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Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, receives two Senate proclamations from his colleague, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, establishing a scholarship in his honor at the University of Texas-Pan American and honoring the longtime state lawmaker for his many contributions to his constituents and all Texans.  The presentations, including a proclamation from the McAllen City Commission, were made on Thursday, October 15, at La Quinta Mazatlán in McAllen as part of an appreciation event hosted on his behalf by the McAllen City Commission, the McAllen Public Utilities Board, the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, and the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. See story later in this posting entitled Best of the Texas Legislature – 2009. 

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Former Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen, featured right, is congratulated by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Thursday, October 15, for Gutiérrez’ role in 2001 in passing legislation that allows the University of Texas-Pan American to establish the Starr County Upper-Level Center in Rio Grande City. Earlier that day, Gutiérrez, along with other area legislators and city and county officials, participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the planned facility. When complete, this structure will provide students in the western Rio Grande Valley with a state-of-the-art educational center. The new building will have approximately 21,000 square feet of computer labs, classrooms, office space, math and science labs, smart or technology-enhanced classrooms and a resource center. UTPA’s temporary center in Rio Grande City consists of four portable buildings with a total area of approximately 2,000 square feet. See story later in this posting. 

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The Wells Fargo Foundation recently donated $5,000 to South Texas College’s Valley Scholars Program to provide scholarships for deserving students. “STC is a vital part of the Rio Grande Valley community, offering students a solid foundation upon which to build their careers and lives,” said Alma Ortega Johnson, president for the Upper Rio Grande Valley Division of Wells Fargo. “We are proud to increase our support of the program and look forward to seeing the program flourish and grow, especially as more and more families recognize the importance and value of a college education.” Featured, from left: Roberto Gutiérrez, STC fundraising associate; Anahid Petrosian, STC assistant to the vice president for academic affairs; Alma Ortega Johnson, president for the Upper Rio Grande Valley Division of Wells Fargo; and Marie Olivarez, STC Valley Scholars Program coordinator.  See story later in this posting. 

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The University of Texas System Board of Regents on Monday, October 12, named Dr. Robert S. Nelsen as the sole finalist for the presidency of The University of Texas – Pan American. The board announced Nelsen, currently the associate vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi, after considering recommendations of an advisory committee that reviewed nominations and applications for the position. "The search advisory committee worked diligently to find these exceptional candidates, all of whom possess impressive credentials and experience in administration at leading universities," said Regent Janiece Longoria, a Houston lawyer who is formerly from Pharr. "We are confident Dr. Nelsen has the mix of skills that will make him the right fit to push UT Pan American to the next level of excellence.” Under state law, university governing boards must name finalists for a presidency at least 21 days before making an appointment. In a related development, Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Palmview, a Democratic state representative candidate for House District 36, has pledged to work closely with Dr. Robert S. Nelson, to protect and promote the legislative interests of one of South Texas’ largest public higher education systems. "I have some big plans in store in the Texas Legislature for UT-Pan American, South Texas College, and Texas A&M," said Muñoz. "The bottom line is that I won’t be satisfied until the Valley has all of the resources, from undergraduate degrees to law and medical degrees, now available to the people who live in Austin and San Antonio." See lead story later in this posting. 

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Sergio Muñoz, Jr. says he will work closely with new UTPA president on key legislation

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Palmview, a Democratic state representative candidate for House District 36, has pledged to work closely with Dr. Robert S. Nelson, the sole finalist for the presidency of the University of Texas-Pan American, to protect and promote the legislative interests of one of South Texas’ largest public higher education systems. 

House District 36 includes Granjeno, Hidalgo, southern McAllen, most of Mission, Palmview, Peñitas, and Pharr. 

Muñoz, an attorney and current Palmview municipal court judge, made his comments following the announcement the previous day by the UT System Board of Regents that Nelson was the favored choice to lead the local university. 

"I have some big plans in store in the Texas Legislature for UT-Pan American, South Texas College, and Texas A&M," said Muñoz. "The bottom line is that I won’t be satisfied until the Valley has all of the resources, from undergraduate degrees to law and medical degrees, now available to the people who live in Austin and San Antonio." 

Muñoz’s emphasis on the importance of education for the region is rooted in his own academic experiences. 

A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor’s of Business Administration, Muñoz, a Mission High School graduate, went on to perform at the highest levels at The Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston, graduating Magna Cum Laude, a designation reserved for the top students.   

Muñoz passed the State Bar of Texas to become a licensed attorney, is a member of the Hidalgo County Bar Association, and has established a successful law firm in Edinburg while serving as municipal court judge for Palmview. 

According to Texas Courts Online, a municipal court judge has jurisdiction over criminal misdemeanors punishable by a fine, hears cases relating to violations of city ordinances that deal with fire safety, zoning, public health, or sanitation, where fines up to $2,000 per violation can be charged, and they may issue search or arrest warrants.  

One of the most important ways for Nelson to be successful as president of UT-Pan American is for him to have strong allies in the Texas Legislature, said Muñoz. 

"I will listen to him on what are his top legislative priorities, I will counsel him on the best strategies to use in the UT System and in the Texas Legislature, and I will work with my fellow Valley lawmakers and the leadership of the House of Representatives to get it done," Muñoz said.  

Muñoz said he looked forward to meeting with Nelson when his appointment to the presidency is confirmed by the UT System Board of Regents in the coming weeks. 

"I welcome him to South Texas and congratulated him on this achievement of a lifetime," said Muñoz. "At the same time, I want to thank interim UTPA president Charles A. Sorber for his excellent stewardship of UT-Pan American in the past few months. Equally important, I want to publicly thank Dr. Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas, the former president of UT-Pan American, for her tremendous work, before she retired.  She is an inspiration to all Texans." 

About Dr. Nelson 

According to the UT System: 

Once confirmed, Nelsen, current associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC), will become UTPA’s eighth president. Under state law, university governing boards must name finalists for a presidency at least 21 days before making an appointment. 

