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A powerful congressional delegation visiting Edinburg – and led by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes – on Wednesday, March 27, learned from Mayor Richard H. García that the people of Edinburg and the Rio Grande Valley are standing on the precipice of greatness. “Edinburg has helped lead the charge for this merger (of the University of Texas-Pan American and UT-Brownsville) that will also bring us a UT medical school,” García told the gathering of political heavyweights at a welcome reception held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance. “This will single-handily reshape the face of the entire Valley – educationally, medically, economically.” From left, front row: Congressman Juan Vargas (CA); Alonzo Cantú, president, Cantú Construction, and founder of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance; Mayor Richard H. García; Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; and Congressman Tony Cárdenas (CA). Back row, from left: Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza, Jr.; Edinburg Councilmember Elías Longoria, Jr.; Congressman Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston; and Congressman Filemón Vela, D-Brownsville. See lead story in this posting.

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Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, featured center, on Saturday, March 23, was the keynote speaker for the South Texas Mayors’ Stakeholder Summit hosted by Mayor Richard H. García and the New Leaders Texas Foundation at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance. Castro, 38, is the youngest mayor of the top 50 largest American cities. He focused on the emerging statewide importance of the Rio Grande Valley, offering as proof the upcoming creation a major new university system, complete with a University of Texas System medical school, approved recently by the Texas Legislature. “I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that you are getting a medical school now. I believe there are many folks in Austin who see the future, who understand the power, both economically and electorally, of this community, who understand that if they don’t act now, then you are going to act for them later,” Castro said. “They understand that Texas is going in a new direction, one that includes everyone.” Featured, from left: Congressman Filemón Vela, D-Brownsville; Mayor Richard H. García of Edinburg; Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio; Mayor Raúl G. Salinas of Laredo; Mayor Chris Boswell of Harlingen; and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

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Texas legislative Republican leaders are pushing for new laws aimed at improving government transparency and empowering taxpayers to make informed decisions about taxes and public debt. Senate Bill 14 and House Bill 14, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, focus primarily on government transparency, and would provide taxpayers with vital information about government spending and debt. Senate Bill 13 and House Bill 13, authored by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. William A. “Bill” Callegari, R-Houston, focus primarily on public pensions, would require increased reporting for all public pension systems, and calls for essential actuarial information to be posted online so it is readily available and easy for taxpayers to find. Featured, from left during a February 7 press conference in Austin announcing the legislation, are: Rep. William A. “Bill” Callegari, R-Houston; Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie; Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts Susan Combs; and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst. See story later in this posting.

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A Senate committee on Wednesday, April 10, unanimously approved legislation by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, featured center, that will promote stronger incentives for job creation in Texas. The Senate Committee on Economic Development approved Senate Bill 1084 by Hinojosa, which relates to one of the most important job-creation tools available in state government: the Texas Enterprise Zone Program. “This legislation is about creating opportunity for Texans in economically-blighted communities through the creation of new jobs and new investment,” said Hinojosa. “The state of Texas leads the nation in job creation and consistently has a lower unemployment rate than national average. This bill will induce growth and economic development, making sure these distressed communities move forward with the state and are part of Texas’ flourishing economy.” Featured with Hinojosa addressing reporters on the Senate floor is Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg. See story on Hinojosa’s SB 1084 later in this posting.

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Blood pressure, blood glucose and A1C screenings are just three of the medical tests that will be conducted during the South Texas Senior Summit on Thursday, May 2, at the Pharr Events Center, located by U.S. Highway 281. The Senior Summit, organized by the Rio Grande Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is a project spearheaded by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen. The City of Pharr is co-sponsoring the event this year. Registration begins at 8 a.m., with screenings starting at 9 a.m. Other free screenings available will be for feet, vision, vein, dental, Alzheimer, and bone density. Other services will be discussed, such as Food Bank, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Elderly Abuse, etc. In addition, attendees will be able to dance to a popular musical group during the event, have lunch, and listen to what Hinojosa and Cuellar have to say about Medicaid and Medicare. Vendors who wish to secure a booth, or residents who wish to register, may obtain more information by contacting the Hispanic RGV Chamber at 928-0060. Featured discussing plans for the free blood pressure, glucose and A1C screenings are, from left: Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, President/CEO of the RGV Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and HEB pharmacists David García, Brandi McGee, Mary Briones, Eloy Piña, and René Verduzeo.

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Texas’ education policy would be dramatically improved under House Bill 5, coauthored by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg (featured right). The education system has drawn statewide concerns for depending too much on high-stakes standardized testing, especially for high school students approaching their graduation. HB 5 was overwhelmingly approved, 145 – 2, by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 26. “For too long, teachers in Texas have been forced to use their considerable skills to ‘teach to the test’ – that is, prepare students to pass a growing number of standardized tests, which takes time away from providing our young people with a great classroom experience,” said Canales. “In addition, House Bill 5 would provide flexibility for teachers to help students better develop their talents and pursue their interests, so they can succeed in the workplace or in college immediately after they graduate from high school.” Canales is featured here in Edinburg with Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, and Mario Lizcano (center), Director of Corporate Affairs for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, on Saturday, March 23, during the South Texas Mayors’ Stakeholder Summit. That event, which included several sessions on Friday, March 22, was hosted by Mayor Richard H. García of Edinburg and the New Leaders Texas Foundation at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance. See story later in this posting.

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Edinburg Mayor Richard H. García was among local and statewide leaders on Tuesday, March 19, to praise the Texas Legislature, and in particular, the Rio Grande Valley state legislative delegation, for helping bring closer the dream of a University of Texas System medical school for the Rio Grande Valley. “Impressive. Beyond expectations. They did a marvelous and amazing job,” García credited Valley state lawmakers. “We should be proud and be applauding our Valley delegation for coming together, getting it done so quickly, and with so many people on board.” UT System officials predict Gov. Rick Perry will have a bill to sign into law within a few weeks. See story later in this posting.

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San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, featured left, and Isaac García, a Texas journalist with http://www.YourValleyVoice.com, pose on Saturday, March 23, at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance following Castro’s keynote remarks during the South Texas Mayors’ Stakeholder Summit, hosted by Edinburg Mayor Richard H. García. Among his many achievements, Castro is the first Hispanic ever to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. He addressed a prime-time national audience during the 2012 political party convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Isaac García, whose print journalism experiences include work with the Valley Morning Star, the Edinburg Review, and the Valley Town Crier, is a trailblazer in his own right. He now produces video news reports that accompany his print work on http://www.YourValleyVoice.com, as that digital publication continues to increase its statewide, national and worldwide reach through the Internet. Castro and Isaac García represent the new generation of leaders in politics and the news media, respectively. Isaac García’s interview with Castro is available at http://www.yourvalleyvoice.com/youtube_0034b468-965c-11e2-9383-0019bb2963f4.html

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The future of the United States is in its children, and education is a must in order to succeed. Thus, the Rio Grande Valley Aggie Moms Club is hosting a Gig ‘Em Scholarship Golf Tournament on Saturday, April 27, at the Meadow Creek Golf Course in Mission to help raise money for students who wish to attend a Texas A&M campus. Breakfast and lunch will be provided to all golfers, and Hole-in-One prizes will be awarded at four of the Par 3s, along with door prizes at the awards ceremony. For Aggie non-golfers, the Aggie Moms Club is encouraging them to be a Hole Sponsor for $100, which will feature the sponsor’s name and year of graduation posted on the course during the tournament. Team sponsorships also are available for $500, which entitles team sponsors to have their names listed on the Tournament Banner. The Hole-in-One vehicle sponsors are Frank Smith Toyota, Bert Ogden Cadillac, Spikes Ford and Bert Ogden BMW. “We truly appreciate their support of our scholarship tournament,” said Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, Tournament Chairwoman. “We honestly feel that their presence will create an additional interest to participate in the tournament. WHOOP!” For more information on available sponsorships or to register, call 451-5255 or go to http://www.rgvaggiemoms.com. Featured, from left: Toyota Tundra from Frank Smith Toyota; Angie Stephens and Cynthia M. Sakulenzki, RGV Aggie Moms Club; Bert Ogden Cadillac, Janet and Bob Vackar (Texas A&M graduate); Loly Aguirre, Spikes Ford; and Leo Luna, Bert Ogden BMW.

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Dr. René Gutiérrez, Superintendent of the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, says legislation authored by Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, will help prevent future misfortunes such as the one in December 2011, when rifle shots from a nearby rural property struck down two Harwell Middle School students, seriously injuring both. A House of Representatives committee has approved legislation that would allow school districts, in cooperation with local and state governments, to post signs along state or federal highways alerting Texans that a school is next to land that is used for hunting or target practice. That signage, along with the addition of an education component for hunters that spells out their personal responsibility, dangers, and legal consequences of firing bullets across the property line of a school, are key components of a bill by Muñoz. That measure, House Bill 801, was unanimously approved on Thursday, April 4, by the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety with the recommendation that it be passed by the full House of Representatives. Gutiérrez said the legislation “is proof that South Texans were going to respond immediately and effectively to this adversity, where the lives of two innocent, courageous students and their families were forever changed, and an entire community was traumatized.” According to the bill analysis of HB 801, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimated that 550 schools are located in rural areas where hunting near schools would be possible and require signage, Muñoz said. See story later in this posting.

