Following statewide power outages last week as a result of a massive winter storm that impacted much of the nation, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Monday, February 7, said that two Senate panels will review the event and determine what changes need to be made to ensure the reliability of electricity in Texas. Very cold weather was blamed for more than 80 generation stations in Texas going down on Wednesday, February 2, causing periodic blackouts around the state due to the loss of capacity. Dewhurst said he has charged Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Business and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, to hold a joint session to hear testimony regarding the issue. The joint meeting will try and find the root cause of the problem, and what Texas power generators can do to prevent future outages. "I think the operators understand that they're on the hook to supply power and it's not there," Dewhurst said. "We're going to look at the market and make sure that it works so that people have dependable, predictable electricity. If certain changes have to be made, then we'll consider those." In a winter marked by several crippling storms, the storm of February 1–2, 2011, stands out. Heavy snow, ice, freezing rain, and frigid wind battered about two thirds of the United States, making it “a winter storm of historic proportions,” said the National Weather Service. This image from the NOAA-NASA GOES 13 satellite shows the giant storm developing and moving across the country between January 31 and February 2.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Thursday, January 27, proudly tried his hand at singing in the State Capitol rotunda with the renowned University of Texas-Pan American Mariachi Aztlán as part of UT-Pan American Day. Nearly 100 UTPA faculty, staff, students and alumni participated in the legislative lobbying effort to help convince state lawmakers, who are facing up to a $27 billion state budget shortfall, to avoid inflicting severe reductions in state money for key university programs and student scholarships. Hinojosa confirmed the Valley delegation's support for access to higher education opportunities. "I am what I am today because of UT-Pan American and we will make sure that UTPA gets the funding it needs," Hinojosa said. "The university expands horizons of many South Texas students, it creates opportunity and fulfills dreams." Also featured in the background are Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who is facing Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, president of The University of Texas-Pan American. "Education changes lives and families," Gonzáles said."We will fight for funding so you and future generations can continue to go to college … because education is the key to success." See story later in this posting.
Dr. Shirley A. Reed, president of South Texas College, lobbied state lawmakers on Friday, January 21, at the STC Starr County campus in Rio Grande City when several dozen legislators were participating in a legislative trip sponsored by the Valley Partnership. Reed, featured here addressing Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, center, and Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, fears that initial state budgets prepared by the Senate Finance Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, would have a dramatic negative effect on the two-county community college system. "For South Texas College specifically, the cuts in the preliminary budgets mean that overall we would see our projected funding from the state decrease by anywhere from 12 to 17 percent," said Reed. "Already our students are burdened by paying a little more than 42 percent of our $133 million a year operating budget." Reed details her concerns in a column that she has sent out to the area news media, and which is included later in this posting.
As an influential delegation of political, business and community leaders were in Austin on Wednesday, February 2, to accept congratulatory resolutions in both legislative chambers honoring the City of Palms on its 100th anniversary, they left much more than their calling cards and gift baskets with the Texas Legislature. They submitted a long list of legislative priorities, which includes the city's support for state-sanctioned gambling in McAllen, beefed-up border security measures, more money for its emerging University of Texas-Pan American teaching site, and additional university-level degree programs at South Texas College. Featured on the Senate floor following passage of a legislative resolution honoring McAllen on its centennial are, from left: Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Steve Alhenius, president and CEO, McAllen Chamber of Commerce; Don King, chairman of the Board of Directors, McAllen Economic Development Corporation; Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; Bob McCreery, member of the Board of Directors, McAllen Chamber of Commerce; McAllen District 5 City Commissioner John J. Ingram; McAllen District 2 City Commissioner Marcus C. Barrera; and Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. See story later in this posting.
Diana Peña, vice president of finance and administrative services for South Texas College, on Monday, January 24, was honored by the STC Board of Trustees for her more than 12 years of dedicated service to the college. She retired from her full-time position at the end of January, but will remain on a part-time consulting basis. Peña, a Rio Grande City native, has been with the college since 1998. She oversaw a variety of crucial services that ensure the college runs and functions on a daily basis, including maintenance, facilities, security, human resources and all financial and business functions, excluding financial aid. She managed an annual budget of more than $130 million. Featured, front row, from left: Rose Benavidez, STC board vice-president; Diana Peña; STC President Shirley A. Reed; Gary Gurwitz, STC board chairman; and Roy De León, STC board trustee. Featured, back row, from left: STC board trustees Dr. Alejo Salinas Jr., Jesse Villarreal, and Óscar Longoria Jr., who also serves as STC board secretary. See story later in this posting.
The Texas House of Representatives on Thursday, January 27, approved two resolutions – one designating UT-Pan American Day at the Texas Capitol, and a second measure honoring Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, president of the University of Texas-Pan American – which were jointly authored by the the majority of the Valley's state House legislative delegation. A nearly 100-member delegation of UTPA officials, students and alumni gathered at the Capitol to lobby lawmakers, urging them to protect state funding for the largest university south of San Antonio. Featured presenting the two measures – House Resolution 221 and House Resolution 222 – before the full House were, from left: Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen; Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas; Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission; Rep. José Manuel Lozano, D-Kingsville; Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito; Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco; and Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg. See story later in this posting.
Expansion of Texas property tax freeze to be reviewed by Texas Attorney General Abbott
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
State Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, is asking Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott, a Republican, to rule whether Texas homeowners with diabetes, cancer and several other major illnesses qualify for the state's landmark homestead property tax freeze.
Under current Texas laws, a homeowner who is 65 years of age or older, or a homeowner who has a permanent physical disability, can qualify for a property tax freeze on their principal homestead. Such a homeowner still must pay property taxes, but under most circumstances, those taxes will never increase.
However, a major change in late 2008 to the national Americans with Disabilities Act may allow thousands of additional Texas homeowners to qualify for the homestead property tax freeze.
Abbott's legal ruling will be significant, since all Texas school districts, along with more than 100 cities, counties, and community colleges, currently provide the property tax freeze to Texas homeowners who have permanent physical disabilities, in addition to homeowners who are age 65 years and older
Gonzáles reported that the change to that federal law, known as the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, "has expanded the definition of a disability to include persons with diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and other illnesses that can be controlled by medications and other treatments, according to federal lawmakers and published reports of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008."
As a result, Gonzáles, in her letter dated January 4, 2011, wants Abbott to issue an Attorney General Opinion on the issue.
An Attorney General Opinion is a written interpretation of existing law. The attorney general writes opinions as part of his/her responsibility to act as legal counsel for Texas.
"For the large number of Texas homeowners who struggle financially with the medical costs to deal with these major illnesses, your decision would have a major and far-reaching effect," the state lawmaker noted. "My House District, in particular, would be especially affected due to the high rate of diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley and among the Hispanic population."
Gonzáles represents House District 41 in the Texas Legislature. House District 41 includes southwest Edinburg, north and east McAllen, northeast Mission, Palmhurst and Alton.
According to Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, there are an estimated two million Texan adults with diabetes, and that number could mushroom to eight million Texan adults by the year 2040. Today, many other Texans have pre-diabetes or diabetes but have not been diagnosed with the disease.
In the process of developing an Attorney General Opinion, individuals and groups may submit letters, resolutions, legal briefs, and any other documents which express their viewpoint, and that correspondence is carefully reviewed by state lawyers as they shape Abbott's decision. It could take up to 180 days for Abbott to issue an Attorney General Opinion.
