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Mayor Joe Ochoa, who earlier this year announced he would not be seeking reelection in May, on Tuesday, February 10, was honored by the Texas House of Representatives for leading Edinburg through an unprecedented period of economic development and improvements in the quality-of-life during his 13 years as one of South Texas’ most effective political leaders. The high praise was contained in House Concurrent Resolution 39, authored by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, whose House District 41 includes southwest Edinburg. The measure, which was approved unanimously by the 150-member House of Representatives, was publicly endorsed by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, whose House District 40 includes most of the three-time All-America City. Ochoa was credited for heavily influencing the city’s "dramatic growth and prosperity," noting that during his tenure as mayor, Edinburg has seen the number of all properties in Edinburg increase dramatically, from $500 million in assessed valuations when he first took office in 1993, to $3 billion today. See story later in this posting. 

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Roland Arriola, Ph.D., president of the Texas Valley Communities Foundation, was one of 15 members appointed on Monday, February 16, by the University of Texas System Board of Regents to serve on a presidential search committee to advise regents on the selection of a president for UT-Pan American. Arriola, a former member of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, was selected because of his role as president of the UT-Pan American Alumni Association. The UT System appointed Charles A. Sorber as interim president last month. Sorber assumed the interim presidency on Monday, February 16. The advisory committee will be asked to present the names of no more than 10 candidates – unranked – to the board, which will make the final decision. Featured, from left, during a major conference in Harlingen last fall, are Kelli Rod, Vice President of Community Relations with TXU Energy; Arriola; and Courtney P. Suhr, Senior Strategic Communications Specialist with the OneStar Foundation.  See story on the presidential advisory panel later in this posting. 

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Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, featured left, and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, featured right, on Tuesday, February 10, presented a Senate Resolution to members of Amigos Del Valle celebrating Senior Day at the State Capitol. Lucio paid tribute to the organization’s 2008-2009 King Luis Barrientos and Queen Eva Martínez, featured center, both representing Casa Del Mar in Brownsville. The 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 Royal Courts were also honored and included members from senior centers throughout the Rio Grande Valley. Amigos Del Valle is a consortium of county and city governmental entities working to provide nutrition, transportation and housing services to senior citizens of Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties.  Helping senior citizens live healthy, productive and self-sufficient lives is the group’s primary goal. The Executive Director of Amigos Del Valle, Inc., located in Mission, is José Garza.  

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Former Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen, is back in action at the Texas Capitol, working on key measures designed to help millions of Texans. But he is not a registered lobbyist nor a state lawmaker. Instead of providing public service in either of those two influential roles, he is serving the state as a member of the nation’s most powerful political entity – the American citizen. In that role, Gutiérrez and his wife, Cecilia, along with Delia Oropez of Weslaco and Estella Lane Treviño of Edinburg, are members of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, a powerful coalition of influential Texans who work on measures to help older residents. Featured in this portrait taken in the chamber of the House of Representatives are, from left: Delia Oropez; former Rep. Gutiérrez; and Cecilia Gutiérrez. See story later in this posting. 

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Congratulations to Maureen F. McClain, associate director of Disability Services at The University of Texas-Pan American, who was recently appointed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. McClain was one of five individuals in the state, whose terms will expire February 1, 2010, to be chosen for the committee that works to ensure Texans with disabilities may live their lives with integrity, independence and productivity. Pictured is McClain being sworn in by U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa in late January in McAllen to the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities. McClain, who has been employed with UTPA for more three years, earned her bachelor’s degree in rehabilitative services and a master’s in rehabilitative counseling from UTPA. She is a member of the Association of Higher Education and Disabilities, and was appointed to the Academic Advisement Council. To learn more about UTPA’s Disability Services department and the services offered, visit http://www.utpa.edu/disability or for more information on the committee, visit http://www.governor.state.tx.us/disabilities/. 

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Criminals don’t take a day off and they are always on at the top of their games. So why shouldn’t the rest of society be just as prepared to trump their aces, especially when it comes to cyber security? That’s why South Texas College is hosting a Cyber Security Workshop on Thursday, February 19 and Friday, February 20 at its Pecan Campus in McAllen. Offered in conjunction with Texas A&M University, the National Science Foundation and TEEX, the free workshop offers business owners and technology professionals the latest information about cyber terrorism and cyber security issues. “We are very excited to host this workshop because the developments in technology occurring every day mean that we must be extremely vigilant in learning about the lat est innovations and how criminals are using them to try and damage our identities,” said Raquel Peña, assistant professor of computer science for STC, featured in this photograph. “But we don’t have to be victims, as long as we stay ahead of the curve and use the tools available to keep the cyber world safe.” Space for the workshop is limited to 80 participants and is filling up quickly. For more information or to reserve a spot, call 956/872-2056. 

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Several South Texas College students had the unique opportunity to meet recently with Texas lawmakers in Austin to share their views about higher education, as well as their hopes for current and future generations of Hidalgo and Starr county students. Karina Cerda, Darien Fernández, Miguel García, Lizette Muñoz, Cassandra Orozco, Ronald Tanamachi and Esther Ybarra, who are members of STC’s Student Government Association, represented the student body at Community College Day at the Texas State Capitol on Wednesday, February 4. Community College Day was sponsored and organized by the Texas Junior College Student Government Association. The students toured the capitol building, attended a rally and had the opportunity to network with students from across the state. The STC students, who were chaperoned by a delegation of STC administrators, met with: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview; Rep. Verónica Gonzáles; Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Roma; Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas; and Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan.  The meetings allowed students to share their experiences and expectations with lawmakers to help them understand the continually growing role community colleges play in the economic growth and vitality of the districts they serve.  In a related matter, STC leaders have announced that enrollment at the two-county higher education institution approached 22,000 for the spring 2009 semester. See story on enrollment later in this posting. 

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The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce is going on a “SAFARI” from Thursday, February 26 through Sunday, March 1, at the Edinburg Municipal Park. The Heart of America Carnival will be featured during that week; with a $5 "All-You-Can-Ride" special on February 26. Musical headliners “Little Rob” will perform Friday evening and “DUELO” will perform on Saturday at 7 p.m. Fiesta Edinburg will also feature food, carnival, various music and entertainment. Also, check out the  free “SAFARI” Kidz Zone on Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. ($5 parking fee required). Edinburg residents also will be treated to the IBC Bank Fiesta Edinburg “SAFARI” Parade, scheduled for Saturday, February 28, beginning at 10 a.m.  The parade will start at the Hidalgo County Court House. Dedicated IBC Bank employees, as part of the IBC Employee Advisory Board, have contributed to making Fiesta Edinburg a great success for the community, noted Dina Araguz, Edinburg 107 IBC Bank branch manager. For more information on Fiesta Edinburg, please call 956/383-4974. Featured, from left: Enrique García, Salvador Martínez, Josue Ramírez, Aaron Ramírez, Judith Cantú, Dina Araguz, Lizette Cano, Ashley Herrera, Griselda Zambrano, Aaron Galván , and Robert Alaniz. 

