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Paul Cowen, longtime chief-of-staff for Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and an alumni of then Pan American University, on Monday, June 1, was honored by the Senate for his legislative work on behalf of the Valley and Texas. Cowen will be leaving his Senate post on August 31. “Paul has been the most loyal employee and friend. His enormous contributions to state government and to the people of District 27 will never be forgotten,” said Lucio. “His work has been exemplary and of the highest quality, and as one of the Texas Senate’s most valuable employees, he will be greatly missed by all of us.” See story later in this posting.

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“Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott once said, “helping one another is part of the religion of sisterhood.” No need to tell that to the “Trigo sisters” of Edinburg, as they have come to be known in the College of Education at The University of Texas-Pan American. The three siblings – featured from left, Elda Trigo, Armidia Trigo Ríos, and Iliana Trigo – all celebrated earning their master’s degrees at the same time in the same field – bilingual education – at one of three UTPA commencement ceremonies held May 9 at the McAllen Convention Center. See story later in this posting.

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Julissa Barrera, shown second from left, learned over her years as a student at The University of Texas-Pan American that leadership requires creativity, determination and perseverance. For her final project as a member of the four-year Student Leadership Program at the university, Barrera created, researched and implemented a drive in which she successfully collected nearly 8,000 diapers to give to clients of AVANCE Rio Grande Valley, a local nonprofit agency providing services to lower income Valley families. Featured at a recent ceremony to present diapers to AVANCE RGV collected as a part of a UTPA Student Leadership Program senior project are, from left: Noelia Telles, family service coordinator for the Parent/Child Education Program, AVANCE RGV; Julissa Barrera, who graduated this spring; Cecilia Quiroga, parent educator for the Parent/Child Education Program, AVANCE RGV; and Teresa González, supervisor of family programs, AVANCE RGV. See story later in this posting.

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Top leaders with South Texas College and Texas A&M-Kingsville recently signed an agreement to ease the transfer of students studying education. Featured, seated from left, are: Steven Tallant, TAMUK president; Juan E. Mejia, STC vice president for academic affairs; and Ali Emaeili, STC dean for bachelor programs and university relations. Standing, from left, are: Marilyn J Bartlett, TAMUK dean of the College of Education; Art Montiel, chair of STC’s Education Department; and Mike F. Desiderio, TAMUK chair for education. See story later in this posting.

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Disabled veterans’ home property tax breaks, Valley VA Hospital plan, posting big victories in Legislature

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A measure that would provide up to a 100 percent home property tax break for thousands of Texas veterans who are totally physically- or mentally-disabled as a result of their military service on Wednesday, May 27, received final legislative approval, according to Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview.

For veterans with have partial disabilities, they, too, would qualify for home property tax breaks of between $5,000 and $12,000 a year, he added.

An exemption reduces or eliminates the payment of taxes – in this case, property taxes on the principal homestead residence of qualified military veterans in Texas.

The measure, contained as an amendment to a different bill – House Bill 3613 by Rep. John Otto, R- Dayton – was unanimously approved by the House on a 145-0 vote (several members were excused on important business) late Wednesday morning, May 27.

Flores, a former U.S. Army veteran, said HB 3613 would allow Texas veterans with physical or mental disabilities related to their military service to get much needed – and deserved – exemptions on the property taxes they pay on their homes.

“Under current law, a totally disabled veteran only can receive an exemption of up to $12,000 from the property’s value,” Flores explained. “However, HB 3613, as amended, it will significantly help out qualified veterans who are completely unemployable as a result of medically-documented disabilities. It will free them from paying any property taxes on their homestead.”

In a tribute to Flores, Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, took to the back microphone on the House floor and credited Flores for the major achievement on behalf of disabled veterans.

“Everybody on this floor knows that one of our colleagues has been working on this for a number of years, with persistence and determination, to get this done,” Hilderbran said. “I would like all of us to recognize Rep. Kino Flores for his hard work. I am glad we got this passed, but we couldn’t have done it without Kino Flores.”

Hilderbran’s remarks drew applause from the full House.

The full House also gave Flores his due, suspending the House rules to allow Flores’ name to be added as a joint author of HB 3613, along with the names of all other House members who are military veterans.

VA Hospital plan progressing

In another related move – with huge implications for the Valley – the Senate on Tuesday, May 26 approved House Joint Resolution 7, also by Flores, which will ask Texas voters in November to pass a constitutional amendment authorizing the state government to partner with the federal government to build a VA hospitals in Texas, including in the Valley.

HJR 7 is now on the way to the governor for his signature.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinjosa, D-McAllen, is the Senate sponsor of Valley VA Hospital legislation.

Flores envisions a partnership where the state government will pay for site and for the construction of a VA Hospital in the Valley and the U.S. Veterans Administration, which administers the hospitals, will pay for its operating and maintenance expenses.

HJR 7 must still go back to the House for a final touch-up, but Flores predicts the Valley VA Hospital measure will be yet another big victory this session for his legislative resume.

In previous legislative sessions, Flores was the key architect of legislative measures that resulted in the construction of the Alfredo González Texas State Veterans Home in McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery in Mission.

“Thousands of Texans statewide were very worried that my property tax relief measure for disabled veterans was going down in defeat, but the Legislature set aside all political differences and rivalries in order to come to the defense of disabled veterans,” said Flores. “With the passage of this measure, along with our ongoing efforts to bring a Veterans Administration Hospital to South Texas, I am so proud of the Texas Legislature. I feel tall as a mountain.”

No substitute for experience

Flores is the author of House Bill 742, which is one of hundreds of bills which had been delayed from final action in the House of Representatives as a result of a legislative logjam. When the five-month regular session ended on June 1, so did the prospects of many important pieces of legislation.

Flores saved the veterans home property tax measure by using his legislative experiences and contacts to skillfully negotiate a parliamentary maneuver – known as an amendment – to add the entire language of his HB 742 onto HB 3613, which had received final Senate approval on Tuesday, May 26.

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, added the amendment sought by Flores when HB 3613 came up for final action in the Senate on May 26.

In addition to Williams’ help, Flores said, cooperation was needed and obtained from Otto in order for the disabled veterans’ property tax relief language to survive.

Otto supported the amendment requested by Flores, clearing a major legislative hurdle for the issue.

The following day, on Wednesday, May 27, the House of Representatives gave its final blessing to the now-amended HB 3613, and that legislation, which contains the property tax breaks for qualified disabled veterans, is now on the way to Gov. Rick Perry for his signature.

If Perry approves HB 3613, the home tax breaks for qualified disabled veterans would go into effect when local governments begin sending out their annual tax bills in the fall of 2009.

Repaying sacrifices of veterans

One of several witnesses who testified or showed up in favor of Flores’ original measure when it was first heard on March 25 by the House Ways and Means Committee was Joann Galich of Arlington.