But there is a upcoming deadline of Thursday, February 17 for Texans to submit their perspectives on the possible expansion of the homestead property tax freeze.
Individuals and organizations may send their correspondence on the issue to Nancy Fuller, Opinion Committee Chairman, Office of the Attorney General, P.O. Box 12548, Austin, Texas 78711-2548.
The request from Gonzáles for the Attorney General Opinion, which includes the support materials she included for Abbott's review, is available online at the state agency website at:
The ADA Amendments Act of 2008 went into effect on January 1, 2009. It was signed into law by President Bush, a Republican who previously served as Texas governor in the 1990s.
Sen. Hinojosa retains leadership role on Senate Finance Committee, adds transportation panel
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Friday, January 28, retained his leadership position as Vice-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, as well as secured membership on several other key Senate panels, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, has announced.
The veteran state lawmaker also was appointed to the Agricultural and Rural Affairs, the Criminal Justice, the Natural Resources, and the Transportation and Homeland Security committees.
In what could have a big impact on whether the Valley receives an extra congressional district, Hinojosa – along with Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville – and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo – was appointed to the Select Committee on Redistricting.
As Vice-Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Hinojosa provides South Texas an important place at the table for the budgetary and fiscal conversations that will take place during the ongoing legislative regular session, which lasts through May 31.
Hinojosa, who is also a member of the Legislative Budget Board, expressed appreciation for the appointment.
"I am honored that Lt. Gov. Dewhurst is entrusting me with this responsibility," the McAllen lawmaker said. "Our state is facing serious budgetary challenges that threaten to undercut even the most basic of state services."
The Senate Committee on Finance, composed of 15 members, is charged with writing the state's biennial budget and oversees legislation relating to the appropriation of general revenue funds.
"Now that the members of the Finance Committee have been appointed we need to get to work, collaborate with stakeholders and find solutions to the serious challenges that Texas faces in regards to the budget.
In addition to Hinojosa, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are the only two other state senators with Valley ties who were reappointed to this powerful legislative panel.
In late January, state budget proposals were released by the leadership of the Senate and the leadership of the House.
The House Appropriations Committee, which is the counterpart to the Senate Finance Committee, will develop its own version of the state's two year-budget, which begins on September 1.
Both plans must be approved by the respective legislative chambers first, then a compromise must be agreed upon by the full Legislature before final passage.
"The Senate budget makes more resources available for education and border security than the house version. In the Senate version, border security will see an actual increase in funding over the last biennium including funding for additional criminal investigators," Hinojosa said, contrasting highlights between the House and Senate versions.
"But it's not enough," Hinojosa said of the initial Senate budget plan. "The Finance Committee will be making some tough decisions this legislative session and we must do everything in our power to fuel Texas' economic recovery."
Daniela Santoni contributed to this article.
McAllen honored by Texas Legislature on 100th anniversary as it submits extensive agenda for action by state lawmakers
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Just because all the attention these days at the Texas Capitol are on the state's seemingly insurmountable $20+ billion budget shortfall and the looming battles on congressional and legislative redistricting, that doesn't mean the City of McAllen with its legislative priorities is going to go quietly into the night.
As an influential delegation of political, business and community leaders were in Austin on Wednesday, February 2, to accept congratulatory resolutions in both legislative chambers honoring the City of Palms on its 100th anniversary, they left much more than their calling cards and gift baskets with the Texas Legislature.
They submitted a long list of legislative priorities, which includes the city's support for state-sanctioned gambling in McAllen, beefed-up border security measures, more money for its emerging University of Texas-Pan American teaching site, and additional university-level degree programs at South Texas College.
McAllen opposes any measure that would do away with the state manifiesto program, which allows Mexicans to seek a sales tax refund on items they buy while in Texas for the purpose of taking those products back to Mexico.
The city also is against any proposed law similar to the stringent state immigration enforcement law passed last spring by Arizona, which makes it a crime for immigrants to carry federal immigration documents, and which gives local police more authority to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
For good measure, McAllen's legislative agenda, which was distributed to lawmakers, also included the promise that "there will be many more (issues) as the session moves forward."
The legislative session ends on May 31.
McAllen area lawmakers praised the city for its many achievements on its centennial, which is officially recognized as February 13, and they pledged to work with key leaders of that community on their major concerns.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who authored Senate Resolution 111 that honored the community, noted that McAllen is one of the fastest growing regions in the state.
"Just within the last three decades, our city has grown into an important center for commerce and a key region for international trade with Mexico and the rest of Latin America," Hinojosa said. "Just recently, CNN/Money listed McAllen as one of the best places to live within the United States and we have to make sure it remains this way. We need to adequately invest in the future of a rapidly growing population that enhances the economy Texas."
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., joint author with Hinojosa on SR 111, also focused on McAllen's reputation as a leader in business and job creation.
"McAllen is an economic engine for South Texas, a growing part of District 27, and a place of innovation and creativity," Lucio said. "We had Brownsville Day here last week, McAllen Day today and Harlingen Day next week. It's exciting to see so many communities coming to Austin. We need Valley voices at the Capitol to put human faces to the needs of South Texas."
Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, said she is working on various projects and initiatives with McAllen leaders "so that health care, education, and border security are top priorities. McAllen is a vibrant city that has contributed greatly to Texas and must be recognized as a powerful voice in our state."
Gonzáles was the lead author of House Resolution 231, which recognized February 1 as McAllen Day at the Capitol. HR 231 was also jointly authored by Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City.
The key issues for McAllen, which follow, are taken verbatim from the list provided by city leaders to state lawmakers on February 2.
City of McAllen 2011 Legislative Initiatives
The 2011 session of the Texas Legislature will be one of the most challenging in recent memory. Legislators will face a deficit upwards of $20 billion and deal with decennial redistricting. Given that, lawmakers will look under every nook and cranny for funds to claim for the state.
McAllen, like many cities across the state, will robustly defend its revenues and opposed legislation that would erode our authority and control. McAllen will look to be fairly represented in redistricting. The city will be consistent with the programs of the Texas Municipal League, Texas Border Coalition, and others except when it contradicts with McAllen's goals. Below is a list of major issues McAllen will manage, but there will be many more as the session moves forward.
Budget and Finances
Texas faces a budget deficit of up to $25 billion. The $9 billion rainy day fund will not be relied on to balance the budget. However, all types of fees will likely be in play and those are typically collected by cities for the state. We oppose the extra work all unfunded mandates and oppose any alteration to the current franchise fee system. McAllen-specific, legislators will examine the worthiness of the manifiesto program. Cutting it off could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. The city will work towards a solution that's best for border merchants and the state's coffers. McAllen opposes the increase of international bridge tolls.
Workforce development is key for the McAllen region's future prosperity. The city will work collaboratively with South Texas College, Workforce Solutions and the Texas Border Coalition to support and preserve workforce development and job-specific skills-training programs for students and employers. McAllen will continue to support South Texas College's efforts to award additional four-year technology degrees as allowed by the state.
