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Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, featured in Edinburg last year with Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, has secured House passage of his legislation that would prevent the sale and distribution in Texas of flame-producing lighters that look like toys – mechanisms that have been linked to injuries and deaths of children nationwide. His House Bill 90, which was approved by the House of Representatives on Friday, May 1, now goes to the Senate for its consideration and action. The bill defines "toy-like lighter" to mean a mechanical or electrical device typically used for lighting cigarettes, cigars, or pipes that resembles in physical form or function articles designed or intended for play by children under 10 years of age. "HB 90 would protect the public, and especially children," said Martínez, who is a firefighter, licensed paramedic, critical care flight paramedic, and Texas Department of Health instructor and coordinator. "Deadly fires have  been caused across the country by these lighters. These objects are easily  mistaken for toys and are enticing to children. They do not have  disclaimers and are inherently dangerous." Gonzáles is a co-author of Martínez’ legislation. See story later in this posting. 

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Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, right, met with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday, May 7, in Washington, D.C., to discuss border security and the appointments of U.S. District Judges, U.S. Marshalls, and U.S. Attorneys. The gathering was part of a meeting between the Texas congressional delegation and Holder. Also on May 7, Cuellar, during a separate event, joined a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act.  The bill, which cracks down on predatory lending practices and ensures that the mortgage industry follows basic principles of sound lending, responsibility, and consumer protection, passed the U.S. House on a 300-114 vote. See story on the mortgage legislation later in this posting. 

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Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, on Tuesday, May 5, marked the Texas Senate’s passage of legislation that would require convicted sex offenders to provide their online and cellular telephone account information to the state’s Sex Offender Registry.  Senate Bill 689 passed the Senate on Monday, May 4, and is now pending in the Texas House of Representatives, where the Edinburg lawmaker will carry it as the sponsor. “This legislation will help protect children by ensuring that state law keeps up with modern technology,” Abbott said. “By requiring sexual predators to provide their electronic identities, the Legislature is simply improving existing registration requirements – which require convicted sex offenders to provide their addresses to the Department of Public Safety. As Attorney General, I am grateful to Sen. Shapiro and Rep. Peña for their innovative approach and commitment to Texas children.” See story later in this posting. 

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Rio Grande Valley members of the Juvenile Justice Association of Texas are featured behind the Senate chamber, greeted by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, during their visit to the Texas Capitol on April 29. The group was in Austin to attend a conference. From left: Linda M. Luna of Brownsville; Abel Zapata of La Feria; Sen. Lucio; Al Elizondo of San Benito; Luis Flores of Harlingen; and Javier Losoya of Harlingen. 

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Texas Transportation Commission would include South Texans under measure approved by House

By DAVID  A. DÍAZ 

The powerful Texas Transportation Commission, a five-member, appointed governing board which controls the state’s multi-billion dollar highway and roadway system, would be dramatically transformed into a 15-member elected body drawn from specific geographic districts under an amendment approved on Thursday, May 7, by the Texas House of Representatives. 

The Texas Transportation Commission oversees the activities of the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), a major bureaucracy that employs 14,000 people spread across 21 divisions, six offices and 25 geographical districts around the state.  

TxDOT, in cooperation with local and regional officials, is responsible for planning, designing, building, operating and maintaining the state’s transportation system. 

The five-member Texas Transportation Commission, with the advice and consent of the governor, makes the major policy decisions that control the actions of TXDOT. 

But this major proposed change, strongly supported by Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, would have a far-reaching and positive effect, said the Rio Grande Valley legislator. 

Among many improvements, the proposed law would help increase the influence of South Texas and Hispanic interests on this major state commission, which currently has no Mexican Americans or Valleyites on its governing board, he noted. 

"As evidenced by the passage of this House amendment, the majority of the public views the appointed Texas Transportation Commission with suspicion, that it wields incredible power without being accountable to the people," said Flores. "This measure, if approved by the Senate and the governor, would mean South Texas would finally have guaranteed, elected representation at the seat of power." 

Under the successful amendment, which was authored by Rep. David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio – who is a native of Mercedes – the proposed new law would change the Transportation Code to expand the Texas Transportation Commission to a 15-member elected commission. 

Currently, the Transportation Commission is made up of five members appointed by the governor.  

Those powerful figures live in Austin, Houston, El Paso, Ft. Worth, and Lubbock. 

"In the Valley alone, there are tremendous projects underway, such as the planned Hidalgo County loop, and critical unmet needs that are important not just to our region, but to the entire state economy," Flores said. "By having our own representation on this crucial state board, we can make sure we know what is going on at all levels in state transportation policies and projects." 

The Leibowitz amendment would require that 14 of the members be elected every two years from geographic districts that would be drawn up by the Legislature.  

The 15th member of the proposed expanded commission would be elected statewide every four years, and serve as the chair of revamped Texas Highway Commission. 

The first election for all 15 members of the new Texas Highway Commission would be held in November 2012. 

The House amendment is based on Leibowitz’ House Bill 12, which, after a public hearing on March 31 before the House Committee on Transportation, has been stuck in that legislative panel.   

Leibowitz successfully placed that amendment on House Bill 300, the House version of a major review of the continuation and function of TxDOT. 