She spoke eloquently about the physical and economic struggles her husband, Steve, has undergone as a result of medical disabilities linked to his tour of military service as a helicopter door gunner in Vietnam.

“He served proudly with the 1st Calvary in Vietnam, like those in (the film) Apocalypse Now,” Galich said.

“He could have taken an educational deferment, like many men did, or a medical deferment, like his parents wanted him to, but he chose to serve proudly.”

But as time went by, her husband, who had finished his military service with honor, became a successful business owner.

Unknown to the family at the time, that military service would wind up leading to catastrophic health problems for the Texas veteran. At age 37, he was diagnosed with hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes.

By age 55, Steve Galich’s health problems continued to get worse, forcing him to close down his business, a move that wound up costing the Galich’s their group health insurance coverage.

“Our medical bills were eating us up, and our savings went quickly,” Joann Galich recalled.

Never one to seek government help from the federal government, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs finally acknowledged that many Vietnam veterans, such as Galich, who had been exposed to Agent Orange –a poison used by the U.S. military to defoliate heavy jungle where enemy soldiers would hide – was presumed to have caused Galich’s diabetes.

With that determination by the VA, friends of the family encouraged Steve Galich to apply for VA benefits for which he had earned.

“They told him to get into the VA system. Reluctantly, he went,” she said. “The VA turned out to be a Godsend. They have not only picked up his medical (health insurance), but they have given him disability, paid at 100 percent, because he was unemployable.”

Flores’ proposed law is crucial to helping Texans such as the Galich family keep their home, she said.

“Now, the state may be offering some help to keep us in our home,” Joann Galich said. “Along with the high insurance rate, even without a mortgage, our housing costs are $700 a month, for taxes and insurance. On a fixed income, that is very hard.”

Local, statewide support

When Flores first filed HB 742 on January 22, his effort was praised by Emilio De Los Santos, the Veterans Services Director for Hidalgo County.

“We are pleased that Rep. Flores has carried this extremely important initiative for veterans of this state. This bill is long overdue and we know that Kino has always taken a proactive approach to help veterans,” said De Los Santos. “This bill not only will help veterans of the past, but also veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”

A number of major organizations also showed up in support of Flores’ bill on March 25, including:

  • Texas Council of Chapters – Military Officers Association of America;
  • Texas Assn of Vietnam Veterans;
  • Texas Association of Realtors;
  • American GI. Forum of Texas;
  • Galveston Co. Tax Office & Taxpayers;
  • Texas Department of the Reserve Officers Association of the U.S.;
  • Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations;
  • American Legion Department of Texas; and
  • Galveston County Tax Office.

Eligible veterans must meet disability standards set out by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

For eligible veterans who are not 100 percent disabled, the following home tax breaks would apply:

  • A veteran who has a disability rating of at least 10 percent to 29 percent would qualify for a $5,000 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home;
  • A veteran who has a disability rating of 30 percent to 49 percent would qualify for a $7,500 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home;
  • A veteran who has a disability rating of 50 percent to 69 percent would qualify for a $10,000 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home; and
  • A veteran who has a disability rating of 70 percent to 99 percent would qualify for a $12,000 tax break each year on the assessed value of their home.

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Edinburg RAHC, Doctors Hospital to share in millions of state dollars for medical care, research

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS

The Texas Legislature on on Friday, May 29, voted on the final version of the state budget for the next two years. Texas functions on a biennial system, so this budget covers state expenditures for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was one of 10 legislators who negotiated the final version of the state’s budget. He chaired the Judiciary, Public Safety, Natural Resources, and Regulatory workgroups during the budget-writing process.

As the chair of these workgroups, Hinojosa secured enhanced funding for projects in District 20, which covers the western portion of Hidalgo County, including all of Edinburg and much of McAllen, leading northward towards Nueces County and Corpus Christi.

“Crafting a balanced budget requires a great deal of cooperation and discipline. Because Texas works on a biennial basis, budget writers need to be especially careful when committing the state’s financial resources,” said Hinojosa. “This budget spends $182.3 billion, including federal stimulus money. With the stimulus money, we were careful to use those funds for one-time projects to help Texas heal from the current recession.”

Projects benefitting the Valley portion of Senate District 20 include:

• $6.5 million for the Regional Academic Health Center in South Texas and $1 million for cancer treatment sponsored by The University of Texas-Medical Branch and Renaissance Hospital;

• $20 million for Boll Weevil Eradication Programs targeting several regions, including the Lower Rio Grande Valley;

• $3 million for a statewide rollout of the Texas AIM program, designed by Boys & Girls Clubs to decrease dropouts among minority at-risk youth;

• $1 million for Texas A&M Health Science Center in McAllen to establish a state-of-the-science laboratory with expert staff who can provide early warning of bio-security threats to Texas;

• $1 million to operate the Rio Grande Valley Border Security & Technology Training Center; and

• $1 million increase for Alzheimer’s research in Texas, one of the largest public health challenges facing our state and nation.

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Tejano Monument – “It’s been a long time coming,” Gov. Perry says about vision pushed by Rep. Flores

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A planned bronze monument that will honor the past and future contributions of Tejanos in Texas, an idea first successfully championed almost a decade ago by Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, on Friday, May 29, was finally bestowed a place of honor on the historic south lawn of the Texas Capitol.

The monument, a planned artistic masterpiece being created by Laredo artist Armando Hinojosa, will be located on the southeast corner of the Texas Capitol grounds.

The Tejano Monument will become the latest addition to an exclusive club of shrines to the Lone State that will grace the south lawn, which also includes Heroes of the Alamo, Volunteer Firemen, Terry’s Texas Rangers, and Texas Cowboy.

“It’s been a long time coming – 500 years,” said Gov. Rick Perry, referring to the advent of Spanish explorers who first came to Texas in the early 1500s. “It is fitting that we should devote space on the historic south grounds of our state capitol to commemorate the contributions of our Latino brothers and sisters throughout the ages.”

More than one-third of the state’s population is Mexican American, according to U.S. census estimates.

Perry’s comments came during a bill signing ceremony he hosted at the governor’s reception room in the Capitol, which was attended by numerous elected legislative leaders and other citizens, including key guests from the Valley.

The monument will not single out specific Tejano heroes and pioneers, but instead commemorate the 500-year role of Tejanos in Texas and the Spanish-Mexican legacy in the state from 1500 to 1800, Perry explained.

The bronze monument will consist of 11 life-size sculptures, he added.

Perry noted that it was Flores who passed legislation in 2001 that authorized the Texas Preservation Board, a state government entity, to participate in the development, design, construction, and location of the Tejano Monument, portrayed by its supporters as a “legacy sculpture”.

Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, guided Flores’ bill through the Senate at the beginning of this decade.

