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Rep. Peña reportedly leaning against reelection bid

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Some of the major economic development leaders in Edinburg and Hidalgo County discussed their strategies for continuing the growth, which has lead to record-low jobless rates in Edinburg, during a May 17 luncheon at the ECHO sponsored by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce. The meeting, which featured a presentation on key initiatives by Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, included local elected and appointed political and business officials. Salinas, featured center, seated, along with Mayor Joe Ochoa, featured to the judge’s left, was also joined for this portrait by Ramiro Garza, executive director for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation; Dennis Burleson of Mission, chairman of the Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority; J.J. Rodríguez, city manager; Mike Govind, member of the EEDC board of directors; Mayor Pro Tem Gene Espinoza; Fred Palacios, member of the EEDC board of directors; and former Edinburg Mayor Richard García, who also serves as the president of the EEDC board of directors. The judge’s presentation is available on the internet (http://www.cityofedinburg.com/) or on the Edinburg Cable Network, which is on Time Warner Cable channel 12. See story later in this posting.

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Diana Rath, chair of the Texas Workforce Commission, has praised the legislative passage of a bill supported by the Texas Border Coalition, which will protect more than $12 million in state funds to help businesses and community colleges train employees. Rath, shown here during a visit to South Texas College in February, said thousands of workers along the Texas border region will benefit from the legislation, which is awaiting anticipated approval from Gov. Rick Perry. See story later in this posting.

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Robert Peña, Jr., 39, is the newest member of the Edinburg school board, winning in his inaugural bid for public office. Peña, former executive director for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, now owns a small business in the community. The Edinburg native, a former U.S. Army Sergeant, also served in the first Persian Gulf War. Peña succeeds former ECISD school board president Melba González. Hidalgo County County Court No. 1 Judge Rodolfo González (no relation to Melba González) administered the oath of office to Peña during swearing-in ceremonies at the Edinburg School Administration Building a few days after his election.

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Rep. Peña reportedly leaning against reelection bid

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is reportedly leaning against a bid for a fourth two-year term, a move that would cost his hometown powerful seniority in the Texas House of Representatives, where a bitter political struggle during the waning days of the legislative session was underway to replace his friend, Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

The five-month regular session was scheduled to end at midnight on Monday, May 28.

Following reports in the Valley news media on Saturday, May 26, that quoted Peña expressing serious reservations about running for reelection in the March 2008 Democratic Party primary, the veteran legislator has not issued any additional public statements nor has he denied the news reports being carried in Valley news outlets.

A top staff members with his Capitol office on Sunday said Peña would provide more details on his published comments, most likely after the legislative session wraps up.

His first scheduled public appearance in Edinburg is set for Thursday, May 31, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. during grand opening ceremonies of Edwards Abstract & Title Company, 3111 W. Freddy González Drive, in Edinburg.

As of late Monday evening, Peña had not addressed the news article on his website, http://www.acapitolblog.com/. During his posting on his website on Sunday, May 27, he focused on the House passage of legislation to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program to potentially more than 120,000 additional children of working families.

Late Friday evening, May 25, Peña expressed great dismay with an unprecedented political battle in the House of Representatives that on Saturday, May 26, made national news.

CBS News described the chaos Friday evening as a “five-hour rebellion on the House floor that included a bold attempt to boot him from office, the physical restraint of insurgent lawmakers trying to overtake the speaker’s podium, and the House parliamentarian nearly pushed to tears before resigning.”

Peña, who seconded Craddick’s nomination for Speaker of the House in January, was clearly disheartened by the political meltdown that is historic in nature.

“Words alone can not begin to communicate the troubling events at your Texas capitol,” Peña reported on his website, even posting a photo of a dark and angry sky descending upon the Texas Capitol. “We are but two days away from completion of the 80th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature and a conflict over who will be the occupant of the chair of the body has erupted.

