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Edinburg City Councilmember Augustín "Gus" García, featured left, makes a point during the Wednesday, March 4 public meeting of the Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee, whose members received an update on the activities and goals of the Regional Academic Health Center in Edinburg. The $20 million facility – its official designation is the Regional Academic Health Center (E-RAHC), Medical Research Division for The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio – is capable of expanding in order to provide the first two years of a UT medical school, according to Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. Dr. Thomas J. Slaga, Ph.D., featured right, a world-renowned biomedical scientist, a Professor of Pharmacology, and the interim director of the Edinburg biomedical research campus, provided the group with a tour of the state-of-the-art facility. Also featured, center, is Gilbert Mercado, III, another member of the city medical advisory group. See lead story in this posting.

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Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of The University of Texas System, on Friday, March 13, visited The University of Texas-Pan American to talk with key members of the university, community leaders and elected officials about the future of higher education. Cigarroa’s visit was the first to the university since he was selected on February 10 as the 10th chancellor to lead the UT System, but he has been to the campus many times before. Equally important, Cigarroa is the first Hispanic in the nation to lead a major university system. Featured, from left, are: Dr. Bruce Reed, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services; Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities; Cigarroa; Dr. Paul Sale, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs; and Dr. Van Reidhead, dean of the College of Social and Behavorial Sciences. See story later in this posting. Also, a video of his appearance is available online at http://www.utpa.edu/videos/

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Valley veterans on Saturday, March 14, began their walk from Edinburg to the Audie Murphy Veterans Administration Hospital in San Antonio as part of their ongoing efforts to increase public and political support for the creation of a VA Hospital in the Valley. This represents the second march in about four years, and the veterans’ efforts have resulted in several major improvements for the delivery of medical care to area veterans, but the construction of a VA Hospital remains the top prize. The veterans group is maintaining a website which is chronicling the march, and where supporters can provide moral and financial support. The website address is http://www.marchtosanantonio.webs.com

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The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Tuesday, March 10, appointed Regent Janiece Longoria, formerly of Pharr, to the Board of Directors of The University of Texas Investment Management Company (UTIMCO). Longoria, a daughter of the late Sen. Raúl Longoria, D-Pharr, is a partner in a Houston law firm. She was appointed to the UT System Board of Regents in 2008. She succeeds former regent and UTIMCO board member Robert B. Rowling, who resigned last month. UTIMCO is a 501(c)(3) investment management corporation whose sole purpose is the management of investment assets under the fiduciary care of the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System. Created in March 1996, UTIMCO is the first external investment corporation formed by a public university system in the nation. It invests endowment and operating funds in excess of $18 billion. UTIMCO is governed by a nine-member Board of Directors. The UTIMCO Board of Directors includes three members of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, one member selected from a list provided by The Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, the Chancellor of The University of Texas System, and four outside investment professionals appointed by the UT System Board of Regents.

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Sales for the premiere of The Red Queen are going very briskly, according to the film’s writer-director David Carren. "With time to spare before its performance at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 22, tickets are going very well." Tickets for the charity showing of UTPA’s Summer Workshop Film were being sold at the Box Office of University Theatre Productions. "We were out of our stack of tickets by Thursday, March 12," Theatre Manager Elva Galván stated. "Carmike in Edinburg still has them. The management will open two theatres for each of the two showings if the demand is great enough." The special showing is a benefit, arranged by Carmike of Edinburg, for two non-profit organizations, the Children’s Miracle Network and the theatre television film unit of The University of Texas Pan American Communication Department. Carmike is located on Canton Road just west of Highway 281. The University Theatre Productions Office will be open at least part of each day during spring break. If anyone wishes to contact the office, they may call 956/381-3581 and leave a telephone number or an e mail address. Their questions will be answered as soon as possible. The Red Queen is an action-adventure film, approximately 110 minutes long. Suitable for family viewing, it is the story of a college student who goes on the internet to research her family background. She meets adventure, excitement and the Red Queen. See story later in this posting.

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Sen. Hinojosa: Edinburg RAHC set up for dramatic growth; could add first two years of medical school

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

The Regional Academic Health Center (E-RAHC), Medical Research Division for The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in Edinburg, a $20 million, 49,437 square-foot facility whose mission focuses on discovering ways to treat obesity, diabetes, cancer, and infectious diseases like tuberculosis, has the infrastructure in place to eventually expand into a 250,000-square-foot medical complex that could host the first two years of a medical school, said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

That option is crucial for the growth of medical education in Hidalgo County, particularly as several measures are being considered this spring by the Texas Legislature which, if adopted by lawmakers and approved by the governor, would authorize the creation of a full-fledged health science center in the Valley, including a four-year medical school.

"The Edinburg RAHC is well-positioned to not only produce biomedical scientists, who focus on cutting-edge medical research, but also to provide, with the assistance from UT Pan American, the first two years of a medical student’s education," said Hinojosa. "In combination with the outstanding resources of the RAHC in Harlingen, which provides the third and fourth years of a medical student’s education, the Edinburg RAHC can expand to provide the first two years of medical education, effectively creating a full-fledged UT medical school for the Valley."

Hinojosa was state representative in 1997 when he successfully sponsored legislation that authorized the creation and state funding of what turned out to be three Regional Academic Health Centers in the Valley.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, was the author of the RAHC legislation.