“No army is powerful enough to defeat an idea whose time has come,” Flores said of the eight-year campaign to develop and finance the monument, then place the planned sculpture “in its rightful location.”

Flores praised the many Texans, from all walks of life, who battled for the creation, funding, and location of the Tejano Monument, especially Cayetano Barrera, M.D., and Richard Sánchez, both of McAllen, who put the evolving plan into action almost 10 years ago.

It was Barrera who brought the vision of a Tejano Monument to Sánchez, who at the time was serving as Flores’ legislative chief-of-staff.

“These two distinguished gentlemen have been joined over the years by many other dedicated people, from all cultures, in making and preserving history with this effort,” said Flores, a U.S. Army veteran. “This is truly a part of their legacies to Texas. I salute everyone involved in this noble endeavor.”

The May 29 ceremony revolved around House Bill 4114, by Rep. Trey Martínez Fischer, D-San Antonio, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo. That measure directs the State Preservation Board to place the Tejano Monument on the Capitol’s south grounds.

HB 4114 also issues a moratorium on new monuments being placed on the south grounds.

The crusade to locate the Tejano Monument on hallowed land is right and just, Flores said.

“They have given equal justice in representing all of those participants who have made Texas what it is today,” Flores told the Rio Grande Guardian, an online legislative newspaper which comprehensively covers Texas border politics. “And with the significance of this monument being built there, it puts out the real story. When people come to visit the Capitol they will know that Tejanos played a big part in the creation of Texas and what it looks like today.”

Additional information on the planned Tejano Monument, along with a video link to the bill signing ceremony, is available online at http://www.Tejanos.com

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Tejano Monument is a richly-deserved recognition

By GOV. RICK PERRY

Good morning, buenos dias, and thank you all for being here today.

It is a pleasure to stand with such a distinguished group of Texas leaders to celebrate the essential role Tejanos have played throughout our state’s history.

This day has been a long time coming. It has been nearly 500 years since Alonso Álvarez de Piñeda first explored the Texas coastline, just over 300 years since the first Spanish mission was established near El Paso, and eight years since our Legislature approved this project.

Since Representative [Kino] Flores and Senator [Mario] Gallegos carried the bill to passage in 2001, the Tejano Monument Foundation has been working hard to raise funds and clear the way for this richly-deserved recognition.

It is fitting that we should devote space on the historic south grounds of our state capitol to commemorate the contribution of our Latino brothers and sisters throughout the ages.

I’m talking about contributors ranging from José Antonio Navarro, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, to Hope Andrade, our first Latina Secretary of State.

Although I credit our state’s relative economic strength to the conservative fiscal policies we have defended over the years, I believe that the main source of our strength is the unmatched work ethic of our people.

Be they Anglo, Tejano or any of the other diverse cultures that call Texas home, our state is strong, dynamic and continually moving forward because of our people.

Standing here today, surrounded by supporters of this bill, leaders in our state and proud members of the Latino community, I want to congratulate you for your persistence.

I also want to commend Armando Hinojosa for your remarkable effort on this impressive work of art.

You have not only captured the essence of our state’s Hispanic history, but also the independent spirit of our entire state.

In my mind, they are the same thing.

This beautiful collection of sculptures will make the historic grounds of our capitol even more beautiful, and tell an important part of our state’s history for years to come.

Dr. [Cayetano] Barrera, I want to thank you for starting this process and guiding it to this next step. You should be proud.

I look forward to joining you at the dedication.

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Senate honors Paul Cowen, chief of staff for Sen. Lucio, for 20 years of service to Valley and Texas

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Sine Die, the last day of the 81st Legislative Session on Monday, June 1, fittingly allowed Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, to honor Paul Cowen, long-time staff member and his Chief of Staff Paul Cowen, who is retiring after 20 years under his employ.

“Paul has been the most loyal employee and friend. His enormous contributions to state government and to the people of District 27 will never be forgotten,” said Lucio. “His work has been exemplary and of the highest quality, and as one of the Texas Senate’s most valuable employees, he will be greatly missed by all of us.”

Lucio and Cowen, both Brownsville natives, go back a long way. His mother, Virginia Cowen, taught the young Eddie Lucio and several of his siblings English in Brownsville public schools.

Cowen operated Cowen Used Cars in Brownsville for 17 years. In 1989, he got a phone call from his childhood friend, Eddie Lucio, asking him to be his campaign manager for his initial run for Senatorial District 27. This highly contested race resulted in a runoff. Cowen took off full-time from his business to help in the campaign that got Lucio elected. Cowen returned to his business after a three-month absence to find no cars left on the car lot to sell and all of his salesman gone to other jobs. He began working in the House when the Lucio was a state representative on July 1, 1990, shortly before then Rep. Lucio won election to the Senate.

This was an opportune time for both the senator and his new assistant to work together on state issues, particularly those impacting South Texas. Cowen joined Lucio’s staff in the summer of 1989 and has been with him since.

Born Paul Charles Thomas Cowen on Aug. 31, 1949, he was the fourth child of 11 children. His mother, Virginia Cowen, taught many children English in the Brownsville schools, including a young Eddie Lucio Jr. and many of his brothers and sisters.

His father, Louis Raphael Cowen, was known as the “People Attorney” and in the evenings, he would tell his legal practice stories to his children. His stories frequently involved providing services to those in need. The young Paul learned his compassion and caring for others from his parents.

Even as a child, Paul Cowen was a young businessman. He shined shoes on the streets of Brownsville, loaded and unloaded fruits and vegetables in the railroad yard, and by the time he was 18, he owned two gas stations.

In middle school, the youngster met a gentleman who became his mentor and lifelong friend, Mr. Raul Besterio, Jr.

It was through “Mr. B’s” mentorship that he learned photography. By acquiring this skill in high school, he was awarded a full scholarship to Pan American University as the Sports Information photographer.

At a summer soccer game in college, Cowen, looking through the lens of his camera, spotted a woman across the field who captured his heart. He married Tamara Cowen 37 years ago, and the family now includes daughter, Tara Jean, married to David Rejino with one granddaughter, Isabella, Jonathan Paul married to Wendy Hopper, and Timothy Patrick.

The chief of staff put all of the skills he learned from his parents regarding compassion and hard work into his work at the Senate. He loved helping people and often went the extra mile to help constituents.

Over the years, he has assisted countless people with child support cases, worker’s compensation, insurance problems, health issues, teacher problems, business licenses and many more. He has at one time or another contacted just about every state agency regarding a constituent. Part of his effectiveness as a Senate employee is that over the years, he made and maintained valuable contacts in all of these agencies. His name is known throughout all state agencies, plus most undergraduate and professional schools in Texas.

