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South Texas College has honored the commitment to education in Starr County of founding board member Manuel Benavidez Jr., who passed away on Saturday, March 28, by naming the college’s new Starr County Campus Rural Technology Center in his honor. Benavidez, who represented Starr County on the STC Board of Trustees, is a past president of the board and served as secretary until his passing from terminal cancer. "He did a fine job for the college,” said Dr. Alejo Salinas Jr., STC board member from Edinburg. “The entire community owes him so much for his efforts to purse the best education possible for our students. He was elected to do the same job we were, but he took a tremendous lead in getting things accomplished for the college and making STC one of the best community colleges in the nation. He was a dear friend and deserving colleague.” See story later in this posting. 

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South Texans who are working on ways to help autistic children recently took their ideas to the Texas Capitol, including meeting with area legislators, to seek support for the creation of State Autism Resource and research Center.  There are more than 5,000 South Texas children afflicted with autism, according to the Texas Health and Human Services, and that figure is projected to double by the year 2028. Autism is a developmental disability characterized by language impairment, deficits in communication and social interaction, and abnormal behavior, such as repetitive acts and excessive attachment to certain objects. Autism affects at least one in every 166 children nationally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Diagnostic rates are increasing 10 percent to 17 percent annually. The CDC estimates that every day, 66 children – nearly three per hour – are diagnosed with autism. Members of South Texas’ Autism Council for Educational Support and Scientific Studies (ACES3) and the RGV chapter of the Texas Council on Autism are featured on the steps on the Texas Capitol on February 26 with local senators. Front row, from left: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville; Gabriela Ortiz; Heather Vitek; Missy Renaud; María "Charo" Mann; Adriana Paz; and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. Center row, from left: Celine Garza; Zacnith Treviño’  Bret Mann; and Dalia De La O Carr. Back row, from left: Dagoberto Garza; Linette Linsangan; Belen Garza; Joel Garza; Claudia Rodríguez; Nancy Alanis; Allan Mercado, M.D.; and Gladys Ajero.

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The RGV Branch of the National Association of Social Workers, more than 200 members strong, on Friday, March 27, named Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III as the Public Elected Official of the Year. “From a social worker’s standpoint, he’s made a difference in the community,” said Rebecca Ramírez, NASW Texas Chapter RGV Branch Chair. “Our criteria are to honor somebody who stands up for the civil rights of those in need.” The group didn’t have a hard time choosing Salinas, Ramírez observed, adding that the judge’s compassion toward the uninsured and granting access to health care, his outcries against the border fence and his vested interest in “the little guy,” are readily apparent. Salinas was honored along with Tim Smith, Media Representative of the Year, for his work with Tim’s Coats; Public Citizen of the Year Amelia Molina; Social Work Student of the Year Eileen Palacios; and Social Worker of the Year Candice Guillen. “When you elected me to be your County Judge, I vowed to be there full time. And I am surprised today, because I am being honored for just doing my job," Salinas said. "But we have a team of professionals that work hard for you every day, so I accept the award for my staff and for the Commissioners’ Court. We serve full time for you." 

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Sergeant 1st Class Jeff Printy last July 22 marshaled in nine light-medium tactical vehicles deployed from San Antonio to the Standing Joint InterAgency Task Force headquarters located at the Army National Guard Armory in Weslaco. Texas military forces came to southern Texas in anticipation of heavy flood relief efforts caused by Hurricane Dolly. A bill introduced by Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, would allow the governor to designate the Mid-Valley Airport, which is located next to the armory, as the Valley headquarters for emergency responses to natural and man-made calamities. See story later in this posting. 

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Proposed airport designation could elevate Weslaco’s reputation as the Valley’s "Homeland Security City"

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

Edinburg demonstrates its pride by reminding Texans that it is among a handful of "Three-Time All-America City" recipients, a coveted yearly title bestowed by the National Civic League to communities that have harnessed the power of the their citizens to overcome tough problems with outstanding solutions. 

McAllen, which has long called itself "The City of Palms," is currently working a branding campaign to come up with an updated slogan to promote its image as a hotbed of economic growth and vitality. 

In the coming weeks, if a few dozen words contained in a proposed state law makes it through the grueling legislative process, Weslaco – the geographic center of the Rio Grande Valley – could emerge with a powerful  reputation of its own as the Valley’s "Homeland Security City". 

Earlier this year, Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, filed House Bill 848, relating to the designation of the Mid-Valley Airport in Weslaco as the disaster relief headquarters for the Rio Grande Valley, a metropolitan region which has more than one million residents. 

A similar bill, filed by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, would bring that designation to the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg, 

Peña filed his version, House Bill 2152, on March 2, several weeks after Martínez introduced his measure on January 29. 

Both proposed measures, which already have been referred to the House Committee on Defense and Veterans Affairs, would require the governor to select the airports "as the state headquarters for proving disaster relief in the Rio Grande Valley following the governor’s declaration of a state of disaster in an area within the Rio Grande Valley." 

As of Wednesday, March 26, no public hearing had been scheduled by the House committee. 