Peña added, “Last night (Friday) every seat in the gallery was filled. The tensions and rhetoric were high. Each side of the argument has made their positions known to the body the only question that remains is the forum to decide the ultimate question. I still expect that forum to be the brutal primaries of March. For now, the passage of the budget is the last remaining necessity this Texas House must pass. I would hope that the anarchy we are presently observing does not interfere with our responsibility to pass the only bill we are required to pass each session.”

Craddick was still in control late Monday evening, the last day of the regular session, presiding over the House debate over the state budget and other major legislation.

If Peña chooses not to seek reelection – he has handily won three challenges – the political landscape in the city is sure to change with an open seat suddenly and unexpectedly coming available in the spring 2008 Democratic and Republican party primaries.

If both parties field candidates in March, then the November general elections in the city will include a campaign to represent House District 40, which includes all but southwest Edinburg, the Delta Area, La Joya, Sullivan City and smaller communities in northern Hidalgo County.

On Monday evening, Peña repeated his concerns about the political turmoil in the House of Representatives in his latest posting on his website, but again stated nothing to dispel the published reports that he may not seek reelection.

“As I have repeatedly noted before the bitterness and uber-partisanship that poisons Washington now infects the Texas State Capitol,” Peña chastised Craddick’s opponents. “Like the fall of ancient Rome when its generals put personal ambitions over their responsibility to the people of their state, our great state is poisoned by those who fail in their responsibilities to the governed. My hope is that today we, the elected officials of this state, will rise to the responsibility entrusted to us by the governed and get on with finishing the business of the state.”

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“Ronald Reagan Republicans” form PAC to counter alleged retaliation by Speaker Craddick

In a move to redirect the Republican leadership of the Texas House of Representatives, Republicans opposing the reelection of Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, have filed paperwork at the Texas Ethics Commission to form a political action committee to protect Republican legislative incumbents and candidates from attack in the upcoming 2008 primary.

The new PAC is titled “Ronald Reagan Republicans for Local Community Control and Speaker Term Limits.” The new PAC’s Board of decision makers will include the four House Republicans running for Speaker against Craddick (Jim Keffer, Jim Pitts, Brian McCall and Fred Hill) and the new PAC’s treasurer will be State Representative Byron Cook (R-Corsicana).

According the Ethics Commission filing, the new PAC will use the acronym: “3 R PAC.”

“The 3 R PAC will promote speaker term limits to make sure that the office of Speaker is dedicated to following the rules of procedure for the benefit of all 150 House districts, rather than twisting the rules of procedure to perpetuate the personal power of one member,” said Cook.

“The is a battle between Republicans over whether our party will follow the current path of infighting and self-destruction which has resulted in a loss of seven seats in the Texas House since Craddick took over or to follow the path of leadership through integrity exemplified by former Republican President Reagan,” Cook added.

Cook said the purpose of this PAC is to raise money to protect Republican incumbents and legislative candidates from vindictive acts and retaliation by Speaker Craddick and his supporters.

Over the past two weeks Craddick supporters have actively sought to recruit primary opponents for some of the Republicans opposing Craddick including Keffer and Cook.

“President Reagan’s11th Commandment was to not attack fellow Republicans,” Cook added.

“This PAC will be a watchdog to condemn any attempt by Craddick or his supporters to usurp decisions which should made by local Republican primary voters and not outside special interest agendas.”

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Sen. Hinojosa says funding for key projects in Edinburg, county, to be included in final state budget

By MELISSA DEL BOSQUE

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, announced on Friday, May 25, that millions of dollars in new appropriations will go to Hidalgo County in the next biennium for important issues such as water and health.

Hinojosa said a new substance abuse and primary care facility will be constructed in Edinburg.

“I worked very closely with the chair and members of finance to bring a substance abuse and primary care facility to Hidalgo County,” Hinojosa said. “Our communities are very much in need of substance abuse services and primary care. I want to also thank Rep. Aaron Peña (D-Edinburg) for his commitment and work on this issue.”

In addition, Hinojosa also worked to get $2 million to relocate the Boeye Reservoir in McAllen. That money will be used to relocate the reservoir and expand its capacity.

“McAllen and the region are growing so fast that we need to think ahead about our water supply and plan for the future,” Hinojosa said. “This will allow us to move the reservoir away from the McAllen Airport to a more secure location where the reservoir can be expanded and improved.”