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Edinburg’s retail economy in December 2008 up more than 21 percent over same month in 2007

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

Edinburg’s retail economy during December 2008, as measured by the amount of local and state sales taxes generated by a wide range of local businesses, was up more than 21 percent over the same month in 2007, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.  

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

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

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

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

For the month of December 2008, Edinburg generated $1,597,395.01 in local sales taxes, compared with $1,317,879.91 in December 2007 – an increase of 21.20 percent.  

During 2008, Edinburg generated $17,010,129.51 in local sales taxes, compared with $15,774,037.58 in 2007. 

According to the Texas Comptroller’s Office, Hidalgo County reported only a .52 percent increase in total local sales taxes collectively generated by the cities in the county during December 2008. The county itself does not collect a local sales tax.  

For the month of  December 2008, all cities in Hidalgo County generated more than $14.2 million in local sales taxes, almost the same as in December 2007.  

Also only posting a modest increase, but still better than Hidalgo County, was Cameron County.  

In December 2008, all cities in Cameron County generated almost $6.7 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $6.5 million during the same month in 2007, an increase of almost two percent. 

Cameron County also does not collect a local sales tax.  

McAllen – the largest economic engine in South Texas – for the month of December 2008 showed a drop in the monthly sales tax figure: minus 4.01 percent. This represented the third consecutive monthly decrease for the City of Palms from the previous months in 2007. 

For December 2008, McAllen generated more than $7.2 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $7.5 million in December 2007. 

The November 2008 sales tax figure for McAllen was minus 5.62 percent compared with November 2007, and the October 2008 sales tax figure for McAllen was minus 1.55 percent from the same month in 2007.  

Brownsville, the largest city in the Valley, also reported a drop of more than .5 percent in local sales tax activities.  

In December 2008, Brownsville generated more than $3.5 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $3.6 million the same month in 2007. In November 2008, Brownsville generated more than $2.4 million in local sales taxes, a decrease of 14.5 percent over the same month in 2007, which registered more than $2.8 million in local sales taxes.  

Harlingen showed a slight increase, however. In December 2008, Harlingen generated almost $2.1 million in local sales taxes, compared with slightly more than $2 million in December 2007 – an increase of 2.84 percent. 

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

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

The December 2008 figures represent local sales taxes generated by monthly filers – but also include earlier sales by businesses that report sales tax to the comptroller on a quarterly or annual basis – and reported to the state in January 2009. 

Then, in February 2009, the state sent the December 2008 local sales tax revenue back to the cities in the form of a rebate.  

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

  • Weslaco’s retail economy generated more than $907,000 in local sales taxes in December 2008, compared with more than $882,000 in December 2007, an increase of 2.87 percent;  
  • Mission’s retail economy showed a drop for the second consecutive month. In December 2008, Mission generated more than $1.31 million in local sales taxes, down 1.12 percent from December 2007, when it reported slightly more than $1.32 million. In November 2008, Mission’s local sales tax revenue dropped more than 1.7 percent, from $1 million, compared with $1.02 million in November 2007; and 
  • Pharr’s retail economy also showed a second consecutive monthly decrease. In December 2008, Pharr generated more than $897,000 in local sales taxes, compared with more than $1 million reported in December 2007 – a drop of more than 13 percent.  In November 2008, Pharr reported almost $846,000 in local sales tax revenue, down almost 3.9 percent from November 2007, when it generated almost $881,000 in local sales tax revenue.  

According to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs:  

Texas collected $1.92 billion in sales tax revenue in January, up 3.9 percent compared to January 2008. 

“Growth in state sales tax collections remains modest,” Combs said. “While overall growth has continued for the first five months of fiscal 2009, collections from important sectors such as retail trade and construction have decreased.” 

Combs sent $665.5 million in local sales tax to Texas cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts, up 3.9 percent compared to sales tax distributions to local governments in February 2008. 

January state sales tax collections and February’s local sales tax allocations represent sales made in December, but also include earlier sales by businesses that report sales tax to the comptroller on a quarterly or annual basis. 

The comptroller sent $445.2 million in sales tax to Texas cities, up 2.5 percent compared to February 2008 payments. Texas counties received February sales tax payments of $41.4 million, up 9.9 percent compared to last February. 

The 148 special purpose taxing districts around the state received $26.7 million in sales tax, up 24 percent compared to February 2008. Ten local transit systems received $152.1 million in February sales tax payments, up 3.3 percent compared to a year ago. 

For details of February sales tax payments to individual cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose districts, locate the Monthly Sales Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports on the Comptroller’s Web site at: 

http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/allocsum/compsum.html

The comptroller’s next local sales tax allocation will be made on Friday, March 13. 

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Sen. Hinojosa, TxDOT announce full funding for four major South Texas highway projects along U.S. 281

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS 

South Texas’ major transportation arteries received a significant boost from the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, announced on Tuesday, February 10. 

Hinojosa confirmed that TXDOT will prioritize funding a variety of projects along U.S. Highway 281, bringing the highway up to interstate standards and ramping up the flow of commerce for future economic growth in South Texas. 

This multi-million dollar undertaking will alleviate key congestion points along the U.S. 281 corridor. Hinojosa and TXDOT officials believe that increasing mobility along Highway 281 will attract new investment to South Texas. 

"Mobility is efficiency, and for years South Texas has lacked a direct northern route without points of congestion. This sizeable investment in South Texas’ highway infrastructure would streamline the transport of goods and people. A project of this magnitude transforms South Texas into a viable, full-service transportation corridor attractive to business interests because of its efficient access to Mexican markets," Hinojosa said. 

TXDOT’s strategic targeting of key congestion areas resulted in this proposed package which includes road widening, new construction, repair of existing roads, and resurfacing along the U.S. 281corridor.   

This work is long overdue, Hinojosa said.

“Gov. (Rick) Perry and Deirdre Delisi, the Chair of the TXDOT, are committed to working with me and local leaders to help fund these much needed improvements to U.S. 281,” he said. 

The proposed improvements to U.S. 281 would also enhance mass evacuation capacity in the event of hurricanes or severe flooding. Recent storms, including Hurricane Dolly, which hit South Texas, tested Texas’ evacuation routes. Funding these projects puts South Texas one step closer toward being fully prepared to meet severe weather threats. 

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County Judge Salinas details U.S. 281 improvements to be helped by Sen. Hinojosa, other state leaders

By CARI LAMBRECHT 

On Tuesday, February 10, Hidalgo County leaders presented the state’s top legislative leadership with the region’s highest priorities, and succeeded in securing key support for $200 million in state funding for key improvements of U.S. 281. 