"The virtues of this type of regional-representative plan ensures fair consideration of the state’s expansive transportation needs," Leibowitz explained. "Simultaneously, this type of representation will yield strategic cooperation in building a comprehensive and unified transportation plan, and a much needed replacement to the contentious relationship that the Texas Department of Transportation has with the public and the Legislature." 

The San Antonio legislator contends that under the current system, the state’s highway system leadership  "seems to only provide information that fits their policy priorities. 

"Unfortunately, it appears that TXDOT has unilaterally decided that toll roads are the solution to the problem," Leibowitz added. 

Currently, the Texas Transportation Commission is responsible for: 

  • Planning and making policies for the location, construction and maintenance of state highways;
  • Overseeing the design, construction, maintenance and operation of the state highway system;
  • Developing a statewide transportation plan that contains all modes of transportation, including highways and turnpikes, aviation, mass transportation, railroads, high-speed railroads and water traffic;
  • Awarding contracts for the improvement of the state highway system;
  • Encouraging, fostering and assisting in the development of public and mass transportation in the state; and
  • Adopting rules for the operation of the department. 

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Medicaid red-tape for poor Texas children would be reduced under Rep. Flores’ plan

By DAVID  A. DÍAZ 

A legislative plan, co-authored by Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, could soon be scheduled for a vote by the House of Representatives that would would make it easier for families of children served by Medicaid to keep those kids from falling through the social safety net.  

Children’s Medicaid is health coverage provided at no cost to the children of families who qualify, according to the state Health and Human Services Commission. 

Coverage begins as soon as the application is approved. 

In the Rio Grande Valley alone, state officials estimated that as of April 2009, almost 200,000 young people, from newborns to 19-year-olds, were enrolled in Medicaid, which is a federal-state entitlement program for the poor which provides basic health care coverage for the children of low-income families. 

But for tens of thousands of eligible families statewide, that crucial medical coverage is threatened because of a burdensome state requirement that forces their parents to re-enroll their children every six months.  

Under House Bill 1541, parents would only have to re-enroll their children every 12 months. 

"The current six-month policy is not fair, and puts an extra burden on struggling, hard-working Texas families to correctly and constantly fill out what can be very complicated paperwork, which can be lost or delayed in bureaucratic red tape," Flores said. "The current six-month deadline punishes Texas children through no fault of their own." 

HB 1541 was approved on Tuesday, April 28 by the House Human Services Committee, and on Tuesday, May 5, was sent to the  House Calendars Committee, which will set the date for the bill to be reviewed and acted upon by the full House of Representatives 

Under the extended 12-month re-enrollment period proposed by HB 1541, all Texans would benefit, he added. 

"There are an estimated 1.5 million uninsured children in Texas, making our state first in the nation with the highest percentage of children living without health coverage," said Flores. "Uninsured children often turn to high-cost emergency rooms for treatment, or delay care until medical conditions are not only more serious but also more expensive. These costs are passed on to the community through increased hospital charges, more expensive private health insurance premiums, and higher local taxes." 

He noted other state health care programs do not place a six-month burden on qualified families. 

According to the bill analysis of the measure: 

As of January 2009, 18 states provided 12-month continuous eligibility for all children in Medicaid. Because the 12-month enrollment model is the most efficient way to administer eligibility for a program, Texas has already adopted 12-month coverage for CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program), Medicaid newborn coverage, Medicaid maternity coverage, and the Women’s Health Medicaid Waiver. 

Children’s Medicaid both offers many benefits, including: 

  • Choice of doctors.
  • Regular checkups and office visits.
  • Dentist visits, cleanings and fillings.
  • Prescription drugs and medical supplies.
  • Access to medical specialists.
  • Vaccines.
  • Hospital care and services.
  • X-rays and lab tests.
  • Mental health care.
  • Treatment of special health needs.
  • Treatment of pre-existing conditions.
  • Eye exams and glasses. 

To learn more about Children’s Medicaid benefits, call the CHIP/Children’s Medicaid Help Line at 1-800-252-8263. Select your language, then push 6. 

BILL ANALYSIS 

According to the bill analysis of HB 1541: 

The legislation requires the rules adopted by the executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) providing for a period of continuous eligibility under the Medicaid program during the state fiscal biennium beginning September 1, 2009, for a child under 19 years of age who is determined eligible for Medicaid to provide that the child remains eligible, without additional review and regardless of changes in the child’s resources or income, until the earlier of the first anniversary of the date the child’s eligibility was determined or the child’s 19th birthday.  

The bill requires the executive commissioner to adopt rules providing for such a period of continuous eligibility only if, for any portion of the period beginning September 1, 2009, and ending December 31, 2010, the state’s federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP) is increased as authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the applicable percent used in computing that increase is the percent specified in certain provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and the receipt by the state of federal funds resulting from the increased FMAP results in general revenue funds otherwise appropriated to HHSC becoming available for the purposes of continuous eligibility. 

The bill authorizes HHSC to use appropriated funds that become available as a result of the increased FMAP for the purpose of continuous eligibility and provides that HHSC is not required to obtain prior approval from the governor, the Legislative Budget Board, or any other person or entity to use those funds for that purpose. 

The bill defines "commission," "executive commissioner," "FMAP," and "Medicaid program." 