Prior to the decision, the board interviewed the four presidential candidates vying for the UTPA leader post. 

"The search advisory committee worked diligently to find these exceptional candidates, all of whom possess impressive credentials and experience in administration at leading universities," said Regent Janiece Longoria. "We are confident Dr. Nelsen has the mix of skills that will make him the right fit to push UT Pan American to the next level of excellence.” 

All candidates had previously visited the Edinburg campus to meet with members of the UTPA community. 

Nelsen was the final candidate to visit UTPA on September 23 where he met with various UTPA constituencies including students, faculty and staff. 

During an open forum, he described his upbringing in poverty-level conditions on a ranch in Montana and how being a first-generation college student, who worked as a janitor while in college, has motivated him to want to lead the University and see those in similar circumstances succeed. 

“Why do I want this job? I want to discover the future with you for this University. I am passionate about students … and getting them to succeed. I want to pay back. I don’t want people to leave this Valley; I want them to stay. But I want them to have the education that they can. I want the next generation to not have to be the first generation over and over and that is a possibility,” he said. 

Nelsen, who is also a professor of English at TAMUCC, earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and his Ph.D. from the Committee on Social Thought at The University of Chicago. His Ph.D. fields of specialization were in modern literature, modern philosophy and modern political theory. 

Prior to his arrival at TAMUCC in 2008, Nelsen worked for 18 years at The University of Texas at Dallas, last serving as vice provost.  

About Sergio Muñoz, Jr. 

Muñoz is a Democratic candidate for the Texas House of Representatives, District 36. He intends to strengthen the region by supporting legislation and initiatives that improve education, healthcare, economic development and public safety. The primary election is set for March 2, 2010. 

He is an attorney practicing civil and criminal law in the McAllen-Edinburg region. He was born and raised in the Mission-Palmview area, and attended Mission High School. His father is Sergio Muñoz, a local healthcare businessman and former state representative of District 36, and his mother is Connie Muñoz, a long-time educator from the Mission area.  

Muñoz graduated from the University of Texas in Austin with a degree in Business Administration.  

He graduated magna cum laude from Texas Southern University and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. He is a municipal judge in Palmview; a member of the Hidalgo County Bar Association; and, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.  

He is also a member of the Palmview Crime Stoppers and Knights of Columbus.  

Political announcement paid for by Sergio Muñoz, Jr., 1110 South Closner Boulevard, Edinburg, Texas 78539. 

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Best of the Texas Legislature – 2009

By MIKE HAILEY 

Some veteran legislators tend to peak at some point during long careers at the Texas Capitol and eventually start to lose a bit of their effectiveness. But Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa – a South Texas lawyer who’s in the midst of his 22nd year in the Legislature – just keeps getting better.  

You can’t help but get the impression that Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst would wholeheartedly agree with that thought based on the fact that he’d named Hinojosa to more key conference committees that hammered out compromise deals with the House than any other member of the upper chamber heading into the final weekend of the regular session.  

Hinojosa was a major player on the state budget as the Senate Finance Committee vice-chairman for the first time and a member of the conference committee that negotiated a final state spending plan for the next two years.  

Hinojosa ended up as a conferee on the Texas Department of Transportation sunset bill even though he hadn’t appeared to be a key player on that particular issue until Dewhurst tapped him for negotiator job. That’s probably because he’s simply the kind of guy you want on your side in a fight – and he has a way about him that helps get the peace process moving in the search for solutions as a problem-solving legislator who’s a quick study while commanding respect and trust from peers on both sides of the partisan aisle.  

Hinojosa was a pivotal force behind the scenes on a host of key issues – and he had a major role in legislation that restructured parts of the state bureaucracy as a Sunset Advisory Commission appointee and point person in the Senate on bills that reformed and gave new leases on life to the Texas Youth Commission, the Department of Public Safety and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission.  

Before the session opened for business Hinojosa was already working hard on building a consensus for college tuition limits – one of the session’s hottest issues – and he served as the Democrats’ point person on the Senate floor in the debate on the reform of state insurance laws and the state agency that regulates the insurance industry.  

Hinojosa emerged as the Senate sponsor on legislation that changed the way smokeless tobacco is taxed in a creative legislative play that will boost funding for a physician education loan repayment program and help foot the bill for a tax cut for small businesses across the state. Hinojosa found time to tend to the needs of his district as well with funding that he secured and legislation that he passed that will benefit the Port of Corpus Christi, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, highway projects and parks and recreation programs in his part of the state.  

Mike Hailey, editor and publisher of Capitol Inside (http://www.capitolinside.com), is an award-winning journalist who has been in and around Texas government and politics for more than 20 years. Hailey earned a reputation as one of the leading journalists in the state while covering the Texas Capitol for the Austin American-Statesman and The Houston Post. 

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Sen. Hinojosa receives Lone Star Award for work to help victims of substance abuse

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS  

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Monday, October 12, was presented the Lone Star Award by the Association of Substance Abuse Programs (ASAP) in recognition of his legislative accomplishments and dedicated service during the regular session of the 81st Texas Legislature.  

Hinojosa, known by many to be one of the leading advocates in the Legislature for substance abuse prevention and treatment, was honored for his efforts to expand substance abuse prevention services and to increase substance abuse treatment in the criminal justice system. 

Hinojosa was also responsible for successfully spear-heading the effort to add a comprehensive adult substance abuse treatment benefit to the Texas Medicaid program. Hinojosa’s long standing commitment, vision and leadership to a safe healthy Texas made substance abuse coverage in Medicaid possible. 

"It is a great honor to receive the Lone Star Award," said Hinojosa.  "I will continue to fight for substance abuse prevention and treatment.  Far too many Texans suffer from addiction, and it is important to provide the resources necessary to combat this illness and help those in need." 

The ASAP Lone Star Award was created in 2007 to honor and celebrate an individual, an organization and representative of government for outstanding leadership and distinctive contributions to the substance abuse field. 