The Hidalgo County delegation was led by County Judge J.D. Salinas and County Commissioner Hector "Tito" Palacios.   

The group’s trip included top briefings with Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Deirdre Delis, chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, to secure the commitments for key projects along U.S. 281 needed to improve public safety and commerce for Hidalgo County. 

They reviewed how the four ‘shovel-ready’ projects in South Texas would strengthen the local and state economy and aid in mass evacuations of the region in case of a hurricane or other disaster. 

The four projects — located in Falfurrias, Ben Bolt, George West and Premont — are aimed at bringing U.S. 281 up to interstate standards. Hidalgo County is the only major metropolitan area in the country without an interstate within 100 miles. 

“The future economic growth of Hidalgo County and the 281 corridor looks brighter than ever,” Salinas said. “Even without these improvements, U.S. 281 is ranked No. 3 out of seven NAFTA corridors in Texas, handling about 1,300 trucks per day, and that number is expected to double by 2030. Our Texas roads carry 87 percent of the nation’s NAFTA traffic. That goes to show how much these upgrades were needed — a substantial amount of traffic was already using Hidalgo County as its entry point to get goods to the markets.” 

Now, with these planned upgrades, which are expected to start construction as early as this fall in Falfurrias, Hidalgo County should continue to attract even more business to the region, the judge predicted. 

"Business growth will lead to increased per capita incomes of our residents and a better quality of life for us all. In the short-term, we will also generate jobs. For every $100 million spent, about 1,500 jobs are created,” Salinas said.    

In addition to the session with Hinojosa, the county delegation met with other members of the Hidalgo County legislative delegation, including Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Armando "Mando"  Martínez, D-Weslaco. 

Gonzáles said that she, too, met with Delisi to ensure funding for the long-awaited projects sought along U.S. 281. She is also working to create a Texas Automotive Manufacturing Incentive Program to assist cities – such as McAllen – in attracting and advancing automotive manufacturing plants and jobs in Texas. Another initiative Gonzáles is pursuing is giving counties, such as Hidalgo County, the authority to fund primary health care clinics in order to increase access to health care in the area.   

She credited Edinburg, McAllen, and Hidalgo County leaders, who led separate delegations to Austin on Monday and Tuesday, February 9 and 10, for lobbying on behalf of their respective constituencies. 

"I am excited to have such a large delegation visiting Austin and sending the message to our state leaders that Hidalgo County is a powerful part of our state," Gonzáles said. "It says a lot about our local leaders that they are willing to take time out of their busy schedule to come to Austin and advocate for the areas they represent." 

The county judge said the South Texas region was well-represented in the Texas Legislature. 

“We just can’t thank our elected officials in Austin enough, especially Sen. Hinojosa, who was an early supporter of this project and helped organize the U.S. 281 Coalition — a group of county judges, commissioners and business leaders along the corridor. All of our elected officials have seen how this project would not only benefit our region, but also strengthen Texas’ economy as a whole,” Salinas said. “This shows that when public and private interests come together for a common good as in the U.S. 281 Coalition, we can make big things happen.”  

Several state representatives, along with the county judge and county commissioner, held a news conference on Tuesday, February 10, in the Speakers Committee Room at the Texas Capitol. It was broadcast live on the Internet. 

The press conference, which lasted about nine minutes, is available online at: 

http://www.house.state.tx.us/media/press.htm 

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Mayor Ochoa honored by Rep. Gonzáles, Rep. Peña, House of Representatives for Edinburg’s successes

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Mayor Joe Ochoa, who earlier this year announced he would not be seeking reelection in May, on Tuesday, February 10, was honored by the Texas House of Representatives for leading Edinburg through an unprecedented period of economic development and improvements in the quality-of-life during his 13 years as one of South Texas’ most effective political leaders. 

The high praise was contained in House Concurrent Resolution 39, authored by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, whose House District 41 includes southwest Edinburg. 

The measure, which was approved unanimously by the 150-member House of Representatives, was publicly endorsed by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, whose House District 40 includes most of the three-time All-America City. 

Ochoa was credited for heavily influencing the city’s "dramatic growth and prosperity," noting that during his tenure as mayor, Edinburg has seen the number of all properties in Edinburg increase dramatically, from $500 million in assessed valuations when he first took office in 1993, to $3 billion today. 

Not included in those figures is the value of construction projects at the University of Texas-Pan American, which has undergone more than $100 million in new construction during Ochoa’s tenure. Although state universities are prohibited from lobbying the Texas Legislature, one of the hallmarks of Ochoa’s leadership has included creating a legislative agenda for the city, which has included lobbying on behalf of UT-Pan American as a major component of the city’s priorities during the legislative sessions. 

Ochoa was at the State Capitol for a separate purpose: he was leading a delegation of city leaders, including Councilmember Alma Garza, Councilmember Noé Garza, and Councilmember Gus García, on Monday, February 9, and Tuesday, February 10, for a series of intense lobbying efforts on behalf of the city’s state legislative agenda. 

Also during Ochoa’s years as mayor, Gonzáles documented, the city’s unemployment rates dropped dramatically from more than 20 percent when the mayor first took office in 1993 to about five percent for 2008. 

With Ochoa present in the House gallery overlooking the House of Representatives chamber, Peña and Gonzáles acknowledged the contributions of the mayor, which were detailed in the legislative measure. 

"As we all understand, Mayor, public service is a difficult job, and we thank you for the service you have given the City of Edinburg," Peña said, then encouraged the full House that "before we move adoption (passage of the legislative resolution), let’s give him one more round of applause for his service to the City of Edinburg." 

Gonzáles said Ochoa "is a popular mayor, has served our city well, and we want to thank Mayor Ochoa." 

She explained that Ochoa was not seeking reelection, instead choosing to "retire" from public office "and go back into private business.  Thank you so much, Mayor Ochoa, for your services to Edinburg and to the Rio Grande Valley." 