No new money here. Still, there are some major issues to resolve that directly impact the City. McAllen will:
• Support an initiative to end the diversion of transportation funds to non-transportation projects;
• Oppose some local-option funding choices and formula changes that would be regressive in nature;
• Support initiatives that would fund the continued expansion of U.S. Highway 281 north of McAllen; and
• Support changes that would benefit our transportation system's funding, and the expansion of Ware Road.
McAllen will support light rail and other reasonable rail proposals that would benefit the residents of McAllen.
Freedom of Information
The city will support a change in the requirements for published notices from an official newspaper for the municipality to the city's websites. McAllen will collaborate with the Texas Municipal League to support legislation that would allow posting required public notices online to be less expensive, organized, archived and accessible.
The Census population numbers (released April 1) will dictate federal, state and local-level redistricting. McAllen will seek state and federal rezoning that will be most beneficial tothe city and its residents, and keep the city intact.
McAllen's goal is to expand the University of Texas Pan American Teaching Site, an important component to Texas', the city's and region's economic development strategy. Expanding it to meet community and industry demand at the same location would cost an estimated $1.4 million. The facility is on UTPA's legislative priorities list. Also, the city will work closely with STC to meet its legislative goals and support UTPA's legislative priorities.
Security and Immigration
The city will support initiatives for more state and federal investigators to be located in the McAllen region, and will support reasonable proposals (with local input) for southbound checks at international bridges. McAllen will oppose legislation that would have local law enforcement officers enforce federal immigration laws, i.e. Arizona-styled immigration legislation. Comprehensive immigration reform, especially legislation that would meet employers' needs and give them access to a legal workforce, would be employed.
The city supports initiative that would allow responsible gaming in Texas and McAllen.
The expansion of Medicaid managed care into Hidalgo County (and Cameron and Maverick counties) would be opposed by the city. However, McAllen will support a managed care solution for the region that would mutually benefit the local community and Texas. Also, McAllen would support a 12-month continuous coverage of children in Medicaid, a better, long-term way for children and families in the community.
Students, alums, university officials help make case against budget cuts affecting UT-Pan American during January 27 rally at Capitol
By GAIL FAGAN
Krystal Marroquín, a first-generation student and Texas Grant recipient, will graduate in May 2011 from The University of Texas-Pan American. But because of cuts being proposed to higher education funding in Texas she's afraid that same opportunity to go to college won't be available to her two younger sisters.
"For my parents to support two students in college, it is not going to happen," said the communication studies major who plans to be a teacher. "The light of opportunity seems to be getting dimmer and dimmer."
Setting out at 4:30 a.m. via bus to Austin, Marroquín was among 59 students who wanted to share their stories and dreams of the future with Texas legislators during UT Pan American Day on Thursday, January 27 at the State Capitol in Austin.
In a rally held at noon in the Capitol Rotunda, UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen said he wanted all 181 Texas legislators to know that the university has 18,744 students, with 89 percent being Hispanic and 69 percent being first-generation students.
Graduates from UTPA, he said, go all over the world and change it because of the education they have received there.
"Education in the Valley and the students are the future of Texas," Nelsen said. "If we don't get it right in the Valley, we won't get it right in Texas. We're here to make it right, break poverty and transform the state and the nation."
TEXAS Grant crucial for thousands
The current budget proposal unveiled by the House of Representatives in late January – but which has not yet been adopted by the full Legislature and the governor – cuts the state's contributions to UTPA's biennial budget by 22.68 percent.
It also does not fully fund the the Toward Excellence, Access & Success (TEXAS) Grant program, which was established in 1999 by the Texas Legislature to provide need-based financial assistance to Texas students. The TEXAS Grant, which can provide up to $6,000 per year for university students, was awarded to 2005 students at UT-Pan American in 2009
"Around 70 percent of UTPA students receive some form of financial aid, but the proposed cuts would dig deep into financial aid programs – the TEXAS Grant program alone faces cuts of 41 percent," the Valley state senator said. "We need to fund education adequately if Texas is to compete in a globalized economy. If not, it will dissolve the important progress that has taken place, not only in South Texas, but throughout the state. Education is the best equalizer in our society and it needs to be our priority."
UTPA alumnus Edgar Morales, who now works at the Capitol in the office of State Rep. Raphael Anchia, D-Dallas, said his education at UTPA opened up several doors of opportunity to him but he couldn't have gone to college without the TEXAS Grant.
"It was definitely a lifesaver," said Morales, who graduated in 2008 as a political science major and is now a fellow with the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. He is also enrolled at Texas State University to obtain a master's in public administration.
Morales, a first-generation graduate originally from Reynosa and raised in McAllen, said he's talked to his boss, Anchia — also a first-generation college graduate — about the need for financial aid by the majority of Valley students.
"If we cut back funding from education, we are going to hurt Texas in the long run," Morales said.
Jesús Buitrón, a senior business computer information systems major, described to Rep. Rodney Anderson, R-Grand Prairie, how he sometimes had to sit in the aisle or on the floor in some of his business classes. He also told Anderson how important the Texas Grant is to many Valley students. Anderson, Buitrón said, was nice, taking time from a meeting he was in to greet the team from UTPA who visited his office.
"He was familiar with Valley needs and knew the kind of people that we are. He is supportive of the Texas Grants and we talked about that," Buitrón said.
UTPA pushing for $94 million in new construction
In addition to Hinojosa, other Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation members — Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City — spoke at the rally to the nearly 100-member delegation which, along with the students, included UTPA Foundation Board members, alumni from across the state, local government representatives, faculty and other top university administrators and staff.
The legislators assured the crowd that funding for higher education is a top priority and acknowledged the impact of being able to obtain a college education on their own success.
"Education changes lives and families," Gonzáles said."We will fight for funding so you and future generations can continue to go to college … because education is the key to success."
Following a performance in the rotunda by UTPA Mariachi Aztlán and a Pan American Day group photo on the front steps of the Capitol, the UTPA groups broke into teams and set out to visit the offices of as many legislators as possible and ask for their support, particularly for its 2012-2013 appropriations requests.
The requests, which primarily address UTPA's severe space deficit, include funding for a new science building, a remodeling and expansion of the business building, and expansion of UTPA's McAllen Teaching Site, which also accommodates classes being offered by South Texas College.
UTPA also wants refunding for its successful Sophomore Academic Mentoring retention program.
Legislators were willing to listen
In their visits to legislators' Capitol offices, the local university's delegation brought a gift bag that included a few UTPA mementos and a brochure about the university's accomplishments. Team members took turns telling the university's story to legislators or their staff representatives from a number of perspectives.
Describing himself as an evangelist for the university, Dr. Zen Faulkes, associate professor of biology, said while he understood the problems the state is facing, he hoped the legislators will think about the impact of their decisions on the future.
"You can't shrink your way to success, especially in education," said Faulkes, who proudly described four scientific papers published last year that were co-authored with him by undergraduate students. "That's what it is all about. Our students are producing professional level work."
UTPA Foundation Board member Alejandro Badía from IBM's Systems and Technology Group said he benefitted from financial aid as a student in New York where the state paid for his first degree he earned, an associate degree.
Badía, who has been with IBM for 32 years, wanted legislators to know that it is important to support students desiring to pursue higher education to ensure a skilled and diverse workforce, vital to not only IBM but other corporations to remain globally competitive.
Nelsen said the Pan Am day alone would not make a difference, but in the long run it would make a tremendous difference.