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Edinburg shows only slight improvement with latest 7.6 percent unemployment rate

By DAVID A. DÍAZ 

Edinburg posted a 7.6 percent unemployment rate in September 2009, a slight improvement over the August 2009 posting of 7.7 percent and the 7.8 percent unemployment rate reported in July 2009, which was the worst showing in more than four and a half years. 

The latest figure was released on Friday, October 16, by the Texas Workforce Commission. 

The unemployment rate is a key indicator of the strength of the local economy. 

Six of the Valley’s largest cities saw slight increases in their unemployment rates.

McAllen – the economic leader in the Valley – registered a 7.5 percent unemployment rate in September, compared with 7.3 percent in August. 

Brownsville, the most populated city in the Valley, reported an 11 percent unemployment rate in September, up from 10.7 percent in August. 

At a county-wide level, the employment picture was still above double-digit rates. 

All cities in Hidalgo County averaged an 11.6 percent unemployment rate in September, compared with 11.4 percent in August and 11.5 percent in July. 

All cities in Cameron County average a 10.8 percent unemployment rate in September, compared with 10.5 percent in August, and 10.6 percent in July. 

Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate for September 2009 reached 8.2 percent – higher than the eight percent level set in August 2009, which was a 22-year high. 

The U.S. unemployment rate for September 2009 was 9.8 percent, a level which was a 26-year high. 

The latest figures for Edinburg and all other cities only go back to 2005, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, because of substantial methodology changes between 2004 and 2005 in estimating city unemployment statistics, Texas city data is not available prior to 2005. 

Because of substantial methodology changes in geographic areas below the state level, data from 2005 and 2004 or earlier is not considered comparable, the state agency notes. 

A reported 2,411 Edinburg residents who were willing and able to work in September 2009 had no luck finding a job, according to the state agency. 

The year before, in September 2008, the city’s unemployment rate stood at 5.3 percent, when there were 1,614 residents jobless but looking for work, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. 

  • In September 2007, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was five percent. 
  • In September 2006, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 5.5 percent. 
  • In September 2005, the unemployment rate in Edinburg was 4.7 percent. 

The higher figures come less than two years after Edinburg has its best showing in the city’s history. 

In November 2007, only 3.7 percent of Edinburg’s civilian labor force was unable to find work.

According to TWC: 

  • The unemployment rate is the number of persons unemployed, expressed as a percentage of the civilian labor force; 
  • The civilian labor force is that portion of the population age 16 and older employed or unemployed; and 
  • To be considered unemployed, a person has to be not working but willing and able to work and actively seeking work. 

A breakdown of the major cities in the Rio Grande Valley shows that they posted the following unemployment rates in September 2009: 

  • McAllen – 7.5 percent (7.3 percent in August, 7.5 percent in July);
  • Edinburg –7.6 percent (7.7 percent in August, 7.8 percent in July);
  • Harlingen – 9.1 percent (8.8 percent in August, 8.9 percent in July);
  • Pharr – 9.5 percent (9.4 percent in August, 9.6 percent in July);
  • Mission – 9.7 percent  (9.7 percent in August, 9.7 percent in July);
  • San Benito – 10.2 percent (9.5 percent in August, 10.1 percent in July);
  • Weslaco – 11.3 percent (10.7 percent in August, 10.6 percent in July);
  • Brownsville – 11 percent (10.7 percent in August, 10.8 percent in July); and
  • San Juan – 11.8 percent (12 percent in August, 11.9 percent in July). 

Highlights of key figures for Edinburg include: 

Unemployment rate, by month 

  • September 2009: 7.6 percent
  • September 2008: 5.3 percent
  • September 2007: 5 percent
  • September 2006: 5.5 percent
  • September 2005: 4.7 percent 

Unemployment rate, by year 

  •  2008: 5.0 percent
  •  2007: 4.8
  •  2006: 5.3
  •  2005: 4.9 

People looking for work, by month 

  • September 2009: 2,411
  • September 2008: 1,614
  • September 2007: 1,473
  • September 2006: 1,540
  • September 2005: 1,265 

Average of number of people looking for work, by year 

  • 2008: 1,520
  • 2007: 1,417
  • 2006: 1,502
  • 2005: 1,324 

Employed, by month 

  • September 2009: 29,282
  • September 2008: 28,859
  • September 2007: 28,154
  • September 2006: 26,647
  • September 2005: 25,489 

Average of number employed, by year 

  • 2008: 28,971
  • 2007: 28,207
  • 2006: 26,865
  • 2005: 25,538 

The Texas Workforce Commission maintains a detailed accounting of employment trends for Edinburg and all other cities in the state on its website, located at: 

http://www.tracer2.com/cgi/dataanalysis/AreaSelection.asp?tableName=Labforce 

Also according to the Texas Workforce Commission: 

The Texas seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose slightly to 8.2 percent in September, up from 8.0 percent a month ago, and continued to trend well below the U.S. seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 9.8 percent. 

The Texas Civilian Labor Force continued to increase remaining above the mark of 12 million workers for the third consecutive month. Total nonagricultural employment in Texas fell by 44,700 positions in September. 

"The Texas job market continued to tighten as most industries experienced job losses in September," said Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Chairman Tom Pauken. "While unemployment in Texas remains well below the national rate of 9.8 percent, this serious national recession continues to affect us adversely in Texas." 

Other Services, which include automotive, electronic, and commercial repair and maintenance, had the largest over-the-month gain adding 8,800 jobs. A total of 9,400 jobs have been added to the payrolls of Other Services since September 2008. Mining and Logging posted a gain for the first time this year, adding 2,100 jobs. Education and Health Services employment growth remained positive in September with the addition of 2,700 jobs. Information employment grew by 800 jobs last month. 

