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State Rep.-elect Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, featured second from left, says South Texans should be much more than just observers when the Texas Legislature returns to work on Tuesday, January 11. Valleyites should be key players in the many legislative battles that will impact the border region – and he’s ready to help his constituents learn how to succeed in the legislative process. "There are going to be tremendous challenges and opportunities that will affect almost every aspect of our lives during the legislative session," Muñoz is encouraging his constituents in House District 36. "Be a participant, not a bystander. No one has a monopoly on good ideas." House District 36 includes Granjeno, Hidalgo, southern McAllen, most of Mission, Palmview, Peñitas, and Pharr. As part of his legislative duties, Muñoz on Friday, December 17, helped The Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce pay tribute to its past by recognizing their former chairmen of the Board of Directors as well as honoring their longest standing members, including Thompson’s Electric Service, which recently celebrated 65 years of continuous membership in the local chamber. Featured, from left: Ismael Estrada, general manager; Rep.-elect Sergio Munoz, Jr; J.C. Thompson, Jr. owner; Ada Manrique, office manager; and Fred Kurth, chairman of the board of directors for the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce. See lead story later in this posting.

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Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa, featured first row, third from left, on Wednesday, December 29, helped present a check totaling $3,000, generated from contributions from her staff members, to the Edinburg  Explorer Fire Post 2002. This latest charitable donation by Hinojosa and her office staff is part of the district clerk office’s Blues for Bucks Workplace Fundraising Campaign, benefiting local charitable organizations. The Explorer Fire Post is a non-profit division of the Boy Scouts of America and is part of the Learning for Life career education program for young men and women who are 14 years of age but have not yet reached their 21st birthday. “Fire Service Exploring” is a worksite-based program that helps youth interested in the field of fire service gain insight through its five areas of emphasis: career opportunities, life skills, service learning, character education, and leadership experience. “Our staff is delighted to contribute to the Edinburg Explorer Fire Post, which is helping to promote growth and development of adolescent youth in our community,” said Hinojosa. “We hope our donation will help to continue engaging our youth in gaining the knowledge and experience necessary for fire service, which is in itself an important contribution to our society.” See story later in this posting.

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The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce will host the quarterly Public Affairs luncheon on Thursday, January 13, at the Echo Hotel and Conference Center, located on 1903 S. Closner.  The luncheon will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is $15 per person or $150 for a reserved table of 8. Dr. René Gutierrez, the superintendent for the Edinburg school district, will be the guest speaker, addressing education as the topic. This event is being sponsored by Inter National Bank. For more information or to make a reservation, please call 956/383-4974. Featured promoting the luncheon are, from left: Elva Jackson Garza (Co-chairman for the Public Affairs Committee); Cris Torres (Inter National Bank); Letty González (Edinburg Chamber of Commerce president); Dalia Arce (Inter National Bank); and Johnny Rodríguez (Edinburg Chamber of Commerce chairman). 

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Put on those boots and jeans and dress it up with gems and jewels and attend the 12th Annual Noche de Gala, to be hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Saturday, January 22.  The evening will not only have a dinner, dance and silent and live auctions, but it will also have a Las Vegas style casino as part of the evening’s festivities.  Guests will get to play and bid on some big items donated by business people in the communities. The casino will offer poker, roulette, craps and Black Jack.  Professional dealers will man the tables from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Other highlights of the evening will be the awarding of the Posthumous Golden Eagle Award to the late Mike Allen, an economic development leader and South Texas College board trustee who passed away in late August. Scheduled to accept the award on his behalf is Theresa Allen, his widow. Mike Allen was a well-known and respected individual on both sides of the border whose life saw him help people, first as a Catholic priest, then as longtime leader of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. His dedication to the economic development of both sides of the border, education and humanity are considered as part of his legacy.  For more information on ticket or sponsorship information on the Noche de Gala, please call the RGV Hispanic Chamber at 928-0060. Featured, practicing their Black Jack skills are, from left: Joe Roxx, dealer; and representing the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are Hari Namboodiri, Jeanette Noone, Cynthia M. Sakulenzki and Yoli González.   

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The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce will host Fiesta Edinburg the last weekend in February, from the 24th through the 27th. Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a national law firm that has offices in Edinburg and Brownsville, is one of the major sponsors for the event, which will include Jimmy González y Grupo Mazz as the headlining musical act. Jimmy González y Grupo Mazz are scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 26, along with Elida Reyna y Avante plus others. For 43 years, Fiesta Edinburg has been giving people a reason to celebrate the three-time All America City of Edinburg. Featured presenting a check to members of the Fiesta Edinburg Committee are, from left: Josie Ríos (First National Bank); Penny the Pig (First National Bank); Letty Reyes (Edinburg Economic Development Corporation); Rey Garza (HEB on Freddy González Drive); Edward Greaves (HEB on Freddy González Drive); Johnny Harris (HEB on Closner Boulevard); Letty González (Edinburg Chamber of Commerce); Dalia Arce (Fiesta Edinburg Committee member), and Cris Torres (Fiesta Edinburg Chair and board member for the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce). See story later in this posting.  

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Hidalgo County Judge García raises possibility of courthouse being moved out of Edinburg

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

Like the well-known figure of speech, "The elephant in the room," the aging Hidalgo County Courthouse – bursting at the seams trying to serve one of the most populous counties in Texas – is becoming harder to ignore, and Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García says he is ready to deal with it.

Addressing an overflow audience on Saturday, January 1 at Edinburg City Hall for his swearing-in ceremony, García raised the possibility of the courthouse – a landmark for the city – being moved to McAllen if the Edinburg city government is unable or unwilling to help cover the costs for infrastructure for a new facility.

Infrastructure is generally regarded as streets and street improvements, water and sewer lines, and utility lines.

"We have a project that is also needed that nobody really wants to talk about, and that’s a new courthouse," García told the gathering at Edinburg City Hall that included Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz, and former longtime – and now retired – Hidalgo County 206th District Court Judge Joe B. Evins. Those three men spoke on García’s behalf during his investiture ceremony.

"We are going to be involved, hopefully, we have been involved in discussions with the City of Edinburg, which has a sincere interest in making sure the courthouse doesn’t go to McAllen or any other place, that it is kept here in the City of Edinburg," said García, an Edinburg-based attorney who lives in McAllen.