Valley economies to benefit 

In addition to the public safety components, Martínez believes that allowing the Mid-Valley Airport to take on the responsibilities of homeland security for the Valley would be an economic boost for the entire region. 

"The Valley is a growing economic powerhouse for Texas, and the state and federal governments must continue to invest in programs and policies designed specifically to protect our people and assets," he said. "The Mid-Valley Airport, and the surrounding law enforcement, public safety, and military resources, provide an important layer of civil defense that we need to help protect all our Valley residents. Designating the airport as the emergency response headquarters will pave the way for more public safety resources to be put into place." 

Edinburg, which has included in its legislative agenda an effort to have its city-owned airport also designated as a state headquarters for disaster relief, would be able to concentrate on its major mission of transforming the South Texas International Airport at Edinburg into a major air freight cargo distribution center, Martínez said.  

McAllen’s city-owned airport, McAllen/Miller International Airport, can focus on its efforts to increase commercial and private air passenger traffic. 

"From the Mid-Valley Airport, we can get our emergency response resources quickly to any city in the Valley, especially to the coastal communities, which often get the hardest hit from tropical storms or hurricanes," Martínez said. "We are ready, willing, and able to serve as the disaster relief headquarters for our families, friends, and fellow citizens of this great region." 

Whether both airports can achieve that designation is uncertain. 

But Martínez is wasting little time to publicly champion his hometown’s airport as the best choice for the Valley, as both hurricane season approaches over the horizon, and the nation’s attention is beginning to focus on drug-related violence in Mexico. 

Preparing for natural, man-made threats 

Following the economic catastrophe that hit the Valley last July in the form of Hurricane Dolly, a category 2 weather behemoth which caused extensive flooding and resulted in more than $1 billion in insurance claims, South Texans are no longer lulled into thinking that hurricanes can strike anywhere but here. 

Equally ominous, continuing national news coverage of drug cartel-related violence, including deadly shoot-outs between powerful criminal organizations and Mexican police and military forces, has raised the possibilities of more state and federal police and military power coming to the region to prevent the drug wars from spilling over onto the Texas side of the border. 

In early March, Gov. Rick Perry emphasized the need to fight the threat of "translation gangs in our communities," calling on state lawmakers to provide $135 million over the next two years, beginning in September, for border security measures. 

“Today, we are sending a message to let these violent gangs know that they are not welcome here in Texas, and that we will do whatever it takes to drive them out of our state,” Perry said. “It is time to act and I believe we should devote the necessary resources to properly address this gang threat head-on in communities across the state.” 

The bottom line, Martínez said, is the Valley is the largest population center along the Texas-Mexico border, and his legislation for the Mid-Valley Airport is needed to help protect the region from natural and man-made threats. 

"The Mid-Valley Airport is the perfect location to house or coordinate emergency responses for the Valley," said the three-term lawmaker, who, as a firefighter, licensed paramedic, and critical care flight paramedic, is an expert in life-and-death scenarios. "A major U.S. Border Patrol facility, a planned Department of Public Safety complex, and the Valley’s only Texas National Guard Armory are next to, or near, this airport. It makes sense to continue building on these resources by having the airport serve as the air transportation hub for major emergency actions taken by the state and federal governments during times of emergency." 

Centrally located to protect the Valley 

According to its website, "the Mid-Valley Airport is strategically located to allow its customers the most accessible option to business and pleasure throughout The Valley and Mexico. Direct highway access takes you to Harlingen or McAllen in 20 minutes … and to Mexico in 5 minutes."

Plus, "rail and shipping facilities are available at the nearby Ports of Brownsville and Harlingen," it notes. 

Its commercial advantages also represent public safety assets, Martínez noted. 

"It’s 5,000-foot runway allows key emergency aircraft to use the Mid-Valley Airport, especially two of the Texas Air National Guard’s most impressive assets, the C-130 Hercules aircraft and the Black Hawk helicopter," the state lawmaker said. 

The C-130 Hercules and the Black Hawk aircraft can serve two major functions – transporting troops and supplies into hard-hit areas, and evacuating refugees and medical patients. 

The Mid-Valley Airport was a key center of emergency response measures during Hurricane Dolly, when nine light-medium tactical vehicles were sent from San Antonio to the Standing Joint InterAgency Task Force headquarters at the Army National Guard Armory in Weslaco, according to the Texas National Guard.   

The emergency response force was deployed by the state in anticipation of heavy flood relief efforts. 

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Gov. Perry reiterates Texas’ ongoing disaster recovery needs as hurricane season approaches

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday, March 26, reiterated Texas’ ongoing disaster recovery needs as he toured areas affected by the 2008 hurricane season. The governor also met with the Governor’s Commission on Disaster Recovery and Renewal in Port Arthur. 

“As we continue the long recovery process, we are seeing signs that the affected areas are rebounding and looking much better than they did just a few months ago, but coastal Texas still has a ways to go before full recovery,” Perry said. “I want the citizens of this region to know that we have not forgotten them, and that we are still fully engaged in the recovery process and working to speed their return to normal life.” 