"The Texas labor force is growing as more people enter the job market, but job seekers are hampered by fewer jobs," said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Ronny Congleton. "TWC and our workforce boards located around the state remain committed to helping out-of-work Texans acquire skills and find jobs." 

The largest job losses occurred in the Leisure and Hospitality industry which was down 16,900 positions, followed by Professional and Business Services, down 16,500 jobs. Trade, Transportation and Utilities lost 13,000 positions in September. 

"Job gains in Mining and Logging, Education and Health Services, and Other Services were offset by losses in most industries in September," said TWC Commissioner Representing the Public Andrés Alcantar. "To help connect workers with available jobs, staff at more than 240 workforce centers across the state is available to provide job-search assistance and other services." 

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Congressman Cuellar supports $44.1 billion Homeland Security bill, which will help Border Patrol while curtailing flow of drugs, weapons

By EDDIE ZAVALA 

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Thursday, October 15, voted in support of the Conference Report on H.R. 2892, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2010, which funds the agencies that are charged with securing the nation’s borders and preparing for any potential disaster. 

Some of the agencies funded under this bill include Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). 

The bill includes $10.1 billion for CBP, with almost $3.6 billion going to fully support the 20,163 Border Patrol agents, an increase of 6,000 since 2006. Seventeen thousand of these agents will be based on the Southwest Border. 

There will be $72.6 million appropriated for additional scanning systems for southbound lanes and checkpoints to look for and confiscate weapons and currency used in the drug trade. An additional $145 million have also been set aside for the Western Hemispheric Travel Initiative for more technology and infrastructure at the 46 busiest land ports of entry and to help facilitate travel and security for all travelers. 

“With this bill, we’ve voted to secure this country, channeling dollars to the frontlines of our borders, our ports and to those organizations that protect the homeland everyday. Their hard work keeps us safe at home,” said Cuellar. 

The bill also includes Cuellar’s amendment preventing those government agencies funded by DHS from booking first-class travel with taxpayer dollars, except for certain exemptions under law. 

“There has never been a more important time to cut costs and reduce waste; first-class travel on the taxpayer dime must take a backseat,” Cuellar added. 

With a 307-114 majority voting in support of the Conference Report, the legislation is just pending Senate approval before headed to the President’s desk for his signature. 

Other provisions of the bill include funding for the following: 

  • ICE: $5.7 billion for ICE to combat international trade in illicit drugs and weapons smuggling, including the expansion of Border Enforcement Security Task Forces. This includes $1.5 billion for programs that allow local law enforcement agencies to check fingerprints of people booked on criminal charges, thus allowing dangerous criminal undocumented individuals to be deported; 
  • FEMA: $7.1 billion in natural and man-made disaster relief funding; 
  • First Responder Grants: $950 million in State Homeland Security Grants to help plan, equip and train local first responders. Also included are $810 million in fire grants to help local fire departments address communication, equipment and staffing shortages; and 
  • Transportation Security Administration: $7.7 billion total, including $1 billion to purchase and install the latest explosive detection systems at airports nationwide. This is in addition to the $700 million included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress passed earlier this year. 

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Homeland Security bill includes funding for programs to help train emergency personnel, says Congressman Hinojosa

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, October 15, voted to invest in top priority homeland security programs that will keep Americans safe. The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act emphasizes programs that secure our borders, ports and airports, and help train local first responders and emergency personnel. 

“Protecting and securing our nation is a priority”, said Hinojosa. “This legislation covers many critical aspects to safeguarding Americans. This legislation provides funding to train our local and first responders and to secure our borders." 

The legislation will provide first responders with the equipment and training they need to keep our communities safe. It includes more than $3 billion in grants for local municipalities to protect critical infrastructure in high-threat areas, help local fire departments and upgrade central command facilities. 

“Our first line of defense in an emergency is our local firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel. We must make sure they have the best training and equipment to keep our communities safe,” Hinojosa said. 

The bill also boosts efforts to increase the security along our borders. There are additional investments to combat the violence, drug smuggling and weapons smuggling currently occurring on our Southwest Border. In addition, the bill invests in improving aviation security, port security and transit security. Among the many important programs, these funds will be used to purchase and install the latest explosive detection systems at airports nationwide and develop and deploy systems to screen cargo containers for weapons and nuclear materials. 

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A vote for Proposition 8 would help efforts to create a U.S. Veterans Hospital in the Valley

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR. 

Among the 11 proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution voters will find on the Tuesday, November 3 ballot is one that empowers the state to expand health care for our veterans. 

Proposition 8 would allow Texas to contribute money, property and other resources to establish, maintain and operate veterans hospitals. These facilities and their construction are currently restricted to federal regulations and appropriations. 

(Editor’s note: Texans may also cast their ballots ahead of time. Early voting for Proposition 8 in Hidalgo County began on Monday, October 19  and continues through Friday, October 30. Information on the times and locations of early voting substations is available by calling  the Hidalgo County Elections Department at 956/784-VOTE (8683).) 

In South Texas alone, we have roughly 100,000 veterans, many needing the specialized care only a facility such as the Audie Murphy Veterans Hospital in San Antonio can offer. This trip is physically draining, particularly when the veteran is already ill and elderly. The long trek is oftentimes too costly for veterans on low incomes who must pay for their own transportation and overnight stays. No ambulances are available to transport even the bedridden. 

Although the Rio Grande Valley has two excellent outpatient clinics for veterans, they don’t offer all the services a full-fledged veterans hospital can. For instance, they cannot perform organ transplants, bone marrow transplants or chemosurgery. 

Proposition 8 would encourage the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to partner with state and local communities to establish additional facilities. 

Presently, Texas has nine veterans medical centers, four outside of Texas with jurisdiction over some of our counties, 11 VA outpatient clinics and 32 community-based outpatient clinics. 

The proposal’s statewide impact would also affect areas like El Paso, one of the largest cities in the southwest and home to Fort Bliss. 