The county judge, who is beginning his second four-year term (he first served as county judge from 2002 to 2006), is confident that the Edinburg City Council understands that keeping the courthouse is an economic development treasure. During the work week, thousands of people come into Edinburg to take care of business at the Hidalgo County Courthouse.

García noted that a major downtown revitalization plan authorized by the city council includes a vision for a new courthouse. That plan, developed by Broaddus and Associates, Inc., estimates that a new, 20,000-square-foot courthouse could cost county taxpayers about $75 million

"They went out and created a downtown revitalization plan that includes our courthouse. Of course, we think its wonderful, because at the same time, now we can understand who is going to be involved in paying for all the infrastructure, all those things that need to be done before we start building," the county judge said. "Those are the kind of things we will be working with the City of Edinburg to make sure we get some strong cooperation from them so that this area can start getting prepared for the future."

Built in the mid-1950s, the five-story structure houses more than a dozen trial courts, the district attorney’s office, the district clerk’s office, and the county clerk’s office, with the rest of the county government, such as the county judge’s office, the tax office, the county treasurer’s office, and other courts spread out to several annexes in the three-time All-America City.

García said the population growth in the region is the driving force for a new courthouse.

"The courthouse was built in 1954 – that was 56 years ago – and it has served us very, very well. But at the time it was built, there were two district courts and one county court-at-law. Since then we now have 10 district courts and more on the way, and we have six county courts-at-law and two more that have already been approved, and more will be on the way," García said. "The more our population grows, the more our needs are, and the more need we have for a structure that will properly house all our different agencies."

The county judge believes the five-member Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, which includes him, still favors a new courthouse be located in Edinburg.

"My feeling from talking to this present commissioners court – we haven’t voted on this issue, yet – but the impression that I get is the clear majority support the courthouse staying in Edinburg, especially if we are able to work out some kind of inter-local agreement with the City of Edinburg that will provide us substantial amounts for the infrastructure," he said.

Asked if state law requires a courthouse to be located in Edinburg because it is the county seat, García said he believed so, but he would have his chief-of-staff, Yolanda Chapa, a former McAllen school district superintendent, to check on the prevailing state laws.

But in politics, anything is possible.

In the early 1900s, Edinburg became the county seat of Hidalgo County in a dramatic, nighttime covert operating in which county records were removed from the previous county seat, which was the City of Hidalgo, according to the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.

"You can change county seats," García reflected, drawing on that historical and controversial event. "Just like (the county seat) used to be in Hidalgo, and now it is in Edinburg."

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Rep. Muñoz encourages South Texans take active roles in upcoming legislative session: "No one has a monopoly on good ideas." 

By DAVID A. DÍAZ  

State Rep.-elect Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, says Valleyites should be much more than just observers when the Texas Legislature returns to work on Tuesday, January 11. Area residents should be key players in the many legislative battles that will impact the border region – and he’s ready to help his constituents learn how to succeed in the legislative process.

"There are going to be tremendous challenges and opportunities that will affect almost every aspect of our lives during the legislative session," Muñoz is encouraging his constituents in House District 36. "Be a participant, not a bystander."

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

In a matter of days, the Texas Legislature will begin its five-month regular session, which will feature political and legislative battles over such hot-button issues as the state budget, which could be facing a shortfall of up to $24 billion, and redistricting, which will reshape the physical boundaries of state representative, state senate, and congressional districts.

Muñoz, an attorney based out of Edinburg, says with so much at stake for South Texas, he wants to do much more than be an champion for his home region – he wants to help citizens learn the process as well.

"My Capitol and district offices are open to my constituents at all times. Share your ideas with me for legislation. Let me know how you feel about any legislative measures," says Muñoz. "Even – and especially – if you disagree with me, let me know. No one has a monopoly on good ideas."

Muñoz isn’t kidding with his view of how a democracy should work.

"And, if we can’t come to an agreement on a certain piece of legislation, I will give you the name of the legislator who shares your view, and you can work with him or her as well," he promises. "My job is to make sure your voice is heard at all times."

Muñoz has been preparing for the upcoming session since last March, when he won the Democratic Party primary nomination. There was no Republican challenger in the November general election.

"I am grateful to God for the many blessings we enjoy, and I am humbled to be your state representative," Muñoz has told voters – and now, soon-to-be constituents – ever since he launched his legislative campaign in the fall of 2009.

"Charles Dickens, the famous 18th century English novelist who wrote A Christmas Carol – which featured the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge –  also had a very good saying about counting our good fortune," Muñoz recalls. "Dickens observed: ‘Reflect on your present blessings – of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes – of which all men have some.’" 

Among his top legislative priorities for the upcoming legislative session are:

• Sparking economic development and jobs creation through legislative and state agency policies that result in the the recruitment of new, and expansion of existing, large and small businesses in deep South Texas through state tax incentives, with improvements of the state highway and roadway systems; 

• Passing legislation that promotes the development of small businesses in the Valley – the backbone of our local economy – while opposing a state personal income tax, which he said would hurt both employers and employees; 

• Promoting reforms in the state’s legal and tax systems that will help homeowners better protect their most valuable investment, while making it more affordable for Texans to buy and hold on to their homes; 

• Developing the planning and funding of the University of Texas Health Science Center, which will include a full-fledged medical school, and the construction of a Veterans Affairs Hospital in deep South Texas, as well as expanding the academic programs at The University of Texas-Pan American and South Texas College; 

• Boosting public safety with a strong border security system in partnership with local, state and federal agencies, and passing laws that protect crime victims while cracking down on violent criminals and sexual predators; 

• Increasing funding for public education in South Texas, including pay raises for classroom teachers and for state employees, while protecting the pensions and health insurance coverage for retired educators and state professionals; and 

• Expanding health care coverage for South Texans by making it easier for thousands of Valley families and individuals to protect their families by expanding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and improving access to Medicaid – advances that would result in millions of additional federal matching dollars coming into the South Texas economies.

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Sen. Hinojosa stresses impact of Census results on congressional, local redistricting 

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS 

The United States Census Bureau announced on Tuesday, December 21, that Texas gained four additional Congressional districts in the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing the total to 36, up from the current 32. The Texas Legislature, which convenes on January 11, will draw the lines that will make up Texas’ 36 congressional districts.

