and highways throughout Texas, it is vital that we have transparency in the process." 

Flores’ pending legislation to post the full agenda packet would add a major new elements to the Texas Open Meetings Act and to the Texas Public Information Act, two major state laws which promote public access to government documents and actions. 

He is proposing that the full agenda packet be posted on an RMA’s official website, 72 hours before an RMA meeting, and that the full agenda packet be defined to include, but not be limited to, staff recommendations, support materials, correspondence, contracts, maps, and other materials related to the items scheduled for review and action by the RMA board of directors. 

For most RMA board of directors, the full agenda packet comprises several hundred pages, but under Flores’ measure, they would be easily accessible and reviewable by anyone on the Internet. 

Materials relating to items that are listed for review behind closed doors in executive session – issues such as personnel matters, real estate considerations, and legal matters – would not be included in the full agenda packet that would be posted on the Internet, he said. 

"Throughout Texas, many public entities, such as the University of Texas System, and in my legislative district, the City of McAllen, provide their full agenda packets on the Internet, and post them three days before their board of regents and city commission meetings, so we know it can be done," Flores noted. "The Internet is a great avenue to promote open government and public access. This is an excellent opportunity for RMAs throughout Texas to continue informing their constituents." 

There are several RMAs in Texas, including two in deep South Texas – the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority and the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority. 

RMAs have broad powers, according to state law, including the authority to finance, design, construct, operate, maintain, and expand many different types of transportation projects, including toll highways and airports. 

They have numerous options to raise money, from selling revenue bonds to receiving government grants and loans. RMAs have the power to acquire or condemn property for their projects. 

Flores said he has asked the Texas Legislative Council, which is the research arm of the House of Representatives, to draft the legislative measure. 

Other RMAs in Texas include: 

  • Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which serves Travis and Williamson counties;
  • Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, which serves Bexar County;
  • North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority, which serves Smith, Gregg, Cherokee, Harrison, Rusk and Upshur counties;
  • Grayson County Regional Mobility Authority, which serves Grayson County; and
  • Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority, which serves the City of El Paso. 

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Valley legislators among lawmakers calling on cable TV companies to broadcast legislative sessions

By MATTHEW JONES 

On Monday, February 2, a bi-partisan group of 102 House members sent a letter to Texas cable and satellite providers asking them to cooperate with the legislature to televise the Texas legislative sessions across the state. 

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, led the effort to collect the signatures.  

All seven House members from the Rio Grande Valley signed on to the letter. 

"This is the logical next step in making state government more transparent and accountable", Castro said. 

Currently, only Texas residents living in Austin, or those that have access to the Internet, have the luxury of tuning into live broadcasts of the floor proceedings. Although all Texas residents are able to watch live telecasts of local and federal proceedings through networks such as C-SPAN, no local channel carries the legislative sessions that occur in Austin. 

"We understand that each company will face diverse challenges in terms of broadcast delivery technology, but what we’re saying in this letter, is that ‘we are here to help.’ Let’s work together to make this happen for Texas", Castro says. 

Initial discussions with cable and satellite providers, including AT&T, have indicated that this project is feasible, pending a few infrastructure modifications. House members are now calling on all parties to come to the table, and negotiate a way for all Texas residents to have easy access to their state government. 

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Tuition Moratorium Bill by Sen. Hinojosa endorsed by powerful Senate Finance Committee chairman

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS 

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, primary authors of Senate Bill 105, also known as the Tuition Moratorium Bill, on Thursday, February 5, announced that a powerful Senate leader, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has signed on as a co-author to their bill. 

Ogden’s name is the latest addition of Senate supporters, which now boasts eight Democrats and eight Republicans.

SB 105 freezes tuition rates at public universities for two years and ties future increases to the rate of inflation.  Since the Texas legislature deregulated tuition in 2003 – thus granting tuition setting authority to the boards of regents for each university system – tuition rates at Texas’ public universities have increased by 53 percent, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 

Hinojosa and Williams issued the following joint statement: 

"Clearly, tuition deregulation failed. In fairness, the state also failed to adequately fund higher education. The end result is middle-class Texas gets caught in the squeeze, and relief can only come from the legislature. 

"With SB 105, we would reestablish legislative oversight on tuition rates, and we now have a majority of the Senate committed to helping grow our academic capital by investing in the education of our brightest young Texans. We believe that this bipartisan coalition indicates how fundamental access to education is for Texas. Education is the great equalizer, and this initiative lowers barriers to entry to our state universities."