Ochoa’s extensive accomplishments are detailed in House Concurrent Resolution 39, which follows verbatim: 

CONCURRENT RESOLUTION 39 

WHEREAS, During his impressive career in public service, Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa has made lasting contributions to the city through his commitment to economic advancement and quality of life; and 

WHEREAS, Mayor Ochoa first won election in 1993 and served for 10 years; he was again elected in 2006, and in the course of his five terms in office, Edinburg has experienced dramatic growth and increased prosperity; assessed tax valuations have grown from $500 million to $3 billion, while unemployment has decreased from 20 percent to 5 percent, the lowest rate in the Rio Grande Valley; and 

WHEREAS, Under the leadership of Mayor Ochoa, Edinburg has succeeded in attracting a wide array of industries, ranging from retail, recreational, and sports facilities to state-of-the-art regional power plants; from 1993 to 2002 alone, building permits increased from $17 million to $111 million; significant enhancements to the transportation system include the expansion of McColl, Sugar, and Trenton roads and the construction of the Expressway 281 bypass and the overpass from Pharr to Edinburg; and 

WHEREAS, The tireless efforts and advocacy of the mayor helped bring to The University of Texas-Pan American both the research division of the Regional Academic Health Center and the cooperative UT Pharmacy School; Mayor Ochoa also helped set the stage for future growth and progress, leading the development of a city master plan entitled Edinburg 20/20; the city has received a number of accolades during his tenure, among them two All-America City awards and two Clean Cities awards; and 

WHEREAS, Before becoming mayor, this dedicated leader served for 12 years on the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District Board of Trustees; he is a member and past president of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, a co-chair of the I-69 Alliance – Highway 281, and a member and former chair of the Hidalgo County Metropolitan Planning Organization, and he has served numerous civic organizations in a variety of capacities; and 

WHEREAS, Mayor Ochoa, a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, is a pharmacist and the proprietor of two community pharmacies; he has announced that he will leave public office to attend to his business ventures when his current term ends in May, and as he returns to private life, he leaves a remarkable record of accomplishment that will continue to benefit area residents for years to come; now, therefore, be it 

RESOLVED, That the 81st Legislature of the State of Texas hereby commend the Honorable Joe Ochoa for his many years of service to the citizens of Edinburg and extend to him best wishes for continued success in all his endeavors; and, be it further 

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Mayor Ochoa as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives and Senate. 

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McAllen sending proposed agreement to UT-Pan American to set up McAllen graduate school

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

A plan to set up a graduate school facility in McAllen, in conjunction with the University of Texas-Pan American, is on the way to the Edinburg-based campus for approval, McAllen City Manager Mike Pérez confirmed on Monday, February 9. 

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 or Ph.D.   

As part of the plan by McAllen city leaders, first publicly advocated late fall by McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz, the City of Palms is proceeding with its hopes to add more university-level courses, including for the first time those at the graduate school level, in the county’s most populated city. 

"The city commission has approved the inter-local agreement and will be sending it to (UT-Pan American) in the next few days," Pérez said following discussion of the item by the city commission in executive session.  

"What we are trying to do is provide access to higher education, such as Bachelor and Master’s degrees, and hopefully, eventually, some Ph.D. programs." 

Pérez credited Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, for successfully passing a law in 2005 that allows McAllen to promote the creation of the graduate school complex. 

Under that measure, Flores, whose House District 36 include much of McAllen, and Zaffirini authorized the establishment by McAllen – and many other cities in Texas – of "dual usage educational complexes", such as the one envisioned by McAllen, to bring in more higher education resources. 

Pérez said the city will soon appoint a nine-member special advisory panel to look at major issues dealing with how to most effectively create the complex. 

"We are going to create a committee on nine individuals, I believe, including seven members appointed by the city commission, and one person from The University of Texas-Pan American, and one from South Texas College," he explained. "That committee will put together a strategic plan over the next 10 months if we want to take a look at a permanent site." 

In the meantime, he predicted, "UT-Pan American is going to rent what we call a store front, probably for the first year or two, and that is where they are going to work out of. They will rent space, remodel it, and use it as classrooms for the first year or so." 

Within the next year, the city and the advisory panel "will work with that committee to develop a strategic plan to see where we should permanently put that facility, should it be owned by the university or by STC or McAllen," the city manager added. 

Although UT-Pan American will play a major role in the development of the graduate school, Perez believes the city will eventually retain control of the complex for numerous reasons, including an ability to more effectively tailor graduate school programs for the region’s needs.  

He noted that the center, dubbed a "teaching site" in the commission’s agenda item wording, is not limited to courses that focus on professional educators. 

"For example, today, South Texas may need a Master’s in Business Administration with an emphasis in manufacturing, but in four years, perhaps they will need MBAs with an emphasis in banking," Pérez said. "It allows a greater flexibility by having a teaching site rather than having a permanent site. 

This effort is not the first major law passed by Flores that is affecting higher education advances in Hidalgo County. 

Several years earlier, under separate legislation passed Flores, South Texas College, then known as South Texas Community College, was one of a handful of the 50 community colleges in Texas given permission to offer bachelor degrees. Most community colleges are only authorized to offer two-year associate of arts degrees and certificates, but not four-year diplomas. 

Flores said the graduate school plan is part of his strategy in passing the law 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."  

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UT System regents select Roland Arriola, Ph.D., former EEDC board member, to panel that will help nominate candidates for UT-Pan American president

By MATT FLORES 

The appointment of members of a presidential search advisory committee to advise The University of Texas System Board of Regents on the selection of a president for UT Pan American was announced on Monday by Regents’ Chairman H. Scott Caven, Jr. 

The committee will make recommendations on possible successors to former President Blandina Cárdenas, who stepped down January 30 as the institution’s president.  The UT System appointed Charles A. Sorber as interim president last month. Sorber assumed the interim presidency on Monday, February 16. 

The advisory committee will be asked to present the names of no more than 10 candidates – unranked – to the board, which will make the final decision. 

Roland Arriola, Ph.D., a former member of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation Board of Directors, was one of 12 members selected to the blue-ribbon panel. Arriola, who retired last spring as Vice President for Community Engagement at UT-Pan American, currently serves as president of the Texas Valley Communities Foundation, located in Edinburg.  

Arriola was chosen because he also currently serves as the president of the UT-Pan American Alumni Association.  

According to his official biography, in seven years as one of several UT-Pan American vice president, Arriola and his team increased the university’s endowment from $18 million to more than $68 million (ranking UTPA in the top 25 percent of 750 public masters universities in the nation); generated more than $100 million in the public and private investment in the regional economy; and raised more than $6 million per year in public service funding. Arriola holds a BA from Baylor, an MPA from Harvard, and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Committee members were selected in accordance with the Board of Regents’ Rules and Regulations, which includes a provision for representation on such committees by various constituencies of the institution.  

“UT Pan American is a beacon for higher education opportunity in the Rio Grande Valley and plays a crucial role in the economic development of that region and in the lives of so many South Texans, which makes the selection of a new leader for that institution a top priority for the Board of Regents,” Caven said. “The people who have agreed to serve on this search committee are well qualified for the task – bringing a broad perspective, experience and sound judgment to this important selection process. The board is grateful for their service and looks forward to receiving their recommendations.” 

Janiece Longoria, a member of the UT System Board of Regents, and a daughter of the late Sen. Raul Longoria, D-Pharr, also will serve on the presidential search committee, Caven announced. She is one of two regents who will represent the system’s governing board. 