In general, medical school students in the United States spend their first two years predominantly in the classroom and laboratory, and the last two years mostly in the hospital, according to http://www.faqs.org, an Internet-based educational website. Also, according to http://www.faqs.org, the classes in medical school vary from place to place, but there are some that everyone takes in their first two years, no matter where they are. The amount of lab work varies from class to class and school to school, although some classes (like gross anatomy) feature as much lab work as students have time for.

The RAHC in Edinburg – now referred to by UT officials as the E-RAHC – is the first biomedical research facility of its kind on the U.S.-Mexico border, and is enabling research faculty members to conduct high level research and mentor students from area universities, Hinojosa explained.

The E-RAHC Medical Research Division provides more opportunities to study diseases specific to the border region, and was the second of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio’s RAHC buildings. The first was the Medical Education Division in Harlingen. A School of Public Health RAHC, administered by the UT Health Science Center at Houston, is located in Brownsville.

The E-RAHC is located immediately northeast of the UT-Pan American campus, across the street from the Edinburg Professional Baseball Stadium, near the intersection of Sugar and Schunior roads.

Hinojosa’s remarks followed a detailed overview of the E-RAHC provided the previous week by Thomas J. Slaga, Ph.D., a world-renowned biomedical scientist and a Professor of Pharmacology, who is currently serving as the interim director of the Edinburg biomedical research campus.

Slaga: E-RAHC basis for UT medical school

During a Wednesday, March 4 meeting hosted at the E-RAHC, Slaga provided almost 90 minutes of insights and a tour of the complex to members of the Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee, who are appointees of the Edinburg City Council.

Included in his presentation, Slaga briefly laid out a blueprint for bringing a major medical school component to the three-time All-America City by enlarging the E-RAHC, which currently features 12 state-of-the-art laboratories with sophisticated technology.

"I know you have seen the building from outside. Probably by this time next year, this facility will have all the labs occupied, and I estimate by next year the total number of people here will be between 80 and 100," Slaga told the medical advisory panel. "What we are trying to do is get the state to build the other part of this, which will be another 60,000 to 70,000 square-feet."

The buildup could continue, with help from the Texas Legislature, the UT System, and other resources, including from the Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee, Slaga added.

Once the E-RAHC is enlarged by the additional 60,000 to 70,000 square-feet, the current site could still handle another 120,000 square-feet of laboratory and classroom facilities, dramatically transforming the existing facility into a 250,000 square-foot medical education complex, he said.

"Eventually, this will be the basis for the first two years of a medical school," Slaga envisioned.

He did not provide a timetable for such expansion, since those decisions would have to be made by the UT System, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and more importantly, the Texas Legislature.

Hinojosa said critical information from the UT System already has been developed to give state lawmakers a good handle on what it would take to upgrade the RAHC components in Edinburg, Harlingen, and the RAHC School of Public Health in Brownsville – which is administered by the UT Health Science Center at Houston – to be part of a UT four-year medical school.

"Obviously, a major state project like a UT medical school for the Valley would cost tens of millions of dollars a year for construction, operation, and growth of such a facility, but the beneficial economic and health impact for South Texas and the state would be tremendous," said Hinojosa. "As a result, the creation of a UT medical school in the Valley, utilizing the existing resources of the Regional Academic Health Centers, is the number one priority this session for South Texas lawmakers."

Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, is one of three House members who have already filed legislation that would create a four-year UT medical school in the Valley.

"The Valley is in dire need of a medical school and if the RAHC in Edinburg can provide students with the first two years, then that is a major step towards establishing a full-fledged medical school," said Martínez.

Martínez, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, each have filed similar, but separate measures to bring a health science center, including a four-year medical school, to the Valley.

"With more than a million residents in our region, more physicians are required to serve the needs of Valley citizens," said Martínez. "The fact that Valley students have to travel more than 250 miles to attend the nearest medical school in Texas, and that statistically most of those students are more likely to practice in that region, says a lot about the gap between us and the rest of the state."

Chancellor Cigarroa: E-RAHC one of a kind

Francisco Cigarroa, M.D., the recently-appointed – and first Hispanic – chancellor of the massive UT System, was president of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio when the E-RAHC had its ribbon cutting on April 25, 2006.

He shared Hinojosa’s and Slaga’s hopes for the future of the Edinburg campus.

“Nowhere on the Texas-Mexico border is there a research institute that can compare to this one,” Cigarroa said at the time. “This will be a place of unprecedented opportunities for students throughout the Rio Grande Valley, and an economic stimulus for the entire region.”

Mayor Joe Ochoa, who helped lead the city’s efforts back in the mid-1990s to push for the creation of the Regional Academic Health Center, wants Slaga and the city medical advisory committee to meet again, this time with South Texas lawmakers, to develop strategies for promoting the E-RAHC and the UT medical school concept.

Ochoa, who attended the E-RAHC briefing, said he "had already talked with (Rep.) Verónica (Gonzáles, D-McAllen), the senator (Hinojosa), and all the other representatives (in February), and asked them to visit this facility so they could understand what is happening here.

"They created it," Ochoa added. "Sen. Hinojosa was very instrumental in creating it. But like most of us, we have not seen what is here now. I know the senator will come. I know Verónica will come. I know Rep. Aaron Peña (D-Edinburg) will come."

When that panel is again scheduled to meet, it will have to post an advanced notice of the time, date, and location of any such session. Although that group’s agendas are not posted on the city’s website, their agendas must be posted in front of Edinburg City Hall three days before it holds any meetings.

Those meetings are open to the public.