In a phone call on March 26 with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Perry discussed FEMA’s role in Texas’ continued recovery, as well as long term recovery goals for Hurricane Ike and future disasters. The governor has requested that FEMA extend the deadline for 100 percent federal reimbursement for debris removal for an additional six months, which would end October 26. He also requested that emergency protective measures be funded at 100 percent federal reimbursement beginning October 26, 2008, and continue for an additional 12 months. 

During the 2008 hurricane season, the Texas coast was battered by three hurricanes and a major tropical storm within a 90 day period, resulting in the simultaneous designation of all Texas coastal counties as presidential disaster areas for the first time in the state’s history. As a result of Hurricane Ike alone, Texas sustained more than $50 billion in damages. To date, the state has been allocated $3.4 billion for recovery for all 2008 hurricane season damage. 

Additionally, the commission presented the governor with a report on how to better prepare communities for future disasters and help them recover quickly and completely once the storm has passed. The report is based on testimony given by citizens and local officials at a series of commission meetings held in Galveston, Harlingen, Beaumont and League City. 

Perry also emphasized his call for the Legislature to set aside $150 million for a disaster contingency fund to be used by local and state officials in the immediate aftermath of future disasters to address essential needs such as debris removal and temporary housing. The fund would be replenished for those expenses by FEMA reimbursements. 

“As our legislators work their way through the 81st Session, I encourage them to recall the devastating impact of the last hurricane season, and fully resource our disaster contingency fund so that we can react more quickly to our citizens’ needs,” Perry said. “With hurricane season less than three months away, and a significant part of our state threatened by wildfire conditions, the pressure to be even better prepared is mounting.” 

For more information about Texas’ recovery efforts, please visit http://www.governor.state.tx.us 

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South Texas College trustee Benavidez, part of original governing board, passes away from cancer

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR 

South Texas College has honored the commitment to education in Starr County of founding board member Manuel Benavidez Jr., who passed away on Saturday, March 28, by naming the college’s new Starr County Campus Rural Technology Center in his honor.

Benavidez, who represented Starr County on the STC Board of Trustees, is a past president of the board and served as secretary until his passing from terminal cancer.

“There are no adequate words to describe just how much Mr. Benavidez did to support the mission of providing equal access to higher education to students across Starr County,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president. “I worked alongside him since the college’s founding and he was a tenacious advocate for our students, fighting to keep tuition costs low, expand our degree offerings, and bring new career trainings to the region. And it was his vision that brought a state-of-the art college campus right to Rio Grande City. He was a passionate, good man and we are so proud to be able to honor him in this way.” 

To be located at STC’s Starr Count y Campus in Rio Grande City, the new 22,000 square foot facility will provide space for Internet-connected classrooms, computer aided drafting labs, a graphic arts lab, a network administration lab, a Web page design lab, telecommunications technology labs, computer maintenance labs and areas for a variety of other information technology-related tools and instruction. The state of Texas has provided $3.5 million in state appropriations to fund the center’s construction and initial technology purchase costs. STC will fund the center’s annual operating costs. 

“He did a fine job for the college,” said Dr. Alejo Salinas Jr., STC board member from Edinburg. “The entire community owes him so much for his efforts to purse the best education possible for our students. He was elected to do the same job we were, but he took a tremendous lead in getting things accomplished for the college and making STC one of the best community colleges in the nation. He was a dear friend and deserving colleague.” 

Serving as the District 1 representative on STC’s Board of Trustees, Benavidez represented the interests of the constituents of Starr County. Following his appointment as a founding STC board member in 1993, he was re-elected to his board seat two times. Benavidez served the board as chair, vice-chair and secretary. He was a member of the Education and Workforce Innovation Committee and the Facilities Committee. He also served as the director of transportation for the Rio Grande City CISD. 

“Since the time when Gov. Ann Richards called him into service to help make this college a reality, he has gone above and beyond the call of duty,” added Reed. “She recognized that he was a man that shared her vision of a better Valley with more opportunities for its citizens and we can think of no one more deserving of this honor. We count ourselves very lucky that he called South Texas College his home. He will be deeply missed.”

During his tenure on the board the college has grown to serve more than 22,000 students each semester. This is due in part to expanded business and industry training programs, affordable tuition, expanded student support services and enhancement of student life activities.

“We’ve been on the board together from the beginning and his support, attitude, encouragement and character were invaluable,” said Gary Gurwitz, STC founding Board of Trustees member and current vice-chair. 

Benavidez also worked closely with college administrators and Starr County school districts to develop the Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy, which offers qualifying students from Rio Grande City and Roma high schools the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in Biology from South Texas College tuition-free during their junior and senior years of high school. Since its inception in 2005, more than 29 students have graduated from the program, transferring to universities across the nation as juniors. The May 2008 graduating class marked a big milestone for the program with its graduates being awarded more than $750,000 in scholarships. 

“I was so proud to have him on our side,” said Roy De Leon, STC board member. “He was such a strong advocate on the national level and promoted the college in a big way. It was inspiring to see him represent the college at national events. Everyone came up to him to find out what STC was doing. He made sure they knew about us. He was the best advocate the college could have had.”