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Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, had one of his bills, which would require all political candidates in Texas to take and pass drug screening and testing, considered on Monday, April 15, by the Senate Committee on State Affairs. Senate Bill 612, which would disqualify any candidate who refuses to be tested for using illegal substances, comes after Lucio late last fall voluntarily submitted to, and passed, a drug screening test to serve as a role model for Texas politicians. “Senate Bill 612 requires any individual who files to run for any elected state (office) to submit to drug screening and testing. The results must be posted by the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) 45 days prior to a primary election or 45 days before the general election if there is not a primary election for the office sought by the candidate,” Lucio said in his statement of intent. “TEC can post the results only after the candidate agrees to release the results. The secretary of state will create rules and/or forms needed to waive any privacy issues dealing with medical records. The cost of the drug screening and testing will be paid for by the filing individual.” See story later in this posting.

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Mayor García rallies congressional delegation to be part of Edinburg, Valley transformation

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A powerful congressional delegation visiting Edinburg – and led by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes – on Wednesday, March 27, learned from Mayor Richard H. García that the people of Edinburg and the Rio Grande Valley are standing on the precipice of greatness.

“Edinburg has helped lead the charge for this merger (of the University of Texas-Pan American and UT-Brownsville) that will also bring us a UT medical school,” García told the gathering of political heavyweights at a welcome reception held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance. “This will single-handily reshape the face of the entire Valley – educationally, medically, economically.”

The Rio Grande Valley on Tuesday, March 19, reached a major milestone when the Texas House of Representatives unanimously approved House Bill 1000, which would merge the University of Texas-Pan American with UT-Brownsville, a proposed system that would include the creation of a UT medical school.

An identical measure, Senate Bill 24, was approved by the Senate on March 13.

García was joined by City Councilmember Elías Longoria, Jr. and City Manager Ramiro Garza, Jr. at the March 27 event, which was a regional fundraiser for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). The CHCI is a nonprofit and nonpartisan 501(c) (3) organization, that provides leadership development programs and educational services to students and young emerging leaders. The CHCI Board of Directors is comprised of Hispanic Members of Congress, nonprofit, union and corporate leaders.

Hinojosa, who serves as CHCI Chair, was recognized and joined by more than 10 current and former members of Congress from Texas and across the nation, including three icons of national Hispanic leadership: former Congressman Eligio “Kika” de la Garza, D-Mission, and his wife, Lucille; and former Congressman Solomón Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

The Edinburg mayor also serves as president of the Board of Directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation. The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

García updated the national, Texas, and regional leaders in attendance about landmark legislation, being championed by the Valley’s state legislative delegation, soon to be on the way to Gov. Rick Perry for his anticipated approval.

The mayor told the congressional leaders that the UT merger/medical school measure will transform deep South Texas into an economic giant for Texas and the nation.

“We are now where San Antonio was 20 year ago in age, population, and demographics, and they had their medical school,” García said. “They are now the second-largest city in Texas and seventh largest in the U.S. We expect to see the fruits of that labor in this area down the road.”

The UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, with an annual operating budget of $736 million, credits itself as a chief catalyst for the $29.2 billion biosciences and health care industry in San Antonio.

The mayor, who has been successfully leading a coalition of regional political and business leaders to pass the merger/medical school legislation, called on the national leaders to part of the monumental advances that will herald the advent of a powerful Mexican-American constituency.

“You, as our representatives, should know that 88 percent of our population is Hispanic since you are with an Hispanic congressional group,” the mayor reported. “Thirty nine percent of our population is 18 years and younger. That represents not only Edinburg, but our metropolitan (Hidalgo County) area. Our medium income is $39,000 a year.”

He said the new UT university system and UT medical school would be key components of the region’s future development and prosperity.

“In the past decade, this area has grown tremendously. Edinburg has grown 60 percent and is still growing,” he said. “Right here at this wonderful medical facility (Doctors Hospital at Renaissance), they deliver 800 babies per month. That is enough to fill one elementary school a month, that’s how fast we are growing.”

With a remarkably large percentage of the area’s population being young, the mayor emphasized the need to promote the best interests of this vital generation of Texans.

“Do we need to open doors for our young people? You bet,” García said.

“We hear the clamor, and in the City of Edinburg, we continue to be very proactive to create jobs that pay more than the medium household income,” the mayor continued. “We want this to be the norm in our area. We want you to help us accomplish that. We want this to no longer be a place where students have to go away to study or get a good, high-paying job.”

“Our children deserve nothing less,” García said. “Together, I know we will all work to make this happen for our area.”

He concluded his remarks by invoking the memory of President John F. Kennedy.

“President Kennedy said, ‘Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction,’” García recalled. “I applaud your efforts in helping us provide opportunities for our youngsters. That is the leadership that involves and encourages our vision with a greater spirit of hope and achievement.”

During their visit to South Texas, the Congressional delegation also toured the Anzalduas International Bridge and the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge on Wednesday, March 27.

On Thursday, March 28, they participated in a health care discussion and tour of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and an education discussion and tour of UTPA, highlighting its merger with the University of Texas-Brownsville that will result in one of the largest Hispanic-serving institutions in the country.

The CHCI Regional Celebration of Latino Leadership is supported by Patron level supporters Border Health PAC, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Lone Star National Bank and Marathon Oil. Partner level supporters include ExxonMobil Corporation, Molina Healthcare, Renaissance Medical Imaging, and Mission Economic Development Corporation.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), the nation’s premier Latino youth leadership development and educational services organization, was in the Valley to also celebrates Latino leadership and commemorate the largest class of Hispanic members ever to serve in Congress, with 36 serving in the House and Senate for the 113th Congress.

All proceeds from the event benefit CHCI’s award-winning leadership development programs for Latino youth.

In addition to Hinojosa, the other Members of Congress who participated in the Valley tour included: Rep. Tony Cárdenas (CA); Rep. Joaquín Castro (San Antonio); Rep. Henry Cuellar (Laredo); Rep. Pete Gallego (Alpine); Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Houston); Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Dallas); Rep. Michelle Luján Grisham (NM); Rep. Raúl Ruiz (CA); Rep. Juan Vargas (CA); and Rep. Filemón Vela (Brownsville).

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on to: http://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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Senate approves legislation by Sen. Hinojosa to fund indigent health care in South Texas

By JENNIFER SÁENZ

Senate Bill 1623, authored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Thursday, April 11, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate. SB 1623 would help hospitals in the South Texas leverage more federal funds for indigent healthcare under the federal 1115 Waiver program.

“Senate Bill 1623 is a unique and innovative way of coming up with a structure that does not cost taxpayers any money. This legislation is critical for Hidalgo, Cameron and Webb counties, which do not have a public hospital system in their communities and yet they serve the largest uninsured population in the United States,” said Hinojosa. “In Hidalgo County alone, almost 40 percent of residents are uninsured, compared to 24 percent in Texas.”

Because these counties do not have hospital taxing districts, they do not have enough intergovernmental transfer funds to draw down the federal money. However, SB 1623 would solve this problem and allow these three counties to create a “Local Provider Participation Fund”, the South Texas lawmaker explained.

“The hospitals would assess a fee on themselves based on each outpatient that is served. Senate Bill 1623 prohibits this fee from being passed on to a patient. Then that fee is put into the Local Provider Participation Fund and used to draw down federal monies on a 60-40 match,” Hinojosa said. “It is a win-win situation because the hospitals also recapture the 40 percent they contributed.”

Roughly $541 million in federal funds is available to Valley hospitals in to pay for uncompensated care, but a funding mechanism is needed to take advantage of this, otherwise the money will be left sitting on the table in Washington.

“Health care is not a luxury, it is a necessity as our population continues to grow and age. We have to find ways to fund healthcare locally,” Hinojosa said. “I am proud of the bipartisan support that was shown in the Senate for our Rio Grande Valley communities and recognizing that this legislation is critical for our hospitals to be able to treat our indigent population.”

SB 1623 will now be sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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Legislation prompted by Harwell Middle School shooting approved by House committee, could help protect 550 Texas campuses

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A House of Representatives committee has approved legislation that would allow school districts, in cooperation with local and state governments, to post signs along state or federal highways alerting Texans that a school is next to land that is used for hunting or target practice.

That signage, along with the addition of an education component for hunters that spells out their personal responsibility, dangers, and legal consequences of firing bullets across the property line of a school, are key components of a bill by Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission.

That measure, House Bill 801, was unanimously approved on Thursday, April 4, by the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety with the recommendation that it be passed by the full House of Representatives.