Medical advisory panel helped land E-RAHC

The Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee is comprised of five members, led by Councilmember Augustín "Gus" García, who serves as chair of the panel, Beverly Fridie, Ph.D., Allen Mercado, M.D., Melva Palacios, M.D., and Gilbert Mercado, III.

Four of the five panel members attended the March 4 presentation at the E-RAHC, with the exception of Palacios, who was excused on important business.

Also in attendance for the presentation and discussions, in addition to Ochoa and medical advisory panel members, were: Omar Garza, M.D., who is the father of Councilmember Alma Garza; David Fridie, III, D.P.M., who is the husband of Beverly Fridie; John Peña, Business Development Director for Pro-Medic EMS; Erika G. Reyna, Economic Development Planner 1, who was representing Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas; Rosie Anzaldúa, administrative assistant to Slaga; Edinburg City Secretary Myra Garza; and Lupita Galván, who works for the Edinburg City Secretary’s Office.

The Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee makes recommendations to the city council on where to invest public funds for the development of medical programs and facilities.

Funding is restricted to qualified programs which deal with medical purposes.

The advisory panel controls several million dollars which came from profits the city made in the early 1990s from the sale of the publicly-owned Edinburg hospital, which paved the way for the privately-owned Edinburg Regional Medical Center – and later, the affiliated Edinburg Children’s Hospital, the South Texas Behavioral Health Center, and the Cornerstone Regional Hospital – to come into town.

The Edinburg Community Health/Medical Care Advisory Committee already played a major role several years ago in helping land the E-RAHC.

The local panel recommended to the Edinburg City Council, and provided the money from the medical funds in controlled, key funds that were needed to secure the biomedical research facility.

In November 2002, the city presented $1 million to the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio in support of the E-RAHC.

The UT System Board of Regents, which had earlier allocated $20 million in Permanent University Fund proceeds for the Edinburg construction, did so with the stipulation of a local contribution of operating funds.

History of the Valley RAHCs

According to the University of Texas System:

The 75th Texas Legistlature enacted Senate Bill 606, which authorized The University of Texas System to establish and operate a Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) to serve the four counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy). The Legislature appropriated $30 million of Tuition Revenue Bond Proceeds for construction of the RAHC facilities. At its November 1998 meeting, the UT System Board of Regents established a Lower Rio Grande Valley-wide RAHC comprised of three major divisions – the Medical Education Division, the Medical Research Division and the Public Health Division.

Four sites (Brownsville, Edinburg, Harlingen and McAllen) were selected for the location of these various divisions of the RAHC. Medical Education Divisions were designated for Harlingen and McAllen.

McAllen, however, later pulled out of the effort to land a RAHC component in its city.

The Medical Research Divison was designated for Edinburg, and the Public Health Division was designated for Brownsville. Additionally, the Board of Regents designated The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) to oversee and operate the Medical Education and Medical Research Divisions; the Public Health Division was designated as a branch of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s School of Public Health.

Harlingen was selected through the RFP process as the site for the Medical Education Division which includes a facility for undergraduate and graduate medical education programs. This facility houses the educational programs and support for 24 third-year and 24 fourth-year UTHSCSA medical students, as well as the UTHSCSA residency in Internal Medicine under the sponsorship of Valley Baptist Medical Center (VBMC).

The facility for the Harlingen Medical Education Division (H-RAHC) was constructed using $25 million of the $30 million of Tuition Revenue Bond Proceeds appropriated by the Legistlature for the RAHC. In December 2007 the second facility was dedicated ath the Harlingen RAHC campus – the Academic and Clinical Research building. This facility houses the RAHC clinical research center and also the South Texas VA Health Care CEnter.

The UT Board of Regents designed $20 million from the Permanent University Fund (PUF) for the construction of the initial medical research facility of the Medical Research Division (E-RAHC). This research campus of the RAHC is located in Edinburg, adjacent to The University of Texas-Pan American, and will serve the four counties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The flagship RAHC building was constructed on an 18.609-acre tract of land donated and deed to the UT-System by VBMC. An additional 7.6 acre tract was donated by VBMC for future use by the RAHC. Funds for the purchase of the twelve acre tract where the first phase of the Medical Research Division were gifted to the UT System by the City of Edinburg.

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UT System Chancellor Cigarroa visits UT-Pan American during private session on campus

By MELISSA C. RODRÍGUEZ

The University of Texas System Chancellor Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa on Friday, March 13, visited The University of Texas-Pan American to talk with key members of the university, community leaders and elected officials about the future of higher education.

He is the first Hispanic in the nation to lead a major university system.

Cigarroa’s visit was the first to the university since he was selected on February 10 as the 10th chancellor to lead the UT System, but he has been to the campus many times before.

“Reflecting back on the moments that really made a difference in my life, this was the first university I ever stepped foot on,” Cigarroa said of UTPA. “I remember leaving junior high on a yellow bus and coming to this wonderful city and campus and being introduced to the observatory and planetarium. What a remarkable experience that was. It was an incredible introduction to the wonders of science. I’ve never forgotten that moment and I remember going back to school energized to study.”

Cigarroa said he enthusiastically looked forward to the opportunity to learn from the administrators, faculty, staff and students at UTPA during his visit.

“I believe that you can’t be a great chancellor unless you walk the halls and meet the people who are working so hard every day and listen to them about how we can make The University of Texas System better,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to this interaction, to the lessons learned and for allowing me to become a better chancellor.”

As the first Hispanic to lead a major public university system in the nation, Cigarroa said universities have an important role to not only the community, but to the state and country as well.