On December 14, 1995, Lucio and Cowen were driving down the Expressway in Harlingen when they witnessed a serious accident. While the senator called 911, Cowan got out of the car. Without any regard for his own life, he worked diligently to free a man trapped in a burning truck, getting burned himself. He was able to free the man after another good “Samaritan” stopped to help remove the door and the steering column with a chain he carried. For his heroic efforts, Paul was awarded the highest honor bestowed by the Texas Department of Safety to a civilian – The Director’s Award.

Mrs. Cowen knows her husband’s qualities well. She said, “The secret to Paul’s effectiveness is his personal charm, persuasiveness, and genuine love of people. If you don’t agree with him at the outset, give him a minute to change your mind. It won’t be long before you see things his way. He always manages to find a common interest and share a personal anecdote.”

“Paul Cowen plans to retire on August 31, 2009, but don’t count on him disappearing from view. He will always be helping constituents and volunteering in my district office,” added Lucio. “I look forward to a lot more for the betterment of society from Paul for many years to come.”

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Legislature approves bill to help forgive student loans of doctors who practice in border region

The historic Physician Loan Repayment measure by Rep. Al Edwards, D-Houston, and Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, has been approved by the Texas Legislature and is headed to the governor’s desk for his signature into law.

The measure, House Bill 2154, was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

HB 2154 is designed to bring physicians to the border region and medically underserved areas of the state. The measure has emerged as one of the centerpiece bills of the 2009 legislative session.

HB 2154 revamps the Texas Physician Education Loan Repayment Program that was first established in 1985. Currently, the state forgives up to $45,000 of a medical graduate’s loans for practicing in a shortage area. However, most physicians graduate with more than $160,000 in school loans.

“Physicians and health centers consider House Bill 2154 to be the most significant legislation to pass in decades because of its potential to bring basic medical care to millions of Texans in the border region and underserved communities of our state. Texans for years to come should know it was the dedication and tireless work of state Rep. Verónica Gonzáles that improved access to care,” said Tom Banning, chief executive officer of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians (TAFP).

HB 2154 will fund a loan repayment program for doctors who practice in rural and medically under-served areas across Texas. The repayment program will attract more than 225 physicians annually to the state’s Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs), including most of South Texas and the border region.

“Within four years, Texas will have 900 new physicians serving communities in need. Texas established the nation’s first physician loan repayment program and will once again serve as a national model for recruiting and retaining physicians to serve in our medically underserved communities,” Banning said.

The Texas Association of Community Health Centers (TACHC) joined TAFP in praising the passage of the bill.

“The legislation was carefully crafted to solve a very real problem in Texas. This is an incredibly important measure, and our health centers throughout Texas are deeply indebted to Rep. Gonzáles for her leadership,” said TACHC Executive Director José Camacho.

Gonzáles also served on the House Public Health Committee, which conducted a public hearing on this issue, and forwarded it to the full House with a recommendation that it be approved.

“Our centers desperately need and are counting on this legislation to provide us with primary care physicians to serve in our clinics, located in Health Professional Shortage Areas. The impact of this legislation will felt from our rural areas to our border communities,” he said.

Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said the legislation is just as important to Texas’ small business owners.

“In these tough economic times the significant tax cut funded by this bill could well mean the difference between businesses staying open or closing their doors. Small businesses are a huge economic engine for Texas, creating 70 percent of the new jobs in the last 10 years and employing almost half of the Texas workforce, and they are breathing a little easier today thanks to Rep. Gonzáles’ leadership,” Hammond said.

The medical importance of this is underscored by the statistics for physicians working in medically underserved areas:

• The national average is 81 primary care physicians for every 100,000 people. Texas averages 68 for every 100,000 people;

• By 2015, Texas will need more than 4,500 additional primary care physicians and other providers to care for the state’s underserved population, predicted to be 5.3 million people; and

• More than half of Texas’ counties need more primary care physicians. 114 counties do not meet the national standard of one physician for every 3,500 people.

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Plan by Sen. Zaffirini to fund full-day kindergarten programs awaiting approval from Gov. Perry

By CELESTE VILLARREAL

Expanding pre-kindergarten programs from half-day to full-day with state grants soon will help prepare thousands of Texas children for academic success.

House Bill (HB) 130, developed by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, and Rep, Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, authorizes $25 million for a new pre-kindergarten grant program and empowers Robert Scott, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, to avoid phasing-out funds for the Early Start Grant Program that was established in 2000.

The bill provides state grants to allow districts voluntarily to expand their half-day pre-kindergarten programs to full-day in partnership with local Head Start or licensed child care providers. The full-day programs would be implemented with quality standards related to class size, teacher-student ratios, highly qualified teachers, approved curricula and school readiness components.

State formula funding currently is available only for half-day programs, forcing districts to rely on local funds or secure other grants to offer full-day pre-kindergarten programs. Recent changes in the Texas Education Agency’s Early Start grant rules, however, phased-out many previous recipients, while hundreds of other districts were ineligible for it.

“I am delighted that the Texas Legislature approved and funded our bill to ensure an improved early learning environment in our education system,” Zaffirini said. “This measure will ensure the future success and accomplishment of Texas children by improving the quality of and access to pre-kindergarten.”

Her companion bill to HB 130, Senate Bill 21, was the first bill filed for the 2009 legislative session. She and Patrick worked with countless advocates and supporters to pass the bill in spite of formidable opposition.

A 2006 report by The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University indicated that every dollar invested in high-quality early education programs yielded a return on investment of at least $3.50, and according to the Fight Crime, Invest in Kids 2008 report, high-quality pre-kindergarten participation increases high school graduation rates by as much as 44 percent.

“HB 130 is critical to school districts in Texas that are at risk of losing their funding for full-day programs,” said Kara Johnson, executive director of the Texas Early Childhood Education Coalition. “These programs have demonstrated their effectiveness over the years, and as a result, should receive the funding necessary to continue to prepare young Texans for entry into kindergarten,” she added.

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Bill by Sen. Lucio to address early childhood obesity, which can lead to diabetes, approved by lawmakers

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Addressing nutrition and health among children will no longer be delayed until they’re in school under Senate Bill 395 by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, that will require evaluating these issues during the critical early years of a child’s development.

Recently the state has pursued policies to confront rising childhood obesity rates through improvements in school meals and increased physical activity during the school day, but little has been done to address the wellness of Texas’ youngest children.

“Ignoring this population is short-sighted because we know that at least one out of every four children between the ages of two and five are overweight or obese,” said Lucio. “The good news is that when you target improving the health of very young children, parents are more engaged, so the practices we teach are more likely to be passed along to the home.”

The Early Childhood Health and Nutrition Interagency Council, created by SB 395, was unanimously approved in both chambers of the Legislature and is now headed to the governor. The council will be comprised of representatives from seven state agencies that play a role in public health, or the licensing and regulation of child care or pre-kindergarten programs. It will be administratively linked to the Department of Agriculture and charged with the creation of a six-year state plan to address activity and nutrition for early childhood populations.