In addition to Hinojosa, Williams, and Ogden, the latest list of Senate co-authors for SB 105 also features:

  

  • Sen. Robert Deuell, M.D., R-Greenville;
  • Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay;
  • Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston;
  • Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington;
  • Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville;
  • Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston;
  • Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio;
  • Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso;
  • Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas;
  • Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler;
  • Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville;
  • Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston; and
  • Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Ft. Worth.  

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EEDC to contribute almost $150,000 towards key improvements to cargo apron at Edinburg airport

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

The city’s economic development agency has agreed to invest almost $150,000 for needed strengthening of the cargo apron at the 553-acre city-owned airport, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced. 

A cargo apron is general defined as the paved strip in front of and around airport hangars and terminal buildings. 

The South Texas International Airport at Edinburg, formerly known as the Edinburg International Airport, is located about 11 miles north of the city’s downtown business and government district. It is strategically positioned near U.S. Highway 281, which has been undergoing extensive expansion over the past dozen years in order to handle increased personal and commercial vehicle traffic as Hidalgo County continues to grow in population and as a center of trade and commerce. 

Under the agreement, approved by the Edinburg City Council on Tuesday, February 3, the EEDC, which is the jobs-creation arm of the city council, will eventually be reimbursed by the city government. 

The project will cost about $2 million, with the federal government, through a grant administered by the Texas Department of Transportation Aviation Division, covering most of it, according to City Manager J.J. Rodríguez, who provided a written report to the city council. 

The city previously set aside $115,00 for its anticipated local share of the costs, but on February 3, announced it would have to come up with about another $300,000.  

As a result, the city decided to dip into the extensive financial resources of the EEDC, which generates millions of dollars annually from the city one-half cent economic development sales tax.  

The airport project is among the economic development projects allowed under state law for the Edinburg EDC. 

The EEDC is governed by a five-member board of directors, who are appointed by the Edinburg City Council.  That EEDC Board of Directors includes former Mayor Richard García as president, along with Mayor Joe Ochoa, Fred Palacios, Dr. Glenn A. Martínez, Ph.D., and Elias Longoria, Jr. 

The contribution by the EEDC was part of the consent agenda for the council’s regularly-scheduled meeting. 

All items listed under the city’s consent agenda represent issues that have unanimous support from the city council, and usually do not generate debate, although they can be brought up for additional review during the city council meetings. 

According to the agreement with the EEDC approved by the city council, the improvements, referred to as "construction of the additional strength", are considered by city leaders as "fundamentally essential to the Air Cargo Facilities Development, consistent with the airport’s Master Plan, as well as a necessary function in order to meet projected demand for services." 

In his overview to the city council, Rodríguez said EEDC’s contribution was important for the ongoing transformation of the 553-acre South Texas International Airport at Edinburg into a major commercial cargo airport. 

"In the continuing effort to develop the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg into a multi-modal logistics and distribution center, the city applied for and received federal financial assistance to complete construction of a rigid pavement cargo apron and appurtenances associated with the operation of the air cargo facility," said Rodríguez. 

The city manager also provided the following details: 

• Funds were appropriated through an Airport Project Participation Agreement (APPA) with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Aviation Division, for and on behalf of the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  As per the agreement, federal financial assistance would be for 90 percent (90%) of all eligible costs, and the city’s participation would be for 10 percent (10%). In addition, the city specifically agreed to pay any project costs exceeding the maximum federal share. 

• Bids were received and opened on December 11, 2008, revealing a construction cost of approximately $1,607,702 after adding contingencies and associated fees to the bid amount. Of this cost, only $1,329,550 is eligible for federal financial assistance. Therefore, the maximum obligation of the United States, payable under the agreement, shall be $1,196,595, and with the city’s share amounting to $411,107. 

• Prior to bid advertising, the city had submitted its estimated participation share, in the amount of $115,000.  Currently, additional funds in the amount of $296,107 must be remitted. 

Other airport highlights 

In addition to the ongoing and planned improvements, the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg,  has previously secured key designations as a User Fee Airport by U.S. Customs, and also as a Foreign Trade Zone by the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

A User Fee Airport is a small airport which has been approved by the commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to receive, for a fee, the services of a CBP officer for the processing of aircraft entering the United States and their passengers and cargo.

Customs inspectors accept entries of merchandise, collect duties, and enforce the customs laws and regulations. 

The user fee designation will increase commercial activity and usage of the airport, generating more cargo being transported and planes using the Edinburg International Airport. 