“UTPA is a tremendous asset to the Rio Grande Valley and to the world,” Cigarroa said. “My pledge to all of you in my new role of chancellor is that I will continue to do my very best to enhance the opportunities for this area.”

During the breakfast meeting hosted in conjunction with the UTPA Foundation Board, Cigarroa talked about his passion for bettering lives through educational opportunities.

“At the end of the day, when we fulfill our whole life’s duty, what makes us most proud is not what we have received, but what we have given,” he said. “And the greatest gift you can give anyone is an education. No one can take an education away from you and it can allow any childhood dream to come true. I’m a perfect example of that.”

Cigarroa was welcomed by Interim President Charles A. Sorber and commended for his courage for assuming his chancellor duties at the start of a difficult economic time for the state.

“He took on the challenge and I know he will do a great job,” Sorber said. “He is a wonderful leader and he is going to do tremendous things on our behalf and for the UT System.”

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, also spoke during the meeting and told the chancellor that his work has already made a difference in South Texas, especially in the area of health care through the Regional Academic Health Center located on the UTPA campus.

“Your election as chancellor of the UT System is a signal of change and a point of pride for deep South Texas and The University of Texas border institutions from El Paso to Edinburg and Brownsville,” Hinojosa said.

A Laredo native, Cigarroa most recently served as president of the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio since 2000. He is a third-generation physician and has been director of pediatric surgery and director of abdominal transplant surgery. He received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and his medical degree from UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He was the chief resident at Harvard University’s teaching hospital and completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The chancellor of the UT System serves at the chief administrative officer of one of the largest public systems of higher education in the nation, overseeing nine universities and six health institutions. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $11.5 billion (FY 2009) including $2.5 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With more than 81,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.

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Congressman Cuellar proposes Southern Border Security Task Force Act to combat drug cartels

By THOMAS SEAY

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, a prominent member of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, on Wednesday, March 11, introduced legislation to prevent southern border violence from spilling over into the United States.

Cuellar’s bill, the Southern Border Security Task Force Act, aims to stem the tide of border violence associated with drug trafficking, gunrunning, kidnapping and illegal alien smuggling. It authorizes funding for a task force to coordinate federal, state, and local agencies in order to better protect border communities. It also further coordinates existing task force to integrate security operations while providing for the optimal use of resources in a fiscally constrained environment.

“Border states face daunting challenges in coordinating their security efforts, and the federal government has yet to create a comprehensive, border-wide strategy to address the problem,” Cuellar said. “Right now, with border violence on the rise, it is more important than ever that we work together to protect border communities.”

Coordination between the various federal, state, and local border security agencies is currently informal and has no clear leader. For example, Texas has to coordinate Customs Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and local sheriffs’ offices. Other border states face similar logistical challenges.

“We’ve learned through long and hard experience the dangers of failing to coordinate security efforts,” Cuellar noted. “In the months before the September 11th attacks, numerous federal and state agencies had information that could have mitigated or even prevented the attacks, but they had no way to piece together the puzzle. That same kind of patchwork collaboration still hampers our efforts to protect the southern border.”

He added, “This is clearly a border safety issue, and just as importantly, it’s a good government issue. When federal, state, and local governments are all reading out of different play books, there’s a real risk of duplicative or wasteful spending. Better coordination holds the promise of preventing waste and protecting taxpayer dollars.”

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Despite recession, expanded unemployment program would hurt Texas employers and their employees

By GOV. RICK PERRY

During these tough economic times, Texas employers are working harder than ever to move products to market, make payroll and create jobs. The last thing they need right now is government burdening them with higher taxes and expanded obligations.

That is exactly what the Unemployment Insurance stipulations in the new federal stimulus bill will do, ultimately increasing the burden borne by Texas employers and directly impacting the people they hire (and those they won’t be able to hire as a result).

On Thursday afternoon [March 12], after thoughtful and thorough review of the federal stimulus legislation, I stood up for Texas employers and the millions of Texans they employ to express my resistance toward further government intrusion into their lives by opposing the federal government’s push to expand our state’s unemployment insurance program.

In recent weeks I have heard from hundreds of Texans on this issue. Most of those who have written share my belief that this particular part of the stimulus package is wrong for Texas.

They share the sentiment echoed by a Katy employer who says: “Texans would be exchanging a short-term relief package for a long-term burden. Think of it as a payday loan with usurious rates to be paid by employers – one which would never be paid in full.”

I couldn’t agree more, and am deeply concerned about the belief taking hold across our country that thinks the best and only way to solve our nation’s problems is to drown them with taxpayer dollars without considering the consequences. This belief is deeply troubling and, quite frankly, irresponsible.

Changing the terms of Texas’ unemployment program will not only cause employers to change their hiring practices, it will also increase their tax burden for years to come, leading to higher-priced products and hindering their ability to overcome the current economic challenges.

As governor, I represent all of our citizens: Texas workers, the employers who create their jobs as well as those folks who are looking for work. I want all Texans to be confident that our current unemployment system stands ready to help in times of need. In fact, Texas recently accepted stimulus funds, that had no strings attached, that will provide additional unemployment benefits through the end of this year.

A Sulphur Springs resident who once lost his job and was unable to find work for more than a year recently wrote to me saying “I know what [unemployment] is like – I’ve been there and I still think limits are a good thing.”

Unfortunately the limits needed in this legislation are lacking. Never before has the federal government taken such efforts to micromanage the way states spend their funds or structure their programs. I cannot in good conscience allow these strings to tie down Texas employers who create jobs.