The bill requires a state agency that is affected by a provision of the bill to request a federal waiver or authorization if the agency determines that a waiver or authorization is necessary for the implementation of the provision, and it authorizes the agency to delay implementation until the federal waiver or authorization is obtained. 

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House puts heat on toy-like cigarette lighters by approving key legislation by Rep. Martínez

By DAVID  A. DÍAZ 

A legislative measure designed to prevent the sale and distribution in Texas of flame-producing lighters that look like toys and that have been linked to injuries and deaths of children nationwide has been approved by the House of Representatives. 

House Bill 90 by Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, was passed by the House on Friday, May 1. It now goes to the Senate for its consideration and action. 

HB 90 amends the Health and Safety Code to prohibit a person from selling or distributing for retail sale or promotion a toy-like lighter in Texas. The bill creates a Class C misdemeanor offense for a person who violates the prohibition. 

The bill defines "toy-like lighter" to mean a mechanical or electrical device typically used for lighting cigarettes, cigars, or pipes that resembles in physical form or function articles designed or intended for play by children under 10 years of age. 

However, storage of toy-like lighters in a facility closed to the public or their transportation through the state would not be prohibited, an exemption included in order to not run afoul of interstate commerce laws.   

"HB 90 would protect the public, and especially children," said Martínez, who is a firefighter, licensed paramedic, critical care flight paramedic, and Texas Department of Health instructor and coordinator. "Deadly fires have  been caused across the country by these lighters. These objects are easily  mistaken for toys and are enticing to children. They do not have  disclaimers and are inherently dangerous."   

If HB 90 is approved by the Senate and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, Texas would became the latest in a growing number of states to address this growing national concern. 

Maine was the first state to ban the lighters, soon followed by Tennessee, Oregon, Arkansas, Washington, and the Commonwealth of Virginia, Martínez said. Seventeen other states are looking at similar legislation. 

The bill exempts from the prohibition a lighter, manufactured before January 1, 1980, that does not contain fuel and does not have a device necessary to produce combustion or a flame. 

The bill also exempts a mechanical or electrical device used primarily to ignite fuel for a fireplace or a charcoal or gas grill, as well as a disposable or refillable lighter printed or decorated with a logo, label, decal, artwork, or heat-shrinkable sleeve or designed as a souvenir to resemble an icon of a destination. 

HB 90 authorizes the state fire marshal to adopt rules to administer the provisions added by the bill. 

Statewide support generated 

HB 90 received significant support from Valley and state public safety leaders, as well as from Martínez’ fellow lawmakers, when it was first considered during a February 24 public hearing before the House Committee on State Affairs. 

Witnesses testifying in support for HB 90 included Chris Barron with the State Firemen’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas, Tom  Dimas with the Weslaco Fire Department, Santiago Cuellar with the Weslaco  Fire Department, and Don Jansen with the  Texas Fire Marshal’s  Association. 

There was no registered opposition to the bill. 

"They come in all different shapes and forms, and to a kid, this is a toy, they will use it as a toy," Barron testified. "There is a clicker involved it in, and they will figure it out. They cause a huge fire risk when they start to play with it, and flames are coming out from one end of these lighters." 

"Under existing Texas law, a person must be at least 18 years old in order to purchase any flame-producing lighter, according to Jansen. 

"But once those lighters are bought, there is not much control of what is done with them, children will get a hold of them, and that’s where the problems occur," said Jansen, who estimated that more than 70 million novelty-lighters, including many which look like toys – are imported each year into the U.S. from China. 

"Since most novelty lighters are plastic, and a fire occurs, they are often destroyed in the event of  fire," Jansen said. "The tracking of those novelty lighters in the fire scene is very difficult, but we have found quite a few." 

Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, a member of the State Affairs Committee, said he was very familiar with the vast distribution of toy-like lighters. 

"Traveling back and forth (from the Valley) to Austin, I have seen them,"  Lucio observed during the committee hearing. "They are all by the cash registers at gasoline stations. I often see these little ‘guns’, which are lighters, that in the wrong context could be mistaken for firearms."

Martínez, who has a four-year-old son, showed the House committee members a couple of examples of lighters which would attract the attention of children. 

"Here we have a ‘cell phone’, but when it turns on, it rings, and a flame comes out, and you would never know," he noted. 

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Texas House votes to honor second Edinburg war hero, Pedro Cano, with state’s highest military award

By ORLANDO SALINAS 

The Texas House of Representatives on Thursday, May 7, unanimously voted to posthumously confer the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor to Edinburg’s Pedro Cano. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is the author of House Concurrent Resolution 5, which would bestow the honor to the WWII hero. 

"People in the legislature are simply amazed at the bravery of this young unassuming soldier from South Texas," said Peña. "I am happy that the House  unanimously agreed that our state should recognize Pedro Cano’s  heroism.  We have some work ahead of us before we get this measure passed in the Senate but I am confident we’ll get it done." 

This week, a committee comprised of the Adjutant General, the Office of the Lt. Governor, the Office of the Speaker of the House, the Chairman of the House Committee on Defense and Veterans’ Affairs and the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs and Military Installations will take a vote to consider awarding the honor to Cano.  

HCR 5 will then head to the Senate, where upon approval it will be sent to the governor for his signature.    