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Texas Border Coalition scores big victory with protection of Skills Development Fund

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Legislation designed to protect over the next two years more than $12 million in the state’s Skills Development Fund, which helps provide customized workforce training to thousands of border residents, has been approved by the Texas Legislature.

House Bill 48 by Rep. Norma Chávez, D-El Paso, preserves a funding formula that dedicates money to the Skills Development Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund, two major economic development programs used by the state to create thousands of jobs.

The Skills Development Fund is an important part of the Texas Border Coalition’s efforts to bring higher paying jobs to the border areas by providing a trained workforce.

TBC is an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials representing more than 2 million residents who live Texas counties that border Mexico.

More than $40 million dollars was appropriated by the Texas Legislature for the 2006-2007 biennium, and grant applications are accepted year round, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Since the inception of the Skills Development Fund in 1996, more than 168,110 Texas workers have received training. Through collaborations between private industry and training providers, the Skills Development Fund is designed to assist employers meeting the demands of the ever-advancing marketplace and to help workers acquire new skills or upgrade existing skills, the TWC reports.

On Friday, May 18, HB 48 was approved by the Senate, and has been sent to Gov. Rick Perry for his approval. Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was the Senate sponsor for HB 48.

“I am delighted that the Texas Senate unanimously passed HB 48,” said Zaffirini. “This bill ensures continued state funding for skills development programs that greatly benefit Texas’ workforce. Retaining the current funding ratio allows the state workforce to remain competitive by providing sufficient resources for skills training. This results in additional training for more than 5,000 Texas workers per year.”

Under current law, 1/10th of 1 percent of Unemployment Insurance Fund, paid into by all employers, is used to fund the Skills Development Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund. From the Unemployment Insurance Fund, 33 percent goes to the Skills Development Fund and 66 percent goes to the Skills Development Fund.

Without HB 48, the funding formula was going to change on September 1, 2007, which would have resulted in a $6.4 million a year decrease in the Skills Development Fund.

“House Bill 48 keeps the ‘split’ of funding between the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Skills Development Fund at its current and original level,” said Chávez. “Maintaining the current split will allow 10,240 more workers to be trained by the TWC over the next two years.”

In 2005, Chávez and Zaffirini also sponsored House Bill 2421, which established the Employment and Training Investment Assessment (ETIA) that allocated funding to the Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) and the skills development program. It was HB 2421 that directed 67 percent of the ETIA holding fund to the TEF and the remaining 33 percent to the skills development fund.

Diane D. Rath, an appointee of Gov. Rick Perry and chair of the Texas Workforce Commission who represents the public, said HB 48 is important to the state.

“By developing skills training to meet the specific needs of employers, the Skills Development Fund has proven to be a well-structured formula for workforce development success,” said Rath. “We are grateful for the ongoing support of the Legislature for Texas’ premier job-training program.”

On May 16, TBC and other border leaders testified in support of HB 48 when it went before the Senate Finance Committee, which includes border lawmakers Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Zaffirini.

Among those witnesses were TBC members Wanda F. Garza with South Texas Community College, who also serves as chair of the TBC Workforce Development Committee; Ricardo Pérez of Mission; and Pat Townsend, Jr., President and CEO of the Mission Economic Development Authority and TBC treasurer.

“The passage of HB48 was a landmark decision of the Texas Legislative that will invest the Unemployment Insurance Funds to increase the Skills Development Fund to $52 million. These funds will provide job training opportunities for thousands of new and incumbent workers. Sen. Zaffirini, Rep. Chávez and the Texas Legislature are to be applauded for their commitment to raising the skill levels of our workforce,” said TBC’s Garza. “Building a skilled workforce will provide the state with the competitive edge needed to compete in a global market. Gov. Perry kept his promise to support increasing the Skills Development Fund to $50 million. We thank them.”

Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio are joint authors of the measure.

“This is a great bill,” said Peña.”Workforce training is such an important economic development tool.”