Danika M. Brown, Ph.D., chair of the Faculty Senate and assistant professor in the Department of English; Arturo Fuentes, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; and Jerry Polinard, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Political Science, will serve on the committee as faculty representatives. 

Representing the campus deans’ council will be Bruce Reed, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services. 

Representing the UT Pan American staff is Mary Lou Cano, an administrative assistant in the university advancement division. 

John-Robert Iruegas, a junior psychology major, will represent the student body on the committee. 

The external community representatives are: 

  • Marla Guerra, Ph.D., superintendent, South Texas Independent School District;
  • R. David Guerra, president, International Bank of Commerce;
  • Nat López, president, Harlingen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, former regent and chairman, Pan American University;
  • Margaret McAllen, former regent, Pan American University;
  • Jaime Ramón, chairman, University Foundation and partner, K&L Gates; and
  • Anne Shepard, former CEO, Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce. 

Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates, an executive search firm, is assisting the UT System in the national search and advertisements for the position will be placed in various publications so the committee can carry out its search as expeditiously as possible.   

••••••  

Congressman Hinojosa says South Texas, Edinburg, to receive significant funds from Obama economic bill

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI 

South Texas is poised to gain significant amounts of federal funding under the economic stimulus package that passed the House and Senate on Friday, February 13, said Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes. This legislation, which is expected to create and save 3.5 million American jobs over the next two years, will be signed into law by President Obama. 

“This is great news for South Texas. We have a recovery package that not only calls for swift action, it calls for smart investments that will help build a stronger, more competitive nation,” Hinojosa said. 

“While this bill may not be perfect, it was absolutely critical that we got a reasonable package to the President’s desk as soon as possible,” Hinojosa continued. “In the end, we have come up with a sensible compromise that will create jobs, provide real relief to hardworking Americans, and help get our economy back on track.” 

Specifically, the $789 billion economic recovery plan will create an estimated 22,000 Rio Grande Valley jobs, provide one of the largest tax cuts in American history, including for 95 percent of American workers, and lay a foundation for long-term growth through clean energy, innovation and education. 

The bill also includes hundreds of millions of dollars for levee repair, school districts, and infrastructure projects in the Rio Grande Valley. 

“I’m heartened to see that it includes $220 million for IBWC levee repair,” Hinojosa said. “After years of having to make do with a budget that didn’t even allow for annual upkeep, this is a fantastic reversal of fortune. This money means that we can finally repair and raise the levees and ensure that the same catastrophe that happened in New Orleans does not repeat itself.” 

According to estimates, Texas is set to receive roughly $6 billion in education funding while the Deep South Texas region is set to gain hundreds of million of dollars over the next two years from the economic stimulus package. The money would go toward helping low-income students, students with disabilities, and equipping schools for the 21st century by building classrooms, labs, and libraries. 

“I can think of no better use of taxpayer dollars than investing in education,” Hinojosa said. “This bill is going to provide Texas and the Rio Grande Valley with more technologically updated, energy-efficient schools. It’s going to enable more of our students to attend college. It’s going to restore teachers to classrooms, and creates good construction jobs for local workers. In the short-term and the long-term, this bill is a win-win investment.” 

The bill also contains $2.5 billion in transportation funds for Texas and $720 million for the construction of landports of entry.   

“This infrastructure funding to modernize our roads and bridges will be critical to the recovery of our region. I’m confident that this federal money will mean that we can get some our shovel-ready projects funded and off the ground,” Hinojosa said. 

“I’m sure that everyone can find something in this recovery plan that they would have done differently,” Hinojosa concluded. “But this plan is desperately needed, and while it will take time for our economy to rebound, I am confident that this package will make our country stronger in the long run.”  

•••••• 

Sen. Cornyn votes against President Obama’s $1.2 trillion economic stimulus plan passed by Congress

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, on Tuesday, February 10, made the following statement regarding his vote against the Democrats’ $1.2 trillion stimulus proposal, which was passed by Congress. 

Cornyn issued the following statement: 

“I support President Obama’s call for swift action to revive the nation’s economy and put Americans back to work. Unfortunately, this proposal fails on both accounts and instead relies on bloated Washington programs, digging our country deeper and deeper into debt, and passing the IOUs to our children and grandchildren. This is unacceptable. 

“I am disappointed that what could have been a bipartisan success has resulted in a bill narrowly passed by the Senate with the support of only three Republicans. Overspending is what landed our nation in the economic turmoil we find ourselves in today, and the partisan spending bill passed by Senate Democrats only exacerbates this irresponsible behavior—increasing our nation’s debt limit by nearly two trillion dollars to $12.14 trillion. 

“Nonetheless, I am committed to finding real, bipartisan solutions to the economic crisis. Solutions that will have an immediate, stimulative effect. Solutions that will first fix the housing crisis. Solutions that will create long-term private sector jobs and provide broad-based tax relief. Hard-working Texans deserve to keep more of their own money to spend, save, and invest how they see fit. I will work to ensure that this balanced solution has proper accountability and transparency measures so every taxpayer is aware of how their money is being spent and whether or not it is helping solve the problem.” 

Background on amendments Sen. Cornyn offered to improve the economic plan that were defeated: 

Lowering the 10 percent income tax bracket: 

  • As written, the current legislation would create a new refundable tax credit called “Make America Work” that would be unavailable to individuals who earn $70,000 or married couples who earn $140,000 jointly.  
  • Cornyn believes that tax relief should be provided to all taxpayers who pay income taxes. 
  • Cornyn proposes lowering the 10 percent tax bracket to 5 percent for 2009 and 2010. 

Reducing the Capital Gains and Dividends Tax: 

  • Cornyn proposes expanding the current zero tax bracket for long-term capital gains to include individuals who make up to $75,000 and couples who make up to $150,000. This would provide relief to middle-income taxpayers such as working parents who want to save and build a nest egg for retirement or sending their children to college. Cornyn believes that by reducing the capital gains tax we can help revitalize the sagging economy.
  • Lower taxes on capital help grow investment and capital stock, which will increase economic growth, grow jobs and personal income.  

•••••• 

Former Rep. Gutiérrez continues public service as a member of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Former Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen, is back in action at the Texas Capitol, working on key measures designed to help millions of Texans.

But he is not a registered lobbyist nor a state lawmaker. 

Instead of providing public service as a member of the House of Representatives, he is serving the state as a member of the nation’s most powerful political entity – the American citizen. 

In that role, Gutiérrez and his wife, Cecilia, along with Delia Oropez of Weslaco and Estella Lane Treviño of Edinburg, are members of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, a powerful coalition of influential Texans who work on measures to help older residents. 

For the longtime state representative, being back in the legislative saddle is more about letting Texans from all walks-of-life know that one doesn’t have to hold political office to make a difference. 