The Texas Legislative Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration that may be awarded by the Lone Star State. It is designated by a concurrent resolution of the Legislature. It is awarded to a member of the state or federal military forces who voluntarily performs a deed of personal bravery or self-sacrifice involving risk of life that is so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the person for gallantry and intrepidity. 

Peña authored legislation in 2007 that conferred the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor to Edinburg’s U.S. Marine Sgt. Alfredo "Freddy" González. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was the Senate sponsor of the legislation that honored González. 

If HCR 5 is passed, Cano and González would be the only recipients of the state’s highest military honor hailing from the same city.  

Cano earned the nation’s second highest military decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross, for his heroism in World War II.  After the war, Cano was presented the medal at a ceremony in Edinburg’s town square on April 26, 1946.  Thousands of residents witnesses the event.  Tragically, Cano’s life ended six years later after dying in a head-on motor vehicle collision in Pharr. 

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Senate passes bill sponsored by Rep. Peña to closely watch convicted sex offenders who use the Internet

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburg, on Tuesday, May 5, marked the Texas Senate’s passage of legislation that would require convicted sex offenders to provide their online and cellular telephone account information to the state’s Sex Offender Registry.  

Senate Bill 689 passed the Senate on Monday, May 4, and is now pending in the Texas House of Representatives, where the Edinburg lawmaker will carry it as the sponsor. 

“This legislation will help protect children by ensuring that state law keeps up with modern technology,” Abbott said. “By requiring sexual predators to provide their electronic identities, the Legislature is simply improving existing registration requirements – which require convicted sex offenders to provide their addresses to the Department of Public Safety. As Attorney General, I am grateful to Sen. Shapiro and Rep. Pena for their innovative approach and commitment to Texas children.” 

Peña said SB 689 is needed to curtail predators who lure unsuspecting young people on the Internet. 

“We are closer today to preventing sex offenders from using social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to prey upon our children," said Peña. "SB689 is an important progression in making the Internet safer from online predators. This legislation will provide law enforcement with new tools, resources and information to track sex offenders online.” 

Shapiro added: “I have spent my career protecting the innocent against predatory sexual offenders, beginning with Ashley’s Laws in 1995. With today’s new Internet sites, it is now time to take this fight into the virtual world and target those who target our children through social networking sites, chat rooms and live video gaming systems. I commend General Abbott for his work against these most heinous criminals as well, and am grateful to his Cyber Crimes Unit for the strides it has made to bring these offenders to justice.” 

SB 689 and its companion House Bill 1239, a similar bill authored by Peña – include four key provisions that strengthen state sex offender registration laws: 

• Registration of Internet accounts and e-mail addresses. If enacted, the legislation would require all sex offenders to register their Internet account and online identifiers, including e-mail addresses and designations used for online chatting, instant messaging, social networking or other similar Internet communication. The law would require that sex offenders notify their primary registration authority or the Department of Public Safety, which manages the state’s Sex Offender Registry, any time offenders change their Internet service providers or other online identifiers. 

• Registration of mobile telephone numbers. Dramatic growth within the mobile communications sector has increased children’s access to cellular telephones. As a result, young Texans now frequently send text messages, transfer photographs, and use their mobile telephones to chat online. To help prevent sexual predators from using mobile phones to prey upon children, the law would require registered sex offenders to register their cell phone numbers with the DPS. 

• Sharing information with law enforcement. Authorizes DPS to release state sex offender Internet identifiers to the OAG and social networking sites (i.e., MySpace.com, Facebook.com). 

• Internet prohibitions for certain sex offenders. Requires sentencing courts and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to prohibit certain sex offenders (e.g., those who committed a sex offense against a minor; are designated a level 3 sex offender; or used the Internet to facilitate the commission of the crime), as a condition of parole or probation, from using the Internet to access obscene material; access a commercial social networking Web site; communicate with other individuals or groups for the purpose of promoting sexual relations with persons under 17; or communicate with a person under 17 when such offender is over 17. 

In 2003, Abbott established the Cyber Crimes Unit to crackdown on child pornographers and sexual predators who use the Internet to prey upon children. The Cyber Crimes Unit has arrested 105 predators in 25 Texas counties and Indonesia. These defendants were caught trying to arrange sexual encounters online with victims they acknowledged were young children. The “children” actually were undercover investigators. Cyber Crimes Unit investigators have also obtained convictions against 96 individuals on child pornography charges. 

Since taking office, Abbott has earned a national reputation for aggressively arresting and prosecuting child sexual predators. In addition to arrest roundups, Abbott also launched a series of town hall meetings statewide to educate parents and teenagers about the kind of criminal activity that goes on in connection with Internet diaries, chat rooms and social networking sites. Thousands of concerned Texans turned out at venues across the state to participate in the interactive presentation about the risks of online predators and the steps parents can take to protect their children online. 

To find out more about Attorney General Abbott’s efforts to crack down on sexual predators, visit the agency’s Web site at http://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov or call (800) 252-8011. 

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U.S. Senate candidate Sharp to keynote Boy Scouts ceremony on May 14 to honor County Judge Salinas

BY ERNIE GONZÁLEZ 

The Rio Grande Council, Boy Scouts of America will hold the Centennial Celebration, on Thursday, May 14, 2009, at the Club at Cimmaron in Mission.   