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is among the key decision makers responsible for drawing the state’s legislative and congressional district lines as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Redistricting.

"South Texas is one of the regions that has contributed to the 20 percent growth in the state’s population over the past ten years, and should be one of the areas that gains a seat," said Hinojosa.  "The difficult task will be in shaping a district that truly will benefit the area and help bring in additional resources to meet the growing needs of the region’s citizens."

Texas will get the county and city population numbers starting in February, which will provide a more detailed image of where the specific growth occurred across the state. South Texas communities are expected to be among the fastest growing, and often struggle to  keep up with the increasing demand for social services, health care access, infrastructure, and jobs. 

"There is no doubt that South Texas deserves an extra seat at the table when decisions are being made about spending for key programs from education and transportation to housing and health care programs," Hinojosa added.  "The leadership of this state recognizes the overall importance of this region to the economy of Texas and understands that we need to continue making investments not only to keep pace with population growth, but also to support the economic growth that is taking place."

Texas is one of the few states that is required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to obtain federal  "pre-clearance" by the U.S. Department of Justice before the newly drawn districts are finalized.

"I will work closely with my colleagues to draw the state’s legislative, congressional, and State Board of Education districts in a way that is fair to all constituencies and communities in South Texas. This means that I will be looking out for odd-shapes in the map that threaten to dilute the influence of South Texas communities."

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Sen. Hinojosa files bill to capture fugitives and slow down flow of illegal arms going to Mexico  

By ARTURO BALLESTEROS   

Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, filed legislation on Wednesday, December 23, that would authorize the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) to jointly establish both roving and permanent southbound checkpoints along the state’s international border.

Senate Bill 294 authorizes TABC and DPS to determine the possibility of establishing the checkpoints, and grants these agencies the authority to set up inspection points within one-mile from the border in order to prevent firearms, bulk currency, drugs and drug paraphernalia, as well as other contraband from being taken into Mexico. 

"Stopping the flow of guns and money from illicit-drug purchases into Mexico is not an easy task," said Hinojosa. "Both DPS and TABC officers can help bolster ongoing federal efforts to monitor traffic going into Mexico, and provide critically needed manpower for carrying out consistent and simultaneous inspections near our ports of entry." 

As this bill moves through the legislative process, we will be working closely with stakeholders, local law enforcement, and the local business community to help shape legislation that will minimize any interruptions of commerce going south while at the same time halting the flow of guns and cash going into Mexico," he added.

Hinojosa serves as Vice-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee and is a member of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. He worked with state leaders in previous sessions to secure $120 million for training and technology for border security and led efforts to fund $10.7 billion for public safety and criminal justice programs during the 81st Legislative Session.

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Cameron County sheriff’s deputy admits to attempting to smuggle firearms into Mexico  

By ANGELA DODGE  

Cameron County Sheriff’s Deputy Jesús A. Longoria has admitting to attempting to permit a load of semi-automatic firearms to be unlawfully exported from the U.S. into Mexico in exchange for money, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced on Friday, December 17.

Longoria, 31, of Brownsville, has been a Cameron County Sheriff’s deputy since March 2006. On Friday, December 17, before United States District Court Hilda G. Tagle, he pleaded guilty to the federal felony charge – admitting that on May 5, 2010, while assigned to the Veterans’ and Gateway Ports of Entry to prevent stolen vehicles from leaving the United States, he attempted to send and export 13 semi-automatic firearms from the U.S. into Mexico.   

According to the factual basis of the case, Longoria contacted the driver of a vehicle containing 13 semi-automatic weapons via cellular telephone to instruct him when he could cross into Mexico without inspection by state and federal authorities. Longoria did not know that the driver of the load vehicle was actually an undercover federal agent (UC). When the load vehicle driven by the UC arrived at the bridge, Longoria, while standing at the federal inspection station, waived the vehicle through the inspection area and directed the vehicle to enter Mexico via the Veteran’s Bridge. Longoria admitted he knew the vehicle contained firearms and the driver did not have a license or legal permission to export firearms. He believed the firearms were unlawful for export and were intended for use by a Mexican drug cartel. In return, Longoria accepted payment of $4,000.

The vehicle was intercepted before entering into Mexico and the weapons recovered. 

Longoria was arrested on the charges on November 1, 2010, and had remained in custody without bond. He will remain in custody pending a sentencing hearing set for March 14, 2011, at 1:30 p.m. Smuggling goods from the United States carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

The charges against Longoria are the result of an investigation conducted by special agents of the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations and the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department. Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hagen is prosecuting the case.

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Sen. Zaffirini pre-files legislation that includes more than $94 million for new construction at UT-Pan American  

By WILL KRUEGER  

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, on Friday, December 17, pre-filed Senate Bill (SB) 272, which would authorize tuition-backed revenue bonds (TRBs) to fund 74 critically-needed construction projects at 53 Texas higher education institutions.

Two of those projects proposed to be funded under Zaffirini’s legislation would benefit the University of Texas-Pan American: $48,368,000 for the Science Building II and $46 million the renovation and expansion of the College of Business.

“The economy is recovering slowly, interest rates and construction costs are relatively low and Texas university enrollments are spiraling upward,” Zaffirini said. “This is the perfect time to invest in these projects that would create jobs and have a dramatic economic multiplier effect on our state.”

Her bill includes all proposals submitted this year to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), which will score them based on criteria including cost, space need/efficiency and impact on meeting statewide higher education goals.

“Although our budget outlook is dire, prioritizing some of our limited funds to invest in meeting higher education’s construction needs would yield significant economic benefits,” Zaffirini said. “Filing this bill allows all projects to be evaluated, ensures that we will be prepared if funding resources become available and maintains our focus on higher education construction needs.”

She added that most TRB bills filed in the Senate initially included a few projects and were amended to include more. Her preference, however, is to include all requested projects at the outset and then to trim the list based on the THECB evaluations, including ranking, and on available funds.

The Texas Legislature traditionally has passed a TRB bill every other legislative session. It has been nearly five years, however, since Zaffirini and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, passed House Bill (HB) 153, which authorized $1.9 billion for 66 projects at 48 universities.

The senator said she always credits Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, for that bill’s passage and for championing higher education priorities.