Benavidez’ efforts on behalf of STC have received national acclaim. In 2005, he was recognized at the Association of Community College Trustees Annual Congress as the recipient of the Lifetime Membership Award for exemplary leadership and strong support in the areas of diversity and equal opportunity. In 2006 he earned the Western Region Trustee Leadership Award, given by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). He was one of five regional award winners selected from nominees located across three countries, including the United States, Canada and England.

And in addition to his commitment to South Texas College, he held numerous other service positions including chair of the Starr County Housing Authority, president of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, president of the South Texas Association for Pupil Transportation and director of the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation. He is also the western representative for the 20 National Association of Latino Community College Trustees awarded by the American Association of Community College Trustees. 

“I am so honored and humbled to receive this recognition,” said Benavidez prior to his passing. “I have been, and will continue to be, devoted to making the Rio Grande Valley a premier region for economic and social development. I hope that with this new building we will see just how truly talented our Starr County students can be when they have access to the tools and facilities to expand their horizons. We have come a long way in breaking down the barriers to higher education, but there is still much work to be done and I promise to remain a strong advocate for our students.”

For additional information about South Texas College visit http://www.southtexascollege.edu.   

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Sen. Cornyn supports President’s announcement to strengthen border security measures in Texas

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security Subcommittee, on Tuesday, March 24, issued the following statement regarding President Obama’s announcement to strengthen security measures along the Southwest border and assist the Mexican president in the battle against drug cartels: 

“I commend President Obama for taking this important first step to strengthen and reinforce important security measures in place to help protect and secure Texas communities along the border. His plan will lend continued assistance to President Calderón who is engaged in a crucial struggle against narcoterrorism and deadly drug cartels intent on using brutal violence to gain power. I have written to President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano urging them to give high priority to the issue of border violence. Today’s announcement shows they not only heard my concerns but also understood the urgency needed to address this critical national security issue. 

“Engaging and assisting our local and state officials must be a fundamental component of any comprehensive border security strategy and I believe the President’s plan is a step in the right direction. I am hopeful today’s announcement signals a broader plan for securing the Southwest border and preventing cartel violence from spilling over into the U.S. Our attention to and assistance for Texas communities along the border and President Calderón must be proactive, sustained, and seamless.”  

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Sen. Cornyn again files legislation to build full-fledged Veterans Hospital for the Rio Grande Valley

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Wednesday, March 25, re-introduced legislation to build a top-notch VA hospital for veterans in the Rio Grande Valley.  

Veterans there are currently forced to drive hours and travel up to hundreds of miles for access to inpatient health care, and Cornyn’s Far South Texas Veterans Medical Center Act of 2009 helps close the gap by authorizing construction of a full VA hospital in Far South Texas to give these veterans more proximate access to inpatient medical care. 

Cornyn’s new legislation goes a step farther than his bill from the previous Congress by using stronger language to bring a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital to South Texas. It not only authorizes the VA to construct a hospital, it requires them to do so. 

“South Texas Veterans have made enormous sacrifices for our nation, and it is unacceptable that any of these brave men and women have to drive long distances to access high-quality health care. I am committed to securing adequate health care for these men and women, to whom we owe our gratitude and full support. To that end, I’m proud to announce I’m re-introducing legislation to bring a top-notch medical facility to South Texas, and this time with more forceful legislative language. Time marches on, and too much time has lapsed already while South Texas veterans continue to meet obstacles in accessing the vital inpatient health care they need. My bill would mandate the construction of a full VA hospital in Far South Texas and authorize funding for this purpose, which would give these deserving veterans a state-of-the-art hospital facility that fully meets their inpatient health care needs. 

“President Obama co-sponsored an earlier version of this bill last year when he was a member of the Senate. I’m hopeful he will continue to support the effort to get a new VA hospital for our South Texas veterans this year, using his new position as President to push Congress for action on this bill and then sign it into law in the coming months. I will continue my efforts in the Senate to help make this medical center a reality. 

“During the ongoing military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Far South Texas continues to send their finest to the front lines. As such, the number of combat veterans in the Rio Grande Valley and surrounding areas will only increase, as will future demand for VA health care services. I thank the elected officials of South Texas, whose support and commitment to our veterans has been undeniable. In addition, I applaud our VA leaders for their efforts in expanding the range of outpatient services and facilities for the veterans of Far South Texas. Their work has helped improve the VA’s available health care there. My legislation will take their work and efforts a step further,” Cornyn said. 

Background 

In the 110th Congress, Sen. Cornyn introduced the South Texas Veterans Access to Care Act, which would have directed the VA to examine and then choose one of three policy options for meeting Far South Texas veterans’ inpatient health care needs: 

  • Public-private venture to provide services at an existing facility;
  • Construction of a new full-service, 50-bed hospital with a 125-bed nursing home; or
  • A sharing agreement with a military treatment facility.  

The bill would have required the VA Secretary to implement whichever option he selected. If he chose to build a new VA hospital, the bill would have authorized $175M for that purpose. 

After its introduction, Cornyn made several efforts to move the bill forward last Congress. In October 2007, he wrote to the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee leaders, asking them to move his bill forward. On September 8, 2008, he filed his legislation as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill.  