“I am very pleased with the House committee passage of House Bill 801 because it is going to achieve our main goal of educating hunters, marksmen, and the public to be extremely careful since, often unknown to them, there are schools located next to rural lands used for hunting and target practice,” said Muñoz.

According to the bill analysis of HB 801, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimated that 550 schools are located in rural areas where hunting near schools would be possible and require signage, Muñoz said.

HB 801 still must be scheduled by the House Committee on Calendars for debate and action later this spring by the full House of Representatives. Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, who serves as vice-chairman of the House Committee on Calendars, is the only Valley legislator on that panel.

If approved by the House, Senate, and Gov. Rick Perry, HB 801 would go into effect on September 1.

Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, also is an author of HB 801.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, whose House District 40 includes much of Edinburg, testified in support of HB 801.

HB 801 is one of several measures filed by Valley legislators in response to a tragic episode in December 2011 at Harwell Middle School in rural north Edinburg. Two teenage boys, who were outside playing basketball, were shot, reportedly from a marksman practicing a mile away.

One of the students is paralyzed from the waist down as a result of the shooting, and the second youth lost a kidney and suffered other organ damage, according to the Monitor newspaper in McAllen.

“On December 12, 2011, two students were trying out for the basketball team at Harwell Middle School when they were shot and seriously injured,” Muñoz recalled. “Stray bullets from an individual(s) engaging in target practice on a nearby ranch crossed into school property, striking the students. Teachers, parents and students should not have to worry about stray bullets coming from surrounding areas while they are at school.”

Dr. René Gutiérrez, Superintendent of the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, testified in support of HB 801 on March 28, when the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety first considered the bill.

Gutiérrez said the legislation “provides a response to an incident that forever affected the lives of two innocent Harwell Middle School students and traumatized the community.” The Edinburg superintendent noted that in South Texas, he knows of dozens of public schools located next or near to rural properties used for hunting or target practice.

“Our School Board and Administration does not want another Harwell Middle School incident to occur anywhere else in the state,” said Gutiérrez, “We’ve taken a terrible event that affected our Harwell community and have proposed that the Legislature pass a law to protect future generations of Texas students who are at risk of a similar situation.”

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimates there would be a minimal cost with placing signs near those schools needing proper signage, and testimony during the March 28 public hearing showed that school districts could reasonably absorb this expense within their existing resources, Muñoz said.

As originally introduced, HB 801 had included a proposed provision which would have increased criminal penalties for hunters who knowingly discharged their firearm in the direction of a school.

But Muñoz, as per an earlier agreement with the Edinburg superintendent, removed that aspect of the legislation in order to move it out of the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Gutiérrez said the legislation would not negatively affect the rights of hunters, marksmen, or owners of properties next to campuses that are located outside city limits.

“We are not proposing to take away people’s gun rights, but rather to create more awareness and responsibility when discharging a firearm near schools,” said Gutiérrez.

“Our Board and Administration sincerely thank our South Texas legislators for recognizing the importance of protecting our students and staff, and ensuring parents that their children will be safe from stray bullets,” added Gutiérrez.

During the March 28 public hearing, Canales emphasized that HB 801 does not infringe on property owners or gun owners.

“We have done everything that we can to ensure that this doesn’t regulate property owners rights, that it doesn’t stifle gun owners rights,” Canales testified. “I am a ranch owner. I am an avid hunter, and I am against limiting property owners’ rights, against limiting gun owners’ rights. This is about education.”

According to the legislation approved by the House committee on April 4:

Subchapter A, Chapter 62, Parks and Wildlife Code, would be amended (changed) to read as follows:

Sec. 62.0122. HUNTER AWARENESS OF NEARBY SCHOOL. (a) In this section, “school” means a private or public elementary or secondary school.

(b) At the request of a school district, the Texas Department of Transportation shall:

(1) Place signs in appropriate places along state or federal highways to alert hunters to the proximity of a school; and

(2) Act jointly with municipalities and counties, as appropriate, to place signs along roadways maintained and operated by a municipality or county to alert hunters to the proximity of a school.

(c) A school district that requests a sign under Subsection (b) must pay the costs of the production and placement of the sign.

The education component of HB 801 affects the statewide education program, administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

As part of that education program, hunters would receive additional instruction on their personal responsibility as it applies to the discharge of a firearm.

Under HB 801, TPWD would include, in a hunter education program established under this section, in any written or Internet-based information produced by the department for the public that relates to hunting, and in any curricular materials that relate to hunting:

• Awareness of school property and other surroundings and the danger of discharging a firearm across the property line of a school; and

• Personal responsibility as it applies to the discharge of a firearm.

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Senate committee approves Texas Enterprise Zone/jobs-creation bill by Sen. Hinojosa

By JENNIFER SÁENZ

A Senate committee on Wednesday, April 10, unanimously approved legislation by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, that will promote stronger incentives for job creation in Texas.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development approved Senate Bill 1084 by Hinojosa, which relates to one of the most important job-creation tools available in state government: the Texas Enterprise Zone Program.

“This legislation is about creating opportunity for Texans in economically-blighted communities through the creation of new jobs and new investment,” said Hinojosa. “The state of Texas leads the nation in job creation and consistently has a lower unemployment rate than the national average. This bill will induce growth and economic development, making sure these distressed communities move forward with the state and are part of Texas’ flourishing economy.”

Hinojosa authored the original bill creating the Enterprise Zone Program in the 1980s to provide businesses with incentives to locate in economically disadvantaged areas and create jobs.

The Enterprise Zone Program refunds sales taxes to qualifying businesses that meet employment and investment criteria set out in statute. It has proven to be one of the most successful economic programs in the state of Texas with one of the best return on investment.

“This bill emphasizes stronger incentives for job creation, maintains incentives for job retention, promotes small business participation in the program, allows counties to partner with municipalities through inter-local agreements to nominate projects, and incentivizes the hiring of honorably discharged veterans in our communities and those that are returning home from service,” the senator explained.

“Jobs provide opportunities for individuals and families to better their situation and prospects. Jobs provide young adults with hope of a better future, individuals and parents the pride and dignity of being able to support themselves and their family, and communities an attractive future,” Hinojosa added.

His legislation must next be scheduled for debate and action before the full Senate.

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Edinburg’s retail economy improves more than
five percent in latest monthly finding by Texas

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg’s retail economy in February 2013 improved over the same period last year, with the latest monthly sales tax figures – which reflect the strength of the local economy – up more than five percent, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

According to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Edinburg’s retail economy in February 2013 generated $1,309,293.63 in local sales taxes, up 5.05 percent over February 2012 ($1,246,271.02).

For the first two months of 2013, Edinburg’s retail economy generated $5,633,722.33 in local sales taxes, an improvement of 6.10 percent over the same period last year ($5,309,601.62).

The local sales taxes are used statewide by local governments to help fund their operating budgets. In the case of Edinburg, a portion of the local sales tax revenue is used by the EEDC to help pay for vital economic development projects.

Under the reporting system used by the state comptroller’s office, local and state sales taxes generated on retail sales in February were collected by the state in March. In April, the state sent back the local sales tax portion – called a rebate – to the cities in which the retail sales were made.

This latest economic barometer is only one part of the economic prosperity going on in Edinburg, said Mayor Richard H. García.

“In the past year, local sales taxes generated by our prospering retail economy have increased 16.5 percent, and more than 5,000 jobs have been created over the past few years,” García said. “In 2012, the city issued building permits representing $160 million in construction, including $100 million for residential permits.”

García is president of the five-member EEDC Board of Directors.

The mayor’s information comes as four new restaurants are scheduled to open in Edinburg.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, often referred as Popeyes, will be opening up a fried chicken restaurant at The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley and on a site along West University Drive, north of Lowes.

Chick-fil-A, another national dining franchise, will be opening a restaurant next to the University Plaza, across from the University of Texas-Pan American, on the site of the now demolished University Inn.

The fourth new restaurant – Burrito Bar – will be opening at the University Plaza.

Edinburg’s retail economy compared favorably with other major Valley communities.

According to the state comptroller’s office, the Valley’s major cities reported the following local sales tax figures for February 2013:

• McAllen: $4,636,567.15, up 4.22 percent over February 2012 ($4,448,729.85);

• Edinburg: $1,309,293.63, up 5.05 percent over February 2012 ($1,246,271.02);

• Mission: $1,004,540.77, down 9.60 percent over February 2012 ($1,111,300.50);

• Pharr: $1,033,280.22, up 5.51 percent over February 2012 ($979,239.03); and

• Weslaco: $934,723.16, up 2.61 percent over February 2012 ($910,931.81).

All cities in Hidalgo County generated a combined total of $10,759,673.25 in local sales tax revenue in February 2013, compared to $10,294,900.20 during the same month last year, an improvement of 4.51 percent.