“I commend Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples for his commitment to lowering obesity rates in Texas,” said Lucio. “His leadership has already been pivotal to improving nutrition in our schools and will be crucial to our goal of addressing a significant population that we have previously excluded from our efforts to curb obesity rates in Texas.”

Currently, there are almost no statewide activity or nutrition standards for childcare centers and pre-kindergarten programs, indicating a desperate need for this legislation. The State Demographer and the Comptroller have recently stated that unless Texas takes serious action now, the number of obese Texans could triple within 30 years, and by 2040 the associated price tag could reach $39 billion.

The council will assess what nutrition and physical activity in children under six is the most significant, and will evaluate the most effective nutrition and physical activity requirements and practices in early childhood care.

“Life-long eating habits and physical activity practices take shape early in a child’s life, so it is important for a child to develop good eating habits and physical activity patterns during their youngest years to help lay a foundation for establishing long-term healthy lifestyle habits,” said Lee Lane, executive director of the Texas Association of Local Health Officials.

“There is new evidence suggesting that more children are entering kindergarten overweight. This trend,” Lane added, “is especially problematic because the earlier weight problems develop; the more difficult they are to overcome. Studies show that seventy percent of overweight children will become overweight adults.”

Yvette Salinas, director of the Cameron County Department of Health and Human Services, noted that “within Cameron County in 2008, 11.3% of children 24 months or older certified through WIC (Women, Infant and Children’s Nutrition Program) were identified as overweight and 10.3% of the children were identified at risk of being overweight.”

She emphasized that “when you work with these types of figures and clients, one can see how critical Senate Bill 395 is. It will bring key players to the table to discuss child obesity and tackle the health problems associated with assessing the current obesity problem, reviewing existing practices within the communities and identifying resources to create a workable solution to this problem.”

Another expert in the field of child nutrition and health, President/CEO of the United Way of Southern Cameron County, Ms. Traci Wickett, said, “During the past forty years, obesity rates have increased almost fivefold among children ages 6 to 11, and today nearly 25 million young people are overweight, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.”

Wickett further reported that at “United Way of Southern Cameron County our Success By 6 initiative has the goal of all children entering school prepared to succeed, and healthy children are more likely to be successful students. Addressing the health risks of children under the age of six is a key strategy in our efforts, and we salute Sen. Lucio for his efforts on behalf of our youngest citizens.”

“SB 395 is the gateway to curbing obesity at the heart of the matter–when a child is very young–through the necessary coordination that will lead to proper nutrition, health care and more awareness for families and communities,” said Lucio.

Kate Volti, a senior policy analyst for Lucio, handled this legislation. She may be reached at 512/463-0127.

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Compromise approved by House on amending the top 10 percent rule for Hispanic admissions at UT-Austin

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Tuesday, May 26, announced that the Texas House of Representatives reached a compromise on a bill modifying the top 10 percent rule granting automatic admission to the state’s public universities.

“After eight hours of debate, I ultimately voted for the bill because I felt that after it was amended, it was a fair compromise. By all accounts, it is clear that the size of the University of Texas at Austin’s incoming freshmen class is comprised of almost all top 10 percent students, thereby leaving few slots open for students to be admitted based on holistic factors,” Gonzáles said. “I believe the legislation we pass will encourage racial, ethnic and geographic diversity and still reward hard-working students who graduate at the top of their class.”

The bill amends the 1997 by the late Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, granting students in the top 10 percent of the graduating class automatic admission to public universities. The University of Texas at Austin expressed concerns in the rule as nearly 81 percent of last fall’s freshman class entered under the rule.

The rule intended to allow many more minorities and students from small rural schools admission to UT Austin, and arose out of the 5th Circuit’s Hopwood decision – a case challenging the University of Texas’ law schools use of race in admissions – which struck down the use of race-based affirmative action policies in higher education.

Though the measure did achieve its goal in part, lawmakers found it also hindered the number of students not in the top 10 percent who were admitted to UT Austin. For example, in 2008, only 34 top 10 percent students residing in Gonzáles’ House District 41 went to UT Austin, and only four that were not in the top 10 percent enrolled. Hispanic enrollment of top 10 percent students is 23 percent and among African Americans, it is only 6 percent.

The bill limits the UT Austin incoming freshman class to 75 percent of top 10 percent students; the remaining 25 percent will be selected based on criteria which includes socioeconomic factors, academic record, financial status, performance on standardized tests, extracurricular activities, region of residence, field of study and whether the student would be a first generation college student. The version of the bill passed by the Senate capped UT’s top 10 percent admission at 60 percent. The two chambers will now have to come to an agreement over the differences in the legislation that each chamber passed.

Gonzáles successfully attached the “Hook Em Amendment” that states if affirmative action is struck down by the courts or by the board of regents, the top 10 percent rule will be restored. UT is currently being sued with the plaintiff claiming that using race and ethnicity violates the constitution.

Other safeguards in the bill include:

• A Sunset provision after six years;

• A provision delaying the effective date so that students currently in high school operate under existing law;

• An amendment requiring high schools to make parents and students aware of who is in the top 10 percent of the class and who would tentatively qualify for admission under the 75 percent rule;

• An amendment prohibiting universities from considering legacy as a basis for admission; and

• An amendment requiring the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop and implement a program to increase and enhance outreach efforts to academically high-performing high school seniors that would be likely to be eligible for automatic admission. The program would provide those students with information and counseling about automatic admission and financial aid.

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Hidalgo County Workforce Solutions announces 2,000 jobs for youths needing summer employment

By CARI LAMBRECHT

Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III on Tuesday, June 2, joined Yvonne “Bonnie” González, president and CEO of Workforce Solutions, alerting area youth, aged 16 to 24, to take advantage of nearly 2,000 temporary paid jobs.

The event took place at 10 a.m. at the Workforce Solutions Office, 3101 W. Business 83 in McAllen.

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) has provided millions in funding for workforce training centers across the country to assist in America’s economic recovery. The workforce system plays a vital role in the recovery by assisting workers facing unprecedented challenges and hardship to retool their skills and re-establish themselves in viable career paths.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration allocated monies to states, and the Texas Workforce Commission subsequently allocated, through the Workforce Investment Act, millions to Workforce Solutions for Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties — $2,346,747 for adults, $939,808 for dislocated workers and $5,773,363 for youths.

The youth program aims to place youth into temporary summer employment with public or private entities that match their skills, interest and abilities. Eligible youth are those who meet income requirements and have a barrier to employment, including but not limited to, being a high school dropout or a foster child, or who have been homeless, have had a brush with the criminal justice system, or who are a veteran or the first in their family to attend college.

“Workforce Solutions is all about the development and retention of a strong and vibrant workforce. The current economy is challenging. However, it is also providing opportunities to place our youth in jobs and programs that will increase their employability skills making them more marketable while stimulating the economy,” said González.