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Sen. Hutchison wants VA to better help rapidly-growing number of women veterans 

By JEFF SADOSKY 

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and a senior member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, recently co-sponsored major bi-partisan legislation to prepare the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the influx of women veterans who will access care there in the coming years.  

The Women Veterans Health Improvement Act of 2009, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, will address many of the unique needs of female veterans, particularly those women who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  

The measure was introduced on Monday, March 16. 

In addition to being the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, Hutchison has also played a vocal role in ensuring the VA meets the unique needs of female veterans. 

"Women serving in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and performing dangerous missions throughout the world make up an important and growing segment of our veteran population," Hutchison said. "The number of women veterans receiving care through the VA is expected to double in less than five years. Our bill will help improve access to quality health care services for women who have bravely served in our armed forces.” 

“Generations of women have served honorably in all of this country’s major conflicts. These women have earned the right to expect the same high quality health care services and benefits as their male counterparts,” said Dave Gorman, Executive Director of Disabled American Veterans (DAV). “While significant progress has been made in recent years to remove institutional barriers that often discourage women veterans from seeking assistance at VA facilities, more needs to be done. The Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act will help ensure these women have equal access to VA benefits and services." 

Murray and Hutchison’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV; Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA; Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-ME; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR; Sen. Tim Johnson, D-SD; Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME; Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-AR; Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI; Sen. Lisa Murkowski; D-AK; Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ; and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH. 

Among other things, the legislation introduced today will: 

• Require the VA to implement a program to train, educate, and certify VA mental health professionals to care for women with sexual trauma;

• Require the VA Secretary to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the barriers women are facing in accessing care at the VA;

• Authorize a report to Congress on the effects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have had on the physical, mental, and reproductive health of women who have served there;

• Require the VA to begin a pilot program that provides child care to women veterans who seek mental health care services at the VA; and

• Require the VA to begin a pilot program that provides readjustment counseling to women veterans in group retreat settings. 

Murray and Hutchison introduced similar legislation last year in the 110th Congress, which passed the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee before the Senate session ended. 

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Border physicians could have up to $160,000, up from $45,000, in medical school loans forgiven under measure jointly-authored by Rep. Gonzáles

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA 

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Monday, March 24, joint-authored House Bill 1876, which creates a healthcare access fund to recruit health care providers to medically-underserved areas and fund federally-qualified health centers.  

The measure, whose primary author is Rep. Warren Chisum, R–Pampa, is set for a committee hearing on Tuesday, March 31, before the House Committee on Public Health.  

Gonzáles is a member of the House Committee on Public Health. 

"This legislation would open the doors for health care providers to work in medically-underserved areas by giving them a financially viable career choice," she said. "Texas faces a shortage of physicians and other health care providers all over the state, especially along the border and in rural areas." 

HB 1876 draws health care providers to medically under-served areas by increasing the amount of medical school debt forgiveness for doctors, dentists, physicians assistants, social workers, counselors and other practices who choose to operate in counties designated as medically under-served by the state. The bill creates the Health Care Access Fund, which would provide the funding to cover medical graduates’ loans. 

Medically under-served communities include areas with high elderly populations, poverty rates, and infant mortality rates and with a low ratio of physicians per 1,000 populations. The state considers 179 Texas counties medically under-served, including Hidalgo County.  

The amount of loan forgiven will be dependent on the number of years the health care provider stays in the shortage area. Currently, the state forgives up to $45,000 of a medical graduate’s loans if he or she practices in a shortage area. However, most physicians graduate with more than $160,000 in school loans. House Bill 1876 would allow from $45,000 to $160,000 in loans to be forgiven.  

The health care access fund would be paid for by the state tobacco tax, which would now be assessed based on the weight of the product, and would provide 75 percent of the revenue to the Higher Education Coordinating Board to cover loan forgiveness. The fund would allocate the remaining 25 percent to aid Federally Qualified Health Clinics, such as community health centers and other clinics that serve medically-underserved communities. 

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Edinburg to receive $683,100 to help improve energy conservation programs, says Congressman Hinojosa

By TENO VILLARREAL 

Edinburg is among several South Texas cities that will share in almost $7.4 million in federal funds designed to help improve energy efficiency in homes, businesses, and government facilities, according to Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes. 

Edinburg will be receiving $683,100 for a program called the Deep South Texas for Local Energy Efficiency Improvements.  The almost $7.4 million in federal money is part of the Energy Efficiencey and Conservation Block Grant program, and is in addition to money originally allocated to Texas for weatherization and energy funding. 

“This announcement is great news for Deep South Texas” Hinojosa said. “It represents yet another example of how the American Recovery Act of 2009 that we passed in February is going to help our local communities create new jobs and provide relief from rising energy costs.” 

According to the Department of Energy, the funding will support energy audits and energy efficiency retrofits in residential and commercial buildings, the development and implementation of advanced building codes and inspections, and the creation of financial incentive programs for energy efficiency improvements.  

Other activities eligible for use of grant funds include transportation programs that conserve energy, projects to reduce and capture methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, renewable energy installations on government buildings, energy efficient traffic signals and street lights, deployment of Combined Heat and Power and district heating and cooling systems, and others. 