Brownsville, the Valley’s most populous city, saw its retail economy generate $2,632,203.51 in local sales taxes in February 2013, an increase of less than one percent, while Harlingen reported $1,622,881.11 raised in local sales taxes during that month, a drop of 2.22 percent, according to the comptroller’s office.

The State Sales and Use Tax is imposed on all retail sales, leases and rentals of most goods, as well as taxable services, according to the comptroller’s office. Texas cities, counties, transit authorities and special purpose districts have the option of imposing an additional local sales tax for a combined total of state and local taxes of 8 1/4% (.0825)

For details of the February 2013 local sales tax figures for all cities, counties, transit systems, and special purpose taxing districts, locate the Monthly Sales Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports at the comptroller’s website, log on to:

http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/allocsum/compsum.html

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on to:www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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Drug testing of all political candidates in Texas considered in public hearing on Monday, April 15, by Senate Committee on State Affairs

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Less than a week after the Senate considered two bills to require certain applicants for welfare and unemployment benefits to pass a drug test, the Senate Committee on State Affairs on Monday, April 15, reviewed a proposal by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, to require all candidates for public office in Texas to take and pass drug screening and testing.

Senate Bill 612, which would disqualify any candidate who refuses to be tested for using illegal substances, comes after Lucio late last fall voluntarily submitted to, and passed, a drug screening test to serve as a role model for Texas politicians.

“Senate Bill 612 requires any individual who files to run for any elected state (office) to submit to drug screening and testing. The results must be posted by the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) 45 days prior to a primary election or 45 days before the general election if there is not a primary election for the office sought by the candidate,” Lucio said in his statement of intent. “TEC can post the results only after the candidate agrees to release the results. The secretary of state will create rules and/or forms needed to waive any privacy issues dealing with medical records. The cost of the drug screening and testing will be paid for by the filing individual.”

SB 612 was the second bill scheduled for the Senate Committee on State Affairs, which held its public hearing, beginning at 9 a.m. on Monday, in the Senate Chamber.

Lucio serves on the Senate Committee on State Affairs, a nine-member panel led by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. Six of the nine committee members are Republican. Lucio, Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston, and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio are the three Democrats.

Live and videotaped broadcasts of the meeting will be available by logging on to the Senate website that carries Senate committee hearings at: http://www.senate.state.tx.us/bin/live.php

Lucio’s legislation, according to the bill analysis of his measure, would:

SECTION BY SECTION ANALYSIS

SECTION 1. Amends Subchapter A, Chapter 141, Election Code, by adding Section 141.005, as follows:

Sec. 141.005. DRUG SCREENING AND TESTING ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENT FOR PUBLIC ELECTIVE OFFICE. (a) Requires a candidate for a public elective office to submit to a controlled substance use screening assessment at the time the candidate either files an application for a place on a ballot or makes a declaration of write-in candidacy. Requires a candidate whose controlled substance use screening assessment conducted under this section indicates good cause to suspect the candidate of controlled substance use to submit to a drug test.

(b) Requires the authority with whom the candidate files an application for a place on a ballot or makes a declaration of write-in candidacy to administer a screening assessment or drug test required under this section at the candidate’s expense.

(c) Requires the authority that administered the assessment or drug test, after completion of a screening assessment or drug test required under this section, to obtain a waiver of confidentiality from the candidate with respect to the results of the screening assessment or drug test and to submit the results of the screening assessment or drug test to the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC).

(d) Requires TEC to release the results of a candidate’s screening assessment and drug test not later than the 45th day before the primary election or the general election, if there is no primary election for the office sought by the candidate.

(e) Provides that a candidate is not eligible for elective office if the candidate refuses to submit to a screening assessment or drug test required by this section or to waive the candidate’s privilege of confidentiality with respect to the results of the screening assessment or drug test required by this section.

(f) Requires the secretary of state to adopt rules to administer this section.

(g) Provides that this section does not apply to an office for which the federal or state constitution or a statute outside this code prescribes exclusive eligibility requirements.

SECTION 2. Makes application of this Act prospective.

SECTION 3. Effective date: September 1, 2013.

The full membership of the Senate State Affairs Committee follows:

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, Chair;

Sen. Robert “Bob” Deuell, R-Greenville. Vice-Chair;

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston;

Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay;

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston;

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville;

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonsville;

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio; and

Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands.

Regarding the legislation that involves drug testing and applicants for certain state benefits, according to Senate Media Services:

The first bill, Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would create drug testing standards for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) applicants.

TANF provides financial help for children and their parents or relatives who are living with them. Monthly cash payments help pay for food, clothing, housing, utilities, furniture, transportation, telephone, laundry, household equipment, medical supplies not paid for by Medicaid and other basic needs, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The amount of TANF payments and duration of those payments depends on family size and income.

Nelson’s SB 11 was unanimously approved by the Senate on Wednesday, April 10.

The second bill, SB 21 by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would set a drug testing standard for receiving unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.

Like SB 11, SB 21 would not require all UI applicants to take a drug test, just those that fail a screening test or work in certain industries that regularly drug test, like transportation jobs.

Under SB 11, all applicants would take a drug screening test, which is intended to identify likely drug abusers. Those flagged by the initial test would have to pass a drug test before they could receive benefits.

Likewise, individuals with a felony drug conviction or a history of failing drug tests would also have to pass drug tests.

SB 11 would require all applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to take a drug screening panel. This would be a questionnaire or some other metric used to identify individuals who are likely to be using illegal drugs. Those who are identified by this screening, along with those who have failed a prior drug test or have a felony drug conviction, would have to take a drug test before they could receive benefits.

Under SB 11, the first time a person fails a drug test, he or she would lose benefits for six months.

The second failure means the person is out of the program for a year, but he or she could reapply after six months if they complete or are enrolled in a drug treatment program. If a person fails a third drug test, they are out of the program permanently.

Children would never lose benefits under the SB 11, no matter how many times their parent or guardian failed a drug test. The bill would create a protective payee program, where the state can designate another responsible adult, usually a family member, to receive benefits on behalf of the child. In order to qualify to be a protective payee, an individual must also pass a drug test. This bill now heads to the House for consideration.

“My intent is absolutely not to hurt the children,” said Nelson. “But I believe that if mama is a serious drug abuser, that money is not helping, that money is buying drugs.”

Also on Wednesday, April 10, the Senate Business and Commerce Committee considered a measure that would let voters decide whether to permit limited gambling in the state.

Senate Joint Resolution 64, by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, would permit up to 18 different casino locations in Texas if two-thirds of the voters approve.

Carona said the state is already losing billions of dollars in gaming revenue to surrounding states, and legal gambling in Texas would bring thousands of jobs and much needed revenue into state coffers.

If approved, the measure would permit the construction of three destination casino resorts in three big cities.

It would permit three more on the barrier islands like South Padre Island, and three at racetracks.

It would grant nine licenses for slots or casinos elsewhere, and allow the three federally-recognized Texas Native American tribes to operate casinos on their reservations.

The state would levy a 20 percent tax on gambling gross revenue.

The measure remains before the committee.

On Wednesday, March 27, the Senate approved the nomination of Michael Williams as Commissioner of Education. In that role, Williams oversees the Texas Education Agency and is in charge of public education through high school. Williams was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry last summer.

Elsewhere, the Senate approved the Michael Morton Act, a measure intended to prevent wrongful convictions. The bill’s namesake spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and was recently freed after being exonerated by DNA evidence. The prosecutor in the case is accused of withholding evidence from the defense that might have kept Morton out of jail.

SB 1611 by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, would require that both the defense and prosecution must make available all relevant evidence during the discovery phase of a trial. Ellis said the act will ensure that trials are fair to all parties.

“We must weigh all relevant evidence and ensure we bring all the relevant facts to light to safeguard the innocent, convict only the guilty, and provide justice the people of Texas can have faith in,” he said.

••••••

Rep. Canales coauthors major reform of public education that includes elimination of wasteful high-stakes standardized testing of students

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Texas’ education policy would be dramatically improved under House Bill 5, legislation coauthored by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, that was overwhelmingly approved, 145 – 2, by the Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 26.

The legislation, which must still pass the Senate, is designed to present a fairer, more comprehensive public view of campus and district performances. It also will help students better prepare for success in the workplace or in college, and eliminate excessive state-mandated standardized testing, which wastes time, money and resources that should be dedicated to classroom instruction.

House Bill 5, whose lead author is Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, addresses concerns raised statewide and locally by educators, taxpayers, and business leaders, said the South Texas legislator.

“For too long, teachers in Texas have been forced to use their considerable skills to ‘teach to the test’ – that is, prepare students to pass a growing number of standardized tests, which takes time away from providing our young people with a great classroom experience,” said Canales. “In addition, House Bill 5 would provide flexibility for teachers to help students better develop their talents and pursue their interests, so they can succeed in the workplace or in college immediately after they graduate from high school.”