Hidalgo County has provided support to Workforce Solutions by helping the agency find suitable employers. Various Hidalgo County departments and offices will also be taking on some of the young job seekers, adding to its workforce of more than 2,700 employees.

“We are pleased to be a host worksite and to help Workforce Solutions find other worksites for the youth of the Rio Grande Valley. In addition to calling on the youth to fill these jobs, we do need more employers to step up and agree to take these workers for up to 8-weeks of employment. It is all paid for through Workforce Solutions. Employers just have to provide the work, and I think in this economy, that’s not too hard to do,” said Salinas.

“These jobs available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are going to provide strong work experience and the opportunity for disadvantaged youth to get on a career path that interests them,” the county judge added. “The Hidalgo County Commissioners and I encourage our young people to take advantage of this opportunity to get a foot in the door of a Valley employer. Believe us, your whole family will thank you for it.”

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South Texas College, Texas A&M University – Kingsville sign education articulation agreement

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR

A successful milestone for both South Texas College and Texas A&M University – Kingsville was recently reached when leaders from both institutions celebrated the signing of an articulation agreement to serve students pursuing education degrees.

“I commend the leadership and collaboration between Art Montiel from STC and Mike Desiderio from TAMUK,” said Juan E. Mejia, STC vice president for academic affairs. “They have removed all barriers for students interested in continuing their educations from associate to bachelor degrees.”

Both Montiel and Desiderio worked diligently, exploring ways to serve students interested in degrees in education.

Marilyn Bartlett of TAMUK and Ali Esmaeili of STC worked on multiple partnerships between TAMUK and STC in the past. Together they identified the re-dedication of Rhode Hall at Texas A&M University Kingsville as the most appropriate day for the signing ceremony.

TAMUK President Tallant will visit STC to meet with STC President Shirley A. Reed to finalize other agreements.

“The Education Department at STC has seen dramatic growth during the last year and the articulation agreement with TAMUK enables students graduating with an Associate of Art in Teaching (AAT) to transfer to a prestigious institution of higher education that is still near home,” said Montiel, chair of STC’s Education Department. “More importantly, this extraordinary agreement allows students to spend almost three years, a total of 74 college credit hours, at STC and then only one year, or 54 college credit hours, at TAMUK.

“The good news continues because TAMUK will also allow students to complete their student teaching assignments at any Valley school district,” Montiel continued. “Overall, the new agreement with TAMUK is exactly what students have been asking for with regards to transfer, and, in the end, our students will earn an AAT, BA, and a Texas Teaching Certificate, which meets the standard of a highly qualified teacher under the NCLB Act and makes them available for immediate employment.”

The agreement was signed on May 8.

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Towing companies to face stricter regulations and penalties under bill approved by state lawmakers

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA

Towing companies who prey on Texas’ vehicle owners will face stiffer penalties under a bill by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, and sponsored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, that the Texas Legislature passed on Sunday, May 31.

The bill now heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

“We have seen incidents around the state where some tow truck companies are abusing their power and seeking to profit instead of enforcing parking regulations,” Gonzáles said. “This bill strengthens the state’s regulating power and ensures that towing companies cannot hold vehicles hostage for profit. We have worked hard to make sure this bill protects Texas drivers without punishing tow truck operators who abide by the law.”

The bill instructs the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) to set a cap on fees that tow truck companies can charge vehicle owners. It also increases penalties for towing companies who operate outside the law and prey on vehicle owners. Recently, a Corpus Christi tow truck company charged four vehicle owners $2,500 in cash to recover their vehicles. The company’s owner was the subject of ten complaints to the state and has violated the law at least twice in the past two years. Numerous complaints have also been filed against McAllen-area towing companies who lured drivers into tow-away zones and overcharged for impounds.

Tow-truck operators who illegally remove vehicles could be charged with a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a possible fine of up to $2,000 and six months jail time. A towing company’s license could also be suspended for failing to pay a final judgment associated with an unlawful tow. Cities and counties may also set their own regulations, provided that they do not conflict with state guidelines.

TDLR will now have stronger enforcement tools to punish companies engaging in malicious business practices. Towing companies must now submit a non-consent towing fee schedule to the state, which they must follow and are prohibited from adding fees to approved charges. Companies must also accept all forms of payment, or release the vehicle without charge, making recovering a vehicle easier for owners.

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Congressman Cuellar: Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council awarded $3.5 million grant

By EDDIE ZAVALA

The U.S. Department of Commerce has awarded a $3.5 million Economic Development Administration grant to the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, announced on Thursday, May 28.

The area served by the grant includes portions of the Texas 28th Congressional District, which is represented by Cuellar, as well as parts of the 15th District, represented by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, and the 27th District, represented by Congressman Solomon Ortiz.

“This grant is tremendous news for the Rio Grande Valley,” Cuellar said. “Especially in today’s challenging economy, it is critical for the federal government to provide the support that local communities need to recover from natural disasters and other unexpected emergencies. This grant will go a long way toward protecting Rio Grande Valley residents from future storms, and it will create much-needed jobs to help put the Texas economy back on track.”

The grant will help to develop regional, disaster-resilient economic development strategies for Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, and Starr counties, which suffered substantial damage from Hurricane Dolly in 2008. Among other projects, the funds may be used to improve drainage to prevent flood damage in future storms, as well as to improve infrastructure and to enhance communication between local governments during disasters.

The funds were awarded through the federal Economic Adjustment Assistance Program, which provides a wide range of technical, planning and infrastructure assistance in regions experiencing adverse economic changes that may occur suddenly or over time. This program is designed to respond flexibly to pressing economic recovery issues and is well suited to help address challenges faced by U.S. regions and communities.

Cuellar is a member of the U.S. House Homeland Security, Agriculture, and Government Oversight & Reform Committees in the 111th Congress. Accessibility to constituents, education, health care, economic development, and national security are his priorities.

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Sen. Zaffirini passes bill to cover routine medical costs for patients who participate in clinical trials

By CELESTE VILLARREAL

Texans with life-threatening illnesses will be able to enroll in clinical trials with the hope of finding a cure while having their routine care costs covered by their health insurance.

The bill was sent to the governor for his consideration.

Currently, because they must choose between the two, only three percent of eligible oncology patients enroll in clinical trials. Fortunately, the Texas Legislature resolved this unacceptable scenario.

Passed unanimously on Friday, May 29, Senate Bill 39 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, requires insurance companies to cover routine medical care for persons who choose to participate in life-saving clinical trials.

The bill will allow patients with critical illnesses to enroll in clinical trials without fear of their insurance companies refusing to reimburse the costs of routine medical expenses or of dropping them completely from coverage.

“I am proud to champion legislation that will protect patients’ rights and to encourage enrollment in clinical trials that could produce life-saving treatments for critical illnesses,” Zaffirini said.