"These legislators got to meet our kids from the Valley, they got to know their stories. The legislators are no different than anyone else, they don't want to cut the budgets. They are in a bad situation. I think seeing the students, the money for the TEXAS Grants will come back and they will support them in other ways. We can't solve the budget problems today, but we can help protect higher education," he said.
At the end of the long but exciting day, which included a Capitol tour for students, Marroquín said she thought the rally provided a great opportunity for students to have their voice heard.
"Coming here helped us to realize that the legislators are willing to listen," she said.
For South Texas College, tough times ahead, choices to be made, consequences to be realized
By DR. SHIRLEY A. REED
The budgets are out in the Texas Legislature.
The House and Senate versions have been pondered and scrutinized line item by line item. Each has been complained about and lauded as the solution. Now it’s up to our legislators to come together, making decisions about those line items that will ultimately change the course of life for every Texan in some way. If you don’t know what I’m talking about already, you soon will – it’s the budget for the state of Texas for the next biennium.
Many Texans are going about their daily lives right now, not fully realizing how the next few months will shape their futures – the roads they drive, the taxes they pay, their homeland security or their ability to pursue happiness, a right from our U.S. Constitution. But, at the center of all debate in every corner of the state is education funding. From pre-K programs to adult literacy and workforce retraining, education impacts all our lives and both drafts of the Texas budget demand cuts from every level of education. Deep cuts.
“Cuts,” for those who do not understand political terminology, translate into no funding for growth and reduced levels of existing services; but the release of proposed budgets from both the Texas House and Senate go far beyond mere cuts. They extend into ending entire programs including some that would greatly impact the growth and economic prosperity of the Rio Grande Valley.
For South Texas College specifically, the cuts in the preliminary budgets mean that overall we would see our projected funding from the state decrease by anywhere from 12 to 17 percent. This means substantially less funding to educate our 30,000 students – your sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Already our students are burdened by paying a little more than 42 percent of our $133 million a year operating budget. And while we are certainly committed to doing everything possible to make sure costs for students do not increase, there are no guarantees. Educators at all levels face an uncertain future beyond this legislative session. Once these cuts, as recommended by the Legislature, are approved, they will negatively impact education in Texas for the next decade or longer.
Dealing with the funding gap will not be a quick and easy process. We will have to consider a variety of options including charging for services that were once free. We will have to run our college as leanly as possible. We have already reduced operating costs by 10 percent every year for the past two years in anticipation of a budget shortfall. We will continue to pursue grant funds and ask our employees to make sacrifices in terms of taking on more responsibilities, working with older technologies and stretching necessary instructional materials. But while these changes may help address that 12 to 17 percent reduction in state funding, they will not scratch the surface in addressing the budget deficits we face in other critical programs.
It is possible that we will lose most of the funding for health insurance for our 1,280 eligible employees. And with new healthcare regulation, we, as an institution, are not only state, but now federally mandated to provide coverage for employees. We are looking at ways to help our employees and their families shoulder the costs of their insurance for their spouses and dependents. Hopefully we will find a solution.
House Bill 1 completely defunds STC’s Bachelor of Applied Technology Degree Program. Since its launch in 2005, more than 400 Valley residents have graduated from the program, earning a degree that has changed their lives for the better. These graduates are your co-workers, family members, friends and neighbors. If the program is not funded, the 300-plus students currently enrolled may have to take on additional tuitions costs, which may prevent them from continuing their studies at the college of their choice – STC.
Dual enrollment programs, which allow qualifying high school students to earn college credit, tuition-free, may be seriously slashed or go unfunded. And as you may or may not know, STC has one of the largest tuition free dual enrollment programs in the state with almost 9,000 students enrolled each semester. The program expands every year, creating new opportunities for learning and training because we know that dual enrollment success encourages first-generation students to go to college. It gives students the confidence they need to realize they are capable of college work.
To date, South Texas College has saved families in Hidalgo and Starr counties more than $60M in college tuition costs. We have seen our dual enrollment students go on to earn bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D’s and stay in the Valley, contributing to growing our local economy. These programs are necessary incentives to encourage a college-going culture in our region, whereby we want all students to begin the journey to completing college. Currently, less than 40 percent of residents between the ages of 16 and 25 in our region have earned a high school diploma. If these programs are limited, how many more students will forgo the opportunity to attend college and possibly drop out of high school?
These are a few of the additional cuts we are facing at STC. And it paints a disturbing picture of the choices we will be facing in the future. But as STC president, I always expect that our elected representatives will do the right thing to maintain a college-going culture for all and our national commitment to creating an educated, competitive workforce.
I have reached out to our Valley legislators with as much information as possible about the potential impacts of these cuts. We have welcomed them in our “home,” hosting delegates from across the state on two of our campuses during the recent Valley Legislative Tour. Texas community colleges are taking students to meet members of the 82nd Legislative Session and at the capitol.
We are also working to renew our commitment to faculty and staff that faithfully serve Texas community colleges. We know a community college is only as good as the faculty and staff that serve our students. We are listening to the voices and welcoming their innovations and thoughts that can help us weather this fiscal storm.
But the most important concern we are addressing is assuring our students, faculty and staff that no matter the outcome, we will do everything possible to meet their needs. Student learning is the college’s number one priority and the priority of a nation that wants to continue to be a world leader. The lack of funding higher education institutions are facing in Texas goes against every roadmap laid out for us by the rest of the nation.
STC was created to provide affordable access to higher education for an educationally underserved population. Although difficult times no doubt lie ahead, South Texas College will work with all its partners at all levels of education to continue our history of providing an excellent education at an affordable price.
Dr. Shirley A. Reed has served as the president of South Texas College since its establishment in 1993. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sen. Hinojosa adds amendments designed to soften negative impact of voter ID legislation
By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES
After two days of testimony, debate and amendments, the bill to require Texans to present photo identification before voting was approved by the Senate on Wednesday night, January 26, but not before Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, added two amendments he says would help reduce the negative impact of the measure.
The measure, Senate Bill 14 by Sen. Troy Fraiser, R-Horseshoe Bay, is now in the House of Representatives, awaiting a hearing before the appropriate House committee.
Hinojosa, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted against its passage.
Fraiser said his bill seeks to prevent in-person voting fraud, but opponents, such as Hinojosa, contended the bill would unfairly impact minority, disabled and elderly voters.
"Photo ID is simply putting into practice the intent of the current law – that the person who shows up at the polls is who he or she claims to be," said Fraser. "Voter impersonation is a serious crime, but without a photo ID requirement we can never have confidence in our system of voting."
As approved by the Senate, a voter would be required to show either a Texas driver's license or identification card, a U.S. military ID card, a U.S. passport, a Texas concealed handgun license, or a U.S. citizenship certificate that contains a photo before casting a ballot. The bill also would increase the penalties for committing voter fraud.
"Polls show that people are less likely to vote if they believe their ballot will not be fairly counted," Fraser said. "Senate Bill 14 is just one step in restoring voter confidence by giving election workers a tool to eliminate in-person voter fraud."
But Hinojosa said the legislation is not necessary, contending that it was designated as an emergency item by Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, in order to distract the public's attention from the state's estimated $20+ billion state budget shortfall.