The user fee designation will attract companies to locate in and develop the airport’s industrial park. As new businesses come to the airport, they will create local jobs and pay local taxes. 

Foreign trade zones are areas in the United States where importers may store, exhibit, and process foreign goods without paying customs duties (import taxes). 

A foreign trade zone allow businesses to save money through the reduction, elimination, or deferral of customs duties and other benefits that help U.S. firms compete with foreign companies. 

Several years ago, then-City Manager Wendy Smith, in her February 26, 2006 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report to the Edinburg City Council, reflected on other key elements and impact of the city-owned air facility. 

Her observations follow: 

“In May 1998, the Edinburg International Airport completed improvements totaling $2.6 million. Improvements consisted of a 5,000-square-foot main runway, runway lighting, taxiways, beacon tower, apron areas, tie downs, and a 24-hour self service coastal fuel farm. 

During Fiscal Year Ending in September 30, 2001, the Edinburg International Airport had completed construction of 10 hangers and its Airport Terminal Building. 

On January 26, 2001, the city’s airport became the first one in South Texas to achieve the designation as a user fee airport. This designation allows companies and individuals to use the airport for a fee that will pay for a U.S. Customs inspector stationed at the airport to accept entries of merchandise, collect duties, and enforce customs laws and regulations. 

The Edinburg International Airport (renamed the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg in July 2007) also received the foreign trade zone designation that allows merchandise to be imported and stored or assembled at the airport without incurring tariffs until they leave the trade zone intact or as part of an assembled product. 

These designations and the approval of a 165-acre industrial park site, at the airport are part of the city’s plan to develop the airport as a commercial air cargo center. The Edinburg International Airport is located on 535-acres of land with approximately 165 acres designated as an industrial park, which affords unlimited potential for development and growth. 

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Edinburg to be honored at State Capitol on Tuesday, February 10; will push for higher education issues

By ORLANDO SALINAS 

Community leaders from the City of Edinburg will be in Austin to observe Edinburg Day at the Capitol on Tuesday, February 10. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, will lead the Rio Grande Valley’s House legislative delegation in welcoming the community leaders to Austin. The group will participate in legislative meetings with state leaders, visit with key legislators and receive a special recognition in the House and Senate chambers.  

"Edinburg has much to be proud of and I am honored to once again host my hometown at our state Capitol," said Peña. "I want to thank those city leaders are traveling to Austin to help make this day a great success. It is important that other legislators hear about the great things happening in our community." 

Mayor Joe Ochoa, Councilmember Alma Garza, Councilmember Noé Garza, Councilmember Gus García, Lee Castro, chairman of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, and Miss Edinburg Alexis García are scheduled to be acknowledged on the floor of the House of Representatives. 

Peña has authored House Resolution 277, declaring February 10, 2009 as Edinburg Day at the Capitol. The resolution also highlights important projects, developments and activities that the community has experienced over the last couple of years. Peña will also ask the legislative body to formally recognize Edinburg’s 100 years of rich history marked by a centennial resolution.  

"Edinburg is pacing the phenomenal growth in the Rio Grande Valley," said Peña. "Even during these tough economic times major businesses, retailers and restaurant chains are locating to our city. South Texas continues to buck the national trend and nowhere is that more evident than in Edinburg." 

This is the fourth time Peña has had the opportunity to host his hometown at the State Capitol.  Edinburg Day is an important tool in informing other legislators and state leaders about the needs of the community.  

"We need to continue fighting for funding for the proposed Fine Arts Complex, the Regional Academic Health Center and other programs at the University of Texas Pan American," said  Peña. "We are going to keep fighting for of our teachers, retired teachers and our public schools.  Edinburg has a bright future ahead and I will continue to work for those resources our community needs to keep moving forward." 

Peña is serving his fourth term in the Texas House. 

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Hidalgo County Commissioners Court lays out state legislative agenda for action this spring at Capitol

By CARI LAMBRECHT 

The Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court has revealed its 2009-2010 legislative agenda, in advance of Hidalgo County Day at the Texas Capitol scheduled for Tuesday, February 10. 

The Commissioners’ Court is seeking numerous changes to Texas law. These suggested changes were compiled from several county departments with expertise in subjects such as health, emergency management, drainage, and planning.  

The county’s legislative agenda will be presented formally to state elected officials on February 10, although the county’s legislative affairs director, in coordination with the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, has already begun working on these issues with the state representatives and senators for this region. 

Some of the changes sought would ban wild animals and certain domesticated breeds of dogs, regulate development along a tax reinvestment zone established for the future Hidalgo County Loop and seek a zero-percent interest loan from the state so that construction could begin on the Raymondville Drain.  