Twenty-five states have passed legislation or entered into agreements requiring health plans to cover routine care costs for clinical trials participants.

“Clinical trials drive our progress against cancer and many other life-threatening illnesses, and they often are the most promising option for patients with disease resistant to standard therapy,” said Dr. John Mendelsohn, president of The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, home of the largest clinical trials program for cancer in the world.

He stressed that “breaking down barriers to patient participation, such as coverage of routine care, only stands to accelerate our advances, and, ultimately, our quest to provide the greatest hope for each individual patient. Covering the cost of the routine aspects of care provided by a clinical trial, but not the cost of the experimental therapy or any extra tests needed, is a logical and highly beneficial next step.”

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A family affair: Trigo sisters from Edinburg graduate with master’s degrees in bilingual education

By GAIL FAGAN

“Little Women” author Louisa May Alcott once said, “helping one another is part of the religion of sisterhood.”

No need to tell that to the “Trigo sisters,” as they have come to be known in the College of Education at The University of Texas-Pan American. The three siblings – Iliana Trigo, Elda Trigo and Armidia Trigo Ríos – all celebrated earning their master’s degrees at the same time in the same field – bilingual education – at one of three UTPA commencement ceremonies held May 9 at the McAllen Convention Center.

Daughters of Martín and Paula Trigo and sisters to six other siblings (three boys and three girls), the women were all first-generation college graduates in the undergraduate programs at UTPA and currently teachers in the Edinburg Consolidated School District. They entered the master’s degree program in bilingual education in fall 2006, missing only one summer session along the way.

“It was a great experience to take our master’s programs together because we all supported each other emotionally. Sometimes we were stressed out but we would say to one another ‘we can do it,’” said 26-year-old Iliana, who teaches kindergarten at Jefferson Elementary School in Edinburg.

Armidia, 31, who is married with two children and expecting another child in September, teaches third grade at Ávila Elementary School. She recalled that after every class together, even while undergraduate students, they would head to Treviño’s Restaurant in Edinburg, where they would reflect on the day.

“We loved to go there. We would get there and they would say ‘there’s your table.’ It was a time to relieve our stress and to talk and have fun,” she said.

Both Elda and Iliana specialized in early childhood education in the master’s bilingual education program while Armidia specialized in leadership. Through their years in the program, they said there was little competition or discord with one another.

“We were a team in our graduate studies. Each one of us has a skill that we are stronger in and we adapted to each other’s way of doing things,” Armidia said.

Without hesitation, they jointly identified Armidia as the “bossier one” with special skills in technology and applying the required APA research format in their papers. Iliana is the more critical one – a perfectionist – who is best at writing and editing. Thirty-year-old Elda, who teaches sixth grade reading at Memorial Middle School and a mother of three, is known as the reader, a top information gatherer and the calmest of the threesome.

Dr. Hilda Medrano, professor of curriculum and instruction in the College of Education, said she was continually impressed by their quest to do the best they could in their coursework and for each other.

“It was so evident how they supported each other in class and in life in general,” Medrano said.

Despite their togetherness in achieving their common goal, they all point to the strength they received from their parents, other family members and most importantly, their faith in God, as instrumental in developing a love for education and success in their studies and professions.

“Coming from a hardworking migrant family, our parents were not educated but always knew the importance of education. They wanted a different life for us and that route was to go to school and to educate ourselves to make a difference,” said Iliana, who like her sisters had an interest in teaching early in life.

Despite summers from age 10 to high school of traveling to North Texas to pick cotton with their parents during 12 hour days in temperatures that reached more than 110 degrees at times, they said they still had fun because they were with family.

“We value all we learned in those hot days. It was an experience worthwhile,” said Elda, whose husband is also at UTPA pursuing an undergraduate degree in kinesiology.

They called their mother, who would sell her handmade quilts for extra income, a hardworking lady who did many things for them with very little. One of the most indelible symbols of their mother’s constant support for her children was the morning tacos she prepared without fail every day for each one of them said Iliana.

“That taco gave me that energy, support, and feeling that my mom is there and cares where we are going,” she said. “I told her that when I graduate you are going to graduate too.”

Generous in their praise of the encouragement they got from others, all three also said they relied on the prayers of the congregation of the Christian Life Church in Edinburg, where they are all active members, and the mentorship of Department of Education faculty members like Dr. Leo Gomez, Dr. Joy Esquierdo, Dr. Jaime Curts and Dr. José Agustín Ruiz-Escalante.

Ruiz-Escalante, professor of bilingual education, said between the May and August 2009 graduation ceremonies 25 teachers will receive their master’s in bilingual education, a specialization that some districts in the Rio Grande Valley are now requiring certification in. He said having three siblings receive a master’s degree in the field at the same time was a unique situation.

“Nationwide only six percent of the population has a master’s degree while only 1.9 percent of Latino population in this country have obtained a master’s. I am very excited and proud for their achievement. This family serves as a role model for our community,” he said.

As role models, the trio is not done yet. All three hope to pursue a doctorate in education and are rooting for their other three sisters – Olga (35), Elizabeth (25) and Priscilla (19)—as they work toward completing their undergraduate degrees in education at UTPA.

Priscilla, who will graduate in December 2009 with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and hopes to pursue a master’s in counseling, said as educators, the sisters want children to see that an education is something possible for anyone to acquire and what a difference it can make in someone’s life. She added the path toward achieving her educational and career goals was one paved by the guidance of God, her parents and her sisters.

“Each of us has a different way of picking each other up. We gather around and give each other advice. We complement each other in our differences. My sisters have always inspired me by setting an example of hard work, dedication and perseverance,” she said.

For more information on the master’s in bilingual education program or other programs offered in the UTPA College of Education, go to http://www.utpa.edu/colleges/coe.

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UTPA student leader Julissa Barrera’s “Bare Necessities Diaper Drive” benefits Valley families

By GAIL FAGAN

Julissa Barrera learned over her years as a student at The University of Texas-Pan American that leadership requires creativity, determination and perseverance.

For her final project as a member of the four-year Student Leadership Program at the university, Barrera created, researched and implemented a drive in which she successfully collected nearly 8,000 diapers to give to clients of AVANCE Rio Grande Valley, a local nonprofit agency providing services to lower income Valley families.

Barrera, who graduated May 9 with a bachelor’s degree in communication disorders, called her project the “Bare Necessities Diaper Drive.” She was able to garner the support of 10 student organizations on campus promising a $100 prize to the organization that collected the most during the 30-day drive she conducted in April. She also constructed a number of collection boxes she placed on campus for other people who wanted to donate. Barrera was able to deliver her 7,651 diapers to the AVANCE office on May 11.

Barrera said she decided on collecting diapers because they are a necessary expense for families and she found no safety net programs like WIC, Medicaid or Medicare that provide support for diapers.