Members of TBC also include: Eagle Pass Mayor and TBC Chairman Chad Foster; Brownsville Mayor Eddie Treviño, Jr.; Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos; Del Rio Mayor Efraín Valdéz; Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa; El Paso Mayor John F. Cook; El Paso County Attorney José Rodríguez; Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell; Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz; Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas; Laredo Mayor Raúl G. Salinas; McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz; Maverick County Judge José “Pepe” Aranda, Jr.; Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas; Pharr Mayor Leopoldo Palacios, Jr.; Roma Mayor Rogelio Ybarra; and Weslaco Mayor Joe V. Sánchez.

The Texas Border Coalition maintains a web site at http://www.texasbordercoalition.org.

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County Judge Salinas, regional leaders call for Veterans’ Hospital for the Valley

By CARI LAMBRECHT

As we honor the brave men and women who have passed away defending this nation and standing up for its principals of liberty, independence and justice this Memorial Day, let us not forget to also protect and provide for those veterans who come back to us, Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said Friday, May 25, in recognition of Memorial Day.

American citizens owe all veterans a debt of gratitude, Salinas said. And this is exactly why the judge and the region’s leadership have pledged not to give up the fight for a Veterans’ Hospital in Deep South Texas. In fact, Salinas said, the fight is just beginning.

On Monday, May 21, more than 60 veterans from numerous organizations gathered with Salinas, Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos and Refugio County Judge René Mascorro for the second of two town hall meetings at Weslaco City Hall to address the health care needs of approximately 114,000 area veterans — as estimated by the Veterans’ Administration.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, and Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, were also represented at the meeting by local staff members.

Salinas vowed that he would convince all 24 county judges south of San Antonio to pass a resolution in support of U.S. House Resolution 538 — a bill sponsored by Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, calling for the construction of a veterans’ hospital in the 24 county area. Salinas will call on his fellow county judges at an upcoming meeting of the South Texas County Judges’ and Commissioners’ conference. The group on Monday, May 25, also discussed with Hutchison’s representative how to get a sister bill sponsored in the U.S. Senate. Information was passed out regarding a fierce letter writing campaign, too.

“We’ve had plenty of studies. We don’t need to wait for any more ‘magic studies’ to tell us what we already know — that veterans’ health care in deep south Texas is not on par with that in the rest of the state or the nation,” Salinas said. “The reason why doesn’t matter as much as how much we need to fix its sorry state.”

“The veterans’ population here continues to grow, and the Rio Grande Valley contributes more men and women per capita than nearly any other area in the United States to our armed services. We will not be forgotten for our valiant efforts,” added the Hidalgo County judge.

Salinas, with the help of Cascos, is organizing a summer trip to Washington D.C. with many of the veterans to lobby face-to -ace with key members of the Veterans’ Administration Committees in both sides of Congress. They plan on educating Congress that Texas doesn’t end in San Antonio, which has the closest VA hospital to the Valley, yet still requires area veterans to travel eight hours round-trip for 15 minutes appointments.

Emilio de los Santos, Hidalgo County veterans’ service officer, said it is essential that the region continues to speak as one voice as it strives toward achieving the ultimate goal in building a VA hospital in Deep South Texas.

“Our leaders understand that this resolution will provide the best health care needs for veterans and their families in South Texas,” de los Santos said.

The VSO said he is reminded of a quote by Theodore Roosevelt when reflecting on this situation: “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.”

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Congressman Hinojosa criticizes plans by Iraqi government to take vacation during wartime

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

On Thursday, May 24, Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, released the following statement on the passage of the new Iraq Supplemental Appropriations bill.

“The war in Iraq is the most critical issue facing our nation, not only because of the human and financial resources it is consuming, but because of its effect on our nation’s reputation globally and our domestic security.

“Congress has cast a critical vote that will impact our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring about a new direction in Iraq. While the bill does not have specific timelines for troop withdrawal, it is a realistic compromise that addresses the political realities we face here in Washington. This responsible piece of legislation fully funds our troops. It also calls for real accountability by requiring the Iraqi government to meet the 18 benchmarks established by Sen. Warner or face losing funds for Iraqi reconstruction. The Iraqi government must realize that America will not continue to sacrifice our young men and women while they go on vacation and fail to make the necessary political changes.