Other proposed changes are to amend the Election Code as it pertains to the requirements of elections administrators and the abilities of elections commissions; to appropriate funding for the U.S. 281projects of Falfurrias, Ben Bolt, George West and Premont; as well as to authorize the county to provide primary care through its health clinics. 

“Our state elected officials look toward county and city leaders to help them develop legislation that would most benefit the people we serve. We are pleased to provide this summary of recommendations and we will continue to work closely with our delegation in Austin to implement these changes,” said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III.  

The complete Hidalgo County 81st Legislative Program Summary is as follows: 

County Operations 

• Increase the eligibility requirements for elections administrator position; grant authority to the elections committee for removal and suspension of elections administrator. (HB 113 by Rep. Aaron Peña):

• Require the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to obtain approval from a county impacted by a proposed tire reclamation facility; and

• Increase the courthouse security fees authorized under the Code of Criminal Procedures. 

Public Health and Public Safety 

• Authorize the county to provide primary care services through its health clinics;

• Allow for the cremation of paupers/unidentified human remains.  (SB 571 by Sen. Juan Hinojosa);

• Ban and/or increase restrictions on certain dangerous dogs and other wild animals;

• Establish a task force to monitor dangerous sexual offenders and provide funding for the prevention of child exploitation and for victim support services;

• Appropriate $250,000 per each year of the biennium to the county’s health department via a rider to the Texas Department of Health (TDH) for public health activities related to disease surveillance and emergency preparedness (there is a similar request by El Paso, Laredo and Cameron County);

• Appropriate $200,000 per each year of the biennium to the county’s health department via a rider to TDH for primary care and outpatient substance abuse services to be provided by the Hidalgo County Substance Abuse Facility;

• Appropriate $400,000 for FY 2010 to the county’s health department via TDH rider to purchase a mobile health clinic to provide basic care and outreach services to residents of colonias;

• Obtain state/federal approval to declare the “border region” a special needs jurisdiction under the Centers for Disease Control; and

• Support additional funding for juvenile diabetes prevention. 

Transportation and Infrastructure 

• Grant the county zoning authority relating to development within an established Transportation Reinvestment Zone;

• Appropriate funding for the U.S. 281 projects of Falfurrias, Ben Bolt, George West and Premont;

• Authorize the Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 to obtain a no-interest loan from the state for the Raymondville Drain Project; and

• Authorize the HCCD No. 1 to recapture storm and underground water to reprocess and sell for reuse. 

Economic Development and Planning 

• Amend Ch 381 of the Local Government Code to allow counties to enter into cooperative agreements with cities and other public entities for purposes of creating a regional economic development program;

• Exempt land donated for public use from platting requirements;

• Amend HB 573 from last session to provide the county with enforcement authority for non-payment of fees imposed for street lights established in subdivisions located in the county; and

• Authorize the county to impose a fee for utility certificates issued for subdivisions located outside or within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of municipalities. 

Veterans 

• Adopt enabling legislation for Proposition 9 that would grant a full exemption from ad valorem property taxes on a residential homestead to veterans who are classified as totally disabled due to circumstances related to their military service. 

Emergency Management 

• Establish a State Communications Interoperability Program Fund; provide funding; and

• Appropriate funding for the Disaster Contingency Fund established last session by HB 2694 to provide local governments and State agencies assistance for responding to disasters that are declared by both local governments and the Governor. 

Support Items 

• SB 294 by Hinojosa which expands to all counties the ability to impose additional vehicle registration and road and bridge fees for mobility projects;

• Additional funding for the expansion of allied health and nursing programs;

• Creation of a medical school and law school in the Rio Grande Valley;

• “Meet and Confer” proposed legislation by SEIU;

• Support increased funding for childcare services for drop out recovery programs; and

• Support increased funding for adult education. 

For more information, visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us or visit Salinas on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hcipo, his blog at http://www.judgejd.com and the Hidalgo County Judge’s Office Facebook group 

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Congressman Hinojosa supports bipartisan bill to provide health care for 11 million children in U.S.

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI 

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, February 4, voted to approve the final version of legislation that will provide health care to 11 million children in modest-income families. The bill was immediately sent to President Obama, who signed the legislation into law late Wednesday afternoon. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) Reauthorization Act becomes the second bill that President Obama has signed into law since he took office. 