By freeing up employers to succeed in the marketplace, Texas has also freed them to create the million-plus jobs our state has gained in the past six years alone.

We cannot abandon the proven practices that brought Texas to the forefront of the national economy. As governor of this great state, I will not permit the strings attached to these funds to strangle an economy that leads the nation in exports and Fortune 500 companies, and created 80 percent of the jobs in the U.S in 2008.

Because Texans prefer a paycheck over an unemployment check, we will hold fast to our principles of limited government and responsible spending and continue to cultivate an economic climate that decreases burdens on employers, attracts investment, and creates jobs for Texans.

This will give our state the best chance to succeed in the months and years to come.

For more information about Perry’s announcement, please visit:

governor.state.tx.us/highlight/unemployment_insurance.

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Sen. Lucio, Sen. Zaffirini criticize Gov. Perry for rejecting $555 million in federal unemployment aid

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, were among xx Democratic state lawmakers who on Thursday, March 12, criticized Gov. Rick Perry’s "callous" decision to reject $555 million in aid to unemployed Texans contained in the federal economic recovery act.

The other lawmakers voicing their objections on March 12 were Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houson; Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth; Sen. Mario Gallegos of Houston; Sen. Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso; Sen, Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio; Sen. Royce West of Dallas; and Senator John Whitmire of Houston.

"These federal stimulus funds would assist Texans who are unemployed through no fault of their own," Zaffirini said. "The economic outlook is dire, and any measure that would qualify deserving persons for unemployment insurance benefits is the right and moral approach."

While Texas does not yet face double digit unemployment – like Michigan, California, Rhode Island and South Carolina – the economic forecast is not rosy. According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Texas economy will lose between 180,000 to 300,000 jobs in 2009, and the unemployment rate is expected to rise from six to 8.2 percent.

"That is why I filed Senate Bill 945, which would expand eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits as defined by the Labor Code, allow for an alternative base period to be used when determining eligibility so that any of four of the last five quarters would be used in determining eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits, allow persons seeking part-time work to qualify for partial benefits and permit persons who are unemployed due to spouse relocation unrelated to military service to receive benefits," Zaffirini added.

Texas’ unemployment insurance fund faces a massive shortfall which, without swift action, could lead to an automatic tax increase on Texas businesses. Under Texas law, the insurance trust fund has to maintain a certain balance – today, approximately $850 million. If the fund falls below that threshold, a "deficit" tax is levied on nearly all Texas businesses.

"I’m very disappointed by today’s decision," said Lucio. "My district in particular has been adversely affected by the economic downturn. As I’ve said before, it’s unfair and unnecessary to burden families and businesses with hundreds of millions of dollars in extra taxes and bond debt. The unemployment legislation I’ve proposed is a quick and smart way to energize the economy and help Texans struggling to support themselves. The fact is, fixing our unemployment insurance system helps fix our economy."

According to the latest estimates, by September 2009 Texas unemployment trust fund will have reserves of only $100 million – about $750 million below the floor. In addition to the tax increase, the shortfall could mean an end to important economic development programs, including Gov. Perry’s Enterprise Fund.

To take advantage of the federal stimulus aid, Texas must:

• Join 21 other states – including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia – in modernizing the way it calculates unemployment benefits. Texas currently disregards the most recent three to six months of a worker’s earnings when calculating eligibility, a practice only needed when claims were processed manually.

• Allow those seeking part-time work to be eligible for pro-rated benefits. When the economy bounces back, many of the new jobs may begin as part-time employment and eventually become full-time. Nearly half of the states currently award benefits to part-time workers.

• Pass family-friendly legislation to allow benefits for spouses who quit their jobs because their wife/husband is transferred to another part of the state. The Legislature already made this change for military spouses.

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Federal bill by Sen. Cornyn to help prosecute public corruption clears committee and sent to the Senate

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, March 12, voted to report the Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act, legislation to give prosecutors expanded tools to identify, investigate and prosecute public officials who have committed criminal corruption.

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced the bill on January 6.

The Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act would strengthen existing federal criminal law for acts of public corruption. It also would authorize funding to increase resources for prosecutors to investigate and prosecute corruption by public officials. The bill also closes a loophole in existing law by broadening the definition of what it means for a public official to perform an ‘official act’ under the bribery statute.

“Public corruption is not new, not geographically isolated, nor is it a partisan issue. But it’s a problem I believe needs to be addressed now," Cornyn said. "This legislation strengthens our efforts to combat public corruption by making substantive reforms to public corruption laws, and by giving prosecutors new tools to use in their battle against corrupt officials. I hope my colleagues will join me and Sen. Leahy in our effort to combat public corruption and support our legislation to ensure authorities have the resources needed to prosecute those who betray that trust to the fullest extent of the law.”

Leahy said, “The stain of corruption has spread to all levels of government. It is an issue that both parties must address. This is a problem that victimizes every American by chipping away at the foundations of our democracy and, too often, loopholes in existing laws have meant that corrupt conduct can go unchecked. I hope Congress will enact this meaningful legislation to give investigators and prosecutors the tools and resources they need to enforce our laws.”

The Public Corruption Prosecution Improvements Act also amends the federal bribery statute to make clear that a corrupt payment can be made to influence more than one official act, and amends the federal gratuities statute to clarify that a public official may not accept anything of value, other than as permitted by existing rules or regulations, given to them because of their official position. The bill also increases the penalties for conduct in violation of the public corruption laws.

Before the committee ordered the legislation to be reported to the full Senate by a voice vote, it adopted a substitute amendment which made the following changes:

• Added a definition of “rule or regulation.”