“The funding for the Iraq war will expire at the end of September. At that time, my Democrat and Republicans colleagues agree that we must reassess the progress that has been made over the summer before providing any additional funding for the war.

“For far too long, President Bush has received a blank check from Congress to do as he pleases without accountability. With this vote, we will finally hold the Administration responsible and insist on real progress in Iraq.”

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$3 million drug treatment center to be located in Edinburg included in state budget by Rep. Peña

By ORLANDO SALINAS

Negotiations over the state’s biennial budget has yielded a drug treatment center to be located in Edinburg. The proposed $3 million facility was approved by the House and Senate conference committee on House Bill 1.

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, continued to work with the negotiators in the last few weeks to ensure that the drug treatment center stayed in the budget after adding a rider to the bill during debate in the Texas House.

“The realization of this drug treatment center in Edinburg fulfills one of my primary goals in becoming a state legislator,” said Peña “Treatment and rehabilitation are important strategies in combating the terrible effects that illegal drugs have in our community.”

The treatment center is part of a broader state-wide strategy to address substance abuse and rehabilitation issues in our communities before they become issues in the criminal justice system. The state budget includes more funding for substance abuse treatment and diversion programs for low level, non-violent offenders at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

It adds treatment and capacity dollars at the local level to give judges and the parole board an alternative to sentencing offenders and considering probation and parole options.

The exact location, size and capacity of the center have yet to be formalized. The drug treatment facility would compliment the existing Mental Health and Mental Retardation operations in Edinburg.

“There needs to be a three prong approach to combating the devastating effects of substance abuse in our communities,” said Peña.

“We have to keep educating children and adults about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. This session we’ve allocated more funding for law enforcement to stem the flow of drugs through our borders and we are now investing more in treatment and rehabilitation.”

The Texas Legislature has allocated over $100 million for border security.

As the five-month regular session approached its conclusion at midnight on Monday, May 28, the House and Senate were negotiating the exact details of the border security bill. The negotiations on the budget bill needs to be agreed upon by the House and Senate before being sent to the Governor.

“The entire Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation needs to be applauded for working together to get these important programs for South Texas,” said Peña. “Rep. Guillen (D-Rio Grande City) fought hard on the conference committee to keep this drug treatment center funded. Senators (Juan ‘Chuy’) Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and (Eddie) Lucio (Jr., D-Brownsville) were instrumental in taking care of business over in the Senate.”

Peña is the Chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and is a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means. He is serving his third term in the Texas House.

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Sweeping legislation by Sen. Hinojosa approved by lawmakers, will reform Texas Youth Commission

By MELISSA DEL BOSQUE

After more than two years of tackling the myriad problems plaguing the Texas Youth Commission, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, passed his sweeping legislation on Friday, May 25, to reform the troubled commission.

Following several days of negotiations in conference committee between the House and Senate, Senate Bill 103 passed both the Senate and the House and now awaits the governor’s signature.

Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, and chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, was the House sponsor of the bill. Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, was a co-sponsor of SB 103.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was a co-author of the measure.

“Overall, the negotiations made SB 103 a better bill for the state and the people of Texas,” Hinojosa said. “It’s been a long road, and Rep. Madden was a pleasure to work with in serving Texas’ families. With the passage of this bill today, I am confident that the children in the state’s care will receive the rehabilitation they need, and that the people of Texas will have a Commission worthy of them.”

Hinojosa began looking into the juvenile justice system two years ago when riots broke out at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, Hidalgo County. Hinojosa pre-filed his comprehensive reform legislation last year and has continued to work with stakeholders to rebuild the troubled commission after the TYC scandal erupted.

Hinojosa’s bill calls for improved security by requiring TYC guards to undergo at least 300 hours of training before being assigned to guard duty, and it caps the guard-to-youth ratio at no more than 12 to 1 to maintain order and safety. It also requires fingerprint and national criminal history checks for employees, volunteers, and advocates working within TYC facilities.