"Protecting the voting process is important, if not vital, to a working democracy. However, it is widely known that voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent in this state," Hinojosa said. "Naming a phantom issue like voter ID an emergency item ahead of the budget deficit means we are not identifying out priorities."
Although he voted against Fraiser's legislation, Hinojosa was able to add two provisions to SB 14 which the McAllen lawmaker said will make it easier for many voters to cast their ballots.
"It’s important that our constituents receive the proper information on how to obtain a free identification card for the purposes of voting," Hinojosa said. "Through amendment nine I made sure this information is available to voters until September 1, 2017, not 2013 as the original bill stipulated."
Hinojosa also successfully added amendment eighteen to the bill, which makes a concealed handgun license an acceptable form of identification for voting purposes.
"If concealed handgun licenses are good enough to bypass security at the Capitol they should be a good enough identification to vote," Hinojosa said. "I'm disappointed that other forms of ID, like a government employee ID or school ID were not included in the bill."
Voters without any photo identification can cast a provisional ballot, and then can return within six days to present I.D. and have their ballot counted. Accepted forms of I.D. include a driver's license or other DPS-issued photo I.D., concealed-carry weapon license, passport or citizenship papers that have a photo. Individuals that are 70 years of age on or before the bill's effective date of January 1, 2012 are exempted from this requirement.
The bill was amended to add special exemptions for the disabled and indigent.
A person who's disability makes it too burdensome to get an I.D. can present a signed doctor's note at the poll and vote without photo I.D. Though the bill includes provisions for free I.D. cards from the Department of Public Safety, there are other potential fees associated with getting an I.D., such as fees for birth certificate duplication. A person who earns less than 125 percent of the federal poverty limit, who could be impacted by these associated fees, can sign an affidavit to that effect and be exempted from the I.D. requirement.
David A. Díaz, Daniela Santoni, and Janice McCoy contributed to this article.
Sen. Zaffirini reappointed as chair of Senate Higher Education Committee
By WILL KRUEGER
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on Friday, January 28, reappointed Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee and to the Senate committees on Finance, Health and Human Services, Administration, Economic Development and Redistricting.
"Strengthening our higher education system is essential to ensuring Texas' future economic competitiveness," Zaffirini said, "I am delighted for the opportunity to continue to champion the priorities of Texas colleges and universities, students and families."
She also has served on the Legislative Budget Board since 2004.
Zaffirini contended that Dewhurst appointed her “to the best positions from which to make a difference for the families of our district and of our state.”
The Senate Higher Education Committee will address pressing issues facing colleges and universities, including financial aid, college advising and higher education accountability. Zaffirini chaired the Higher Education Subcommittee from 2005 to 2009, when Dewhurst upgraded it to a full committee.
She also chaired the Senate Finance Subcommittees on Capital Funding for Higher Education (2006) and on State Contracting Practices (2004) and the Health and Human Services Committee from 1993 to 1999.
Since 2000, Zaffirini has served on the Senate Committee on Administration that certifies legislation for the Local and Uncontested Calendar — approximately 75 percent of the legislation passed by the Senate each session, including many bills important to communities in Senate District 21 and across Texas.
She is the ranking member of the Select Committee on Redistricting, which is charged with redrawing the boundaries of congressional, legislative and state board of education districts. Her goals include keeping South Texas communities together and adhering to the principles of the Voting Rights Act.
"My committee assignments reflect not only the needs of my district, but also the values of South Texas families," Zaffirini said. "We believe in improving educational opportunities for all and share a strong commitment to the very young, the very old and persons with disabilities. I am grateful to Lt. Gov Dewhurst and look forward to working with him and with my colleagues to meet the challenges before us."
Congressman Cuellar endorses federal bill that would reform state redistricting powers
By LESLEY LÓPEZ
Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Thursday, February 3, announced his support of two proposed legislative items that would greatly reduce congressional gridlock by reforming the partisan redistricting process.
Redistricting, which is the exclusive power of the state legislatures, is the geographical division of a state into congressional, state representative, senatorial, or other legislative districts on the basis of the relative distribution of the state’s total population. District boundaries are redrawn every 10 years following the publication of the U.S. census to ensure an appropriate number of districts of approximately equal population.
The two bills, which would put an end to political gerrymandering, have been introduced Congressman Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, and Congressman Heath Shuler, D-North Carolina.
“Partisan gerrymandering creates a system where politicians choose voters – instead of voters choosing the representatives,” said Cuellar. “As a lifelong resident of Texas, a state which will gain four congressional seats as a result of the 2010 Census, I urge members of Congress to support this important legislation and reduce partisan gridlock.”
Gerrymandering is the process of dividing a state, county, or other political subdivision into election districts in an unnatural manner to give a political party or ethnic group advantage over its opponents.
Shuler introduced House Resolution 453, the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, to set new minimum standards for states redrawing districts. Each state will be required to establish a bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw congressional district maps only once every 10 years based on principles outlined in the bill.
“The current system of gerrymandered districts has left a patchwork of highly-partisan, ideologically skewed congressional districts, where representatives are more beholden to their political party than the constituents they were elected to serve," said Shuler. "These gerrymandered districts often result in representatives from both extremes of the political spectrum being elected to Congress who cannot or will not work together for the benefit of all.”
Cooper introduced H.R. 419, the Redistricting Transparency Act of 2011, which allows the public to participate in the redistricting process by requiring open hearings and a public website in each state.
“Both Democrats and Republicans want to minimize the number of competitive districts,” said Cooper. “Today, there are only 91 politically balanced districts out of 435, but both parties want even fewer. The political map-drawers know how to split neighborhoods, houses, and even, in theory, double beds. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. No one should be against transparency.”
Congressman Hinojosa announces $5 million Chase Bank grant for ACCIÓN Texas-Louisiana
By PATRICIA GUILLERMO
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Friday, January 28, announced that Chase Bank has donated $5 million to San Antonio-based ACCIÓN Texas-Louisiana.
ACCIÓN is the nation’s largest nonprofit micro lender for loans and technical assistance for small businesses, with 10 offices in Texas, including one in McAllen. The McAllen office is the base for ACCIÓN in Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties.
“This generous donation by Chase Bank will help many people who are struggling to keep their businesses in full operation and those who are wanting to start a new business,” said Hinojosa. “Chase, once again, is proving its commitment to helping small businesses in our communities by supporting successful micro lenders like ACCIÓN.”
The award is the largest single donation ACCIÓN has ever received and will be used for loans and loan loss reserves, including $500,000 which will be applied to technical assistance the lender will provide to small businesses.
The loans will be made to those who qualify who are looking to open businesses like restaurants, hair salons and for those who are painters, cab drivers, and lawn maintenance workers, just to name some, and also to those seeking to start companies on their.
“ACCIÓN has helped so many entrepreneurs who could not get loans from a bank but could obtain loans from this successful non-profit lender,” said Hinojosa. “The new small business owners, in time, were able to build up their credit scores and at the same time, create jobs, and contribute to our economy.”
Sen. Lucio files bill to protect health care coverage for spouses of fallen police officers
By BEN WRIGHT
Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, on Thursday, January 27, filed Senate 423 in an attempt to close loopholes in statute that have been pried open by some local governments who refuse to provide health care coverage for the families of fallen police officers.