There are approximately 48,000 veterans within the tri-state area that encompasses El Paso County, and as in South Texas, many of these veterans lack access to doctors, surgeons and medical specialists. 

Veterans in this region requiring treatment for a special medical problem must travel in-state to Lubbock, Waco or San Antonio, or out-of-state to Albuquerque, New Mexico or Arizona. 

Unfortunately, since many veterans in El Paso or South Texas lack the means to make such trips, they sometimes receive no medical attention or inadequate care for their special needs. 

And their numbers will continue to grow with the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else we send our men and women to defend this country. That’s why I was proud to co-sponsor the legislation creating the proposed amendment along with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-Mission. The House author was Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview,  with co-authors Reps. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City and David Leibowitz, D-San Antonio. 

Texas has the second largest military population in the country next to California, and our numbers of wounded veterans continue to increase. 

Voter approval of Proposition 8 would follow earlier precedents. The state has in the past approved constitutional amendments to construct veterans homes such as the Alfredo Gonzales Texas State Veterans Home, and veterans cemeteries like the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery. 

More importantly, allowing Texans to vote on this matter sends the message to Congress that this state is serious about providing adequate health care for its veterans. 

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Sen. Lucio encourages public to get informed about all 11 state constitutional amendments

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR. 

On Tuesday, November 3 – or between Monday, October 19 and Friday, October 30, which is set aside for early voting – Texans registered to vote have the opportunity to cast ballots for or against 11 proposed Texas constitutional amendments. 

During each legislative session, we pass Senate and House Joint Resolutions that become the Constitutional amendments placed on the ballot and also referred to as propositions. 

Proposition 1 allows the state to authorize a municipality or county to issue bonds to finance the acquisition of buffer areas or open spaces adjacent to military installations to protect them from encroachment. 

Proposition 2 empowers the state to set the valuation of a residence property solely on its value as a homestead, eliminating the influence of consideration of the highest and best use. Properties in areas without zoning restrictions are vulnerable to surrounding commercial development driving values up. 

Proposition 3 gives the state full discretion in prescribing uniform standards and procedures for property tax appraisals. Since the state allocates public school funding based on the per-student taxable property value, it is thought that taxable values need to be determined in the same manner in every appraisal district. 

Proposition 4 creates the national research university fund to provide a dedicated, independent and equitable source of funding to enable emerging state research universities to become national research universities. 

Proposition 5 authorizes two or more adjoining appraisal districts, if they choose, to consolidate appraisal review board functions. Appraisal review boards are allowed, but not required, to consolidate services. 

Proposition 6 permits the Veterans’ Land Board to not only provide, issue and sell general obligation bonds for mortgage loans to veterans, but also allows selling land to Texas veterans or providing them home or land mortgage loans. Removes the $500 million cap on the bonds. 

Proposition 7 allows Texas State Guard or other state militia or military members to hold civil offices, and vice versa. 

Proposition 8 provides Texans an opportunity to decide on expanding medical care access to our veterans by allowing the state to contribute money, property and other resources to establish, maintain and operate veterans hospitals. These facilities and their construction are currently restricted to federal regulations and appropriations. I was pleased to co-sponsor the bill in the Senate with Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, that created this constitutional amendment. The bill’s author was Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, and Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, was one of the co-authors. Our more than 100,000 Rio Grande Valley veterans would benefit from a veterans hospital to avoid the 500-mile round trips to San Antonio when more specialized care unavailable at home is required. 

Proposition 9 enhances the public’s right to free and unrestricted rights to public beaches, even when storm surges dramatically alter tidal and vegetation lines on Texas Gulf Coast properties. Though privately owned,  the altered property line considered public beach must allow public access.  It also adds the Texas Open Beaches Act to the Texas Constitution. 

Proposition 10 limits terms of emergency services districts boards to four years. 

Proposition 11 places statute of restrictions on eminent domain into the Constitution that specifies that "public use" excludes the taking of property for the primary purpose of economic development or enhancement of tax revenues. 

For more information, I urge the public to contact: the Texas Secretary of State, elections@sos.state.tx.us, 1.800.252.8683. Other organizations with information include the local political parties and county offices.   

Records indicate that the turnout in 2007 to vote on the Constitutional amendments was a dismal 8.71 percent of over 12 million registered voters. Texans can do a lot better. 

I encourage every registered South Texan to please vote early beginning Oct. 19 or on election day, Tuesday, November 3. It takes a little time and a little preparation, but in the end, isn’t the price of democracy well worth it?

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UT-Pan American hosts fifth annual Disability Awareness Days to reduce prejudice, ignorance

By AMANDA PÉREZ 

The University of Texas-Pan American hosted the fifth annual Disability Awareness Days (DAD) October 12-15 to let people know of the help and services available and to spread awareness. 

The University’s Disability Services Office, the Drug and Alcohol Abuse Program, Workforce Solutions and Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services have joined forces to celebrate October as Disabilities Month with a series of events and activities. 

 “There are so many health issues that encompass disabilities, so our idea was to highlight and showcase events that can teach our university population about disabilities and how to better understand and accept those with disabilities,” said Maureen McClain, associate director of the Office of Disability Services. “We aim to eliminate prejudice by eliminating ignorance.” 

The events kicked off Monday, October 12 with a proclamation from Edinburg Mayor Richard H. García, followed by a community agency fair on Tuesday. Local agencies, such as Workforce Solutions, Rio Grande Valley Council, Valley Association of Independent Living and Al-Anon distributed information related to disabilities and disability services. 

“We hope to break barriers and give a better understanding on disabilities because they play a part in everybody’s life,” said Casey Pebley, project director for Workforce Solutions. 

DAD continued through the week with an Assistive Technology and Job Fair, a self-defense class with emphasis for individuals with disabilites, a wheelchair scavenger hunt, and concluded with a Disabilities Health Screening and Education Day, which featured a special presentation from Cameron Clapp, a triple amputee, who discussed living life with a disability and how it is possible to successfully overcome it. 