SB 103 also creates a Parents’ Bill of Rights to guarantee swift and accurate access to information about caseworkers’ duties and the agency’s grievance policies.

In addition, Hinojosa’s reforms call for the establishment of a panel within TYC to review sentencing extensions, thus bringing strict accountability to the process. His bill features structural improvements to TYC’s governing board and strengthens the agency’s emphasis on community rehabilitation instead of automatic incarceration.

Hinojosa’s legislation ends the practice of housing 10- or 11-year-olds with 19- or 20-year-olds; creates an authority of law-enforcement trained personnel within an Inspector General’s Office to ensure law and order in TYC facilities; and authorizes child advocacy groups to visit facilities and work with youth.

To ensure that these and other improvements are properly implemented, extensive reporting measures were put into place so that parents and the public can access information regarding investigations, extensions of youth’s sentences, and prosecutions of crimes occurring within TYC. The bill also requires TYC develop a plan to move towards acquiring national accreditation of their facilities.

“SB 103 will make tremendous changes to the Texas Youth Commission, and we will continue to work with the agency and evaluate its progress through the Sunset Commission.” said Hinojosa. “We have appropriated $525 million for the TYC to give them the necessary resources to implement the SB 103 reforms. The Texas Legislature has made improving this agency a top priority, and we expect success.”

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South Texas College receives legislative approval to permanently offer university-level degree

By ED SERNA

The House of Representatives on Friday, May 25, today passed House Bill 2198 by Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, that will make the baccalaureate programs at three junior colleges, including South Texas College, permanent.

The measure, which was sponsored by Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, has gone to the governor for his approval.

“This bill provides an affordable and accessible college education opportunity for local citizens and helps meet the local workforce needs of the surrounding communities,” Flores said. “Students wishing to get a baccalaureate in Applied Science and Technology will be able to pursue a degree closer to home. This is great news for the Valley.”

In 2005, the Legislature authorized a pilot project allowing three public junior colleges, including South Texas College, Brazosport College, and Midland College, to offer limited baccalaureate degrees in Applied Science and Technology.

The pilot program provided the opportunity to examine the effectiveness and feasibility of a permanent program. The three pilot institutions have made long-term financial investments in preparation for offering the baccalaureate degree, including the expansion of library resources and adding doctorate-level faculty to teach in these programs.

“This project is a tremendous success and has been met with great enthusiasm and support by students and local businesses. My bill enhances educational opportunities in the region and will promote economic development that ultimately improves the lives of many,” said Flores. “The importance of education can’t be overstated, for not only the students and their families, but also for the Valley’s prosperity.”

Flores represents District 36, which includes parts or all of the cities of Hidalgo, Granjeno, McAllen, Mission, Palmview, Penitas, and Pharr.

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Sen. Hinojosa passes legislation to require heart defibrillators on every Texas school campus

By MELISSA DEL BOSQUE

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Tuesday, May 22, passed Senate Bill 7, which will put an automatic external defibrillator (AED) in every public and private school campus across the state and provide for training in CPR and defibrillator use for school staff and high school students.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was a co-author of the bill. Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, was the House sponsor of the measure.

According to the American Heart Association, which supported the Hinojosa bill, an automated external defibrillator (AED) is a computerized medical device. An AED can check a person’s heart rhythm. It can recognize a rhythm that requires a shock. And it can advise the rescuer when a shock is needed. The AED uses voice prompts, lights and text messages to tell the rescuer the steps to take.

AEDs are very accurate and easy to use. With a few hours of training, anyone can learn to operate an AED safely. There are many different brands of AEDs, but the same basic steps apply to all of them. The AHA does not recommend a specific model.

SB 7 was a priority for Hinojosa during the 80th Legislative session.

“Requiring defibrillators in our schools is a positive and responsible move. There’s wide agreement that we should have AED’s in all of our Texas schools, not only to save students’ lives, but to save the lives of educators and school personnel,” Hinojosa said.

The American Heart Association commended the senator on the passage of the bill.