“Typically, three or four years elapse between a TRB bill’s passage and the opening of any new building it authorizes,” Zaffirini said. “If we wait until 2013 to authorize TRBs, Texas universities will have to wait until 2016 or 2017 to complete construction. I hope my colleagues will agree with me that this is unacceptable.

“We want to keep TRBs in the spotlight. Even if we can’t pass SB 272 in 2011, we will be ready for the day that we can. During the 2006 special session, for example, Gov. Rick Perry added TRBs to the agenda at 10:40 p.m. – three days before the final day on which we could pass bills. Because we were ready, we succeeded – even though that last day was Mother’s Day.”

In the last five years, enrollment at Texas’ four-year institutions has increased by approximately 10.5 percent to more than 560,000 students, and enrollment at public health-related intuitions has increased by approximately 24 percent to more than 20,000 students. As a result, Texas public universities are facing a space deficit of approximately 14.7 million square feet.   

The senator said that many higher education and business leaders agree that conditions are extremely favorable for issuing TRBs to eliminate or reduce that deficit.

"By locking in low interest rates and taking advantage of low construction costs, the state can secure an incredible return on our investment," Zaffirini said. "Because of our significant budget shortfall, we must aggressively seek opportunities for us to get the best value possible. There will never be a better time to make these critical improvements to our state’s higher education system.

"If the Legislature waits until 2013 or waits for the economy to improve, we risk losing these savings and pushing back completing these critical facilities until at least 2017," Zaffirini added. "Texas cannot afford to wait that long."

A $3.2 billion investment in the 74 projects in SB 272 would not only benefit the state’s higher education system, but also spur a boom in construction across the state at a time when the Texas construction industry has lagged due to the national economic downturn.

"The returns on higher education are significant, but they aren’t always immediate," Zaffirini said. "The wonderful thing about this legislation, however, is that it creates jobs immediately and in the future."

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Former McAllen police officer sentenced to 27 years for role in drug smuggling ring 

By ANGELA DODGE  

Francisco Meza-Rojas, 45, of McAllen, on Tuesday, December 21, was sentenced to serve 324 months in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons as punishment for his involvement in a drug trafficking conspiracy which spanned a period of at least eight years dating back to 1996, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced.

U.S. District Court Judge Randy Crane handed down the sentence on Tuesday, December 21, in federal court in McAllen.

Meza-Rojas, along with José Moncerrat Narváez, were identified as the leaders of the smuggling cell which operated on the United States side of the Rio Grande River between Granjeno and Penitas, a rural area south of Mission. The part of the larger organization run by Meza-Rojas and Narváez specialized in the transportation of controlled substances from the edge of the Rio Grande River to locations in the Mission and McAllen areas where they would be held until handed over to the owners of the drugs.

Meza-Rojas utilized his brothers, as well as others, to act as lookouts during the smuggling operations. Meza-Rojas would strategically place his workers along the smuggling route to call out the locations and movements of law enforcement vehicles throughout the area. It was also not uncommon for members of the organization to utilize their vehicles in their attempts to prevent law enforcement from stopping the drivers who were transporting the smuggled drugs.

Meza-Rojas, a former police officer with the City of McAllen, who was initially arrested on the charges contained in his indictment in April 2006, made headlines in September 2006 when he orchestrated the escape of six prisoners, including himself, from the East Hidalgo Adult Detention Center in La Villa. Meza-Rojas was a fugitive for many years in Mexico until his capture and subsequent extradition to the United States in July 2010. On October 5, 2010, Meza-Rojas pleaded guilty to count one of the indictment which charged him with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and marijuana.   

Meza-Rojas is the last of those currently in custody to be sentenced.

Rubén Meza, 44, Juan Antonio Meza, 40, Jesús Lorenzo Meza, 37, and Miguel Hernández-Rojas, 50, all of Mission and all brothers of Meza-Rojas, were previously sentenced to various terms of imprisonment ranging from 235 months to 27 months. One brother, Osvaldo Meza, 38, of Mexico, remains a fugitive.

Numerous other individuals including Jorge Enrique Macias-Nevárez, 46, of Mexico, Jorge A. Duarte, 32, of Honduras, and José Moncerrat Narváez, 46, Arturo Javier Hinojosa, 29, Robert Lee Rodríguez, 32, Andrés Solis, 46, Moisés A. López, 30, and Juan Pablo Rangel, 45, all of Mission and the surrounding area, were previously sentenced to various terms of imprisonment ranging from 262 months to 46 months. In addition to Osvaldo Meza, there are two additional fugitives remaining in the case.

Meza and others charged but not as yet convicted are presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law. 

The Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force investigation which led to the indictment in this case was conducted by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies including the Texas Department of Public Safety, Customs and Border Protection-Office of Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations, Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigations, the Starr County District Attorney’s Office, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, the United States Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as well as police departments in Mission, McAllen, Weslaco, Pharr and San Juan.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Toni Treviño.

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Rep. Callegari proposes legislative fix to help disabled veterans keep property tax exemptions if they move to a new home

By JEREMY MAZUR

On Wednesday, December 22, Rep. Bill Callegari R-Katy, introduced House Bill 469 to fix an unintended loophole to the disabled veterans’ property tax exemption. If approved by the Legislature in 2011, Callegari’s bill would allow a disabled veteran to transfer their property tax exemption within the same year that they move homes.

"This bill makes a small change in the law that makes a big difference for our disabled veterans," said Callegari. "Even though disabled veterans are allowed a property tax exemption for the home that they own, under current law they may be penalized – and required to pay property taxes – if they buy a new home over a year. This bill eliminates that unintended penalty, ensuring that our disabled veterans may use their tax exemption for as long as they own a home in Texas."

In 2009 the Legislature approved a property tax exemption for veterans with a 100 percent disability rating due to a service-related disability. In order to qualify for the exemption for a given tax year, an eligible veteran must own their home on January 1 of that year.

If a veteran sells their home and purchases a new one, the tax exemption does not automatically transfer to their new residence for the remainder of the year. Consequently, a disabled veteran is required to pay the property taxes for their new home until they qualify for the exemption on 1 January of the next year. In an unusual twist, the new owner of the disabled veteran’s former home may enjoy the veteran’s exemption for the remainder of the year even though they may not be a disabled veteran.