“We have a duty as a nation to protect those who cannot protect themselves. This SCHIP legislation does just that by providing health care to millions of children whose families otherwise would not be able to afford private insurance,” Hinojosa said. “It is simply unacceptable that America continues to be the world’s only developed nation that does not provide health care coverage to all children.” 

The SCHIP legislation preserves the coverage for all 7.1 million children currently covered by SCHIP, including preserving the coverage of 710,690 children in Texas.  It also extends coverage to 4.1 million uninsured children who are currently eligible for, but not enrolled in, SCHIP and Medicaid, including 490,000 children in Texas. The state of Texas is home to more uninsured children than anywhere in the nation. 

“Our region desperately needs this bill, which would provide a measurable difference in the health of our families and economy,” Hinojosa said. “Covering more eligible children is not only the right thing to do – it makes good economic sense. It is the most cost-effective way to cover our kids so that fewer taxpayer dollars go toward emergency room treatments – by far the most expensive way to care for a child’s health.” 

Hinojosa also praised a key provision in the bill that would give states the option of covering legal immigrant children and pregnant women who have been in United States less than five years under SCHIP and Medicaid. 

“The current five-year wait period can mean the difference between preventing or treating health conditions that can affect a child’s prospects for a healthy and productive life. Similarly, a pregnant woman cannot wait five years for pre-natal care that will help her have a healthy baby,” Hinojosa said. “It makes sense to cover these women and children without delay in order to prevent critical health problems from going unchecked.” 

Hinojosa added, “I truly believe a society is ultimately judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. This is an important first step toward making sure that every child in our nation has access to affordable, high-quality health care.”  

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Joint bills filed by Sen. Lucio aim to help Texans qualify for federal unemployment benefits

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ 

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, recently filed Senate Bill (SB) 573 and co-authored SB 377 to change unemployment eligibility in Texas, qualifying the state for over $530 million in federal stimulus funding, authorized through the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act.  

"I filed SB 573 in 2007 to bring added fairness to unemployed Texans," explained Lucio. "The re-filed legislation is especially timely today because it will give us access to over $500 million in federal funding."  

Lucio’s bill will allow the government to use a worker’s most recent earnings to calculate eligibility for unemployment benefits. Currently, the last three to six months of a worker’s wages are disregarded, a practice stemming from a time when unemployment insurance claims were processed manually. This policy discriminates against low-wage earners in Texas, hindering the state’s economic recovery. The federal government requires that Texas change this policy to become eligible for an estimated $530 million. If Lucio’s bill is passed, Texas will immediately receive one-third of these stimulus dollars 

The release of the remainder of these funds is contingent upon Texas modernizing its unemployment insurance system further. SB 377, filed by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and co-authored by Lucio, will expand the provision of unemployment insurance benefits to part-time workers who are searching for part-time work.   

Research indicates that Texas’ unemployment insurance policies keep people unemployed longer because a significant portion of the workforce – especially women and minorities – must often seek part-time work. Low-wage earners, women and part-time workers who receive unemployment insurance are most likely to spend this money on basic necessities, such as housing and groceries. Consequently, every dollar of unemployment insurance spent is estimated to have a return of $2.15. 

“These two measures will benefit vulnerable workers in our state, as well as small businesses," Lucio added. "It is critical that we act swiftly to assist Texans struggling to support themselves and their families."  

The cost of implementing these reforms, an estimated $38 million per year, represents a significant savings for Texas businesses. Since Texas’ unemployment fund is now below the state’s own required minimum level, businesses will be taxed to make up the fund’s estimated shortfall of $467 million.  SB 573 and SB 377 will help restore Texas’ unemployment fund so that businesses will not be burdened with this additional tax. 

“Reforming Texas’ unemployment insurance is a quick and intelligent way to bolster the Texas economy. For the sake of individual Texans and the vitality of our business community, we must act now,” concluded Lucio. 

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Texas budget deliberations highlighted Texas Senate activities from February 2 through February 6

By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES 

During the week of February 2 through February 6, the Senate Finance Committee began public hearings on the state budget, considering how to pay for services in the face of a national economic crisis. 

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are the three South Texas senators who served on this powerful committee, which writes the Senate’s version of the state budget. 

The fiscal picture for Texas isn’t as dire as other states, but decreases in state revenue will make the budget tighter this session.  

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus – both Republicans – sent a letter to state agencies on Monday, February 2, requesting a 2.5 percent cut in budgets for this fiscal year. While education, health care, and criminal justice agencies are not part of this request, Dewhurst said other agencies need to find areas where they can save money.  

"As the agencies come before us in Senate Finance we’re going to want to understand what they’ve been able to do, and if they can’t come up with savings, explain to us why," he said. 