"We've been down this road before with two different bills since 1993. This bill spells it out very clearly – if the spouse of a fallen peace officer wants health insurance they get can get it. No one falls through the cracks," Lucio insisted.
The bill has also been filed in the House by state Rep. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio.
"I am again honored that Sen. Lucio has asked me to join him in filing legislation that will ensure Texas takes care of the families of fallen law enforcement officers," Menéndez said. "It is a little frustrating that some local government benefits providers continue to resist the legislature's mandate to do right by the survivors of our first line heroes, and this bill reaffirms our determination to correct this injustice."
Lucio originally passed a bill in 1993 that allowed the families of fallen peace officers to continue purchasing their health insurance at the same rate the officers were paying prior to their death.
While most, particularly counties and municipalities, have complied with the intent of the statute, some have not. Support groups like CLEAT – the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas –have worked to bring examples of noncompliance to Lucio's attention.
CLEAT was shocked to learn that certain entities were forcing some surviving spouses to pay much higher health insurance premiums, while denying coverage to others on a technicality.
"We simply cannot do enough for the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending their communities," Lucio said. "The bill will also ensure peace of mind for current officers who can be certain that their families will be taken care of, whatever happens to them."
Sen. Hutchison introduces bipartisan bill to strengthen federal anti-stalking laws
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, on Thursday, February 3, announced they have introduced legislation that would strengthen and update federal anti-stalking laws to address the new technology predators are using to harass their victims.
The Stalkers Act would improve federal anti-stalking laws to protect victims and provide prosecutors with the tools to combat the growing threat of cyberstalking. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconson, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, cosponsored the bill.
In general, a stalker is a person who deliberately and often follows and harasses another person, with the expressed or implied threat of hurting or killing that person.
Cyberstalking occurs when a person uses the Internet to identify, locate or plot to meet a person with the expressed or implied threat of hurting or killing that person.
The Texas Republican said the legislation would expand current laws to include cyberstalking and would authorize police to intervene in situations where victims are unaware they are being targeted.
“I was proud to pass the original stalking bill that has helped protect countless Americans from being harassed by stalkers," said Hutchison. "With developing technologies, current stalking laws should be updated to address the new tactics being used to target innocent people."
Current federal anti-stalking laws are outdated and may not cover all acts of electronic surveillance, including spyware, bugging, video surveillance, and other new technology used by modern-day stalkers. The Stalkers Act would empower law enforcement to prosecute any act of stalking that would “reasonably be expected” to cause a person serious emotional distress. It requires the U.S. attorney general to evaluate federal, state, and local efforts to enforce anti-stalking laws and submit an annual report on best practices.
“Our laws need to be as sophisticated as the predators who violate them are,” Klobuchar said. “As a former prosecutor, I know how critical it is that law enforcement be able to keep pace with the technological advances that are presenting new challenges in the effort to curb stalking.”
The bill also increases the punishment for stalking offenses to protect the most vulnerable victims of stalking. Offenders who are convicted for stalking minors, violating protection orders, or stalking the elderly may be sentenced up to an additional five years in prison.
Cyberstalking is a problem that has grown more severe as digital technology has improved and proliferated. The National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) estimates that one out of every four stalking victims report being stalked through some form of technology, such as e-mail or instant messaging. NCVC supports the Stalkers Act.
In a related matter, Klobuchar, Hutchison, Kohl, and Chambliss also led a resolution designating January the National Stalking Awareness Month, which unanimously passed the Senate on February 2. The resolution aims to raise awareness on the issue to educate Americans about the dangers of stalking. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, cosponsored the resolution.
Rep. Guillen files legislation to help veterans and their families with taxes, foreclosures
By ROBERT MCVEY
Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, on Monday, February 7, announced that he has filed legislation to enhance the lives of veterans and members of the military and provide relief to their families in a time when the nation's economy is weak.
"Our state's military personnel fight tirelessly to ensure the safety of the United State and its citizens," Guillen said. "My legislative proposals regarding veterans honor those who have respectfully served to protect our country."
Texas is currently home to more than one million veterans plus their families. Legislation filed by Guillen seeks to encourage entrepreneurship, protect veteran homeowners and their spouses, and spur economic development.
•House Bill 888 provides that disabled veterans be included in the criteria necessary to be considered a historically underutilized business. Those included in the Texas State Comptroller's HUB directory benefit from increased exposure to business opportunities with state and private entities who take part in a supplier diversity program.
•HB 445 allows the surviving family members of those killed in the line of duty or disabled veterans an opportunity to pay property taxes in installments. This bill eases the transition for disabled veterans and the surviving spouses of those killed while serving.
•HB 635 ensures a grace period before a foreclosure on the residence of a surviving spouse of service members who lost their lives during active military duty.
•HB 26 prohibits an increase raise in property taxes imposed by a taxing authority for military reserves ordered to active military duty. Reservists should not have to endure unexpected tax increases while they are on active duty and away from their civilian jobs and income, he added.
"This proposed legislation will ensure that Texas veterans, active reservists and their families are able to contend with the challenges brought by serving.
"I intend to reach across the aisle and encourage every legislator to support these bills," Guillen promised. "I hope we can work together for the future of Texas and those who serve this country."
As an officer (major) in the Texas State Guard and as a member of the House Veterans Caucus previously, Guillen understands the importance of honoring the Texas men and women who have served to keep us free. He has authored and worked to pass measures that provide homestead tax exemptions for disabled veterans, a scholarship program for ROTC students to promote military service, and provide essential job skill training as well as employment assistance for veterans.
Guillen is serving in his fifth term in the Texas House representing District 31, which includes the South Texas counties of Duval, Starr, Webb and Zapata.
Since 2007, no other state representative has successfully authored and passed more legislation than Guillen, according to his Capitol office.
Senate panel approves legislation to restrict government's eminent domain powers
The Senate State Affairs Committee on Thursday, February 3, passed a bill by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, to clarify the process through which private property is taken for public use.
"I believe that the proverbial deck of cards is currently stacked against private property landowners," Estes testified before the Senate panel. "The eminent domain process does not properly recognize the value of a landowner's private property interest."
The bill, Senate Bill 18, is virtually identical to a bill passed unanimously by the Senate last session. That measure died in the House.
The current debate of the government's ability to take private land goes back to a 2005 U.S. Supreme court decision that ruled that economic development was a justification for the use of eminent domain. Since that time, 34 states have passed legislation preventing public taking of land for economic purposes. This issue has been before the state legislature for more than 4 years, and this year Governor Rick Perry added the issue to his call for emergency legislation, allowing lawmakers to take up the issue early in the session.
SB 18 would require an entity exercising eminent domain authority to offer a fair price for any land, require a fair appraisal, a written initial and final offer, and copies of the appraisal and all relevant documents provided to the property owner. It gives the owner 14 days to respond to the offer. It also provides provisions for repurchasing the property, at the price paid to the original owner, if the project the land was taken for does not progress over 10 years. An entity would also be prohibited from taking land to build a recreational project, like a park or a swimming pool.
Also at issue is the confusion over which governmental entities can exercise eminent domain authority. According to committee chair and bill co-author Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, no one can generate a definitive list of every entity which can take land for public use. The bill would require any entity with the authority to take land to register with the Secretary of State by September 2013, or lose that authority.