Hinojosa added, “These funds are intended to be put to work quickly and efficiently, in a way that our local leaders think will best spur economic growth and reduce energy costs.  There will be appropriate mechanisms in place to make sure the money are used as intended and that they bring relief to Deep South Texas.” 

The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program will provide formula grants for projects that reduce total energy use and fossil fuel emissions, and improve energy efficiency nationwide. 

“I want to thank the Obama administration and the Department of Energy for releasing these funds quickly," Hinojosa said. "I supported the Recovery Act because I wanted to help out the families and businesses of Deep South Texas.  This announcement is a sign of the changes we are bringing to communities in need across the nation” 

The regional entities which received funding are: 

  • Pharr: $608,900;
  • Mission: $629,500;
  • Harlingen: $645,100;
  • Edinburg: $683,100;
  • McAllen: $1,292,500; and
  • Hidalgo County: $3,539,500. 

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Sen. Hinojosa, Rep. Gonzáles file measures honoring contributions of former McAllen Mayor Othal Brand

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

Former McAllen Mayor Othal E. Brand, Sr., a titan in Valley and Texas agricultural, economic, community, and Republican circles, is being honored for his many contributions to his adopted home town and state by Sen Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen. 

Senate Resolution 513 by Hinojosa was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, March 25.  House Resolution 983 by Gonzáles, filed on Monday, March 23, is making its way through the House of Representatives.  

"In his many decades as a community leader, Othal Brand has time and again demonstrated an unwavering determination to follow his convictions and to bring others along for the ride, and he has become a legendary figure whose achievements will continue to resonate in South Texas for decades to come," Hinojosa said.  

Among his many achievements, in addition to his 20 years of service as mayor, he also served as a McAllen city commissioner, and school board member. Brand played key roles in establishing the McAllen Economic Development Corporation and the Boys & Girls Clubs of McAllen, and planned for McAllen’s future by acquiring land for future growth.  

Brand also was part of a special legislative task force in the early 1990s that helped convert a Texas State Technical College branch campus in McAllen to what would eventually become South Texas College, which serves Hidalgo and Starr counties. 

On March 18, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, and the City of McAllen honored Brand for his contributions at a luncheon held at the McAllen Convention Center. The new facility also was one of the many major projects Brand helped launch as mayor. 

On Friday, April 17, the McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is going to hold a "Royal Roast" honoring Brand for that organization’s first annual Celebrity Roast. The event, for which an admission fee is required to cover expenditures, will be held at the McAllen Convention Center from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. 

"Are you ready to laugh till your stomach hurts? Come and enjoy the insults and roasting that the Royal Roasters will share at the Royal Roast of former McAllen Mayor Othal Brand," said Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, MHCC executive director. "The committee has been working for months in preparation of the Royal Roast and promises an evening full of laughter and surprises." 

Reserved tables of 10 are $750 and tickets are $50. Sponsorships are still available. For more information call the MHCC at 928-0060. 

The legislative resolution by Hinojosa – and Gonzáles’ companion measure honoring Brand, which has been referred to the House Rules and Resolutions Committee – follows:

       

WHEREAS, During his many decades as an elected official and community business leader in McAllen, the Honorable Othal E. Brand, Sr., has had a lasting . . . and lasting . . .  and lasting influence on the city of McAllen; and 

WHEREAS, The mayor of McAllen from 1977 until 1997, this tireless public servant helped guide the city through two eventful decades that witnessed great economic and civic progress in South Texas; while Mayor Brand may not have succeeded in his valiant campaign to rid the city of grackles, there is no denying that his efforts have made an indelible mark on his adopted hometown; and

WHEREAS, Othal Brand was born on August 12, 1919, in Grayson, Georgia, and began his love affair with vegetables soon after his mother fed him his first spoonful of mushy peas; a born entrepreneur, he entered the business world at a young age, and he and his brother Bill established Brand Brothers Produce in Atlanta, the city where he grew up; and

WHEREAS, Opting to put his budding fruit and vegetable empire on hold during World War II, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served his nation in the South Pacific; he returned stateside at war’s end, and he and his wife, Kathryn Louise, were joined in matrimony in 1945; whether it was due to Mrs. Brand’s good sense or some other factor, the couple moved in the mid–1950s to McAllen, a town Mr. Brand had first visited in the late 1930s; and

WHEREAS, Warm weather makes most people slow down a step or two, but Othal Brand is not most people; once settled beneath the South Texas sun, he went to work, teaming with Jack Griffin to found Griffin & Brand of McAllen; the company grew into one of the nation’s largest vegetable producers, processors, and shippers, and Mr. Brand became a titan of agriculture, eventually earning a place in the Texas Heritage Hall of Honor for his contributions to farming and ranching; in time, he sought elective office, serving as a member of the school board and as a city commissioner in addition to his 20 years as McAllen’s mayor; and

WHEREAS, Juggling numerous business and governmental responsibilities was apparently not enough of a challenge for Mayor Brand, so he found other jobs that needed doing; he played a key role in establishing organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of McAllen and the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, and he has been a member of numerous boards and committees; all in all, this mover and shaker has proven himself capable of excelling in darn near anything he sets his mind to, and McAllen has become a better place as a result; and

WHEREAS, Through the years, Mayor Brand has also cultivated a fine family; he and his wife have four children and also relish the time they spend with their numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and 

WHEREAS, In his many decades as a community leader, Othal Brand has time and again demonstrated an unwavering determination to follow his convictions and to bring others along for the ride, and he has become a legendary figure whose achievements will continue to resonate in South Texas for decades to come; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 81st Texas Legislature hereby commend the Honorable Othal E. Brand, Sr., for his dedicated service to the city of McAllen and extend to him sincere best wishes for continued success and happiness; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Mr. Brand as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives. 