House Bill 469 by Callegari allows a 100 percent or totally disabled veteran to transfer their property tax exemption to a new home that they purchase, and to use that exemption for the duration of the year in which they purchase their home. The bill would close the loophole in the Tax Code that would require a disabled veteran to pay property taxes for a new home until they qualify for their exemption on 1 January of the following year.

"Last session the Legislature approved a clear policy that those disabled veterans who gave so much to our country should not be required to pay property taxes," said Callegari. "This bill upholds that earlier pledge to our disabled veterans by ensuring that they are allowed a property tax exemption for as long as they own a home, regardless of when they move residences. "

Bryce Cole, a disabled veteran from Callegari’s district, brought this problem to the representative’s attention earlier this year.

"As a disabled veteran who qualifies for this tax exemption, I was shocked to learn that I could not use that exemption if I were to purchase a new home," said Cole. "I am glad that Rep. Callegari has introduced House Bill 469 to solve this problem,"

Cole continued. "I think that this is a clear example of government in action, and a good showcase of government bending over backwards to make things right, and to help veterans who have given so much to their country."

The 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature begins on Tuesday, January 11. 

Callegari has already introduced several measures in preparation for the next session, including a legislative package to lower the residential appraisal cap from ten percent to five, and a separate proposal to amend the Texas Constitution to require a two-thirds vote of each chamber of the Texas Legislature in order to approve any tax increase.

Callegari has represented Katy and the west Harris County area in the Texas House of Representatives since his election in year 2000.

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VA launches website aimed at helping South Texas veterans who are seeking health care 

By FROY GARZA  

The new Veterans Administration Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System (VATVCBHCS) on Wednesday, December 22, announced the launch of its new website aimed at providing South Texas Veterans and their families with a one-stop shop for all their VA health care informational needs.

The website – http://www.TexasValley.va.gov – is part of a national redesign initiative aimed at making VA sites more user-friendly, easier to maneuver, and filled with the information most important to our Veterans.

“As we continue with our expansion plans our new website will play an important role in keeping our veterans up-to-date with all the new health care services that will be activated in the coming months in addition to the many construction projects that will begin in the coming years” said Jeff Milligan, Director, VA Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System. 

The VA’s long-term goals in redesigning the site are to make it easier and more inviting for veterans through incorporating web best practices, focusing on topics and tasks rather than office function, improving the navigational structure to ensure consistency, and making it more visually appealing.

Some other changes include a combination of major topics; a slide show section that showcases local VA events or hot topics; and bottom columns that feature news items, highlights and a “Quick List” with links directly to important information such as MyHealtheVet, patient information, and even social media such as facebook and twitter.

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Stonewall Democrats chapter in Rio Grande Valley praises U.S. Senate’s repeal of anti-gay military recruitment policy  

By RICARDO CONTRERAS   

The United States Senate on Friday, December 21, repealed the U.S. armed forces’ Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy by a 65-31margin.

DADT is the policy that restricted the U.S. military from efforts to discover or reveal closeted gay, lesbian and bisexual service members or applicants, while barring those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service. The House of Representatives passed the measure on Wednesday, December 12, by a 250 -175 margin.

“Today’s historic vote to repeal DADT puts an end to the unjust and unconstitutional policy and restores the honor and integrity of our gay men and women who have served our county and continue fighting for us today,” said Eli Olivarez, president of the Rio Grande Valley Stonewall Democrats.

The RGV Stonewall Democrats is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) caucus of the Democratic Party.

“We commend our Democratic leadership for their steadfastness in preserving the ideals of equality and we are committed to working with them to further advancing equal opportunities for the LGBT community,” said Olivarez.

The landmark vote brings to an end a 17-year ban on gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The repeal signifies, for the first time in American history, gays will be openly accepted by the military and can acknowledge their sexual orientation without fear of being kicked out. More than 13,500 service members have been dismissed under the 1993 DADT law.

The mission of the Stonewall Democrats is to educate their community and involve them in the political process; mobilize their community to get out the vote to elect more pro-equality and fair-minded Democrats; and standing up to attacks not only to the LGBT community but all families and their civil rights.  

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Sen. Cornyn, Sen. Hutchison opposed repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy against gays and lesbians in U.S. military

Texas two U.S. senators opposed the Friday, December 21 action by the Senate which will do away with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that discouraged gays and lesbians in the U.S. military.

DADT is the policy that restricted the U.S. military from efforts to discover or reveal closeted gay, lesbian and bisexual service members or applicants, while barring those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service.

The Senate on repealed the U.S. armed forces’ Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy by a 65-31margin. 

The House of Representatives passed the measure on Wednesday, December 12, by a 250 -175 margin

Following the Senate votes, Sen. John Cornyn and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the state’s two U.S. senators – and both Republicans, issued the following statements:

“With three of the four military service chiefs expressing clear reservations over the proposed repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, today’s vote shows blatant disregard for the opinions of those who know our military best," said Cornyn. "With our troops engaged in combat overseas, now is not the time to increase the level of stress on our Armed Forces through such a dramatic policy change. It is a disgrace that this latest item from the liberal legislative wish-list is being jammed through at the expense of military readiness.

Hutchison shared Cornyn’s concerns.

“After speaking with military personnel and former leaders of our armed services, I remain very concerned about how repealing this policy could negatively impact unit cohesion and overall troop readiness – especially during a time of war," Hutchison said. "Therefore, I did not support a repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.”

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Congressman Hinojosa votes on passage of the America Competes Reauthorization Act  

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO   

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, December 21, voted for the America Competes Reauthorization Act (H.R. 5116), which makes investments in science, innovation and education to strengthen U.S. scientific and economic leadership. This legislation also supports businesses, and will create jobs in the long and short term.

“More than ever, our nation must invest in the scientific and technological building blocks that bolster American competitiveness in a 21st century global economy,” said Hinojosa. “The America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010 achieves this and more by fostering innovation, supporting manufacturers and industry, preparing a STEM workforce and creating jobs.”