"What this will allow the legislature to do is to examine all of the grants of eminent domain authority to determine whether or not they're appropriate," said Duncan.
Diana Peña, who helped lead South Texas College's financial activities, retires from post
By HELEN ESCOBAR
Diana Peña, vice president of finance and administrative services for South Texas College, retired on January 31 from the college, but will remain employed on a part-time basis as a consultant to the two-county higher education system.
Peña, a Rio Grande City native, has been with the college since 1998. She oversaw a variety of crucial services that ensure the college runs and functions on a daily basis, including maintenance, facilities, security, human resources and all financial and business functions, excluding financial aid. She managed an annual budget of more than $130 million.
“Diana Peña has played an instrumental role in the success of STC during the last 12 years and has made many significant contributions to the fiscal integrity and stability of the institution,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president. “The entire institution extends its appreciation to her for her years of dedicated service and lasting contributions to making South Texas College the premier institution it is today. We share in her excitement as she embarks on a new chapter in her life. We will miss her, and will forever be grateful for her many contributions to the college.”
Recently, Peña was named the 2010 Outstanding Chief Business Officer for Region IV of the Community College Business Officers Association. The award recognizes individuals who demonstrate excellence and exceptional service as chief business officers. Peña was selected as the Region IV winner, which encompasses community colleges across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Prior to joining STC, Peña worked for the Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District for 30 years, serving in different management positions, including five years as the assistant superintendent for business and operations.
Peña earned her bachelor’s in business education from The University of Houston and her master's of education from The University of Texas-Pan American. She also earned professional mid-management administrator and superintendent certificates from UTPA.
“I want to thank Dr. Shirley Reed, the Board of Trustees and every member of the STC community for the support and friendship I have received during my time with the college,” Peña expressed. “It has been so rewarding to help grow this institution to the power house it is today. I also want to thank the devoted staff from the Division of Finance and Administrative Services. They are the silent heroes that make this institution run so seamlessly. I know I have created the most efficient team possible and am leaving my division areas in the best hands.”
José Cruz, STC vice president for information services and planning, will assume interim responsibility for administrative services in the areas of operations, bookstore, vending, facilities planning and construction, and security. A national search is currently under way for a full-time replacement for the college’s vice president for finance and administrative services position.
Congressman Hinojosa appointed to education and workforce, financial services committees
By PATRICIA GUILLERMO
As part of the 112th Congress, which is now under Republican control, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, was recently appointed to two House committees which have jurisdiction over issues that impact the nation's economy, employment and education services.
Hinojosa is a member of the newly-named House Committee on Education and Workforce, formerly known as the House Committee on Education and Labor.
He is also a member of the House Financial Services Committee.
Hinojosa is serving on two subcommittees of the House Committee on Education and Workforce.
Hinojosa is the ranking member to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, which covers issues related to education and training beyond the high school level. This subcommittee will also address job training programs, adult basic education and science and technology education.
In addition, the Subcommittee on Health Employment Labor Pensions deals in matters concerning labor and management issues, retirement security, including pension, health and other employee benefits as well as civil rights in employment.
“I am extremely proud of the accomplishments of the 111th Congress under the guidance of our Democratic leaders,” said Hinojosa. “There is no doubt that the 112th Congress will bring new challenges for Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. As ranking member, I intend to continue my work on protecting these historic investments in student financial aid and ensure that the federal government maintains a strong commitment to accessibility, affordability, and student success in higher education.”
The House Committee on Financial Affairs also has two subcommittees of which Hinojosa is a member.
Hinojosa was appointed to the Subcommittee on Capital Markets and Government Sponsored Enterprises, which oversees capital markets, securities, and government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Hinojosa will also serve on the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit. This subcommittee oversees banks and banking, depository institutions, deposit insurance coverage, and consumer credit.
“As a member of the Committee on Financial Services, I will be able to continue to work on a bipartisan basis to strengthen our economy, create jobs, and protect my constituents and all American consumers from abuse by and in the financial services industry,” said Hinojosa. “I want to take the necessary steps to keep our financial markets strong and our financial institutions on solid economic ground to compete on a global basis.”
Congressman Cuellar appointed Homeland Security and Agriculture committees
By LESLEY LÓPEZ
Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, announced his House committee assignments for the 112th Congress. He will continue to serve as an active member on the Homeland Security and Agriculture committees.
Congressman Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, who serves as the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, named Cuellar as ranking member of the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, making Cuellar the most influential Democrat within the subcommittee. In the 111th Congress, Cuellar served as chairman of the subcommittee, formerly called the Border Maritime and Global Counterterrorism Subcommittee.
“Protecting our nation and our border communities have been long-standing priorities of mine. I’m proud to have been chosen for this prestigious position and look forward to continuing the important work as part of the subcommittee,” said Cuellar.
“I am glad Congressman Cuellar has returned to be the Democratic voice on the Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee," said Thompson. "His experience in homeland security and border issues will be invaluable this Congress as we further work towards protecting the homeland and securing our borders.”
Cuellar will also be a member of the Counterterrorism and Intelligence Subcommittee, which deals mostly with the handling of Department of Homeland Security intelligence as well as counterterrorism strategies.
Cuellar will remain as the sole Democrat from Texas on the Agriculture Committee and will rejoin the Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture. This subcommittee has jurisdiction over legislation regarding rural development, farm security and family farming matters, research, education and extension, biotechnology, foreign agriculture assistance and trade promotion programs.
“Serving on this committee will further enable me to make sure the agricultural community along the border and our South Texas farmers have their voice heard in Congress,” said Cuellar.
In addition to those standing House committees, Cuellar is also Vice Chairan of the Steering and Policy Committee, Senior Whip, and a member of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition.
The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, commonly known as the Blue Dogs, is a group of U.S. congressmen from the Democratic Party who identify themselves as moderates or conservatives.
Rio Grande Valley defendants receive federal prison sentences ranging form 15 years to 30 years, without parole, for drug trafficking
By ANGELA DODGE
Eight members of a large scale drug trafficking and money laundering organization operating out of the McAllen area from approximately 2004 through 2009 were sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 180 to 360 months, without parole, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced on Thursday, February 3.
United States District Judge Micaela Álvarez handed down the prison terms at a hearing on Wednesday, February 2. The eight defendants sentenced on February 3 were convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracies after pleading guilty on different dates between December 2009 and June 2010. They include Arturo Peña Molina, 40, of McAllen; Humberto Ontiveros, 42, of Pharr; and Genaro Torres Ozuna, 42, Liandro Gutiérrez, Jr., 38, Aaron Olabarrieta, 49, Miguel Ángel Piña Jr., 33, Germán Pérez Rincón Jr., 40, and Raúl Zambrano, 43, all residents of various cities and towns in the Rio Grande Valley.
The charges and ultimately the convictions and sentences are the result of a two-plus year Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) investigation into a drug trafficking and money laundering organization led by Molina and based out of McAllen. Ontiveros worked directly for Molina and also supervised other members of the group.
The members of these conspiracies used tractor-trailers to ship large quantities of cocaine and marijuana from the McAllen area to various locations in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. The organization hired commercial truck drivers to transport the drugs, which were placed in trailers containing loads of legitimate merchandise. After the drivers delivered the drugs, they picked up large amounts of cash – the proceeds from the drug sales – and transported the cash to the Rio Grande Valley.