In recent years, education policy in Texas has focused on ensuring that students are academically prepared to pursue a postsecondary education, according to the bill analyses of the legislation. Interested parties contend that such efforts to increase the rigor of the curriculum and testing programs have unintentionally led to limited options during high school for students and an excessive reliance on standardized testing, ultimately leaving many students unprepared for life after high school.

High standards, expectations remain for students

HB 5 seeks to improve workforce preparedness by providing flexibility for students to develop their talents and pursue their interests through diploma endorsements, to reduce the emphasis on testing by decreasing the number of end-of-course exams students are required to pass to earn their diplomas, and to institute school ratings that provide a clearer understanding of overall school performance.

“Supporters of the legislation say HB 5 would bring needed balance to excessive state-mandated testing,” said Canales. “The current system costs too much in time, money, and resources that should be dedicated to classroom instruction rather than test preparation.”

Over-testing threatens the futures of high school students, most of whom now must pass 15 EOC (end-of-course) exams to be eligible to graduate, as opposed to five exit-level tests under HB 5.

The required tests would be algebra, biology, U.S. history and 10th-grade reading and writing. The bill would eliminate EOC testing in geometry, chemistry, physics, English I, world geography, and world history. The Texas Education Agency would be required to adopt EOC exams for algebra II and English III, which students could opt to take.

Even under these reduced requirements, the bill would maintain strict assessment requirements for graduation compared to other states, 42 of which require three tests or fewer and 25 of which require none.

While the commitment of Texas to public school accountability has certainly yielded gains in student achievement over the years, the burden created by excessive testing has grown too large, according to a bill analysis of the measure. HB 5 would address the excesses of the state’s testing and accountability system while maintaining high standards and expectations for Texas students.

“House Bill 5 also would develop a reporting system from the state that would provide educators and the public with fair, honest measures of a school district’s educational performances, and make that information easily available to the public.” Canales said.

The bill also would make changes to the high school curriculum that maintain rigor while providing students flexibility to pursue college or career interests. This would meet the growing need of Texas employers for skilled workers ready to enter technical trades, such as welding, pipefitting, and computer animation. Finally, the bill would broaden the accountability system to lessen reliance on test scores and provide a better understanding of overall school performance.

Edinburg leaders register support for HB 5

Edinburg school district leaders highlighted key aspects of HB 5 that they support.

According to Carlos Guzmán, Area Director, Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, HB 5’s school accountability provisions “contain what ECISD feels are elements that take the current condition of education in the ‘right’ direction.”

Section 5 (a) the Foundation Program will allow Fine Arts, Career and Technology, Athletics, and all other Elective type classes to thrive, he said.

“The current system is too stringent and inflexible and creates an assembly-line feature that stifles the element of choice for students,” Guzmán noted. “This will eliminate the current state of high number of EOC tests, and the high number of students having to retest.”

Section 26 (a) will allow schools time (scheduled to begin 2013-2014) to better understand the new accountability system for the stated areas: School Campus and District Performance, Performance in Community and Student Engagement, Special Accreditation, and Finance, he reflected.

••••••

South Texas College leadership holds public forum in Weslaco on Tuesday, April 9 to begin groundwork for $159 million bond election

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Although the South Texas College leadership has not yet officially called a November 2013 election for a proposed $159 million bond issue, as the cliché says – “it’s all over but the shouting.”

The decision has all but been made.

“The board has not gone through the process of calling the election,” said STC President Shirley A. Reed. “But they are moving forward.”

On Tuesday, April 9, the STC Board of Trustees held a public hearing in Weslaco, which STC officials had, appropriately enough, entitled “Reflections on Our Achievements, Opportunities for the Future”.

That session represented the first major community outreach effort by STC to inform voters about what the probable bond election – favored by trustees – would mean for Hidalgo and Starr county residents.

The Tuesday, April 9 session, which began at 5:30 p.m., was held in Building F, Cafeteria at STC’s Mid-Valley Campus, 400 N. Border in Weslaco.

STC leaders say that the bond issue, if approved by voters, would increase the annual STC property tax by $35 on a home whose taxable value is $100,000.

“We will begin having public forums and discussions,” said Reed. “We want to review what has been done in that community, what we are proposing for the Mid-Valley. We want to bring our nursing allied health program to the Mid-Valley, classroom space for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and academic programs.”

STC, which has major campuses in McAllen and Rio Grande City as well, would gain significantly if voters support the college system leadership’s call to build the additional facilities needed to absorb an unprecedented, predicted student enrollment by the end of this decade.

“We are preparing for an enrollment of about 42,000 students by 2020. If we are successful in fall 2013 (the November bond election), we think it will take us three years to construct and get students into these buildings,” she said. “We are already considered very large, but we would be a little larger than very large. Not as big as the largest, such as in San Antonio and Houston, but it certainly would make us one of the largest higher education institutions in the Valley.”

During its regular monthly board meeting held on Tuesday, March 26 at the Pecan Campus in McAllen, STC trustees released their preferred list of proposed construction projects, their planned locations, and academic focus.

Trustee Gary Gurwitz of McAllen, who serves on STC’s Facilities Committee, announced the list of construction priorities, based on previous sessions of that panel, including a Thursday, March 21 committee meeting that was held at the Pecan Campus.

STC Board Secretary and Trustee Graciela Farias of La Joya, Reed, and other STC administrators also attended the March 21 Facilities Committee gathering.

“The (Facilities) Committee has gone over them before. We were all satisfied these are the facilities we need, where we need them, and the exact description. How they are going to be constructed will be developed later,” Gurwitz reported. “But these are the items the committee felt should be included in the bond issue.”

In addition to Gurwitz, fellow trustee Jesse Villarreal of Weslaco and Rose Benavidez of Rio Grande City, who is Chair of the seven-member STC Board of Trustees, serve on the Facilities Committee.

Reed, the founding president of STC, said the new construction is needed to meet the expected growth of the college, which was created in 1993 by the Texas Legislature under a measure by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Rep. Roberto Gutiérrez, D-McAllen.

The two-county higher education system currently boasts more than 30,000 students, and a faculty of more than 1,600.

The next step in the process is to “begin developing renderings of these facilities,” Reed said, promising that STC officials will begin working with master planners of the proposed expansion to provide “some general schematics of what the buildings will look like. The public will have a chance to see what the new nursing allied health building to look like, and so on.”

The estimated costs include the costs of construction, related parking, utilities, site work, computer technology, fixtures, furniture, equipment and fees for design, follow:

TOTAL COST: $159,028,940.

TOTAL ADDITIONAL SQUARE FOOTAGE: 564,548.

PECAN CAMPUS (McAllen)

Total Investment: $55,042,870

Total Additional Square Footage: 183,188

• Construct new 61,267-square foot academic building with classrooms, computer labs, and support space to accommodate student enrollment growth. Cost: $17,296,899.

• Construct new 40,000-square foot academic building with classrooms, computer labs, and support space to accommodate student enrollment growth. Cost: $11,292,888.

• 48,879-square foot STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) building. Cost: $16,018,393.

• 33,042-square foot multi-purpose space for student support services and activities. Cost: $10,434,690.

NURSING AND ALLIED HEALTH CAMPUS

(McAllen)

• Major campus expansion (87,222-square feet) for new and expanded nursing and allied health training programs, and clinical simulation center. Cost: $24,015,721.

TECHNOLOGY CAMPUS

(McAllen)

• Expansion (72,000-square feet) for technical and workforce training programs in response to local employment opportunities. Cost: $15,642,496.

MID-VALLEY CAMPUS

(Weslaco)

Total Investment: $34,187,269

Total Additional Square Footage: 110,707

• Health professions, STEM and other academic programs labs and related classrooms (76,069-square feet). Cost: $24,024,365.

• Expansion (34,638-square feet) for workforce training, library, advising, and student services. Cost: $10,162,904.

STARR COUNTY CAMPUS

(Rio Grande City)

Total Investment: $24,464,584

Total Additional Square Footage: 84,431

• Construct Health Professions and Science Center with classrooms and labs to offer nursing and allied health programs and STEM programs to Starr County students. 48,690-square feet. Cost: $14,440,646.

• Expand technical workforce training facilities for high-wage, high-demand jobs. 9,302-square feet. Cost: $2,733,748.

• Construct new library and renovate existing space for Cultural Arts Center. 16,516-square feet. Cost: $3,118,928.

• Expand facilities for student services, advising, admissions, financial assistance and activities. 9,923-square feet. Cost: $4,171,262.

REGIONAL CENTER FOR PUBLIC SAFETY EXCELLENCE

(Pharr)

• Establish new Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence to provide regional law enforcement, and public safety training for Hidalgo and Starr counties. 16,000-square feet. Cost: $4,240,000.

STC LA JOYA TEACHING SITE

(La Joya)

• Develop STEM labs and entry-level workforce training programs. 11,000-square feet. Cost: $1,436,000.