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Better reforms for homeowners insurance rates in Texas, which are $600 higher than national average

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.
D-Brownsville 

Texas homeowners aren’t just tired of hearing that we have the highest insurance rates in the country. They’re ready for economic relief. 

Several bills this legislative session may drop us lower on the rate charts. Reports show that the average homeowners insurance premium in Texas is $1,372, which is roughly $600 higher than the national average. Every year consumers pay more money for policies that cover less and less. More than a million Texas homeowners are estimated to have policies that provide only partial coverage for damages. 

In Texas, some homeowners and automobile insurance companies pressure the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) to accept their excessive rates with threats of withdrawing from the state. Others pull out for a month only to return and continue charging exorbitant prices. 

I’ve filed Senate Bill 1372 to impose a five-year ban on insurers that leave the state market before being allowed to re-enter. This bill will take away insurers’ ability to strong-arm the Commissioner into accepting rates that excessively burden consumers. 

Rates are charges for a specific dollar amount of coverage, while premiums are what customers actually pay for insurance. Premiums can be based on factors that include property values, the cost of repairs and types of coverage, and they can rise even if rates drop. 

Record hailstorms and hurricanes Dolly, Ike and Rita have contributed to higher premiums. Losses from hurricanes Dolly and Ike wiped out the reserve fund of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA). 

This fund is backed by a Catastrophe Reserve Trust Fund built by insurance premiums. Replenishing TWIA funds is another matter that we are reviewing this session as an emergency legislative issue declared by the Governor. Whatever decision we make, it must not result in even higher premiums for coastal residents when our goal is to lower insurance costs statewide. 

This session we must deliver what was promised in 2003 when we passed major insurance reform in response to the Texas mold crisis. The reforms gave insurers the ability to offer different types of policies, and instead of comprehensive policies, many homeowners saw little in savings yet ended up with reduced coverage. 

Also as a result of the mold crisis, TDI removed a requirement that insurers must use standardized forms. Since coverage varies from company to company, consumers could no longer simply compare policies based on price; consequently, most people aren’t sure of the coverage they’re carrying. 

To remedy this problem, I have introduced Senate Bill 102 that directs insurers to provide standardized policy forms. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners reports that unlike the other 49 states that almost exclusively use a single form, Texas uses three. 

Currently, consumers face the purchase of insurance for one of their most valuable investments–their homes–with limited ability to compare policies. Standard forms would give them the necessary tools to make informed decisions. 

Another proposal I’ve filed is Senate Bill 103 that would bring fairness to the insurance process by limiting to 15 percent the amount insurers can vary their rates within a single county. For a proven, weather-related reason, the bill would allow rates to vary above this cap. If passed, my legislation  would provide that neighbors only a block apart with comparable homes won’t be paying incomparable premiums. 

Another proposal to bring further stability to the industry was filed by my colleague Senator Leticia Van de Putte. Prior approval would authorize the TDI Commissioner to review rates before insurers charge them to consumers. I am pleased to co-author this bill and author others because Texans need relief now, especially in this economy. 

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U.S. Sen. Cardin, D-Maryland, introduces legislation to help smaller newspapers to operate as non-profits

By SUSAN SULLAM 

U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Maryland, on Tuesday, March 24, introduced legislation that would allow newspapers to become non-profit organizations in an effort to help the faltering industry survive. 

In recent months, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, have either ceased daily publication or announced that they may have to stop publishing.  A number of other publications, including newspapers owned by the Tribune Company, owners of The Baltimore Sun, have filed for bankruptcy or have had to institute severe cutbacks that have impacted news coverage. 

The Newspaper Revitalization Act would allow newspapers to operate as non-profits, if they choose, under 501(c)(3) status for educational purposes, similar to public broadcasting.  Under this arrangement, newspapers would not be allowed to make political endorsements, but would be allowed to freely report on all issues, including political campaigns. Advertising and subscription revenue would be tax exempt and contributions to support coverage or operations could be tax deductible. 

The measure is targeted to preserve local newspapers serving communities and not large newspaper conglomerates. Because newspaper profits have been falling in recent years, no substantial loss of federal revenue is expected.  

“We are losing our newspaper industry,” said Cardin. “The economy has caused an immediate problem, but the business model for newspapers, based on circulation and advertising revenue, is broken, and that is a real tragedy for communities across the nation and for our democracy. 