Also on Monday, February 2, John Helleman, Chief Revenue Estimator for the Comptroller’s office, briefed Finance Committee members on the current state of the Texas economy.  

He said that state revenues have decreased, with sales tax collections slowing and less money coming in from the new franchise tax than expected. The housing market in Texas isn’t as bad as elsewhere; home sales are down, but not at the level seen in other states. Texas can expect to lose about 110,000 jobs through the third quarter of the fiscal year, said Helleman, mostly in oil and gas, construction and the retail sector. According to projections, he told Senators, the state can expect slight economic gains in 2010, with a full recovery expected by 2011. 

On Wednesday, February 4, the committee began hearings on Article III of the state budget, which funds public education. The cost to the state for education will be less in the 2010-2011 biennium, according to the Legislative Budget Board, due to higher than expected property value growth, combined with student growth under projected levels. The state will also have to make one less payment to the Permanent School Fund this biennium, to correct for past payments deferred one biennium ahead in past sessions. 

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott appeared before the committee on Wednesday, February 4, laying out agency priorities for the biennial budget. At the top of the list is $64 million for training teachers how to administer and teach for the new end of course exams. He also wants more money to improve adult remedial education. Scott told members he would like to use this session to better define the scope and goals of his agency.  

"I would like to use this session as an opportunity to discuss the role of the agency, its size, its mission, and its duties," Scott said. "I’d like to have a discussion with everyone of you on what you expect from the agency and how we can better focus our agency resources on improving student performance." 

On Thursday, February 5, senators grilled representatives from the University of Texas Investment Management Company (UTIMCO), after the board of directors unanimously approved $2.3 million in bonuses, including a million dollar bonus for UTIMCO CEO Bruce Zimmerman. The controversy arose because the endowment lost 27 percent during the economic downturn. UTIMCO Board  

Chairman Robert Rowling said the bonuses were paid based on gains made the previous year, when the fund outperformed expectations. Given the current economic situation, some members thought paying Zimmerman the bonus showed a lack of political sensitivity.  

"It shatters the trust in government. We’re in serious times," said Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler. "Most people out there in the street are scared to death, and we just paid you a million dollar bonus, and the fund is down 27 percent. It’s not right. It may be technically right by the contract, but it’s not right." 

Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, told UTIMCO to appear before the committee again in 30 days, and to come with suggestions on how to change the current compensation arrangement, and also ways to ensure the independence of the board.  

"UTIMCO is a creature of statute, and it can be changed by statute, and it will be changed by statute if there are not changes down there," Ogden said. 

On Friday, February 6, the committee continued deliberations by hearing testimony related to two major state pension funds, the Teachers’ Retirement and the Employee Retirement Systems. These funds, which pay for retirement and health care for teachers and state employees, have also posted losses during the fiscal decline. 

The Senate was scheduled to reconvene on Monday, February 9, at 1:30 p.m. 

•••••• 

Congressman Hinojosa, citing local concerns, votes to delay switch from analog to digital TV until June 12

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, February 4, voted in favor of legislation that would delay the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasts to June 12, 2009. The bill will now be sent to President Obama, who is widely expected to sign the legislation into law. 

Under current law, all full-power television stations are required to cease analog broadcasts on February 17, 2009. As the transition date has drawn near, it has become increasingly evident that the existing government programs to support the transition are insufficient. In January, Nielsen estimated that 6.5 million American households are completely unprepared for the switch. In the 15th Congressional District, more than 6,000 households still remain on the digital television converter waiting list. 

S. 352, the DTV Delay Act, will take a number of steps to mitigate the impact created by the transition. The provisions include permitting consumers on waiting lists and those who never redeemed coupons to receive coupons for converter boxes. 

Hinojosa said: 

“I want to thank our community leaders and broadcast networks for the tremendous work they have done to ready our residents for this transition. Unfortunately, there are 150,000 Texans, not to mention the millions of other households across the U.S., who still remain on a waiting list to receive a coupon for a digital converter box. This delay will help lessen the negative impact on consumers and make sure that as many Americans as possible are prepared for the switch in June.” 

•••••• 

Texas Association of Broadcasters opposes federal bill to require "performance tax" on radio stations

The Texas Association of Broadcasters, an Austin-based trade association representing the interests of Texas’ 1,200+ free, over-the-air radio and television stations, on Wednesday, February 5, announced its opposition to federal legislation that would impose a new performance fee on local radio stations for playing music for free over-the-air.  