• Strikes from 201(c)(1)(B) the words “otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty” in order to make clear that the new language at the top of 201(c)(1) saying “otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty, or by rule or regulation” governs all parts of section 201(c)(1).

• Changes the venue language in Section 15 of the bill to specify which obstruction and which perjury statutes are covered by this change.

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Sen. Lucio joins fellow lawmakers by proposing reforms to curb premium hikes in home insurance

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, on Thursday, March 12, joined other lawmakers at a press conference in the Texas Capitol calling for comprehensive homeowners insurance reforms for the 81st Legislature.

"With an already tough economy, Texans shouldn’t also be forced to pay the highest rates for homeowners insurance in the country," said Lucio. "This out-of-control system is devastating the pocketbooks of many who are already struggling to pay the bills. Reform is critical for this state."

One of his reform measures, Senate Bill 1372, would impose a five-year ban on re-entry into the state’s market for homeowners and automobile insurers that pull out. While some insurers bully the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) Commissioner into accepting their sky-high rates with threats of withdrawing from the state, others leave for a month only to return and continue charging excessive rates.

"This bill will force insurers to stop playing games with homeowners and prevent them from strong-arming the TDI Commissioner into approving rates that he otherwise would not," he contended.

Another of Lucio’s proposals, SB 102, would require insurers to offer standard forms on homeowner policies.

"One of a consumer’s best tools is information," he said. "Senate Bill 102 standardizes policy forms to make it easier for consumers to shop the market and find the most affordable homeowners’ insurance. Comparison shopping is an essential part of being a smart buyer."

The legislators also proposed bills that require insurance companies to justify rate hikes by first obtaining approval from the state insurance commissioner before passing them on to the consumers. Since no approval is currently required before rate increases are implemented, companies can raise rates before notifying the state.

Lucio’s SB 103 would limit the range of rates an insurance company can charge within a given county. "The fact is, we need to hold insurers accountable. It’s not good policy to let insurers charge households whatever they want without justification," he noted.

"No one should pay more for homeowners insurance than their neighbor a block away," he added. "My bill imposes a 15 percent limit on the amount insurers can vary rates within a county unless there’s a proven, weather-related reason for exceeding that cap."

Other reform bills would ban the use of credit scores by insurers when setting rates and make the insurance commissioner an elected position.

A poll of likely voters released last month by Texas Watch, a leading consumer group active on insurance issues, showed strong support for insurance reform and a deep dissatisfaction with the state of the current insurance market.

Emily Wheeler, a policy analyst with Lucio, handles this issue and can be reached at 512/463-0127.

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Hidalgo County records key achievements in 2008; poised to become regional leader in upcoming year

By HIDALGO COUNTY JUDGE J.D. SALINAS, III

The state of the county is strong! That was the message at the 2009 State of the County Address, which the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court held at Knapp Medical Center’s conference center earlier this year. If you could not attend, I encourage you to view video and pictures of the event on our website, http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us.

At this annual event, about 400 leaders from around the region met to discuss our challenges and accomplishments of the past year and our goals for 2009. It was a public evaluation of where we’ve been and where we are going. I would like to share some these items with you and update you as to where we stand today on fixing our levees and upgrading U.S. Highway 281.

The levee-barrier, which was the alternative reached by the Hidalgo County Drainage District and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is now 95 percent complete. This solution has saved residents and businesses from purchasing $150 million per year in mandatory flood insurance. It has prevented private land from being taken by the federal government, and the flood control structure is more environmentally-sensitive than the proposed border fence.

While we hear news everyday of companies and even some local governments going broke, in Hidalgo County, the local government’s fiscal condition still healthy. Our general fund balance has increased from $16 million at the end of the 2006 to more than $26 million today. Hidalgo County’s bond rating has increased, too, which is so important given the tight credit market these days. This is allowing us to fund some much-needed capital improvements, such as local drainage in rural neighborhoods. We have vowed not to let another hurricane season go by without beginning significant improvements to our drainage system.

But we have also vowed to tighten our belts and work within our means to sustain this positive fiscal condition. If you’ve lost your job recently or had your home foreclosed upon, you know that Hidalgo County is not immune to the economic downtown. However, the will of the county has never been stronger, and we are taking aggressive steps to keep the county on the right track. Soon, we’ll be rolling out programs to help homeowners affected by the hurricane, funneling money into recovery projects, and we are continuing to find ways to scrimp and save at the county level while maintaining a high-level of service.

Hidalgo County is taking bold steps to become a regional leader. We have no boundaries to what we can achieve when we put our minds to it and work together. Over the past month alone, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and our partners such as U.S. 281 Coalition, private businesses, state legislators and federal elected officials, have secured more than $225 million in state and federal funds to upgrade U.S. Highway 281 to interstate standards and fix the levees. This is an unprecedented influx of funds, more than the county has ever seen in so little time.

In early March, the Texas Department of Transportation approved $114.5 million in projects along U.S. Highway 281. Upgrades to the highway will be at Falfurrias, Ben Bolt and George West. While none of these projects are physically in Hidalgo County, these projects directly benefit the area. By beginning to bring U.S. Hwy 281 up to interstate standards, we will make Hidalgo County more attractive to business, create 1,500 jobs in the region and ensure the safety of our residents in case of an evacuation. U.S. Hwy 281 is the third busiest NAFTA corridor in Texas, and traffic is expected to double by 2030.