"That’s the beauty and genius of our democracy," he said. "You don’t have to go into debt for thousands of dollars to campaign for political office just to have your voice heard, and more important, to influence the actions of your government. That’s the message I want people to understand." 

First elected in 1991, the educator turned businessman turned legislative leader served South Texas as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 1991 through the end of 2004. During that period, he enacted dozens of major laws, including the creation of South Texas College, and he promoted the concept that eventually led to the creation of the University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center. 

But his legislative career ended when, in the middle of his reelection campaign in early 2004, he was afflicted with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an autoimmune attack on the peripheral nerves that can lead to muscle paralysis. 

Effectively sidelined by the major illness, he wrapped up his final term as state legislator, focusing on recovering his health, and returning to his business and family interests. But his desire to continue helping South Texas prodded him to get involved with the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature.  

The Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, first created in 1985, is comprised of senior Texas residents who have been elected from 28 regions of Texas to serve two-year terms in this organization. 

The Texas Silver-Haired Legislature was established by the Texas Legislature. 

The autumn before the Texas Legislature returns to the Capitol to begin its five-month regular legislative session, the delegates of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, who hail from 117 districts statewide, hold their own gathering in the House chambers.    

Their goals include passing resolutions addressing the needs of senior Texans, and they select 10 priority issues for lawmakers to consider.  Those measures are transformed into legislation. 

Cecilia Gutiérrez, a former educational leader in South Texas, also brings considerable legislative experiences to the table. 

"Although I did not serve as a Texas lawmaker, our family always discussed major legislative issues and worked on strategies to help improve the quality-of-life for South Texas," she recalled. "Those insights that I developed from his work in Austin, and the life-long contacts made during his tenure, are assets that I bring to the goals of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature." 

In addition to the Gutiérrez family, which is unique in the annals of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, Estella Lane Treviño of Edinburg and Delia Oropez of Weslaco make up the delegation representing Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties. 

According to the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature, the organization provides vital information to the Texas Legislature. They select 10 priority issue resolutions and present them to state lawmakers for sponsorship during the Texas Legislature Session, which is held on odd numbered years. They actively advocate for or against issues for all citizens of Texas and provide education on issues. They provide a forum for exercising our responsibilities as informed citizens from our communities to our state. 

One of the top 10 issues being advocated by the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature deals with the recommendation that lawmakers bring back the regulation of power companies in the sate. 

Former Rep. Gutiérrez, who served on one of the group’s committees which made that suggestion, said when state lawmakers in 2002 voted to deregulate power companies – which allowed electricity companies to set their own rates – the price of electricity has surpassed the national average. 

Supporters of deregulation contend the price of electricity in Texas was influenced more by the rising cost of natural gas, which is used by most electricity generating plants in the state, which is out of the control of the power companies.

But tackling tough problems is what the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature is all about, the former legislator said. 

"The members of this organization have the time, the skills, and the experiences needed to help our state’s elected leadership," former Rep. Gutiérrez said. "The Texas Silver-Haired Legislature is a perfect example of what Abraham Lincoln once observed: ‘And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.’" 

•••••• 

Rep. Gonzáles appointed as chair of House Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA 

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Thursday, February 12, was appointed to chair the House Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, a powerful leadership position that will oversee bills related to the border and Texas’ relations with other governments. 

The appointment was made by Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. 

Gonzáles was also reappointed to the Public Health Committee, which she served on during the 80th Legislative Session. 

"With the stimulus monies coming from Washington and the vital importance of Texas’ trade with Mexico, I am proud to chair the Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee and oversee legislation that impacts our border region’s economy," Gonzáles said. 

"Ensuring Texas and the border region gets its fair share of state and federal funds and forging new trade relationships is a great responsibility, and I am honored that the Speaker has the confidence in me to chair this committee which is critically important to my district, to the border region and to the state of Texas," Gonzáles said, who gave a nominating speech for Straus on the opening day of the legislative session. 

Gonzáles is one of only five Hispanic Committee Chairs, and the only one from Hidalgo County.  

"I have long-standing relationships with the South Texas congressional members and I understand very well the importance of maintaining a strong working relationship with Mexico. I am excited to be in a position that can benefit and bring attention to the region where I live and work," she said. "Public health is also a very important committee for our area, which has so many issues such as a high rate of diabetes, lack of insurance coverage for children and families and a need to increase access to medical care. I look forward to working on these issues and improving conditions for the border and the state of Texas." 

Referring to Gonzáles’ appointment as chair, Straus said: "When I was elected Speaker of the House, I committed to create an environment where members could operate fairly and allow them to bring their best talent forward to confront the difficult challenges facing our state. In selecting Representative Gonzales as committee chair, I considered her wisdom, experience and proven ability to provide new, dynamic leadership and offer fresh ideas. We are blessed to have Representative Gonzales as chair of this important committee and I know she will do what is best and right for the citizens of Texas." 

The Border and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee is a nine-member committee that oversees the relations between Texas and other nations; international commerce and trade; international and border regions’ economic development, public health and safety issues, tourism and goodwill along the border and in areas with large immigrant populations.  It also has oversight of state and federal relations. 

The Public Health committee is an 11-member committee that oversees the state public health agencies, and is charged with the protection of public health, including supervision and control of practice of medicine and dentistry. The committee also is responsible for developing mental health programs, prevention and treatment. 

The speaker will now refer bills to the House committees that have jurisdiction over the bill’s subject. The committees review each bill, and then must vote the bill out of the committee in order for the entire House of Representatives to consider the bill. 

•••••• 

Rep. Peña, who loses House committee chairmanship, says Speaker Straus gave him key committee posts

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

With the Thursday, February 12 committee appointments made by Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, said he still

"holds the honor of maintaining a position of leadership under two different speakers." 

During the past two years, Peña served as chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, a top spot given to him by then Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland. 

The Speaker of the House has the sole power to appoint the chairmen and chairwomen of the House committees.  Those leadership posts, also known as chairs, are given by the Speaker of the House to his or her top lieutenants. 

In early January, however, Straus was elected House Speaker, whose legislative power is equal to that of the governor and the lt. governor.  Every two years, at the beginning of the regular session of the Texas Legislature, the House of Representatives must elect – or reelect – the Speaker of the House.  The House Speaker must have at least 76 votes of the 150-member House of Representatives to win that position. 

Peña contends that despite the switch in power from Craddick to Straus, and Peña’s loss of his chairmanship, the new House Speaker still placed Peña in positions of legislative influence. 

Peña has been appointed Vice Chair of the House Committee on Elections.  He will continue to serve on the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means and he was also appointed to the House Committee on Redistricting.   