Hidalgo County Judge JD Salinas will be presented with the “Leadership Award,” which will be presented at this benefit dinner.  Former State Comptroller and current U.S. Senate Candidate John Sharp will serve as the keynote speaker.  

The “Leadership Award” has been designated by the Rio Grande Council, BSA as an award to be presented to a civic, community, or business leader who has demonstrated patriotism, leadership, and service at a local, state, or national level.   

The candidate must also have provided service and support to the character development of youth within the Rio Grande Valley.  Past honorees include Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; McAllen Police Chief Víctor Rodríguez; Fred W. Rusteberg; Alan Johnson; Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell; Cameron County District Clerk Aurora de la Garza; and Cameron County Clerk Joe G. Rivera. 

“We are excited about honoring such an outstanding community leader,” said Ernesto Carballo, Scout Executive and CEO for the Rio Grande Council, Boy Scouts of America. “Judge Salinas serves as an excellent role model for young people and we’re glad that he has accepted our leadership award." 

Salinas has been a long supporter of numerous youth programs in Rio Grande Valley.  He was also a former Scout. The Hidalgo County judge has been a continuous supporter of the Boy Scouts of America for many years.    

Funds raised for this dinner will support the Boy Scouts of America in Hidalgo County. For more information, please contact 956/423-0250. 

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Senate trying to craft compromise state budget that may require extra $1 billion for rising Medicaid costs

By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES 

The state budget picture was complicated last week by an announcement that lawmakers could have to come up with another billion dollars to cover rising Medicaid costs.  

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Finance Committee Chair Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, chair of the Finance Committee, briefed reporters on Tuesday, May 5, on how the recommendation from the Legislative Budget Bureau will impact the state budget, now in conference committee.  

"The budget’s tight, and it just got tighter," said Ogden.  

Dewhurst and Ogden said lawmakers will craft a balanced budget before the session’s end on June 1, but budget writers will have to closely watch how discretionary money is appropriated. 

The Senate approved a measure on Monday, May 4, that would cap the growth in the cost of higher education at Texas public colleges and universities. Senate Bill 1443 wouldn’t just limit the growth of tuition, but caps the growth in total academic costs, including mandatory and class fees.  

"There will be no more games played, about comparing tuition versus tuition plus fees," said author Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. "Every institution will now be looking at total academic cost, and that is a significant improvement." 

Universities that exceed the state median for total academic cost could only raise the cost of education by five percent per year, or the rate of inflation over the past three years, whichever is lower. The bill would also permit lawmakers to set a lower cap, and could withhold general revenue from universities that exceed that cap. The bill now heads to the House for further approval. 

On Wednesday, May 5, the Senate passed a bill that would make children’s health insurance more affordable for parents close to the poverty line.  

SB 841 would permit families with an annual income up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, about $66,000 for a family of four, to buy in to the state Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Parents would pay part of the premium, which would increase based on income, but the cost to families couldn’t exceed 2.5 percent of annual income.  

"Currently if you make 200 percent plus one dollar, you’re not eligible for this program," said bill author Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco. "Under this bill, families will have the opportunity to pay part of the premium, so that they can grow into fully paying for their own health insurance for their own children." 

The Senate passed a bill on Thursday, May 7, aimed at helping to pay for local transportation projects. SB 505, by Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, would authorize the creation of transportation finance zones. These would be areas adjacent to state highways, extending two miles from the center line, drawn by the Texas Transportation Commission and approved by the Legislative Budget Board. The state portion of sales tax collected from businesses in the area would go into a fund that could be used to pay for the road the area surrounds. This fund’s growth would be capped at $250 million per year, said Ogden, to prevent the overuse of these zones. 

On Friday, May 8, the Senate approved a bill that would ban the use of trans-fats in foods served at restaurants. SB 204, by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, would require chain restaurants to stop using these harmful fats by 2010, and would require smaller and independent restaurants to comply by 2011.  

Grocery stores, non-profit organizations and bakeries are specifically exempted under the bill. Trans-fats are artificially produced fats that have a longer shelf life than natural fats and oils, but are believed to be more harmful to cardiovascular health. 

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Amendments by Congressman Cuellar help crack down on predatory mortgage lending

By THOMAS SEAY 

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Thursday, May 7, joined a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act.  

The bill, which cracks down on predatory lending practices and ensures that the mortgage industry follows basic principles of sound lending, responsibility, and consumer protection, passed the U.S. House on a 300-114 vote. 

Included in the bill were amendments authored by Congressman Cuellar to study the real-world impact of a major new lending accountability measure and to provide housing counseling in Texas colonias. 

“There is no doubt that today’s financial crisis is the result of irresponsible, abusive, and predatory practices in mortgage lending,” said Congressman Cuellar.  “This bill is a direct response to the collapse of the housing market, and it will help to rebuild an economy that reflects our values of fairness and responsibility.” 

A key provision the bill would require mortgage lenders to retain a 5% stake in the loans that they originate.  The measure is intended to address a critical vulnerability in the mortgage market that contributed to the economic collapse. 

“In the run-up to the financial crisis, many lenders had no reason to care whether a borrower could afford the payments on their mortgages,” Congressman Cuellar explained.  “By the time payments came due, the lender had already pocketed the closing fees, repackaged the debt into securities, and offloaded the risk to someone else.” 