“So I really felt that this was needed,” she said.

Teresa González, AVANCE’s supervisor of Family Programs, couldn’t have agreed more. AVANCE RGV provides educational and parenting support programs for low-income families and children in Hidalgo, Cameron, Starr and Willacy counties.

“The families have great needs and it’s so hard to find donations and generous people who are always ready to give. When the students selected us, it’s, you know, a blessing. It’s a great honor because now we have something more to offer our families,” she said.

Dolores Villarreal, the program’s coordinator, said past community service projects by student leaders have included participation in Paint McAllen Beautiful, Graffiti Clean Up Day in San Benito’s Skate Park, and Adopt-A-School, which provided grounds clean up and beautification as well as playground supplies for a school in Reynosa.

“The students have so many ideas; they’re from simple to big ideas. It’s really great to have them find that one that really touches their heart and means something for them, and then see them work on it, realize it and then carry it out,” she said.

Winning the $100 prize, donated by Barrera’s parents, for the most diapers collected was the UTPA Greek Council. Other student organizations that participated included the Catholic Campus Ministry, Alpha Lambda Delta, Biology Club, American Sign Language Club, National Student Speech Language Hearing Association, Political Science Association, Social Work Student Association, Student Nursing Organization and Psychology Club.

Barrera, who plans to one day become an occupational therapist, said the program taught her a lot about taking on a leadership role.

“I got so much out of the leadership program. I’ve met so many people, made so many connections, met faculty and community mentors who have been very helpful in my success. It taught me how to serve others and how to be a leader in doing that,” she said.

For more information on the Student Leadership Program, call 956/381-2659 or e-mail Villarreal at doloresv@utpa.edu.

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FBI challenges The New York Post story that cyber-virus “is crippling FBI’s computer, e-mail systems”

A published report in The New York Post on May 29, 2009, regarding the FBI’s external, unclassified computer network contains factual errors and inaccuracies.

The New York Post reported that “a vicious cyber-virus is crippling the FBI’s computer and e-mail systems – continuing to jam the G-men’s vast communications network more than NINE DAYS after being first detected.”

But according to the FBI:

The FBI’s external, unclassified e-mail system is not crippled, nor was it jammed for nine days. The external, unclassified network was shut down by the FBI as a precautionary measure. Within 48 hours of identifying the issue and mitigating risks, e-mail traffic was largely restored to the external, unclassified network.

The New York Post stated, “As of yesterday, sources said, FBI agents were still unable to e-mail their counterparts in other intelligence, law enforcement and legal agencies, a crucial post-9/11 necessity.”

However, the FBI claims:

FBI employees were able to send and receive e-mail on the external, unclassified network. As noted above, e-mail traffic was largely restored within 48 hours. The external, unclassified network is generally used for routine communications and messages. It is important to note that the FBI’s internal, classified network is where communications and e-mail about sensitive and investigative matters take place and was never affected.

The New York Post also reported, “A source told The Post that field offices across the country could not send or receive e-mails within the bureau yesterday.”

The FBI countered:

The New York Post e-mailed their questions to the FBI’s external, unclassified network and received responses yesterday from the FBI via the same e-mail network that their story claims was not functioning.

Out of an abundance of caution, the FBI has temporarily self-imposed a limit on sending and receiving attachments on our external, unclassified network to give our technicians time to scan all the attachments that came into the e-mail system to make sure we have identified and mitigated all threats to the network.

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Attorney General Abbott charges Conn’s with unlawfully failing to honor warranty agreements

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday, May 28, charged Conn’s, Inc. with failing to honor product warranties, misleading customers about the nature of its products, false advertising and other violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. According to the state’s enforcement action – and information contained in more than 2,000 customer complaints – the defendant unlawfully relied on aggressive and deceptive sales tactics to increase its extended service warranty sales for consumer appliances, electronics and other products.

“The defendants are charged with using high-pressure sales tactics to deceive customers about their extended service warranties,” Abbott said. “Texas law contains important protections to prevent vendors from misleading customers about their goods and services. Today’s enforcement action reflects a concerted effort to ensure the defendant is held accountable for violating the law.”

Conn’s brochures obtained by state investigators claimed that the replacement warranties protected purchasers “for a two full years from the date [they] purchased the product.” However, customers did not actually receive two-year warranties. In fact, the replacement warranty agreements stated that they did not apply to any period covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, which typically covered one year after purchase. Thus the two-year extended warranty does not begin at the time of purchase as represented by Conn’s.

Further, in the event a product had to be replaced, the replacement was not covered by the warranty. Thus, if a replacement product failed within the two-year period, it was not covered, despite the defendant’s promise to provide replacement coverage “for a full two years.”

The state’s enforcement action indicates that Conn’s failed to provide customers with a copy of the warranty agreement at the time of sale. As a result, purchasers were not adequately informed about exclusions, limitations, cancellation penalties and other provisions governing their warranty agreements.

Court documents indicate that, at the time of sale, Conn’s sales personnel told warranty purchasers that replacement products would be “new, unused” items. However, the actual terms of the warranty contract provide that the replacement products could be “refurbished” or “rebuilt,” rather than the new items customers were promised by Conn’s salesmen.

In an effort to increase warranty sales, Conn’s instructed sales personnel to rely on high-pressure tactics to “overcome objections” voiced by customers who declined to purchase extended warranties. A Conn’s sales manual obtained by state investigators, which was marked “not to be distributed to customers,” said salesmen should “create a sense of urgency” and “make [customers] ‘live’ the service call… [t]his is done by ‘painting a picture’ in the customers [sic] mind, calling up that sickly feeling we all get in the pit of our stomachs when something goes wrong.” The sales manual also provided a series of scripted responses to customer objections and reminds salesmen that selling more warranties would “maximize” their personal incomes.

The May 28 enforcement action also charges Conn’s with failing to fulfill its warranty obligations. According to customer complaints obtained by the Office of the Attorney General, Conn’s delayed repair appointments for weeks or even months, failed to repair the item to working condition, ignored calls, and ultimately, refused to give refunds or replace the defective products. Instead, customers received refurbished goods, not new products, as promised.

Depending on the product, the extended warranties cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000. The commissions from the sale of these warranties accounted for about 5 percent of Conn’s $900 million in annual sales revenue.

The state’s enforcement action seeks civil penalties and a court order prohibiting the Beaumont-based defendant from continuing its unlawful conduct. Conn’s is a major consumer products and electronics retailer with locations throughout Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. It is publicly traded on the NASDAQ. The Office of the Attorney General has received more than 2,000 complaints about Conn’s conduct.

The Attorney General seeks civil penalties of up to $20,000 per violation of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, as well as a $250,000 penalty if the defendant’s conduct financially harmed persons aged 65 or older.

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