"In the past we have been successful because of a willingness to set aside partisanship and work together on behalf of all Texans," said Peña. "I look forward to continue working in that tradition. As Vice Chair of the Elections Committee, I will be able to continue the important work of ensuring that our voting system in Texas is fair, accessible and above reproach." 

The House Elections Committee considers all legislation dealing with voting laws and the methods in which the most elections in Texas are conducted. 

Peña also was assigned to the House Committee on Ways and Means, which oversees the state’s tax laws.  

The House Committee on Redistricting examines the boundaries of congressional and state legislative seats. That committee will soon begin work as mandated by the Texas Constitution which requires the legislature to redistrict house, senate and congressional seats after the 2010 census.    

"Texas is expected to pick up at least three congressional seats this redistricting cycle," said Peña. "This recent appointment by the Speaker will allow me to advocate for congressional districts that maximize the Rio Grande Valley’s representation in Washington, D.C." 

Peña said he was instrumental in bringing Straus to the Valley after his election confirmed his interest in the border region.  

"I have again invited my good friend Speaker Straus to make another visit to Hidalgo County," said Peña. "He is committed to our region and promised to return." 

Peña is beginning his fourth, two-year term in Texas House. 

(Orlando Salinas contributed to this article.)

•••••• 

Health, nutrition of children under age 5, including problems of obesity, important issues for Texans

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR. 

A segment of the population that has been neglected in previous efforts to improve children and adult wellness represents a key piece in solving the obesity crisis that has swept our nation. 

Children under five comprise that group and are the focus of Senate Bill (SB) 395 I’ve filed this 81st Legislative Session that would create the Early Childhood Health and Nutrition Interagency Council under the direction of our Texas Agriculture Commissioner in coordination with other state agencies. 

Since 2007, an estimated 21.3 percent of low-income children between two and five, who are enrolled in the Texas Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Program, were reported as overweight or obese. (This data includes some as young as one.)  

And the financial cost is growing as well. In 2005, the Comptroller estimated that obesity-related problems cost Texas businesses a total of $3.3 billion in direct and indirect costs that include insurance rates, employee absenteeism and others. If this trend continues, the direct costs to businesses are projected to increase to $15.8 billion. 

The Department of Agriculture has conducted studies indicating that at the current pace, by 2040, 75 percent of the Texas adult population will be overweight or obese, costing the state up to $39 billion in direct and indirect costs. 

Texas can’t afford to neglect addressing early childhood nutrition and activity if we are to improve the ailing health of this state and nation. We especially can’t afford to delay addressing this issue until children reach school age. 

Obese children face a 50 percent chance of becoming obese during adulthood, which is frightening considering about one-third of school aged children in Texas are currently overweight. We have addressed P.E. and school nutrition policy, now we need to assist our schools so their entering kindergarten pupils don’t start their academic careers with poor health. 

If passed, the legislation would help us identify barriers to improving nutrition and physical activity standards in early childhood care centers, while finding the best means for improving early childhood health through nutrition and physical activity. 

A study on the continuing rise in childhood obesity conducted by BioMed Central reports that even among preschool children "the prevalence of obesity is alarmingly high, with 26.2% of children aged 2 through 5 years in the United States classified as either overweight or obese." 

The report also indicates that early childhood obesity is associated with the development of a variety of adverse health consequences that can include Type II diabetes, hypertension, asthma, sleep apnea, early maturation and lower self-esteem.  

It is difficult to conceive of young children developing diseases that were once limited to aging populations. SB 395 will help us determine how best to address the health, nutrition and wellness of children during some of the most important years in their development. 

My bill also requires an Early Childhood and Activity Plan to be implemented over a six-year period.  This plan will help ensure that young children in child care centers gradually increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, as well as their daily structured and unstructured physical activity. 

Through this plan, the council could assess what nutrition and physical activity in the development of children under six is most significant, and evaluate the most effective nutrition and physical activity requirements and practices in early childhood care. 

However, it will require more than just an appointed body and a plan on paper to reverse the trend among our youngest of Texans.  Besides other requirements like increasing parent awareness of the benefits of breast feeding – one of nature’s most nutritious plans  – the bill also proposes to engage existing community and state resources to educate parents and caretakers on the need for proper nutrition. 

Many people, including parents of overweight youngsters, aren’t aware that proper nutrition and activity are also essential for the youngest. Research tells us that the preschool period is a critical time for growth, development and for mitigating the risk of obesity later in life. Data developed by this Council could also be compared to that of other states to help us monitor our successes and develop appropriate programs that serve the health needs of very young Texans. 

I hope SB 395 will garner support from my colleagues for the benefit of one of our most vulnerable populations, yet most promising generations 

•••••• 

South Texas College enrollment approaches 22,000 students for spring 2008 semester

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR 

Rio Grande Valley students continue to enroll at record levels at South Texas College, which serves Hidalgo and Starr counties. 

STC’s spring 2009 enrollment is up 12.3 percent over spring 2008, with more than 21,681 students enrolled. This is the fifth consecutive year of spring enrollment increases for the college.  

“Students are taking advantage of our very reasonable tuition, flexible class schedules and a lot of convenience of classes offered at five locations and online,” said William Serrata, STC vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. “More and more families and their students understand the important role higher education plays in obtaining a bright future. In fact, more than 60 percent of our students are the first in their families to attend college. We are very proud to see these students taking the courageous step into higher education and hope they serve as role models for their peers, both locally and across the nation.”  

At 22 percent, STC saw a big increase in enrollment at its Technology Campus in McAllen, where courses offered are focused on math, science, engineering and business fields of study. Additionally, enrollment soared to a 22.7 percent increase over spring 2008 at the college’s Nursing and Allied Health Campus, as more students see the value and longevity in careers in health care. 

Darien Fernández, president of STC’s student government association, told key lawmakers in Austin, as part of Community College Day in Texas on Wednesday, February 4, of the crucial roles played by STC and the other 49 community colleges in Texas. 

“The visit provided an invaluable opportunity for students representing STC’s diverse student body to remind lawmakers of the importance of community colleges in providing access to higher education for more than 500,000 Texans annually,” said Fernández. “That community colleges across the country are now experiencing enrollment rates higher than many four-year institutions nationally, due in part to the current economic crisis, reinforces the need that more funds must be provided now to allow community colleges to accommodate this rapid growth and plan for future enrollment increases. And while students obviously have a vested interest in the funding of community colleges, citizens throughout a community college district ultimately have an inherent stake in the success of community colleges as well.” 

For more information about STC’s Student Government Association call 956/872-2180.  

For more information about South Texas College, including its more than 100 academic programs, financial aid options or to speak to an adviser call 956/872-8311.  