Cuellar amended the bill to require the Government Accountability Office to assess whether the 5% requirement is the appropriate stake to reduce systemic risks, to monitor any shifts in practice by securitizers attempting to evade the new rule, and to recommend to Congress whether additional accountability measures are needed. 

“This amendment is all about governing with our eyes open,” Cuellar said. “Requiring lenders to maintain a stake in their loans is a promising first step.  Now we must conduct the oversight needed to ensure that this law is actually protecting homeowners, rebuilding the economy, and preventing this kind of collapse from ever happening again.” 

Cuellar’s second amendment would clarify the mission of the new Office of Housing Counseling in the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The original legislation instructed the office to focus on “areas that lack sufficient services”; Cuellar’s language ensures that colonias are included among these high-priority areas. 

“By recognizing the unique economic challenges facing colonias, my amendment ensures that residents have access to the guidance and support that all borrowers need to ensure that they get the best deal possible,” Cuellar said. 

In addition to Cuellar’s provisions, the bill includes numerous other measures to crack down on predatory practices and promote responsible lending, including: 

• Requires lenders to ensure a borrower’s ability to repay, based on income, credit history, indebtedness and other factors; 

• Prohibits unfair lending practices, including the bonuses known as "yield spread premiums" that lenders pay to brokers to inflate the cost of loans; 

• Brings accountability to the secondary market for home loans by holding participants liable under federal law for ensuring responsible lending; 

• Imposes penalties for irresponsible lending by making predatory lenders accountable to consumers for rescission of the loan and the consumer’s costs for rescission; 

• Expands protections for high-cost mortgages by lowering the interest rate and the points and fee triggers that define high cost loans; 

• Requires additional disclosures for consumers regarding mortgage loans, including the maximum that a consumer could pay on a variable rate mortgage, the amount of settlement charges, the charges included in the mortgage, the amount the consumer must pay at closing, and the fees paid to a mortgage originator; and 

• Protects tenants who rent homes that go into foreclosure by providing tenants with 90 days to relocate if they are using a unit as a primary residence. 

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Social Security recipients to get one-time $250 bonus in May pension checks, says Congressman Hinojosa

By TENO VILLARREAL 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, May 6, announced that the $250 economic recovery payments for Social Security recipients, which were provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will begin to go out on Thursday, May 7 – with the goal of all these payments being sent out by the end of May. 

“Almost $30 million will be distributed within the 15th Congressional District of Texas” said Hinojosa. “In total, 2,818,912 Texans will be receiving a $250 payment.” 

In addition, by mid-May, payments to recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits will also begin to go out. 

“These economic recovery payments can make a real difference in the lives of millions of older and disabled Americans – many of whom have been hit especially hard by the economic crisis that has swept the country,” said Hinojosa.  “These payments total more than $13 billion and will go out to more than 50 million people, also bringing another boost to our economy through consumer spending.” 

Millions of the Social Security recipients receiving these payments are widowed, divorced, or single and among the seniors with the lowest average incomes. 

These payments will make a difference: 

• Social Security is the only source of income for nearly one-third of all non-married seniors receiving Social Security; 

• The median annual income for non-married Social Security recipients over age 65 who are women is only $13,151.  The median annual income of non-married Social Security recipients over age 65 who are men is only $17,611; and 

• Nearly 30 percent of non-married Social Security recipients who are women over age 65 are poor or near-poor – with 17.4 percent living below the federal poverty line and another 10.8 percent with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line. 

In addition to the economic recovery payments being made to Social Security and SSI recipients, the Recovery Act also provides these payments to disabled veterans and Railroad Retirement recipients. The payments to Railroad Retirement recipients are scheduled to begin to go out in late May and the payments to disabled veterans in June.  In total, more than 50 million Americans will get this one-time payment. 

If someone regularly receives benefits from two or more of these programs – such as Social Security and Railroad Retirement, or a disabled veterans’ benefit and SSI – he or she will receive just one $250 payment. 

“The Recovery Act signed by the President on February 17 is historic, sweeping legislation,” said Congressman Hinojosa.  “In addition to creating or saving 3.5 million jobs and providing a Making Work Pay tax cut for 95 percent of working families, it contains these critical $250 Economic Recovery Payments for those Americans unlikely to qualify for the Making Work Pay tax cut – older Americans, disabled veterans, and others.  These payments will help millions of Americans meet some of their basic needs in this struggling economy.  These payments were a crucial piece of this historic bill and I am proud to have supported them.” 

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Sen. Lucio’s bill approved to continue providing health insurance for survivors of slain law officers

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Texas Senate concurring with an amendment from the House of Representatives on Friday, May 8, unanimously voted for Senate Bill 872 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, that ensures survivors of law enforcement officers killed on duty remain eligible for health insurance and at affordable rates. 

The bill is now headed to the governor for his signature. 

"SB 872 is the bill that corrects a misinterpretation of a bill I passed in 1993 regarding how benefits are paid by the families of peace officers who died in the line of duty," said Lucio. "It ensures that the survivors pay the same premium amount as active employees and not any additional amounts paid by the employer." 