“There are so many disabilities, such as mental, physical and emotional, which can be acquired in life,” said Judith  Pérez, vocational rehab counselor at the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. “So it’s essential to educate people on how disabilities impact lives and how to communicate with those who are disabled.” 

The passion behind DAD comes from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008. ADA establishes a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability. 

“The passion for DAD comes from ADA, but also from within,” McClain said. “I love what I do and I enjoy listening to people and helping them reach their full potential because everybody has the right to be successful.” 

ADA will celebrate 20 years in 2010 and the university will also join in that milestone. McClain said there are big plans in the works for a bigger and better celebration of DAD. 

“Our hope is that everyone who participates in our events will benefit from the experience and learn more about the disability population who are our co-workers, neighbors and friends,” McClain said. 

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Founding members of South Texas College Board of Trustees honored at annual event

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR 

On Thursday,  October 8, South Texas College took the opportunity to honor its founding Board of Trustees at its annual “A Night with the Stars,” an event raising scholarship money for its Valley Scholars Program. The event commemorated the strong leadership of the founding board and its contributions to making STC the largest college south of San Antonio.   

“When the late Gov. Ann Richards signed the bill into law creating this college, she elected people to serve on the founding board with integrity, common sense, and some business acumen to know how to start an organization and build it from almost nothing,” said Dr. Shirley A Reed, STC president. “Her decisions have served us very well. We are truly blessed to have been guided by such a strong and committed founding board. STC’s success and growth is your lasting legacy and gift to the Rio Grande Valley.”  

Honorees included Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, the founding president of the board; Glen E. Roney, founding vice-president of the board; current board member Gary Gurwitz, founding secretary of the board; and members Rosalinda González and Dr. Amparo Cárdenas. 

“Tonight is about appreciating how far the college has come and how much it has achieved in such a short time,” said Gurwitz. “STC has given an opportunity for many students to attend college that might not have otherwise had the opportunity or the means. What has been accomplished is truly extraordinary and where STC is today is a testimony to the efforts and dedication of the college’s administration, faculty, staff and students.”  

Manuel Benavidez Jr., who was also a founding member, was also honored at the event. He faithfully represented the constituents of Starr County and Western Hidalgo County on the board until his passing in March 2009. 

“My father was a very proud man; he was proud of his family, his community, his heritage, and of his role as a founding board member of this once small institution,” said Rose Benavidez, daughter of Manuel Benavidez Jr. and STC board member-elect to represent District 1. “He had great dreams and recognized the greater responsibilities that went along with them. The challenges he faced in life aren’t very different from those faced by many of our students. And those experiences are what motivated him to devotedly work alongside each of you to create equal access to education to everyone.” 

All proceeds from the event benefit STC’s Valley Scholars Program, founded in 1997 to provide scholarships to academically gifted and highly motivated students. More than 350 Valley Scholars have earned degrees through the program. 

“These are some of our most talented young people,” said honoree Rosalinda González. “Scholarships, recognition and a support system can make all the difference. The program not only insures college readiness, but college success. I congratulate STC on its success.”  

Melanie Palomo and Diana Pérez, two alumni of the program, were honored at the event for their personal and professional accomplishments since graduating from STC. 

“STC’s Valley Scholars Program was the jumpstart to my education, and lays a solid foundation for many more students like me to build upon,” said Palomo, who currently serves as an assistant district attorney with Hidalgo County. “The sponsors of the program support a lot more than students – they support dreams. I am very grateful and proud to be a graduate.” 

For additional information about the event visit: 

http://www.southtexascollege.edu/nightwithstars/index.html.    

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Congressman Hinojosa calls for better monitoring of student federal aid programs

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, October 14, led a congressional hearing  on ensuring student eligibility requirements for federal aid. 

Hinojosa, the chairman of the Higher Education, Lifelong Learning, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, examined how some for-profit colleges and universities have taken illegal advantage of the student eligibility requirements for the federal financial aid program. 

Testimony was given by several high ranking federal employees on how some for-profit colleges and universities are engaging in a number of unscrupulous practices to increase their access to federal funds. A recent General Accountability Office (GAO) investigation, requested by Chairman Hinojosa, exposed a series of unethical and illegal practices in some schools. 

“In some cases, officials from for-profit sector institutions, assisted students in obtaining invalid high school diplomas from diploma mills, in order to gain access to federal loans. This practice only encourages students to enroll in college when they are not prepared. Many end up dropping out of school and are left with a substantial student loan debt they cannot pay back”, Hinojosa said. 

At the October 14 hearing, a GAO witness played an audio tape of a test instructor from a proprietary school, clearly giving students correct answers to the “ability to benefit” test or the ATB. This test is the measure used to determine if students are ready to take college courses and thereby making them eligible for federal student loans. In other testimony, written test examples from GAO employees posing as students were displayed. In each test, the GAO “students” purposely marked wrong answers. Those wrong answers were later crossed out and were marked with the correct answers by the person administering the test. 

“What we have seen is the abuse of the federal financial aid program at the expense of students and taxpayers. We must rectify the problems found in the GAO study to ensure that students who truly qualify will be provided a good education and receive the federal financial aid they deserve," said Hinojosa. "There are many good proprietary colleges that are providing students the skills they need. We will keep those in operation; however we will be putting those who don’t follow the law, out of business”. 

Those giving testimony at the October 14 meeting of the Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness Subcommittee Hearing were: 

  • George Scott, Director, Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues, General Accountability Office, Washington D.C;
  • Mary Mitchelson, Acting Inspector General, Office of the Inspector General, Department of Education, Washington D.C;
  • Robert Shireman, Deputy Undersecretary, Department of Education, Washington D.C; and
  • Harris N. Miller, CEO/President, Career College Association, Washington D.C. 