•••••• 

Rep. Peña honors Abraham Lincoln on his 200th birthday with passage of House proclamation

By ORLANDO SALINAS 

On Thursday, February 12, 200 years after the birth of America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln’s legacy is still celebrated as one of the most important and impactful in American history.  Throughout communities all across the nation are commemorating the birthday of one of the nation’s most revered citizens with plays and proclamations, speeches and dedications, historical re-enactments and musical celebrations.   

In the Texas House, Representative Aaron Peña marked the historic event with the passing of House Concurrent Resolution 10, recognizing Abraham Lincoln’s birth and extraordinary life. 

"President Abraham Lincoln was born 200 years ago and his words and his work are not relegated to academia and historiography but remain especially relevant today," said Peña. "Some of the lessons that we continue to learn from President Lincoln teach us how to govern and lead with grace and humility under the most trying of circumstances. I am honored to contribute in a small part to the collective American celebration honoring Abraham Lincoln today by passing this resolution and encouraging all Texans to reflect on the life and work of our 16th President." 

Lincoln’s birth state of Kentucky and home state on Illinois also have extensive exhibits, programs and activities planned.  For more information please visit the Illinois Bicentennial Commission at http://www.lincoln200.net/ and the Kentucky Lincoln Bicentennial Commission at http://www.kylincoln.org/default.htm

••••••  

UT System Chancellor Cigarroa anounces flexible hiring freeze for UT-Pan American, other campuses

University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., on Tuesday, February 10, announced a systemwide flexible hiring freeze for non-faculty positions and plans to recommend to the UT System Board of Regents a freeze of senior executive salaries at all 15 academic and health institutions and the UT System Administration. 

The hiring freeze is effective immediately and is anticipated to remain in place through August 2010. The chancellor also plans to recommend a senior executive compensation freeze for FY 2010 to the UT System Board of Regents’ compensation committee and the full board. 

The decisions were made after consultation with the campus presidents and senior UT System officials. The proposed executive salary freeze would include the chancellor, the 15 campus presidents, the executive vice chancellors and vice chancellors, who have all agreed to the plan. 

“The leadership of the UT System and its institutions are keenly sensitive to the current economic climate, which has touched every corner of our great state and nation,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “Just as Texans are tightening their belts, so must we.” 

Cigarroa directed UT System institution presidents to implement a flexible hiring freeze immediately for all current and future vacant non-faculty positions. A flexible freeze permits institution presidents to decide locally which positions should be frozen and to issue guidelines to ensure that positions critical to the ongoing mission of the institution continue to be filled. 

"Institution presidents will have the ability to determine what positions are mission critical for immediate and future hiring to maintain the teaching, research, health and patient care services provided by the institution. I am not dictating to them what positions to fill – only that the hiring decisions be carefully scrutinized at the appropriate level of the institution," Cigarroa said. 

Cigarroa also asked presidents to work with their respective provosts and deans to carefully review faculty recruitment initiatives. 

"Faculty and staff are critical to the success of all UT institutions and it is important that we strive for organizational effectiveness such that we remain in the position to attract national and international talent to our institutions, thereby advancing excellence and benefiting our students,” Cigarroa said. 

Additionally, Cigarroa called for the campuses to convene task forces to review and enhance organizational effectiveness, productivity and cost containment measures. 

In recent weeks, the UT System has taken steps to reduce travel, including trimming 20 percent of systemwide meetings requiring travel. 

“We feel it is necessary that the UT System and its institutions continue to do their part to examine their campus operations and identify savings that could contribute to a solution to the state’s economic challenges," he added. 

About The University of Texas System 

The University of Texas System is one of the nation’s largest higher education systems, with nine academic campuses and six health institutions. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $11.5 billion (FY 2009) including $2.5 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. Student enrollment exceeded 194,000 in the 2007 academic year.  

The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees and educates nearly three-fourths of the state’s healthcare professionals annually. With more than 81,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state. 

•••••• 

Week in review: State senators look at hurricane impact on schools; Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice wants Texas judges appointed, not elected

By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES 

Hurricane Ike will cost Gulf Coast school districts hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and rebuild facilities damaged or destroyed by the September storms, according to testimony offered to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, February 10. 

Texas Education Agency official Dr. Ray Glenn estimated the total cost for these schools at about $300 million to recover from the hurricane. He said of the 7,900 students displaced by the storm, about 6,900 still have not returned to their home districts. Some schools missed as many as 21 days of instruction, while officials tried to restore power and services to communities. 

Arnold Proctor, an assistant superintendent at Galveston ISD, testified that Chapter 41 relief would be a great help to property-rich districts like his. He estimated repair and rebuilding costs for his district at $65 million, but the district will still be expected to give money back to the state under district equity laws.  

Committee Chair Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano said that did not make much sense.  

"The idea that you would be giving money away, during this time that you’re trying to get money to build, almost seems incongruous," she said. "You’ve got to utilize other dollars, and you’re giving dollars away." The committee will continue to look at ways to help districts impacted by Hurricane Ike throughout the session. 

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, filed a bill Tuesday, February 10, to reform the process of eminent domain, where private land is taken by the government for public interest. Senate Bill 18 would clearly define terms of public use and fair compensation, and would direct the Comptroller to review which entities have eminent domain authority.  

Estes said this is an issue that must be resolved soon.  

"When we have this necessary evil of eminent domain," he said, "make sure that the property that is taken is for the public good." 

On Wednesday, February 11, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, R-San Antonio, spoke before a joint session of the Legislature, encouraging them to reform the way the state chooses its judges.  

Jefferson delivered his biannual State of the Judiciary address, where he advises lawmakers on necessary legislation relating to the judicial branch. This year, he wants legislators to move away from judicial elections, and use a merit-based appointment system.  

Jefferson said that 80 percent of Texans believe that judges are influenced in their rulings by campaign contributions.  

"If the public believes that judges are biased toward contributors, confidence in the courts surely will suffer," said Jefferson. 

Also Wednesday, Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, spoke in favor of a conservative fiscal policy as the Senate looks to ride its budget. Patrick advocated a cap on increased spending, linked to population growth and inflation, or growth in personal income, whichever is least.  

He praised past Legislatures for keeping conservative fiscal policies, saying this was why Texas finds itself in a stronger economic position relative to other states, and should continue this trend.  

"It’s very important that we get control of spending as we move forward," said Patrick. "This is not a time for government to spend one penny more than needs to be spent." 

The Senate Finance Committee continued budget work throughout the week and took two days of public testimony relating to health and human services allocations Thursday, February 12, and Friday, February 13.  

Hundreds of citizens signed up to testify about the need for more funding for services ranging from disabled care, mental health and state schools. The Finance Committee will begin hearings on funding for the courts, natural resources and general government next week. 

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, serve on the Senate Finance Committee, which writes the Senate’s version of the state budget. 

The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 17, 2009.

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