The investigation ultimately led to the conviction of Molina and 11 others as well as the seizure of more than 200 kilograms of cocaine, 2000 kilograms of marijuana and the seizure and forfeiture of nearly $5 million in United States currency.
Molina and Ontiveros, the leaders of the conspiracies, were sentenced to 300 and 360 months in prison, respectively. The other six defendants sentenced on Wednesday, February 2, worked for Molina and Ontiveros as drivers of the tractor trailers containing either cocaine or large amounts of cash, or helping others to do so. These six defendants were sentenced to the following prison terms:
• Genaro Torres Ozuna: 210 months
• Liandro Gutiérrez, Jr. 324 months
• Aaron Olabarrieta: 350 months
• Miguel Ángel Piña Jr.: 180 months
• Germán Pérez Rincón, Jr.: 210 months
• Raúl Zambrano: 168 months
Álvarez has further ordered that each of these defendants serve terms of supervised release ranging from three to 10 years. Four other defendants charged and convicted for their roles in this organization were previously sentenced in June 2010 by Álvarez to terms of imprisonment ranging from 46 to 120 months in prison.
The agencies involved in this OCDETF investigation included the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations with the assistance of the United States Border Patrol, Texas Department of Public Safety, Mission Police Department, Georgia State Patrol, Florida Highway Patrol and Henderson (North Carolina) Police Department. Assistant United States Attorneys Arthur R. Jones and Jesús Salazar are prosecuting the case.
Two Mexican men plead guilty to carjacking off-duty Border Patrol agent in McAllen
By ANGELA DODGE
Two 19-year-old men pleaded guilty on Tuesday, February 1, to carjacking the vehicle of an off-duty Border Patrol agent, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced.
Jorge Luis de la Fuente-Montón and Fernando Antonio Muñoz-Martínez, both 19-year-old citizens of Mexico, have pleaded guilty to one count of carjacking and now face up to 15 years in federal prison without parole for the conviction. U.S. District Court Judge Randy Crane, who accepted the guilty pleas and convicted both men, has set sentencing for April 21, 2011.
Muñoz-Martínez, who had been scheduled for jury selection on February 1 for a trial on the charges, changed his mind and instead pleaded guilty. Fuente-Montón pleaded guilty on January 28.
Had the case gone to trial against either defendant, the United States was prepared to present evidence proving that on July 3, 2010, at approximately 2:35 a.m, McAllen Police Department officers responded to the area of 15th Street and Jackson regarding an aggravated robbery. Officers met with the victim, an off-duty Border Patrol agent, who told officers two Hispanic males had assaulted him, brandished a knife and had taken his 2010 Chevrolet pickup truck. Officers issued a bulletin to area police agencies.
Approximately 15 minutes later, at 2:50 a.m., Fuente-Montón and Muñoz-Martínez were detained at the Hidalgo Port of Entry by Hidalgo Police Department officers before they could exit the United States with the victim’s 2010 pickup.
Both men have been in federal custody without bond since their July 2010 arrest and will remain in custody pending their sentencing hearings.
The investigation leading to the federal charges was conducted through a joint effort between the FBI and the MPD. Assistant United States Attorneys Juan Villescas and Patricia Rigney are prosecuting the case.
McAllen freight broker detained without bond on wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud charges
By ANGELA DODGE
Following a hearing on Tuesday, February 1, United States Magistrate Judge Peter Ormsby ordered that Alejandro “Alex” Mascorro Jr., 41, of McAllen, held in federal custody without bond pending trial on charges of wire fraud and bankruptcy fraud, United States Attorney José Ángel Moreno announced, along with U.S. Secret Service (USSS) Special Agent in Charge Jacqueline Carter.
Mascorro was indicted by a federal grand jury in McAllen on five counts of wire fraud and one count of bankruptcy fraud on January 25. The following day, USSS special agents, whose investigative efforts led to the charges, arrested Mascorro at his residence and placed him into custody where he has remained without bond pending the February 1 hearing. After considering the factors relevant to bond, including the weight of the evidence and Mascorro’s history and characteristics, Ormsby denied bond to Mascorro – finding that to release him would, among other things, pose a danger to the community.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence. A defendant is presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.
According to the indictment and the testimony presented by the United States at the February 1 hearing, Mascorro was employed by several truck brokerage companies operating in Hidalgo County over the last 10 years. In particular, from September 2004 through May 2009, Mascorro worked for an Alamo business engaged in coordinating all aspects of the ground shipment of bulk goods for its customers. Mascorro was responsible for, among other things, providing Doria’s truck drivers with money to be used for incidental expenses throughout their trips. The company provided this money to its drivers through Comcheks, a money transfer system operated by Comdata Inc., of Brentwood, Tenn. The company’s truck drivers could cash Comcheks at any truck stop provided they filled them out with a valid express code. Comdata assigned express codes to Doria in $1,000 increments which, in turn, would be given by Mascorro to the drivers when they needed cash.
From January 2008 through May 2009, Mascorro allegedly used the company’s express codes without authorization to cash thousands of dollars worth of Comcheks. In addition, in some instances, Mascorro allegedly recruited several other individuals to cash Comcheks for him in exchange for cash kickbacks. These other individuals would use fictitious drivers license numbers and addresses to conceal the alleged fraud.
In addition, subsequent to his employment with the Alamo company, Mascorro worked for a national truck brokerage company based in Lakeland, Fla., from May 2009 through March 2010. Mascorro was a freight broker in the company’s McAllen office. As a freight broker, Mascorro quoted shipment prices to customers, hired truck drivers to ship the customers’ goods at the company’s expense and collected payment from customers pursuant to invoices issued to them by the corporate accounting office. While working for this company, Mascorro allegedly formed a shell company named Ardilla Enterprises Inc. (AEI), which purported to be an independent truck brokerage company. Mascorro allegedly began to persuade unsuspecting customers of his employer company to disregard his employer’s invoices for shipments and, instead, to pay AEI for the shipments pursuant to an AEI invoice he created and provided to the customers.
During the course of the alleged scheme, Mascorro received hundreds of thousands of dollars from his employer’s customers by check or wire transfer, all of which was deposited into an AEI bank account controlled by Mascorro. Additionally, at the outset of the alleged scheme, Mascorro attempted to conceal his actions from his employer by using new money he collected from a customer through AEI to make a payment to his employer to satisfy another customer’s older balance thereby giving his employer the impression that his accounts were operating without problems.
In addition, according to information presented at today’s hearing, Mascorro is alleged to have committed bankruptcy fraud in connection with a Chapter 13 bankruptcy petition he filed in U.S. District Court in October 2009. During the course of the bankruptcy proceedings, Mascorro allegedly made fraudulent representations to the bankruptcy court regarding his adjusted gross income for the year 2008 and, additionally, failed to disclose AEI as a business in which he served as an officer or director.
Each count of wire fraud carries a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison without parole and a $250,000 fine, upon conviction. The bankruptcy fraud count carries a sentence of up to five years in federal prison without parole and a $250,000 fine.
Assistant United States Attorney Gregory S. Saikin is prosecuting the case.