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Aracely López-González, 53, of Roma, receives nine-year prison sentence for role in foiled plot to assassinate U.S. Judge Hinojosa of McAllen

By ANGELA DODGE 

Aracely López-González, 53, of Roma, on Friday, October 23, was sentenced in Houston to federal prison for her role in a plot to kidnap a Roma woman and the murder-for-hire of U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced.    

Aracely López-González and her husband, Joel López, 51, were indicted in April 2008 and proceeded to trial separately before U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon in Houston.  

Aracely López-González pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit kidnapping after one day of testimony and agreed to and did testify for the government against her husband at his trial. After a one-week jury trial and two hours of deliberations, a jury found Joel López guilty of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder-for-hire.  

On Friday, October 23, Judge Harmon sentenced López-González to nine years in federal prison without parole to be followed by a three-year-term of supervised release. The sentence reflects the court’s consideration of her cooperation with the United States. She has been in custody since her March 2008 arrest and will remain in custody to serve her sentence.  

Joel López, who is currently serving a federal life sentence for a February 2006 drug conviction, is scheduled to be sentenced on Friday, October 23 and faces a life sentence.  

The primary evidence against the defendants was the testimony of an FBI agent, a cooperating inmate and the tape recordings of his conversations with the defendants as well as testimony regarding the analysis of the coded conversations and careful explanation of the undercover investigation. 

During the trials, evidence proved that in June 2007 Joel López approached a fellow inmate at the Federal Detention Center (FDC) in Houston affiliated with the Almighty Latin King Nation – a violent street gang whom Joel López knew would be released soon. The inmate was in prison on escape charges. Joel López asked this inmate to murder Judge Hinojosa in McAllen for $2 million and a woman who lived in Roma for $1 million upon the inmate’s release from prison.  

According to testimony, Joel López believed the murder of Judge Hinojosa, who had imposed the life sentence for his drug convictions, would assist his pending appeal of that sentence. The Roma woman allegedly owed Joel López a drug debt of approximately $100,000. Joel López instructed the inmate to contact his wife and provided him with the contact information. In August 2008, Joel López was transferred to a federal prison in Pollock, Louisiana, after which the inmate received word through the toilet system piping from another floor back at the FDC that he was supposed to contact Aracely López-González. 

After this notification, the inmate contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) and the FBI. Together, the USAO and FBI worked proactively to foil the murder plot and prosecute Joel López and his co-conspirators. The FBI began an extensive eight-month investigation which involved the cooperating inmate placing numerous recorded telephone calls to Aracely López-González from September 2007 to March 2008 and securing hundreds of hours of recorded conversations between Joel López at the jail in Louisiana and his wife, Aracely López-González, in Roma that were painstakingly analyzed by the USAO and the FBI. 

After the first call in September 2007, the cooperating inmate was removed from the FDC in Houston and placed in a local jail facility in South Texas leaving Joel López and his wife, Aracely López-González, under the impression he had been released from custody. Under the supervision of FBI agents, the inmate met with Aracely López-González on numerous occasions during which the two discussed the logistics of the murder plot. Meanwhile, in September and December 2007, Joel López discussed the inmate with his wife,  Aracely López-González, in coded language during several recorded telephone calls.   

On September 11, 2007, at the FBI’s direction, the inmate sent a coded letter to Joel López that discussed the murder of the judge and the woman from Roma. Joel López told Aracely López-González about the inmate, in December 2007, the inmate and Aracely López-González met on two occasions to discuss the kidnapping and the murder-for-hire plot—both under the supervision of the FBI.  

The inmate met Aracely López-González at her residence in Roma, in order for Joel López to contact the inmate on her home phone without having to add the inmate to Joel López’ calling list at Pollock prison – which Joel López believed would draw scrutiny from prison officials and potentially expose the plot. At this point, the investigation focused on determining whether or not any other individuals had been hired to kill Judge Hinojosa, the woman from Roma or any other targets.  

During these meetings, the FBI was able to confirm Joel López had not solicited anyone else to kill the federal judge or the Roma woman. In addition, the inmate and Aracely López-González discussed the logistics of the kidnapping as well as the ransom price of more than $100,000. 

After meetings on December 15-16, Aracely López-González traveled to Pollock to discuss the plot with Joel López. The FBI was carefully following Joel López’ visits to the prison and Aracely López-González’ movements. During this December prison visit, Joel López gave the go ahead for the kidnapping of the Roma woman and advised his wife to admonish the inmate for sending the coded letter, which Joel López believed would draw scrutiny to the plan.  

At another face-to-face meeting in January 2008 between Aracely López-González and the inmate, which was recorded, she told the inmate that Joel López wanted the woman from Roma picked up and held for ransom. It was unclear from these conversations whether she was to be killed or released after the kidnapping.                     

In March 2008, FBI agents staged a daring mid-day kidnapping of the woman by picking her up from her residence in a suburban with darkened windows, placing extortionate calls to the family members (one of which knew of the fake kidnapping) from an FBI cell phone and releasing her after the family paid what they believed was $100,000 in ransom money during a carefully calculated drop.  

A few days after the fake kidnapping, the inmate contacted Aracely López-González and paid her $50,000 which was represented to be Lopez’s cut of the ransom money. This conversation was also recorded by the FBI. Aracely López-González was arrested after she accepted the money. During the investigation, the inmate never left the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and no harm came to either the Roma woman nor Judge Hinojosa. 

The case was tried and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jay Hileman and Ryan D. McConnell. 

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Wells Fargo Foundation provides $5,000 donation to help Valley Scholars Program

By HELEN J. ESCOBAR 

The Wells Fargo Foundation recently donated $5,000 to South Texas College’s Valley Scholars Program to provide scholarships for deserving students. 

“STC is a vital part of the Rio Grande Valley community, offering students a solid foundation upon which to build their careers and lives,” said Alma Ortega Johnson, president for the Upper Rio Grande Valley Division of Wells Fargo. “We are proud to increase our support of the program and look forward to seeing the program flourish and grow, especially as more and more families recognize the importance and value of a college education.” 