“While we have lots of news sources, we rely on newspapers for in-depth reporting that follows important issues, records events and exposes misdeeds.  In fact, most if not all sources of journalistic information – from radio to television to the Internet – gathers their news from newspaper reporters who cover the news on a daily basis and know their communities. It is in the interest of our nation and good governance that we ensure they survive.” 

According to Barclays Capital, newspaper advertising revenue was down by about 25 percent for 2008, and circulation continues to steadily decline at most major newspapers as readers increasingly turn to alternative electronic news sources. 

Cardin added: “This may not be the optimal choice for some major newspapers or corporate media chains, but it should be an option for many newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat." 

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The Pan American, UTPA’s student newspaper, takes top journalism award in region in major competition

By MELISSA C. RODRÍGUEZ 

The University of Texas-Pan American’s student newspaper, The Pan American, took home two awards at the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Region 8 Mark of Excellence Awards ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas March 21. 

The Pan American received first place for Best All-Around Non-Daily Student Newspaper, a category for newspapers published less than four times a week. Anthony Salinas, UTPA senior marketing major, received third place for Editorial Cartooning. 

Dr. Gregory Selber, associate professor of communication and adviser to The Pan American, said the award reflects on the hard work and leadership of the staff, particularly that of the newspaper’s Editor in Chief J.R. Ortega, who has been able to keep the winning tradition alive. 

“They (staff) have made a lot of positive changes, put in the hours, and I think the awards won so far are an indication of the quality of the program overall,” Selber said. “The newspaper is a nice combination of news and feature stories. The new leadership has done more investigative journalism than we have had in recent years.” 

Selber said the newspaper, which has a calculated circulation of approximately 15,000, has been among the fastest to report on several key issues and administrative changes within the UTPA community. 

“The staff at The Pan American has continually done the legwork and spent the time developing these difficult types of stories and I think the awards committee recognized the effort,” he said. “The paper is clean, balanced and has improved its use of graphic information and photos.” 

SPJ Region 8 includes submissions from Texas and Oklahoma. This year, collegiate journalists submitted more than 3,700 entries in 39 categories across SPJ’s 12 regions. First place regional champions advanced to the national competition which is ongoing. National winners will be announced later this year. 

For more information about The Pan American, call 956/381-2541. 

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Gov. Perry appoints Carmen Villanueva-Hiles of Palmhurst to Texas Board of Criminal Justice

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, March 27, appointed three members, including a Palmhurst resident, to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice for terms to expire February 1, 2015. The board oversees operations of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. 

Carmen Villanueva-Hiles of Palmhurst is owner and COO of A+ Therapy LLC. She is a member of the American and Texas Speech-Language Hearing associations, Valley Network of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists, and Outpatient Independent Rehabilitation Association Inc. She is also an annual Relay for Life participant and a member of First Baptist Church in Rio Grande City. Villanueva-Hiles received a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in communication disorders from the University of Texas Pan American. She replaces Gregory Coleman of Cedar Park. 

Oliver J. Bell of Horseshoe Bay is owner and CEO of Oliver J. Bell and Associates. He is a member of the Society for Human Resources, Gamma Gamma Boule, and 11th Armored Calvary Regiment Blackhorse Association. He is also past president of the West Point Society of Central Texas, past board member of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and a member of the Knights of Peter Claver. Bell served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves, and received a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He is being reappointed and will continue to serve as chair. 

Janice Harris Lord of Arlington is a national social work consultant and founder of Trauma Support Services of North Texas. She is a thanatology fellow with the Association of Death Education and Counseling, and a member of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies. She is also founder of Daughters of Abraham and an elder at Rush Creek Christian Church. Lord received a bachelor’s degree from Phillips University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington. She is being reappointed. 

These appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. 

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Joseph Muñiz of Harlingen appointed by Gov. Perry to governing board of school for visually-disabled

Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, March 27, appointed three members, including a Harlingen resident, to the Governing Board for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) for terms to expire January 31, 2015. The board oversees the provision of all TSBVI services, budget preparation, policy adoption and appointment of the superintendent. 

Joseph Muñiz of Harlingen is an assistant library director for the City of Harlingen. He is a member of the Texas Library Association and Texas State Library’s Tex-Treasure Committee.   He is a past member of the Texas Commission for the Blind and the Assistive and Rehabilitative Services Council. He is also a member of the Harlingen Sunset Lions Club. Muñiz received a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University. He replaces Donna Clopton of Mt. Pleasant. 

Mary K. Alexander of Valley View is a regional outreach manager for the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. She is a member of the National and Texas associations of Parents of the Visually Impaired, Textbook Coordinators Association of Texas, Dallas International Dyslexia Association, and Center for Non Profit Management. Alexander received a bachelor’s degree from Texas Women’s University. She replaces Jamie Wheeler of Watauga. 

Gene I. Brooks of Austin is a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and rehabilitation consultant for Independence Projects. He is a member of the Texas Association of School Boards and School Administrators, and a volunteer with the ARC of Texas. Brooks received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s degree in sociology from Texas A&M University Kingsville and a doctorate degree in special education from the University of Texas at Austin. He is being reappointed. 

These appointments are subject to Senate confirmation. 

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