The U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission has committed to give Hidalgo County $110 million of the stimulus funds the agency is receiving as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We can see the daylight now. The majority of the levees in Hidalgo County will now be fixed. The next step in the process will be to define the timeline, or rate at which the work will take place. Hidalgo County has informed the IBWC that we could form a similar cooperative agreement the way we did with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in order to fast-track the construction. We told them we could turn dirt in 90 days and have the remaining 100 miles of river levees and internal floodway levees completed within one year. We are awaiting a formal response on this proposed timeline, and if it’s not to our liking, we will fight to make sure it is accepted. We have shown we can do the work. We owe it to our residents to get these projects done correctly and quickly.

The state of the county is strong and getting stronger. More than $300 million in federal funds have been directed to Hidalgo County for improving the levees in the past year. And now, more than $114 million are coming down the pipeline from the state for highway improvements. These monies have created and will continue to create jobs, and these improvements significantly diminish risks to life and property. Improving our infrastructure will also only better our quality of life in this region and make us stronger and better situated to serve our residents.

But none of this could have been done alone. I am truly proud of what we, with the cooperation of the Commissioners Court, and our partners have been able to accomplish together.

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The Red Queen, filmed by UTPA in Edinburg, South Texas, to premier at Carmike Cinema on March 22

The Red Queen, a feature length film shot in the Rio Grande Valley, will premier in Edinburg’s Carmike Cinema on Sunday, March 22 at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The project is the 17th feature film produced through the Department of Communication at The University of Texas-Pan American and the first to use Hollywood actors along with Valley locals.

The screening is the opening event for FESTIBA (Festival of International Books and Arts) 2009, which runs March 22-28 on the UTPA campus.

All ticket sales for the movie’s premier will support The Children’s Miracle Network and the UTPA Department of Communication.

The Red Queen stars UTPA alumnus Valente Rodríguez (The George López Show), Estephenia LeBaron (The Alamo), and Harley Jane Kozak (Parenthood). Kozak and LeBaron will attend a reception before the premiere and be available for interviews and autographs.

The film was produced as part of the Pan American Summer Television program. The Red Queen was filmed in San Juan, South Padre Island, McAllen, Roma, and Edinburg, including the Arts District Business Center and the Port Isabel pier. Most of the cast and crew consisted of UTPA students.

The Red Queen is an action-filled thriller that focuses on a young woman’s search for the true identity of her deceased mother. Associate Professor David B. Carren directed from his screenplay, which was based on a story conceived by Jack R. Stanley, UTPA professor of communication. Carren’s credits as a writer/producer include Star Trek, the Next Generation, Walker, Texas Ranger, and Diagnosis Murder.

Emmy-winning editor and UTPA alumnus Stephen Escobar edited the film, which is a Jesco Entertainment Presentation of a co-production between the university’s Theatre Department and Green Queen Productions. Marian Monta, Carren and Stanley are the executive producers.

Tickets are available at both the Carmike and the University Theatre Box Office. Price is $8 for students and faculty, $10 otherwise.

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Hidalgo County District Clerk Hinojosa hosts passport acceptance training for regional staffs

By RICARDO CONTRERAS

Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa recently hosted a Passport Acceptance Training for district clerk staff from Hidalgo and Cameron counties. The training authorizes the individuals successfully completing training to accept applications on behalf of the US Department of State, Passport Services.

“We were initially going to send a large group of our staff to a certification training in Houston when we realized that it would be more efficient and cost effective to host a training in Hidalgo County,” said Hinojosa. “Fortunately, the US Department of State was willing to work with us. We are happy Cameron County is able to join us as we prepare for the high demand and try to offer more convenient and customer friendly passport services in our respective offices.”

The training, conducted by Kenneth Kimich, Houston Regional Passport Agency Customer Service Manager, consisted of a review of execution procedures and the processing and assembly of passport applications. In addition, staff was trained on identifying fraudulent documents, fee assessment, and maintaining quality control.

The Hidalgo County District Clerk Office, located on the 1st floor of the Hidalgo County Courthouse, is currently accepting passport applications from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. each Monday through Friday. In anticipation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative passport deadline of June 1, 2009, the district clerk office is also considering offering passport services on Saturdays.

“We are currently working with other county departments to ensure that we are fully staffed and prepared to offer services on Saturdays,” said Hinojosa. “If all goes well, however, we plan to kick-off our Saturday working hours on March 28, officially Passport Day, in an effort to better serve working families in the County of Hidalgo.”

For further details please visit the district clerk website at http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us or the US Department of State website at http://www.travel.state.gov. The public is encouraged to contact the district clerk office at 956/318-2200, ext. 6270, to schedule an appointment.

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Gov. Perry appoints six members to Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday, March 16, appointed six members to the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities for terms to expire February 1, 2011. The committee works to ensure that Texans with disabilities have full and equal access to lives of independence, productivity and self determination.

Alan Babin Jr. of Round Rock is a retired U.S. Army veteran medic. He was awarded the Bronze Star with ‘V’ for Valor and the Purple Heart. He is a member of the American Legion, Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, Retired Enlisted Association and Texas Paralyzed Veteran’s Association. Babin replaces Shane Whitehurst of Austin.

Joe Bontke of Houston is the ombudsman and outreach manger for the Houston District Office of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He is a past human resources director and training coordinator for the American Disabilities Act Technical Assistance Center for Federal Region VI. He is also an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Bontke received a bachelor’s degree from St. Alphonsus College and a master’s degree in education from Mount St. Alphonsus Seminary. He is being reappointed.