“This important piece of legislation helps to make our schools safer for the children of this state. The bill is an extraordinary effort to move the state forward in Emergency Cardiac Care,” said Dr. Henry Lucid, American Heart Association State Advocacy Committee member.

SB 17 has also been part of the Lt. Governor David Dewhurst’s priority legislation for the 80th session.

“I want to thank the Lt. Governor for his leadership and support in passing this bill,” Hinojosa said. “This is something the state can provide schools that will save students, educators, and families a lot of heartache.”

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Bill by Sen. Lucio, Rep. Gonzáles, Rep. Guillen to protect family violence victims sent to governor

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Texas Legislature on Friday, May 25, sent a bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, to the governor that creates an address confidentiality program to assist eligible victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking. The bill was amended to include the use of pseudonyms to further assist victims.

Rep Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, were joint sponsors of the bill.

“I want to thank all the supporters of this bill, and my colleagues in the House, Rep. Gonzáles and Rep. Guillen, for their work on Senate Bill 74,” said Lucio.

Gonzáles, who provided great leadership to this issue, said, “A victim of abuse should not have to go underground to escape his or her assailant. This legislation allows a victim to receive mail, register to vote and blend back into society without having his or her location discovered.”

SB 74 directs the Attorney General to designate a substitute post office box address that a victim of these crimes can use in lieu of a physical address. There is currently no mechanism in Texas to help victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking keep where they reside confidential. Now qualified applicants will have this measure of protection, plus the ability to use pseudonyms when filling out forms for law enforcement officers or agencies in domestic violence cases. The pseudonym would be confidential and disclosed only to the defendant or the defendant’s attorney, except when a court order is issued for other matters.

Without this program, certain victims live in constant fear of being located.

“I think about the address confidentiality program as something which could have saved my grandmother’s life if it had been available to her,” said Donna Bloom of the Texas Advocacy Project, whose grandmother was killed in her home by her grandfather after she had ended the relationship.

In cases of family violence, the abuse often escalates when victims leave the relationship and seek a new address. According to the Texas Council on Family Violence, 143 Texas women were killed by their male intimate partners in 2005. Sixteen of those victims were killed as they were leaving the relationship or after they had already left.

More than a million women and nearly 400,000 men are stalked annually, and one in 12 women and one in 45 men will be stalked in their lifetimes. The majority of victims are stalked by someone they know. Of those women who have been killed by an intimate partner, 76 percent were stalked by that partner in the year before their deaths, and 81 percent of women stalked by a current or former intimate partner are eventually physically assaulted by that individual.

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Edinburg, McAllen share lowest jobless rates in Valley for April, posting 4.3 percent unemployment

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg’s jobless rate, which is a key indicator of the strength of the local economy, and McAllen in April posted the lowest jobless rates in the Valley, with each city reporting a 4.3 percent unemployment rate, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The latest figures also means the three-time All-America City had the lowest jobless rate for the fourth consecutive month in 2007, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation.

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

The EEDC’s five-member governing board includes Mayor Joe Ochoa; former Mayor Richard García,

who is president of the EEDC board of directors; and Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.

In March, Edinburg’s jobless rate was 4.4 percent, in February it was 4.8 percent, and in January it was 4.9 percent. Those figures were the best in deep South Texas for their respective months.

The city’s unemployment rate was keeping pace with the statewide average in April of 4.2 percent and the U.S. unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.

In 2006, the annual jobless rate for Edinburg was 5.3 percent, while in 2005, the annual jobless rate for Edinburg was 4.7 percent.

In 2006, the city’s jobless rate was the lowest in the Valley during five months, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, and Edinburg registered the second-best showing for most of the other months last year, edged out only by McAllen.

In April, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, 1,207 Edinburg residents were looking for jobs, while 26,965 local residents were employed.

The jobless rate, also known as the unemployment rate, is the number of persons unemployed,

expressed as a percentage of the civilian labor force.

The civilian labor force is that portion of the population age 16 and older employed or unemployed.

To be considered unemployed, a person has to be not working but willing and able to work and actively seeking work.