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on to: http://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

••••••

State commission that investigates complaints against Texas crime labs to be improved under legislation by Sen. Hinojosa approved by Senate

By JENNIFER SÁENZ

The Texas Senate on Thursday, April 4, unanimously passed Senate Bill 1238 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, relating to the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

SB 1238 clarifies and improves the powers and duties of the Texas Forensic Science Commission to ensure that a forensic analysis conducted in this state is based on sound scientific principles and not “junk science.”

“The passage of Senate Bill 1238 is a major step forward for the use of forensic science in Texas. The improvements we make under this bill continue to make Texas a national model in the field of forensic science,” said Hinojosa.

Senate Bill 1238 allows the Texas Forensic Science Commission to investigate and report on the integrity and reliability of a forensic analysis used in Texas, and strengthens the Commission by clarifying the law regarding investigations of accredited and non-accredited crime laboratories.

Forensic science is science used in public, in a court, or in the justice system. Any science used for the purposes of the law is a forensic science, according to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission investigates complaints that allege professional negligence or misconduct by a laboratory, facility, or entity that has been accredited by the public safety director of the Department of Public Safety of the State of Texas that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis.

“By providing the Forensic Science Commission with these additional tools, we can ensure that Texas continues to remain ahead of the curve and set the example for the rest of the nation by making sure that sound forensics are used in our state’s criminal justice system,” Hinojosa added.

SB 1238 has been sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Hinojosa was one of three senators in 2005 who sponsored legislation to create the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

That measure, House Bill 1068, amended Chapter 38, Code of Criminal Procedure by adding 38.01 Texas Forensic Science Commission (“FSC”).

In 2007, funds for the FSC were appropriated to Sam Houston State University and were included as a line item in the university’s budget. Accordingly, the university provides administrative support to the FSC and houses the FSC’s office in Huntsville.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission investigates complaints that allege professional negligence or misconduct by a laboratory, facility or entity that has been accredited by the Director of the Texas Department of Public Safety that would substantially affect the integrity of the results of a forensic analysis.

The term “forensic analysis” means a medical, chemical, toxicological, ballistic, or other examination or test performed on physical evidence, including DNA evidence, for the purpose of determining the connection of the evidence to a criminal action. The term does not include: latent fingerprint examinations; a breath test specimen or the portion of an autopsy conducted by a medical examiner or licensed physician.

••••••

Thousands of homes, businesses in rural areas of the Valley would see fire safety protection improved under legislation by Rep. Canales

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Thousands of homes and businesses in rural and unincorporated areas of the Rio Grande Valley could be better protected during fire emergencies under legislation filed by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

His measure, House Bill 1768, would encourage private utilities, such as a water supply corporation, to improve firefighters’ access to hydrants by shielding those firms from unfair liabilities if a hydrant malfunctions or provides inadequate water supply during a blaze.

His legislation was introduced as a response to unintended results from a law, enacted by the Texas Legislature six years ago, that affected fire hydrants in rural or unincorporated areas of the state.

In Texas, a device is considered non-functioning if it pumps less than 250 gallons of water per minute, according to the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association of Texas. This is a minimum requirement based on uniform standards adopted by the National Fire Protection Association and used across the country.

In 2007, state lawmakers approved HB 1717, which required fire hydrants be painted black if they are not functioning or not available for fire suppression services in a fire emergency.

“After passage of HB 1717, some water utilities began painting all of their hydrants black out of concern that the statute might subject them to lawsuits,” the South Texas legislator said. “Utilities that provide fire hydrants have interpreted this statute to mean that if they cannot guarantee a flow of 250 gallons per minute at all times, they can paint their hydrants black and thus avoid liability during fire emergencies.”

To avoid more rural hydrants from being taken away from use by firefighters, Canales, an attorney, wants water supply corporations in deep South Texas to receive the same legal safeguards provided by the state to municipal governments.

“Cities enjoy that legal protection, but not water supply corporations,” Canales added. “This is a bill which will potentially save lives in South Texas.”

Under current law, water supply corporations have no legal liability to maintain these hydrants at the 250 gallons per minute amount. Water supply corporations have to allow the construction of the hydrant but are not required to maintain them

Canales and Edinburg Fire Chief Shawn Snider shared their concerns during a public hearing on his bill on Monday, April 1 before the House Committee on International Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations.

Snider, a past president of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshal’s Association of Texas, said extending the cities’ legal protections on fire hydrants to private utilities is fair and makes sense.

“If we are able to indemnify water supply corporations from being responsible because a hydrant works today, but doesn’t work tomorrow by circumstances out of their control – such as someone hitting it or by the ground drying up and cracking the water line, thus making the fire hydrant unusable – then they shouldn’t be liable for it,” said Snider.

The veteran firefighter professional has served as Edinburg’s fire chief for the past 14 years.

“That’s reasonable because that is the same protection a city enjoys,” added Snider. “We have fire hydrants inside the city, but you never know until you get there and open that hydrant. Is it working today or are they doing water line work down the street (that makes a fire hydrant unusable), or was it hit and damaged?”

This is also a safety issue for rural residents because hydrants that could be used during emergencies, such as those that produce a flow of less than 250 gallons per minute, are currently painted black by the utilities to prevent liability, Canales further explained.

“This leads firefighters to believe that there is no water flow,” Canales said. “The truth of the matter is a hydrant that has a flow rate of 100 gallons per minute is often still useful for fire protection.”

“This is an issue that affects most of the unincorporated areas of Texas but it is easier to start with a local bill and perhaps eventually in the future bring this statewide,” he said.

HB 1768 changes the law in four counties: Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, and Starr.

In addition to exempting (freeing) a public water system from liability for a hydrant’s inability to provide adequate water supply in a fire emergency, Canales’ legislation also sets out conditions under which a hydrant is considered unavailable, and implements a color system for hydrants that are used only to fill the tanks of firefighting trucks.

Under HB 1768, Section 341.0357, Health and Safety Code, would be changed to include the following:

• Hydrants not painted black or concealed do not constitute a guarantee by the water utility that the hydrant will deliver a certain amount of water flow at all times.

“This would discourage utilities from painting all of their hydrants black to prevent liability and allow firefighters to identify hydrants that can be used when fighting fires,” Canales said.

• Utilities may paint the cap of a hydrant white if the hydrant is available only to fill a water tank on a fire truck used for fire suppression services, which will provide guidance to firefighters/

• Amend Section 341.0357 (b) to address the following: Definition of nonfunctioning: 250 gallons per minute requirement of all times.

“Hydrants that do not have a flow of 250 gallons per minute at all times can still provide relief during fire emergencies.” Canales said.

The State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association is the oldest and largest fire service association in Texas with approximately 19,000 members. SFFMA provides certification for volunteer fire fighters and departments across the state and sponsors the world’s largest fire school at Texas A&M University.

Water Supply or Sewer Service Corporations are non-profit, member-owned and member-controlled corporations organized under Chapter 67, Texas Water Code, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. As such, these organizations are subject to the laws and regulations governing the operations of non-profit corporations. The operation of a water supply corporation is the responsibility of its board of directors. Directors are elected by the corporation members.

There are more than 740 water utilities in the state that belong to the Texas Rural Water Association. The TWRA, whose members serve about 2.5 million people, represents a full spectrum of the drinking water community including nonprofit water supply and sewer service corporations, special utility districts, municipal utility districts, WCIDs, small municipal utilities and privately-owned water utilities.

One of the main water supply corporations in the Valley is the North Alamo Water Supply Corporation, headquartered in Edinburg, which is part of Canales’ House District 40.

According to the North Alamo Water Supply Corporation (NAWSC):

• It provides water utility service and wastewater utility service for rural residents of eastern Hidalgo County, Willacy County and northwestern Cameron County.

• NAWSC presently serves about 37,000 meter connections, which include households, numerous businesses, 27 schools, and 14 other Public Water Systems, from six surface water treatment plants and four reverse osmosis treatment plants.

• The corporation also serves approximately 2809 Wastewater connections, which include households, numerous businesses, six schools, from 4 Wastewater Treatment Plants and 6 sewer collection systems.

• NAWSC is currently in the construction phase of a Reverse Osmosis water treatment Plant for the North Donna Area and expect to advertise for bid for a new Water treatment Plant in the Delta Area to help meet potable (drinking) water demands.

••••••

Hidalgo County approves installation of filling stations in new county subdivisions to help provide water for firefighters to battle blazes

By KARINA CARDOZA

The recent and pervasive drought has left Hidalgo County extremely vulnerable to the risk of fires, keeping firefighters busy this time of year. Many of these fires are located in rural areas, such as colonias, where water is not always easily accessible. On Tuesday, April 2, Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court took action and approved a new requirement that will aid firefighters in combating fires quickly and efficiently, saving time and lives.

The Planning Department, in conjunction with the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s office, Emergency Management and North Alamo Water Supply Corporation (NAWSC), presented the court with a proposal to require all new subdivisions developed outside city limits to install “filling stations” on their property. These “filling stations” are essentially fire hydrants.

However, to distinguish them from regular city fire hydrants they will be painted black. This will signify that the “filling station” is connected to a privatized water supply.