The fee would amount to a “performance tax” on stations, the TAB contends. A resolution announcing TAB’s opposition was signed by every other state broadcast association in the country. 

S. 379 was filed with four co-sponsors. H.R. 848 was filed with 19 co-sponsors, including Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Houston. Jackson-Lee is the only Texas co-sponsor to date. 

In contrast, 15 other Texas members of Congress have signaled their intentions to oppose the performance tax by co-sponsoring a resolution co-authored by Reps. Gene Green, D-Houston and Mike Conaway, R-Midland.  

These members include Reps. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound; John Carter, R-Round Rock; John Culberson, R-Houston; Chet Edwards, D-Waco; Kay Granger, R-Arlington; Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Sam Johnson, R-Plano; Michael McCaul, R-Austin; Randy Neugebauer, R-Lubbock; Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi; Ted Poe, R-Humble; Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso; Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio; and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas.  

TAB is urging the remaining Texas members of Congress to join the Green/Conaway effort. We will contact stations individually to enlist their support. 

The Green/Conaway resolution – to be filed in a few days – is identical to one that gained majority support last session. It must be re-filed because a new Congressional session has been convened. 

•••••• 

Sen. Zaffirini appointed by Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to lead Senate Higher Education Committee

By CELESTE VILLARREAL 

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst recently appointed Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, which he simultaneously upgraded from a subcommittee. He also re-appointed her to the Senate Finance, Health and Human Services and Administration committees and to the upgraded Economic Development Committee. 

"Because higher education issues are so important and timely, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst empowered us to address them more swiftly, efficiently, effectively and fairly," said Zaffirini. 

She explained that legislation reported favorably by her committee will flow directly to the Senate for consideration, instead of to the Senate Education Committee. Her committee will process legislation addressing pressing issues facing colleges and universities, including tuition deregulation, the top ten rule and the need for additional tier one universities. 

Zaffirini previously chaired the Higher Education Subcommittee since 2005; the Senate Finance Subcommittees on Capital Funding, on Contracting and Higher Education; and the Health and Human Services Committee from 1993 to 1999. 

She has served on the Senate Finance Committee since 1991 and was a member of the Education Committee since 1989. As Vice Chair of Finance from 2003 to 2007, Zaffirini was instrumental in drafting a balanced budget while championing education, public safety and health and human services. 

"Also serving on the Economic Development Committee will be an exciting new challenge,” Zaffirini said. “I look forward to collaborating more closely with groups including the Texas Border Coalition as we consider legislation to enhance economic development.” 

Also a former Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, on which she has served since 1989, Zaffirini is known for her expertise in writing Article II, the health and human services portion of the state’s budget. 

When the 2003 legislature faced a $10 billion shortfall, she was credited with saving many essential services and programs that otherwise may have been eliminated or slashed severely. 

Zaffirini will serve a fourth term on the Senate Committee on Administration that processes legislation for the Local and Uncontested Calendar—approximately 75 percent of the bills passed by the Senate each session. 

The committee also oversees Senate committee budgets, major travel and purchases. 

"These committee assignments reflect the areas that are most important for the families of Senate District 21 and will facilitate my addressing our highest legislative priorities," Zaffirini said. "I am grateful to Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and look forward to continuing to work with him and with my legislative colleagues while championing legislation and funding that will benefit Texans. I am confident that the 81st legislative session will be highly productive." 

•••••• 

Attorney General Abbott’s Fugitive Unit arrests sex offender who used Internet network MySpace.com

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s Fugitive Unit on Tuesday, January 27, arrested a convicted sex offender who accessed a social networking Web site in violation of his parole conditions. According to Fugitive Unit officers, Jesse Clay Scott, 33, of Seguin used both his home computer and his cell phone to access his MySpace.com account. Scott was paroled in 2008 after serving five-and-a-half years in prison for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old Bexar County female. 

“That arrest reflects the Fugitive Unit’s ongoing effort to crack down on convicted sex offenders who illegally access social networking sites,” Abbott said. “Despite his release conditions, the subject in this case repeatedly used his personal computer and cellular telephone to access a MySpace.com profile. This case demonstrates that parents and law enforcement must work cooperatively to educate young users about the potentially dangerous individuals hiding behind a seemingly benign online profile.” 

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles frequently prohibits paroled sex offenders from using the Internet. Despite that prohibition, investigators with the Office of the Attorney General discovered that Scott established an online MySpace account, which he used on his personal computer. After Scott’s arrest, investigators discovered that he also used his cellular telephone to access his online profile. 