STC Valley Scholars was founded in 1997 to provide the financial assistance, academic support services, mentoring, and leadership development to help academically talented and highly motivated students be successful in college. More than 350 students have graduated through the program and gone on to study at premier universities around the nation including The University of Texas Pan-American, Texas A&M University, The University of California and Emerson College. 

“We extend our sincere appreciation to the Wells Fargo Foundation for its donation to the program,” said Marie Olivarez, STC Valley Scholars Program coordinator. “Through their generosity, more students will realize their dreams of a college education, which may seem out of reach to many families in this challenging economy. But STC’s Valley Scholars Program is committed to opening the doors of education to all worthy students across Hidalgo and Starr counties.” 

For more information about STC’s Valley Scholars Program call 956-872-1952 or visit http://academicaffairs.southtexascollege.edu/academicexcellence/valleyscholars/

The mission of the Wells Fargo Foundation is to build strong and vibrant communities, improve the quality of life, and make a positive difference. It is a private foundation providing grants to eligible 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations to support these focus areas: education, community development, health and human services, arts and culture, the environment, and civic life. 

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Parade and vendor entries are now being accepted for 2009 Night of Lights in Edinburg

By EVANA VLECK 

The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce is currently accepting parade and vendor entries for the 2009 Night of Lights Celebration, set for Saturday, December 5.  

There is no fee for parade entries from area schools; fees for commercial entries are $50, while entries from political interests are $300.   

All entries are required to decorate their float and/or vehicles to follow the Night of Lights holiday theme.   

There will be 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies for school and civic organizations.  Interested vendors will pay only $75 for student organizations and $95 for community organizations, and must be a not-for-profit organization.  

Those endors must show proof of non-profit status in order to register.   

Deadline for entry is Thursday, November 19. For more information please contact the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce at 956/383-4974 or visit the organization online at:  

http://www.edinburg.com 

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UT-Pan American breaks ground on Upper-Level Center in Rio Grande City

By MELISSA C. RODRÍGUEZ 

The road to a higher education has not always been easy for Brenda Lee Treviño. She enrolled in college after graduating from Roma High School, but soon made other issues her priority and stopped attending. However, her life changed when she became a mother. 

“It wasn’t until I married and gave birth to a beautiful daughter that I realized that earning a degree was the only opportunity I had to provide a good life for my daughter and be a good role model for her,” she said. 

Treviño was able to balance her full-time job, family and education by attending classes at The University of Texas-Pan American’s temporary Starr County Upper-Level Center, which held an official groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, October 15 for its new permanent facility, located at 142 FM 3167, next to South Texas College’s Starr County campus. 

“It has been difficult for me, but with my family’s support and UTPA being close to home, I have been able to manage my time and fulfill my dreams of becoming an educator. Aside from STC, UTPA has been the only university which has opened its doors to students who encounter obstacles similar to mine,” said Treviño, who will graduate with a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies and minor in bilingual education from UTPA in December. 

When complete, this structure will provide students in the western Rio Grande Valley with a state-of-the-art educational center. The new building will have approximately 21,000 square feet of computer labs, classrooms, office space, math and science labs, smart or technology-enhanced classrooms and a resource center. UTPA’s temporary center in Rio Grande City consists of four portable buildings with a total area of approximately 2,000 square feet. 

“With the construction of this new facility we will be able to expand career opportunities for more Starr County residents,” UTPA Interim President Charles A. Sorber said. “We will have expanded hours and we’ll have expanded space for more classes. Technology will help make this dream a reality and will bring distance learning opportunities to the students.” 

STC President Dr. Shirley Reed also spoke at the groundbreaking and told attendees that she was proud to see two higher education institutions in a spot that was once a cantaloupe field 16 years ago. 

“We are looking forward to a long-term partnership with UTPA,” Reed said. 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, said it was a struggle to secure the funding for the facility, but she was excited about the success after so many years. 

“Today we celebrate this wonderful Starr County Upper-Level Center. It’s not only a time to look to the past and acknowledge everyone who made a difference, but to look to the future at what we are going to do next,” Zaffirini said. “We must ensure that the residents of Rio Grande City and the residents of every county nearby have access to associate’s, bachelor’s, graduate and professional degrees.” 

Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, said the need for education is fundamental for all societies and that is why he and others work to provide the finest educational opportunities possible. 

“This campus here in Starr County is a milestone that will continue to touch the future of our community. The economic and social impact of this campus will bring tremendous change to Starr County,” Guillen said. “Our local students will make this campus their higher educational home. The vast majority of those who earn their degree here will stay here and help our community grow and prosper. They will shape the future.” 

Also in attendance was former Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen, who filed the legislation in 2001 granting the authority for UTPA to establish the Starr County Upper-Level Center. 

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera and the county commissioner’s court presented a check for $100,000 that will be used toward the construction of the new facility. 

Each semester, more than 100 students take classes at the center which offers 14 undergraduate and two graduate classes in the areas of education, social and behavioral sciences, and arts and humanities. 

UTPA has had a presence in Starr County since 1976 when education courses were first offered in Ro Grande City. It now offers undergraduate programs in EC-4 bilingual and generalist for education majors, criminal justice, and master’s-level courses in educational leadership and reading. Additionally, interdisciplinary courses are offered in history, English and anthropology. There are plans to expand the course offerings once construction on the new facility is complete, particularly in nursing and business. 

Construction materials for the new facility will also be purchased locally, most from within a 500-mile radius of the building site. The facility is also unique in that it will be constructed using green or sustainable methods. The landscape was designed to be water efficient and the roof will feature a highly reflective membrane to reduce the overall size of the mechanical system. Indoor and outdoor air monitoring devices will control the air quality in the facility and natural daylight will fill more than 90 percent of the occupied spaces. 

For more information about UTPA’s Starr County Upper-Level Center, call 956/488-0082. 

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