During a fire emergency, firefighters would be able to access the water from the filling station, instead of having to go into the city and fill up from a city fire hydrant. This would drastically cut their response time, improving the safety and welfare of Hidalgo County residents.

“This benefits the fire departments, benefits the citizens and helps with the availability of water in the county,” said Hidalgo County Fire Marshal Juan Martínez.

Presently, the filling stations are being installed in NAWSC areas of Precinct 1 and Precinct 2. The Planning Department is reaching out and working with other water companies in Hidalgo County to implement this requirement in future subdivisions in their areas as well.

Developers interested in learning more about the new requirement are encouraged to contact the Hidalgo County Planning Department at 956/318-2840.

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Bill by Sen. Lucio to modernize fees assessed by irrigation districts approved by Senate

By DANIEL COLLINS

Legislation by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, which would modernize how irrigation districts assess fees was passed by the Senate on Monday, April 8.

Senate Bill 611 would change the manner in which all water districts — water improvement districts, water control and improvement districts, and irrigation districts — determine the amount of flat rate assessment against the irrigable land they serve.

Historically, these districts have served various clients, including local farmers, homeowners who flood-irrigate their yards and local cities’ public utilities. Due to urbanization, however, water districts that previously substantially delivered only irrigation water are now delivering larger amounts of raw untreated water to cities.

SB 611 would allow water districts to determine flat rate assessments by taking into account the amount of expected expenses which are associated with both the district’s irrigation and city water delivery services.

This bill previously passed out of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources in late March.

“Laws concerning Texas water districts have not kept up with changing times, including changes in cost, technology, and the increasingly urban clients these water districts serve,” Lucio said.

SB 611 moves to the Texas House of Representatives.

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Mayor Richard García praises Valley lawmakers for fast progress on UT medical school, UT-Pan American/UT-Brownsville merger bill following House approval

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg Mayor Richard H. García, Gov. Rick Perry, The University of Texas System Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa on Tuesday, March 19, praised the Texas House of Representatives for its unanimous vote on legislation that will merge UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville, and create a UT medical school as part of that new system.

“Impressive. Beyond expectations. They did a marvelous and amazing job,” García credited the Valley legislative delegation. “We should be proud and be applauding our Valley delegation for coming together, getting it done so quickly, and with so many people on board.”

The House approved the bill 149-0 earlier that day. On Wednesday, March 13, the Senate passed a companion bill, Senate Bill 24, with a vote of 30-1.

Under the legislative process, whichever bill – Senate Bill 24 or House Bill 1000 – that first receives final approval from the full Texas Legislature and by the governor will be the measure that goes into law.

UT System officials predict Perry will have a bill to sign into law before the end of the regular session on May 31.

“Expanding higher education opportunities in South Texas is a critical next step in one of the fastest growing regions of our state,” Perry said in a statement. “I applaud members of the Legislature who have worked hard to move our state one step closer to this important goal.”

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, is the lead author of HB 1000.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, and Rep. Óscar Longoria, Jr., D-La Joya, are authors of the legislation.

Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, are among the leading coauthors of HB 1000.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is the lead author of Senate Bill 24. Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, are authors of SB 24.

The Edinburg mayor, who has been a key player in helping rally regional political support for the legislation, said in the coming days he and fellow local leaders will announce a plan to help raise local funding to help pay for the planned UT medical school.

“We are seeing this legislation moving so quickly, we are talking about funding, what we are going to put together, such as from philanthropies, to help the medical school get off the ground and make it a success,” García said.

Public medical schools, such as the one planned for the Valley, receive money from different sources, including state funds, grants, tuition and fees from students, revenue from local and county governments, federal programs, and so on.

García added that he and the Edinburg City Council will now focus on working with the UT System Board of Regents and other top UT System leaders on numerous issues, such as the structure and locations of the medical school campus and programs, the name of the new university, and other major elements of the legislation.

“People will now see Edinburg focusing on the Board of Regents, what the plans will be and so on,” the mayor predicted. “Just as we lobbied the Texas Legislature, we will begin lobbying the UT System Board of Regents.”

For its part, the UT System leadership also heaped praise on state lawmakers for their actions.

“We are so thankful for the strong support we received today from the House of Representatives and earlier this month from the Texas Senate,” said Powell, formerly of Weslaco and now a resident of San Antonio.

Powell serves as chairman of the UT System Board of Regents.

“It is gratifying to know that lawmakers and leaders across the political spectrum have come together to give students of South Texas access to a first-class education,” he said.

Powell also expressed appreciation to the entire Rio Grande Valley community, including mayors, elected officials and residents who have all worked to make a South Texas university a reality.

“This has been a team effort from the start, and we are thrilled to be one step closer to bringing this dream to fruition,” Powell said.

Cigarroa, a Laredo native and the first Mexican American to lead the UT System, singled out South Texas lawmakers.

“We are very grateful to the members of the Legislature, and especially to the Rio Grande Valley delegation for supporting our vision for South Texas,” Cigarroa said. “We are not there yet, but we’re on our way to forever transforming the educational and health care landscape of the Rio Grande Valley.”

The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Richard García as President, Dr. Glenn Martínez as Vice-President, Fred Palacios as Secretary-Treasurer, Felipe García, and Jaime A. Rodríguez. For more information on the EEDC and the City of Edinburg, please log on to: http://www.EdbgCityLimits.com

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Comptroller Combs favors legislation by fellow Republicans to promote transparency in state government and state pensions

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs continues to favor legislation filed by fellow Republicans that are aimed at improving government transparency and empowering taxpayers to make informed decisions about taxes and public debt.

Senate Bill 14 and House Bill 14, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, focus primarily on government transparency, and would provide taxpayers with vital information about government spending and debt.

Senate Bill 13 and House Bill 13, authored by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rep. William A. “Bill” Callegari, R-Houston, focus primarily on public pensions, and would require increased reporting for all public pension systems and calls for essential actuarial information to be posted online so it is readily available and easy for taxpayers to find.

“People need to know what their government is doing, and how it spends their money,” Combs said. “We need to implement common-sense changes that put vital information about government spending and debt in front of the public.”

“For government to be held accountable for efficiently providing essential services, Texans need to be able to track how and where their hard-earned dollars are spent,” said Gov. Rick Perry. “I applaud Comptroller Combs’ efforts to work with the Legislature on bills that improve accountability and provide more information to taxpayers.”

“We all want transparency in government, and with the number one economy in the country, Texas should be the national model for financial transparency,” said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

“Government becomes more accessible and accountable when the public understands how their money is spent,” said Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus. “This legislation will increase transparency and help local governments better communicate with taxpayers.”

Combs, Dewhurst, Perry and Straus are Republicans.

Most voters don’t know how much debt they are carrying, and how much debt service they are currently paying before they choose to vote for more debt. This transparency legislation would require that additional information be included on the ballot when new debt is presented to voters for approval, such as total debt outstanding, debt service, and existing per capita debt obligation.

The transparency legislation would also put limitations on certificates of obligation (CO) which governments use to issue debt without voter approval.

“Senate Bill 14 will ensure the CO process is not abused and will give the power back to the taxpayers, the people who are actually paying the freight, by requiring governments to tell voters how they can petition for an election, and by also reducing the number of voters required to petition for an election,” Williams said.

Finally, the transparency legislation would require all taxing entities to post financial information online, including revenues and expenditures and detailed information on long-term debt obligations.

“When we write the budget each session, we require transparency and access to information,” Pitts said. “Texas taxpayers deserve the same level of transparency and openness, and House Bill 14 will deliver just that.”

The pension legislation would require public pensions across the state to publicly report actuarial information, including net investment returns for each of the last 10 fiscal years, as well as one-year, three-year, five-year, 10-year, 30-year and since-inception rolling rates of return.

“It is important for taxpayers to feel confident that public pensions in Texas are being managed properly to ensure long term financial health,” Duncan said. “Senate Bill 13 aims to give citizens the information they need to feel secure about public pensions.”

In addition to increased reporting requirements, the pension legislation also calls for mandatory education for public pension system administrators.

“House Bill 13 is aimed at protecting the taxpayers who foot the bills for public pensions and the employees who deserve to know if their retirements are financially secure,” Callegari said.

Both the transparency and pension legislation call for measures similar to the recommendations Combs recently outlined in her series of reports titled Texas It’s Your Money. Each of the reports focused on financial obligations of taxpayers and provided suggestions on how governments could provide more transparency regarding those obligations.

For more information, please visit: http://www.texasitsyourmoney.org.

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School bus drivers would gain eligibility for unemployment benefits under legislation by Rep. Canales heard by House committee

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

School bus drivers in Texas who are laid off by public school districts during the summer – through no fault of their own – would qualify for unemployment benefits under legislation by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

Millions of qualified workers in Texas are protected from financial disaster through unemployment insurance, which is an employer-paid program that pays benefits to employees who lose their job through no fault of their own, according to the Texas Workforce Commission

But existing state law denies certain categories of employees, such as school bus drivers, this protection because school districts can claim they plan to rehire them – even though they have no legal obligation to do so – when the Fall semester begins.