While many county and municipal employers complied with the intent of the law, some did not, including the state. In one case, the state raised the premium for the family of Game Warden Justin Hurst of El Campo, who was murdered in 2007, from about $300 a month to over $700 per month. Sadly, because of the increased cost, many survivors are unable to afford the insurance and allow it to lapse. 

The House sponsor, Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, added a perfecting amendment that includes anyone who is in training or an academy cadet to the provisions of the bill. This amendment is intended to help the family of a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper trainee who died prior to his official graduation. 

After meeting with survivor families, Lucio became aware of other situations he felt should be rectified. For example, his bill also allows survivor families who drop coverage or are canceled to rejoin the insurance plan, even if the spouse remarries. 

"These are the men and women who are on the front lines of defending our society and allow us to live in peace," said Lucio. "We need to let the families of those who have died know that we honor their sacrifice AND we need to let those still serving know that should the worst happen, we will maintain our commitment to their families!" 

(Ian Randolph, legislative director for Lucio, handled this issue, and may be reached at 512/463-0127.) 

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Texas Attorney General Abbott charges McAllen towing company with overcharging customers

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday, May 7, charged a McAllen towing company with multiple legal violations. The state’s enforcement action specifically cites the defendant for unlawfully overcharging for a non-consent tow. Court documents filed by the Attorney General asked the court to prevent Ryder and Karen Oxford, owners of AM-PM Towing in McAllen, from continuing to violate state law. 

“These defendants are charged with violating multiple state laws that regulate towing companies,” Abbott said. “The Legislature enacted important protections that prevent towing services from taking advantage of Texas drivers. We will continue to aggressively crack down on unlawful conduct by towing services.” 

The state’s enforcement action indicates that AM-PM Towing and the Oxfords committed the following violations: 

  • Employing a person as a vehicle storage facility employee without a license;
  • Employing a person as a tow operator without a license from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation;
  • Failing to accept payment, as advertised, by an electronic check, debit card, or credit card;
  • Operating tow trucks for non-consent towing on a public roadway without a permit;
  • Failing to file its non-consent fee schedule as required by law; and,
  • Exceeding its own non-consent fee schedule by overcharging for tows. 

According to state investigators, one unlawful incident occurred when AM-PM Towing charged $2,614 to tow a vehicle when the defendant’s own non-consent fee schedule indicated only $850 should have been charged. 

The state’s enforcement action cites violations of the state Vehicle Storage Facility, Towing and Deceptive Trade Practices laws. In addition to pursuing an injunction against the Oxfords, the state’s enforcement action also seeks penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and restitution for customers harmed by the defendants’ business practices. 

The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation assisted with the Office of the Attorney General’s investigation. 

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McAllen cardiologist Aurignac pleads guilty to defrauding Medicare and Medicaid

Dr. Fabian Aurignac has pleaded guilty to submitting thousands of dollars in false and fraudulent claims to the Medicare and the Medicaid health care programs, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced today. 

Aurignac, 46, who owned and operated the Cardiology Care Center in McAllen, was originally indicted October 21, 2008. A superseding indictment was returned on May 6, 2009, charging him with multiple counts of defrauding Medicaid and Medicare by submitting claims for cardiac services he had personally performed when, in fact, he had used unlicensed foreign doctors and unqualified medical personnel to perform the services and billed for medical services which were never provided. 

During a May 8 hearing before United States District Judge Randy Crane, Aurignac admitted that between July 12, 2007, and July 28, 2007, while vacationing in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aurignac fraudulently billed for services to Medicare and Medicaid for cardiac services which he never performed or which were performed by unsupervised, unqualified personal as alleged in count eight of the superseding indictment. Based on this fraudulent billing, he billed approximately $900,000 to Medicare/Medicaid and received approximately $260,000 in payments from the federal health care programs.

As part of his plea agreement, Aurignac has agreed to forfeit to the United States $1,157,400 seized from two bank accounts at First National Bank, $7,187 seized from a safe on the 700 block of Ware Road in McAllen and a 1995 GMC Truck. If Aurignac persists in his plea of guilty then the United States has agreed to dismiss the remaining 11 counts alleged in the indictment after sentencing.  

Sentencing has been set for July 27, 2009, at 2 p.m.  

Aurignac faces a maximum punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine not to exceed $250,000. 

The investigation leading to the charges against Aurignac was conducted by the McAllen office of the FBI and the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Assistant United States Attorney Carolyn Ferko is prosecuting the criminal case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Allan Hoffmann is responsible for the asset forfeiture aspect of the case. 

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Second group in one week arrested for allegedly mailing marijuana through McAllen post office

For the second time during the week, inspectors of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) have arrested several McAllen area men allegedly involved in mailing packages containing marijuana through the U.S. Mail system, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Thursday, May 7.

A criminal complaint is merely an accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. Defendants are presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law. 

José Adán López, 20, Ernesto DamianCaballaro, 23, and Heriberto Emmanuel Vera, 32, all residents of McAllen, were arrested on Wednesday, May 6, and on May 7 were charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 147 kilograms of marijuana since January 2009 and the use of a communication facility to move drugs.  

All three defendants appeared before United States Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos on May 7, and have been temporarily detained without bond pending a preliminary and detention hearings that were set for Monday, May 11.   