The America Competes Reauthorization Act will create jobs and support manufacturers and industry by:

• Providing innovative technology federal loan guarantees for small and medium sized manufacturers, to help them access capital to become more efficient and stay competitive;   

• Establishes an Innovative Services Initiative to assist small and medium sized manufacturers in reducing energy usage and environmental waste and accelerating the domestic commercialization of the new product technologies;

• Establishes a green manufacturing and construction initiative National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); and

• It requires giving consideration to the goal of promoting the participation of underrepresented minorities when awarding research fellowships and postdoctoral fellowships and requires giving special consideration to applications from teachers from high-needs schools in its summer teacher development program;

“As Subcommittee Chairman for Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness, I am pleased that America Competes Reauthorization Act will more fully integrate our nation’s Minority Serving Institutions into research partnerships and federal programs,” said Hinojosa.

The America Competes Reauthorization Act will improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, (STEM) education and ensure a prepared workforce by:

• Expanding, strengthening, and aligning STEM education programs at all levels of education;

• Ensuring that smaller institutions, including minority serving institutions, are integrated more fully into research partnerships with research universities;

• Establishes a National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics;

• Authorizes grants in manufacturing research and education;

• Authorizes a Partnerships for Innovation program;

• Authorizes a program of research experiences for undergraduates;

• Reauthorizes several STEM education programs: early career awards, graduate fellowships, teacher summer institutes and nuclear science and hydrocarbon systems science higher education scholarships/capacity building; and

• Requires NIST to give consideration to the goal of promoting the participation of underrepresented minorities in STEM through NIST’s research fellowship and postdoctoral fellowship programs, and to give consideration for teachers from high-needs schools through its teacher development program.

Under the National Science Foundation (NSF):

• Establishes regional university/industry partnerships in research and innovation that will spur economic growth and connect students to local high-tech jobs, with priority given to partnerships that include minority-serving institutions, primarily undergraduate institutions and 2-year colleges; and

• Establishes a program at NSF to provide research experiences to undergraduate students, explicitly citing the goal of increasing the numbers of women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities in research. Hands-on learning experiences have been shown to improve the recruitment and retention of students into the STEM fields.

“This bill complements our work on the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) and our efforts to improve science and math literacy in our nation’s public schools,” said Hinojosa.

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Congressman Cuellar supported extension of tax cuts implemented by President Bush in measure signed into law by President Obama

By LESLEY LÓPEZ  

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, says he supported the extensions of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts implemented by President Bush that were contained in a major tax cut bill approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in mid-December on a 277-148 vote.

The bill was signed into law on Friday, December 17, by President Obama.

“I am thankful that my colleagues in Congress came together and realized that raising taxes would be an inappropriate burden for hardworking American families,” said Cuellar.  “An extension of these tax cuts will help generate economic growth by making available to job-creating small businesses the capital to expand and invest in new ventures.”

CBO estimates suggest that extending the Bush era tax cuts – which were set to expire on on Friday, December 31, 2010 for all Americans – could reduce unemployment to below 9 percent and generate economic growth of 0.6 to 1.7 percent of GDP.

Unemployment benefits were also renewed in the bill, ensuring that under federal programs, the unemployed can receive benefits beyond the 26 weeks that individual states provide. The extended benefits expired November 30.

“With so many American struggling to find employment to provide for their families, extending their benefits simply had to be done,” said Cuellar. “In light of the nation’s long term fiscal challenges, we must carefully balance efforts for growth with concerns regarding deficit reduction, but no reassessment should take place until the economy significantly improves. Congress must work together to find bipartisan ways to reduce our debt and create the growth that is essential to America’s future.”

For all families making less than $250,000 a year, the bill permanently extends the 2001/2003 tax cuts, including current tax rates, marriage penalty relief, capital gains and dividends rates, and $1,000 child tax credit (for earnings above $3,000) Almost all small businesses – 97 percent – will benefit from the tax cuts.

The bill also included deductions for state and local sales taxes in lieu of state income taxes for individuals, which will greatly benefit Texans, Cuellar noted.

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Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson among major sponsors for Fiesta Edinburg, which is scheduled for February 24 – 27  

By EVANA VLECK  

The Edinburg Chamber of Commerce will host Fiesta Edinburg the last weekend in February, from the 24th through the 27th.

Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, a national law firm that has offices in Edinburg and Brownsville, is one of the major sponsors for the event, which will include Jimmy González y Grupo Mazz as the headlining musical act. Jimmy González y Grupo Mazz are scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 26, along with Elida Reyna y Avante plus others.

For 43 years, Fiesta Edinburg has been giving people a reason to celebrate the three-time All America City of Edinburg.

Besides being a fun family oriented festival, Fiesta Edinburg also symbolizes an important moment in history, celebrating Edinburg as the home of the county seat.

In 1968 the first celebration took place.

Musical acts for Friday, February 25 are still in the works, but Fiesta Edinburg organizers anticipate a large crowd and big community support. Fiesta Edinburg also will have the traditional parade, Heart of America Carnival, and will also be partnering with the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands & World Birding Center and Texas Parks and Wildlife for the RGV Coastal Expo, all taking place the last weekend in February at the Edinburg Municipal Park.

In one of the pavilions we will host the “fun and ease of Education”.  This area will host various attractions including face painting, dancers, musical groups, as well as poetry readings. Partnering with the University of Texas-Pan American and the Dustin Michael Sekula Library has enabled Fiesta Edinburg to grow bigger, attracting a larger crowd.

Mexican descendant Jimmy González was born and raised in Brownsville, getting involved in popular music after joining with singer Joe López to form a band called Grupo Mazz, playing private parties and special events. During the ’90s, Grupo Mazz became one of the top artists in the Tejano music scene.

In 1999 after López decided to leave, Jimmy González y el Grupo Mazz recorded the Tejano Music Awards nominated Quien Iba A Pensar, featuring the hit single A Pesar De Todo. González is one of the most respected members of the Tejano music industry. For more than 30 years he has been producing and recording hit albums and CD’s. Every single, album or CD has gone gold or platinum.

No other man has managed to stay on top for as long as has González. No other man or band has managed to win five consecutive Latin GRAMMY Awards and one American GRAMMY for his last seven CD’s under his new label Freddie Records out of Corpus Christi. With his most recent GRAMMY win for The Legend Continues…La Continuación, González has earned his label seven GRAMMY Awards.

Fiesta Edinburg is free with only $10 parking per vehicle.

Special thanks to Fiesta Edinburg sponsors, including Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson; the City of Edinburg; the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation; First National Bank; HEB; Elsa State Bank; Temple Inland; and Southern Mechanical.