“Currently, school bus drivers cannot file for unemployment benefits at the end of May, when they are essentially laid off because they are forced by school districts to sign a statement saying there is a ‘reasonable assurance’ they will have a job at the end of August, when school starts again,” Canales explained. “It is my belief that this is unfair.”

His measure, House Bill 1095, was considered during a public hearing on Thursday, March 21, by the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee.

“We paint the bus yellow so it’s visible, making our children safe. But the Texas Labor Code essentially clothes the drivers of those buses in camouflage so these men and women are invisible and unprotected,” Canales said. “School bus drivers have made a commitment to their school district and students, and we should reward them like everyone else.”

The House District 40 lawmaker said school districts, intentionally or unintentionally, lead bus drivers to believe they will return to work at the end of summer. But school districts are able to abruptly lay off bus drivers when the Fall semester begins.

He said such practices jeopardize the well-being of school bus drivers throughout Texas.

“They struggle because they are essentially laid off every summer and have no guarantee, through a contract, that they will have their job when school begins for the Fall semester. In the meantime, they cannot apply for unemployment benefits,” Canales said. “When most companies decide to furlough their staff for three months, the employees are eligible for unemployment benefits. Why should school bus drivers be treated differently?”

Canales’ proposal was endorsed by Dwight Harris, representing Texas AFT, the Texas State Affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.3 million members nationwide, including 65,000 members in Texas.

Harris, who volunteered his testimony, agreed with the need for the bill, noting that many school bus drivers are members of Texas AFT.

“Some of those drivers are able to drive summer routes, but many of them have to look for additional work or suitable work during the summer, then come back in the Fall,” Harris reported. “For those who are not able to find work, this bill will provide income to help sustain their families until school starts again in the Fall.”

Canales said residents in his legislative district brought the issue to his attention.

“My district is relatively rural and I have a whole lot of constituents who are bus drivers, and they struggle every summer,” the state representative reflected.

Canales said school bus drivers represent a profession important to society yet so often overlooked.

“School bus drivers are an indispensable part of our education system, carrying society’s most precious cargo: our children, who are our future,” Canales said. “School bus drivers contribute greatly to our children’s education by making sure students get safely to and from school while driving a 28,000 pound bus across a long route. We entrust them with our families, yet fall short of protecting their families by providing them unemployment benefits.”

He added that by safely transporting students, bus drivers make it possible for their school district to generate millions of dollars in state revenue.

“Our bus drivers are tasked with making sure students of all ages and throughout Texas make it to school safely, and on time. This is not only essential to the educational process but part of the school funding formula,” Canales said. “If children are not in class, schools lose funding. But we fail to properly protect and compensate those who make possible the attendance of countless children.”

According to state law, all public schools receive money from Foundation School Program (FSP) funds and other funds allocated by the Texas Education Agency based on the average daily attendance (ADA) of students.

HB 1095 seeks to give bus drivers job security as they play a vital role in helping advance Texas children’s educational futures, he contended.

The measure, as is the usual process in the legislative committee hearing process, will be scheduled at a later date by the committee chair for final action by the House panel.

Rep. John Davis, R-Houston, is chairman of the House Committee on Economic and Business Development. Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, serves as vice-chairman of that panel.

The other members of the committee are: Rep. Cecil Bell, Jr., R-Magnolia; Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas; Rep. Jason A. Isaac, R-Dripping Springs; Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston; Rep. Mary Ann Pérez, D-Houston; Rep. Eddie Rodríguez, D-Austin; and Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin.

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Smugglers head to federal prison for raping and threatening undocumented immigrants

By ANGELA DODGE

Miguel Aceves, 40, of El Salvador, and Valentine Peña-Román, 41, of Mexico, have been sentenced to significant federal prison time for smuggling undocumented immigrants, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced on Monday, March 25.

Also on March 25, Juan David Alviso-González, 18, of Mexico, was sentenced to jail time for smuggling undocumented immigrants, sexual assault, and attempted sexual assault, Magidson added.

In the first case, Aceves and Peña-Román harbored undocumented immigrants in Alamo from October 1 to October 4, 2012.

While at the stash house, multiple undocumented immigrants were threatened by Aceves and Peña that they would be hurt or killed if they did not pay more money. During this time, Aceves sexually assaulted one undocumented immigrant. Further investigation revealed that in September 2012, he had also sexually assaulted another female undocumented immigrant in San Juan.

On March 25, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced Aceves and Peña-Román to 96 and 70 months confinement, respectively.

Upon imposing the sentence, the court noted that Aceves was calculated in the ways in which the females were separated from the other undocumented immigrants. Crane enhanced Aceves’ sentence based on the repeated sexual assaults of the victims.

In the second case, Alviso-González harbored undocumented immigrants in Mission from October 21 to October 22, 2012, and he and others attempted to extort more smuggling fees from the undocumented immigrants.

During this time, Alviso-González sexually assaulted one undocumented immigrant and attempted to sexually assault another. On October 22, the undocumented immigrants called 911 for help, after which time law enforcement arrived and soon arrested Alviso-González.

Crane sentenced Alviso-González to 60 months imprisonment to be followed by three years of supervised release. Upon imposing the sentence, the court noted that the defendant preyed upon the vulnerability of the victim being that she was here in the United States illegally. The sentence against Alviso-González was enhanced because he raped the victim multiple times.

The first investigation leading to the charges against Aceves and Peña-Román was conducted by Homeland Security Investigations, Border Patrol, Alamo Police Department and the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office.

Assistant United States Attorneys Kristen Rees and Kimberly Ann Leo prosecuted the cases.

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Identity thieves are impersonating Medicare employees to target and scam senior Texans

State authorities are warning senior citizens to be wary of identity thieves who are posing as Medicare officials in an attempt to steal senior’s sensitive personal information.

According to recent complaints received by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, identity thieves are calling senior Texans at home and claiming to be affiliated with the federal Medicare program. The callers falsely tell seniors that the Medicare program’s current identification cards – which are well known for the red, white and blue stripes across the top – are being phased out and that replacement Medicare cards must be obtained in order to continue receiving benefits.

The callers’ plan to steal the identities of their victims soon becomes clear when seniors are told they must confirm their Medicare number and bank account information over the phone in order to receive a replacement card. Since a senior’s Medicare number is identical to his or her Social Security number, the caller’s request to “confirm” a Medicare number is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to steal the unsuspecting senior’s sensitive personal information.

Fortunately, a few wary senior Texans immediately questioned the callers’ request. But increasingly savvy identity thieves are prepared and attempt to create the false impression that they already have the senior’s personal information. As proof, the callers often repeat some of the call recipient’s personal information such as name, address and telephone number. But because this information is easy to obtain, the caller’s verification effort is actually just a devious ruse that attempts to mimic the practices of legitimate enterprises – like a bank or insurance company – in an effort to steal the call recipient’s Social Security and bank account number.

The best way to avoid any version of this telephone identity theft scam is to keep in mind that major federal agencies like the Internal Revenue Service and Medicare program never call Americans offering to provide services. These agencies communicate by U.S. mail – and never have their employees randomly call to confirm anyone’s personal information.

So to avoid being scammed, follow this rule: Never provide personal information to any unsolicited telephone callers. And when in doubt, just hang up the phone.

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Guilty pleas entered in Brownsville in family-run tax fraud case involving deceased people

By ANGELA DODGE

Judy Lynn McCune, Loretta Ann McCune and Rania Ann Sánchez have pleaded guilty for conspiring to defraud the federal government in a scheme to prepare federal tax returns and cash refund checks in the name of deceased individuals, United States Attorney Kenneth Magidson announced on Wednesday, April 10.

Loretta Ann McCune and Sánchez entered their pleas earlier that afternoon before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen in Brownsville while Judy Lynn McCune pleaded guilty on April 8, 2013.

Judy Lynn McCune admitted she recruited members of her family, including her mother, Loretta Ann McCune, and her sister, Sánchez, into the scheme.

The conspiracy involved obtaining Social Security numbers and dates of birth for deceased individuals through the Internet and then filing both paper and electronic federal income tax returns using the identifiers of these deceased individuals.

The refunds were directly deposited in the personal bank account or mailed to the personal addresses of the accused. The total scheme consisted of approximately 340 false claims totaling $763,124 in filed false claims.

The three women face up to 10 years in federal prison as well as a possible $250,000 fine at their sentencing, which has been set for July 15, at 8:30 a.m. before Hanen. They were permitted to remain on bond pending that hearing.

Robert and Edward Gutiérrez, Judy Lynn McCune’s sons, are also charged in the scheme and are currently set for trial in June 2013.

They are presumed innocent unless convicted through due process of law.

The case was investigated by IRS-CI and is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Karen Betancourt.

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