Scott’s arrest comes just weeks after a technology industry task force released a report downplaying the dangers facing children online. The report and task force stem from a “Joint Statement on Key Principles of Social Networking” agreement that 49 state attorneys general negotiated with social networking giant MySpace.com. Citing inadequate safeguards for children and concerns that the agreement would give parents a false sense of security,  Abbott declined to join the agreement. 

•••••• 

Congressman Hinojosa announces $2.8 million for Hidalgo County to help with area foreclosures

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, February 3, announced that Hidalgo County has been awarded a $2.8 million grant that will help ease the impact of property foreclosures in the area. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the County one of its newly created Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grants that enable state and local governments to acquire and redevelop foreclosed properties that might otherwise become sources of abandonment and blight within their communities.

“We are in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Many, including myself, believe that in order to fix the crisis we must start where the problem began – by stabilizing our housing markets. This grant will help Hidalgo County begin to address the manifold effects foreclosures have on a community including the abundance of abandoned properties and, most importantly, the loss of homes by families,” Hinojosa said. 

The U.S. Housing and Urban Development allocated a total of $3.92 billion to all states and particularly hard-hit areas trying to respond to the effects of high foreclosures. According to HUD, Hidalgo County may use the funds for the following uses: 

  • Establishing financing mechanisms to assist individuals in purchasing foreclosed homes;
  • Acquiring and rehabilitating abandoned or foreclosed home;
  • Establishing land bank for foreclosed homes:
  • Demolition of blighted structures; and
  • Redevelopment of vacant and demolished properties. 

“There is still much to be done before we completely solve the housing crisis. However, this grant is a positive step forward in our efforts to rebuild our economy and prevent more families from losing their houses and part of the American dream.” 

••••••

UTPA Alumni used book drive set for February 14

If you have stacks of books on your shelves or in your closet that you’ve read several times over, you may be wondering what to do with them. Instead of constantly leaping over those stacks or throwing them out, hold on to them a little while longer because the UTPA Alumni Association will be holding a region-wide used book sale on February 21 and will be holding a collection drive through February 14. 

Valley residents are urged to collect any books they may have and drop them off at Office Furniture USA at 1008-A E. Pecan Blvd. in McAllen. The UTPA Alumni Association will hold a collection day on Saturday, Feb. 14, from 9 am to 3 pm at the same location. Books can also be dropped off at the Alumni Association on the UTPA campus. 

"We’ve already had lots of people contact us that they want to donate their used books to us. We’re accepting them at any time, but we set February 14 as our regional collection date to give people an opportunity to clean out their closets and shelves and deliver the books on the same day," committee chairperson Arnoldo Mata said. 

Some of the books already donated cover a wide spectrum of reading material. According to Mata, items already donated include books on parenting teenagers, classic fiction, religion, woodworking, music, children’s books, cookbooks, popular business, computers, westerns, romance novels, crime, and books on politics. 

"There is something for just about everybody. I don’t think anyone who comes to our sale will be disappointed," Mata said. "We’ll have paperbacks and hardcover books for all interests. But, right now, we really need people to bring their books in so we can start sorting." 

Mata asked all UTPA alumni to start packing their books for the collection drive. Proceeds from the sale will be used for scholarships, especially book scholarships. 

"We try to help UTPA students in any way we can," Debby Grant, UTPA alumni relations director explained. "We’ve seen the cost of text books increase almost every year. It can cost several hundred dollars just for textbooks. So, the Alumni Association Board decided that they would start a new program to award Book Scholarships so students on a tight budget can better afford the text books they need for class." 

"This is going to be a fund-raising and community service event," Mata said. "Many of our Alumni have wanted to get involved in some community service events. Through this sale, we want to promote literacy, especially in the area of children’s books. Instead of having these books thrown in the trash, we want to make affordable books more accessible to the public." 

"This will also give our alumni members a chance to get together for some fun and help the community," Grant said. "Anyone wishing to help out can contact us. We will be working with community organizations across the Valley and with area schools to promote the event." 

According to Mata, books of all types will be welcomed. "We will accept fiction and non-fiction in all categories. Children’s books, current fiction, bestsellers, romance, westerns, teen novels and cookbooks are always in high demand at used book sales." 

According to Grant, the volunteers and those wishing to donate books may contact the Alumni Relations Office at 956/381-2500. Mata may be reached at amataz@utpa.edu

The UTPA Alumni’s Used Book Sale will take place February 21, at the UTPA campus in Edinburg in conjunction with UTPA Homecoming Weekend.

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