For more information, to volunteer or to become a sponsor to Fiesta Edinburg, area residents may call 956/383-4974 or log on to  http://www.edinburg.com

(David A. Díaz contributed to this article.)  

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Hidalgo County District Clerk Office presents $3,000 to Edinburg Explorer Fire Post 

By RICARDO CONTRERAS

The Hidalgo County District Clerk Office presented on Wednesday, December 29, presented a check totaling $3,000 to the Edinburg Explorer Fire Post 2002 as part of their Blues for Bucks WorkplaceFundraising Campaign, benefiting local charitable organizations. The Explorer Fire Post is a non-profit division of the Boy Scouts of America and is part of the Learning for Lifecareer education program for young men and women who are 14 years of age but have not yet reached their 21st birthday.

“Fire Service Exploring” is a worksite-based program that helps youth interested in the field of fire service gain insight through its five areas of emphasis: career opportunities, life skills, service learning, character education, and leadership experience. 

“Our staff is delighted to contribute to the Edinburg Explorer Fire Post, which is helping to promote growth and development of adolescent youth in our community,” said Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa. “We hope our donation will help to continue engaging our youth in gaining the knowledge and experience necessary for fire service, which is in itself an important contribution to our society.” 

The district clerk office kicked off their charitable efforts in 2008 as part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign. The program, which allows department staff to wear jeans every Friday in exchange for a $5 donation, has since then expanded their efforts through the creation of a “charitable organizations list” of which staff randomly selects a recipient every six months. Over the past three years the district clerk office has collected more than $17,000 which has gone to the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Valley Humane Society, and the Renaissance Cancer Foundation. 

“We are extremely appreciative of the district clerk staff’s contributions to our Explorer Fire Post which works diligently to provide our youth with the skills and leadership training essential in the fire service industry,” said Roland H. Pursley, Deputy Chief, Edinburg Fire Department. “This contribution will go towards the operation of our program and will assist us in providing our youth with competition opportunities, education and life skills training for their future successes.” 

For more information regarding the Edinburg Explorer Fire Post log on to http://www.cityofedinburg.com/aboutfire.php or contact Sally Jaime or Homer Garza at 956/292-2001.

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Congressman Hinojosa secures $865,000 grant for Weslaco’s Mid-Valley Municipal Airport 

By PATRICIA GUILLERMO 

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, December 16, announced a grant for $865,000 was awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), through the Texas Department of Transportation (Tx-Dot), to the City of Weslaco for improvements to the Mid-Valley Municipal Airport.

“These federal funds are going to go a long way to make critical improvements to the Mid-Valley Municipal Airport,” said Hinojosa. “The Rio Grande Valley is strategically positioned as a natural avenue for economic trade and as a destination place for tourism.  The City of Weslaco must be congratulated for their successful efforts in obtaining this impressive grant that will certainly add important infrastructure to their growing municipal airport.”

The funds will be used specifically for design services for a runway extension and lighting and drainage improvements at the Mid-Valley Municipal Airport.

Federal funds have been approved for 90 percent of the estimated project costs. The City of Weslaco will provide the remaining 10 percent.

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Congressman Cuellar’s landmark bill to reform federal spending receives legislative approval   

By LESLEY LÓPEZ  

Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Tuesday, December 21, announced that his bipartisan legislation to increase government efficiency, H.R. 2142, was passed in the House that day, with a vote of 216-139. The bill, which creates a system for sweeping reforms to reduce wasteful spending, was scheduled to be signed into law by the president.

The Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 is a landmark move toward increasing transparency and accountability by requiring federal agencies to establish performance goals that can be measured and reported to Congress and taxpayers. 

“No one can afford to waste money- especially not the government and especially not now,” said Cuellar. “It’s time that we put a new system in place to review the results of each federal program and evaluate its effectiveness. Better information yields better decisions. This legislation will help Congress invest in what works, fix what doesn’t and eliminate the wasteful overlap. Redundancy at a time when so many Americans are struggling to make ends meet isn’t just a waste of resources- it’s shameful.”   

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported that H.R. 2142 could lead to more efficient and cost-effective management of government and could be implemented at $15 million per year, half the expected cost, from 2011 through 2015.   

Cuellar’s performance-based budgeting bill is a major part of the Blue Dog Coalition’s Blue Dog Blueprint for Fiscal Reform. Taxpayers for Common Sense, Center for American Progress Action Fund. Robert Shea, Associate OMB Director under President George W. Bush also support H.R. 2142.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, led the efforts to get legislation through the Senate, which passed the Cuellar-authored bill with a bipartisan amendment from Sen. Joseph Lieberman I-Connecticut, Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Delaware, Sen. Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, also added an enforcement mechanism that provides for increasingly stringent requirements for agencies that do not meet performance goals.

“At a time of budget deficits and almost overwhelming national debt, this legislation requires several significant steps that will make government work smarter even as it requires federal agencies to aggressively look for more ways to save taxpayer money,” Warner said. “This legislation also takes a first step in supporting a key recent recommendation from the President’s fiscal commission to require better data to help us identify overlapping federal programs.”

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Annual performance report shows Boys & Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV meeting critical needs 

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV recently released its Annual Performance Report for Fiscal Year 2010, an overall assessment of the club’s program performance. The report confirms that the club’s programs are effectively meeting the critical needs of the youth of Edinburg and surrounding communities by focusing on academic success, health and life skills and character and civic engagement.

"Our board and staff helped improve the lives of thousands of young people in Edinburg and surrounding communities, whether providing tutoring or serving as mentors, or working shoulder to shoulder with families," said Sabrina Walker Hernández, Chief Professional Officer. "As youth needs continue to mount, and as our community look for ways to give back, this report confirms that Boys & Girls Club is a critical, cost-effective investment that will change the future course of a child’s life.”

Highlights of the report include:

• Sixty-eight (68%) of club members improved in school attendance;

• Fifty-six (56%) of club members exhibited improvement in their grade point average (GPA);

• Fifty-two (52%) of club members increased their knowledge of conflict resolution;

• Ninety (90%) of club members increased their resistance skills to tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

• Ninety (90%) of club members increased their ability to recognize bias, unfairness and stereotypes; and

• Ninety-three (93%) of club members increased their ability to demonstrate a positive attitude and behavior among their peers. 