Daphne Brookins of Fort Worth is a case manager at Presbyterian Night Shelter. She is a past member of the Forest Hill City Council, past mayor pro temporum of Forest Hill, president of the Texas Wesleyan Alumni Board of Directors, and co-president of the Tarrant County Youth Summit. She is also a member of the Southeast Fort Worth Dropout Coalition and the Girls Inc. Director’s Circle, coordinator of the Forest Hill Youth Advisory Commission and co-chair of the Developer of National Community Service Day for the Metroplex. Brookins received a bachelor’s degree from Texas Wesleyan University. She is being reappointed.

David A. Fowler of Katy is a retired U.S. Army veteran. He is national director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and president of the Texas chapter of PVA. He is a commissioner on the Houston Commission of People with Disabilities, and a member of the Continental Airlines Consumers with Disabilities Advisory Board, Houston Veteran’s Association, Disabled American Veterans and the 82nd Airborne Association. Fowler attended Houston Community College. He is being reappointed.

Bobby Z. “Robby” Holcomb Jr. of Mount Pleasant is minister of pastoral care at South Jefferson Baptist Church. He is past chaplain at Titus Regional Medical Center. Holcomb received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington. He replaces Roland Guzman of San Antonio.

Brian D. Shannon of Lubbock is the Charles “Tex” Thornton professor of law at the Texas Tech University School of Law. He is president of the Lubbock County Bar Association and an elected member of the American Law Institute. He is a member of the American Bar Association, Lubbock Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center Board of Directors, and Lubbock Dispute Resolution Center Advisory Board. He also is Texas Tech’s faculty athletics representative to the NCAA and Big 12 Conference. Shannon served in the U.S. Air Force, and received a bachelor’s degree from Angelo State University and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is being reappointed.

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Attorney General Abbott: Federal Appeals Court upholds Texas Moment of Silence law

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on Monday, March 16, upheld Texas’ Moment of Silence law. As the state’s lawyer, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott defended young Texans’ right to begin each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence. ‘

The Attorney General maintained that the 2003 statute is constitutional. Last month, Solicitor General James Ho appeared before the Fifth Circuit to defend the law during oral argument.

Texas schools begin each morning with a minute of silence for students to “reflect, pray, meditate, or engage in any other silent activity.” A North Texas couple filed a lawsuit challenging the law, but that challenge was rejected by a federal district court. The March 16 Fifth Circuit decision affirmed the lower court’s ruling and once again rejected the plaintiffs’ legal challenge.

“The United States Constitution plainly protects young Texans’ right to observe a moment of silence before school each morning,” Abbott said. “Today’s Fifth Circuit decision once again affirmed the moment of silence law’s constitutionality. In an age where children are bombarded with distractions, beginning each school day with a moment of silence offers a welcome moment of quiet contemplation.”

In 2003, the Texas Legislature revised the moment of silence law to provide for the recitation of the state and federal pledges of allegiance before the minute of silence. The law permits students to, among other protected activities, “pray” during this quiet time, or engage in “any other silent activity that is not likely to interfere with or distract another student.”

Defending the moment of silence law, the Attorney General argued that, “by providing a patriotic and contemplative context for the minute of silence, Senate Bill 83 plainly serves secular rather than religious purposes.” The brief also said: “the purpose of these exercises is plain – to foster patriotism and provide an opportunity for students to engage in thoughtful contemplation.”

In January 2008, a federal district judge rejected a North Texas couple’s claim that the law was unconstitutional. The March 16 Fifth Circuit argument stems from the plaintiffs’ appeal of the district court’s ruling. Last month, a federal district court in Illinois struck down that state’s moment of silence law.

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer, sister paper of San Antonio Express-News, Houston Chronicle, drops print edition, becomes largest daily newspaper to become an online-only publication

Hearst Corporation announced on Monday, March 16, that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I) will become the nation’s largest daily newspaper to shift to an entirely digital news product. The announcement was made by Frank A. Bennack, Jr., vice chairman and chief executive officer, Hearst Corporation, and Steven R. Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers. The final print issue of the newspaper was scheduled for Tuesday, March 17.

“The P-I has a rich 146-year history of service to the people of the Northwest, which makes the decision to stop publishing the newspaper an extraordinarily difficult one,” Bennack said. “We extend our profound gratitude and admiration to our P-I colleagues who have done such an exemplary job under extremely difficult circumstances over the past several years. Our goal now is to turn seattlepi.com into the leading news and information portal in the region.”

Seattlepi.com isn’t a newspaper online—it’s an effort to craft a new type of digital business with a robust, community news and information Web site at its core,” said Swartz. “The Web is first and foremost a community platform, so we’ll be featuring new columns from prominent Seattle residents. We’ll also be linking to the great work of other Web sites and blogs in the community."

“On the business side, we are assembling a staff to form a local digital agency that will sell local businesses advertising on seattlepi.com as well as the digital advertising products of our partners: Yahoo! for display advertising, Kaango for general marketplaces and Google, Yahoo!, MSN and Ask.com for search engine marketing,” Swartz said.

On January 9, Hearst announced that it was offering for sale the P-I and its interest in the Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) under which the P-I and The Seattle Times are published. No buyers emerged, resulting in the decision to move to an all-digital news model. Additionally, the JOA is being terminated. The P-I was founded in 1863 as the Seattle Gazette.

Hearst Corporation (www.hearst.com) is one of the nation’s largest diversified media companies. Its major interests include ownership of 15 daily and 49 weekly newspapers.

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