According to the allegations in an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint today, through its continuous drug interdiction program in McAllen, in March 2008, USPIS inspectors discovered similarly wrapped parcels containing marijuana in the U.S. Mail and initiated an investigation to identify members of the group believed to be involved with mailing the parcels.  

The parcels, themselves, were similarly packaged. The marijuana, wrapped in cellophane, was surrounded by dried chili peppers as a masking agent. Later, the parcels would also contain fiberglass insulation, along with the chili peppers in a further attempt to mask the odor of marijuana. 

Through physical and video surveillance and the execution of search warrants, postal inspectors determined  that since March 2008, the group and its various members were allegedly responsible for mailing more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana primarily from the Progreso, Texas, post office. The packages were destined for various addresses throughout the United States from the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) to the South (North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia).   

On Monday, May 4, in a separate and unrelated case, USPIS inspectors arrested five of seven area residents also allegedly involved in sending kilogram quantities of marijuana through the U.S. Mail. Criminal charges were filed on May 5 and May 6 against these seven. Two remain fugitives.    

This case represents the increasing efforts by U.S. Postal Inspectors to protect the U.S. Mail from criminal misuse in South Texas. The USPIS is focusing on drug traffickers that attempt to use the mail to distribute illegal narcotics out of the Rio Grande Valley. Along with agents from the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force and the Department of Public Safety narcotics unit, postal inspectors are aggressively investigating to identify and arrest persons engaged in the mailing of narcotics. 

Anyone having information about persons responsible for mailing narcotics is encouraged to contact the local Postal Inspector’s office at 956/971-1721. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service will pay up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals who use the U.S. Mail to distribute narcotics. 

The charged drug offense carries a statutory penalty of no less than five up to 40 years in federal prison and a $2 million fine. The use of a communication facility to move narcotics carries a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. 

The investigation leading to these charges was conducted by the USPIS. Assistant United States Attorneys Juan F. Alanis and Patricia Rigney will prosecute the case. 

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U.S. postal inspectors arrest four and charge six for sending marijuana through McAllen federal facility

A 10-month investigation by inspectors of the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) has lead to the filing of criminal charges against six area residents for allegedly mailing more than 200 packages containing marijuana through the U.S. Mail system, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced on Tuesday, May 5.

As a result of the extensive investigative efforts of USPIS inspectors, Leopoldo Rodriguez, 41, of Mission, Juan Carlos Hernández, 21, of Mission; Víctor Hugo Mares, 25, of Mission; and Angel Margarito Gallardo, 22, of Mission, were arrested on Monday, May 4, 2009, and charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at least 188 kilograms of marijuana in the last 10 months and the use of a communication facility to move drugs for their alleged involvement in the mailing of parcels containing marijuana through the U.S. Mail.  

All four defendants appeared before United States Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos and have been ordered to remain in custody without bond pending a preliminary and detention hearings that was scheduled for Friday, May 8.  

Arrests warrants remain outstanding for the arrest of Concepción González, 37, of Mission, and Román Vázquez-Méndez, 29, also of Mission, who are also named in the criminal complaint.  

The investigation continues and today, a seventh person allegedly involved in this group, Margarito Gallardo, 45, was arrested by postal inspectors. Charges against Gallardo are pending. He is expected to make an initial appearance before Judge Ramos on Wednesday, May 6. 

According to the allegations in an affidavit filed with the criminal complaint today, through its continuous drug interdiction program in McAllen, U.S. Postal Inspectors discovered parcels containing marijuana and began the process of identifying members of a group of persons believed to be involved in mailing parcels containing marijuana through the mail system in August 2008.  

The parcels, themselves, were similarly packaged and contained raw beans, sealed in the cap of a can of spray foam to create a rattling sound. Additionally, the packages were found to contain expandable foam and marijuana wrapped in thick plastic. Later, the packaging changed to contain mustard, salt and pepper placed in the cellophane as masking agents around the marijuana. 

Through physical and video surveillance and the execution of search warrants, postal inspectors determined the group and its various members were allegedly responsible for mailing approximately 234 parcels containing more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana from various post offices throughout the Rio Grande Valley since May 2008. The packages were destined to various addresses throughout the United States with most of the packages being sent to Connecticut, Puerto Rico, New York and Florida. All of these parcels – all containing marijuana – were seized by inspectors.

U.S. Postal Inspectors are increasing their efforts to protect the U.S. Mail from criminal misuse in South Texas. Specifically, USPIS is focusing on drug traffickers that attempt to use the mail to distribute illegal narcotics out of the Rio Grande Valley, which is a violation of federal law. Along with agents from the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force and the Department of Public Safety narcotics unit, postal inspectors are aggressively investigating to identify and arrest persons engaged in the mailing of narcotics. 

Anyone having information about persons responsible for mailing narcotics is encouraged to contact the local Postal Inspector’s office at 956/971-1721. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service will pay up to $50,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of individuals who use the U.S. Mail to distribute narcotics. 

The charged drug offense carries a statutory penalty of no less than five up to 40 years in federal prison and a $2 million fine. The use of a communication facility to move narcotics carries a maximum penalty of four years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. 

The case is being investigated by USPIS. Prosecution will be handled by Assistant United States Attorneys Juan F. Alanis and Patricia Rigney. 

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