About the Boys & Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV

The Boys & Girls Club has played an integral role in the Edinburg community for 40 years, providing daily programs and services to over 16,000 young people.

During the school year, the Club is open Monday through Friday, from 3:30 p.m. until 8 p.m.. and during the summer the hours are from 7:30 a.m. through 5 p.m.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV (http://www.edinburgkids.com) offers programs that emphasize character and leadership development, education and career development, health and life skills, the arts, and sport, fitness and recreation. For more information about the local club, to review its annual report, or to make a contribution, please contact Walker Hernández at 956/383-2582 or email swalker@edinburgkids.com. Supporters also may text “CLUB” to 20222 to donate $5 (five dollars). 

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Edinburg Rio Grande Valley is a proud City of Edinburg partner and Hidalgo County United Way Agency.

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Hidalgo County’s "How Sweet It Is" toy drive participants distribute more than 600 toys, plus books and shoes to disaster victims  

By CARI LAMBRECHT 

Hidalgo County and various partners hit the streets county-wide on Wednesday, December 22, to distribute more than 600 donated toys, as well as books and shoes to children of families affected by Hurricane Alex and the Rio Grande River flooding this summer as part of the “How Sweet It Is” toy drive.

“We felt the need to help those who are still affected after flooding damaged so many homes this summer,” said Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García. “The commissioners’ and I were looking forward to sharing the toys donated by generous county employees and also sharing in the children’s joys when they open the gifts. We wished for the families to have a joyous Christmas, and we will keep working to assist them in every way we can.”

The “How Sweet It Is”  toy drive had been a monumental undertaking from its inception and involved various partners, including the Rio Grande Valley Long Term Recovery Committee, Catholic Charities, Love Thy Neighbor, the South Texas Literacy Coalition, Garza Elementary in McAllen, and numerous county departments which provided donations of toys, volunteer time or other services critical to making the drive a success.

The first step was to identify the recipient families. As part of the RGV Long Term Recovery Committee — a coalition of non-profits, faith-based organizations and to a lesser degree, governmental agencies, working together to help families affected by disaster recovery in the long term — the Hidalgo County Public Affairs Department worked directly with Catholic Charities to develop a list of the most needy families in Hidalgo County.

The chosen families were those that either called a help hotline well-advertised in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Alex and the Rio Grande River flooding, or they are families that were identified by case workers who combed through disaster-stricken neighborhoods this fall reaching out to those in need. In most cases, these identified families did not qualify for FEMA assistance and their needs encompass everything from home repair to social services. They are piecing their homes and livelihoods back together only with the help of various non-profits or faith-based groups.

After identifying the families and the children’s names, ages, and genders, county departments and offices were asked to sponsor and buy gifts for a specific number of children. They were then given a list of children with which to purchase the toys. All toys were delivered to the county judge’s office, where volunteers from the county and participating organizations, wrapped feverishly for days, carefully labeling each age-appropriate gift with a tag identifying the name and age of the child, as well as the department that pledged it.

Love Thy Neighbor, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping children and families in need, donated more than 150 pairs of brand new shoes for those children whose shoe sizes could be ascertained.

The South Texas Literacy Coalition, which works to enhance learning opportunities for children and families through literacy services and resources, donated more than 300 bilingual books that would appeal to children of pre-school age all the way through high school.

The Hidalgo County Public Affairs Department initially contacted Garza Elementary with a small request to decorate 300 gingerbread men to place in commissioners’ court to be a visual representation of all the children being helped. However, the parents, children, teachers and administrators went way above and beyond and decided to hold their own toy drive, collecting another 300 toys for disaster-affected families. These toys will be used to supplement additional neighborhoods plagued by flooding.

“All of this wouldn’t have been possible without our partners,” said Karina Cardoza, Public Affairs Division Director. “The collaboration and generosity displayed by county departments and employees, the volunteers’ enthusiasm, and the coordination and commitment demonstrated by everyone wanting to make a difference are heartening. Thanks go out to everybody who participated.”

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Texas, 38 states resolve investigation into advertising campaign that overstated health benefits of Dannon Company’s yogurt products  

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and 38 other attorneys general on Wednesday, December 15 reached an agreement with Dannon Co., Inc. that resolves the states’ investigation into the yogurt manufacturer’s misleading and unlawful claims about the characteristics of its products.

According to court documents filed by the states, Dannon’s advertising, packaging and selling improperly overstated the health benefits of its Activia yogurts and DanActive dairy drinks. The defendant made statements that were not substantiated by reliable scientific evidence. Dannon also claimed that Activia could help prevent and treat diseases. Under state and federal law, manufacturers can only advertise the curative effects of approved drugs. They cannot associate those claims with food products. Dannon’s misrepresentations were repeatedly used in television commercials featuring actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

For example, Dannon claimed that Activia helped to regulate human digestive systems because it contained a bacterial strain with purported health benefits. Dannon trademarked this ingredient under the name Bifidus Regularis. Dannon also claimed Activia had antimicrobial benefits that could affect colon cancer. Those claims were improper because Dannon could not lawfully market the curative properties of unapproved drugs.

The attorneys general also disputed Dannon’s claims that ingesting one serving of Activia per day for two weeks improved intestinal transit time. In fact, most studies demonstrate a person benefits only when he or she consumes three servings per day for two weeks.

Under the December 15 injunction, Dannon must disclose that three servings of Activia per day –  not one – are required for the advertised benefit of improved intestinal transit time. The states’ agreement prohibits Dannon from making future claims about its products unless those claims have been substantiated by legitimate scientific research.

According to state investigators, Dannon also improperly claimed that its DanActive dairy drinks could help prevent colds, flus and diarrhea in children. Both claims were unlawful because DanActive has not been approved by the federal government as a drug. As with Activia, Dannon promoted DanActive as a product enriched with a probiotic bacterial strain that could improve the digestive system. Dannon trademarked this strain under the name L. casei Immunitas. The states’ injunction also prohibits Dannon from advertising that its products cure, treat, prevent or mitigate diseases.

Under the agreed final judgment filed on December 15, Dannon agreed to pay $21 million to resolve the states’ investigation. Texas’ share will be $911,000. A previous class action case handled consumer restitution.

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