The jobless rate for Hidalgo County was 6.1 percent in April, an improvement from 6.5 percent in March, 7.4 percent in February, and 7.7 percent in January.

The April jobless rate for Hidalgo County represented 16,453 area residents without jobs, while 254,466 residents were employed during the fourth month of 2007.

McAllen top showing in April of 4.3 percent represented 2,498 of their citizens out of work that month, while 55,855 residents of the City of Palms were employment. In March, McAllen reported a 4.6 percent jobless rate, 5 percent in February, and 5.1 percent in January.

Cameron County’s jobless rate in April was 5.5 percent, down from the March level of 5.8 percent. In April, 7,896 residents of Cameron County were looking for work, while 135,384 residents were holding down jobs.

Harlingen’s unemployment rate in April was 4.6 percent, down from 4.9 percent in March, while Pharr in April posted a 5 percent jobless rate, down from 5.3 percent jobless rate in March.

Mission came in with a 5.2 percent jobless rate in April, down from its 5.4 percent unemployment rate in March, followed by Weslaco at 5.3 percent in April, down from 5.9 percent in March.

In Cameron County, Brownsville’s unemployment rate in April was 5.6 percent, down from 5.9 percent in March.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission:

Seasonally adjusted nonagricultural employment in Texas grew by 23,500 jobs in April for a total of 240,800 jobs in the past year.

The state’s annual job growth rate rose slightly in April to 2.4 percent from last month’s 2.3 percent.

The April seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 4.2 percent, down from 4.3 percent in March and 5.0 percent a year ago.

The Midland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) experienced the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.7 percent (not seasonally adjusted). The Odessa MSA was second at 3.0 percent, followed by the Lubbock MSA at 3.1 percent.

“Our sustained job gains and falling unemployment rate exemplify the underlying strength of the Texas economy,” said Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Chair Diane Rath. “The Texas unemployment rate dropped to 4.2 percent, well below the national unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.”

Professional & Business Services gained jobs for the ninth consecutive month, adding 11,700 jobs in April. The industry has gained 61,100 jobs in the past year. The Leisure & Hospitality sector followed with an increase of 5,000 jobs in April, for a year-over-year gain of 39,400 positions.

“Texas employers continue to create jobs at a tremendous pace, benefiting our regional economies and communities,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ron Lehman. “With expansion in 10 of 11 industries, we’re seeing significant annual job growth rates such as 5.0 percent for Business & Professional Services, and 10.0 percent for Mining.”

Trade, Transportation & Utilities added 3,600 jobs in April, with 26,300 jobs created since last year. Education & Health Services increased by 2,500 jobs in April for a total of 24,700 since April 2006.

“It’s always a great sign when the ranks of the unemployed are declining and more Texans are back to work,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Ronny Congleton. “It’s rewarding to know that in the past four weeks we’ve added more than 23,000 jobs.”

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Hidalgo County District Clerk Hinojosa unveils vision for 2007 in Quarterly Progress Report

By RICARDO CONTRERAS

Hidalgo County District Clerk, Laura Hinojosa, commemorated her 100th day in office on Thursday, May 24, by unveiling the mission and vision for the District Clerk’s Office for 2007. Hinojosa presented her “Quarterly Progress Report” which highlights some of her administration’s achievements, organizational changes and things to come.

“One hundred days ago I outlined my priorities for the Hidalgo County District Clerk’s Office and committed to maintaining an open government in a firm, fair and consistent manner,” said Hinojosa. “I can proudly say that we’ve been able to accomplish this. However, I can also acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do.”

The Quarterly Progress Report was initiated by the office in an effort to keep the public informed on the most up-to-date activity in the office. The report outlines the office’s accomplishments which consist of simplified processes, new and enhanced policies and procedures, randomization of court assignments, ongoing professional development, new and reliable office systems, and implemented emergency safety plans. The report also includes a newly created mission statement, the office’s organizational chart and information regarding the different departments within the District Clerk’s Office. Those departments include Administrative Services, the Civil and Criminal Bureau, the Financial Bureau, Tax and Jury, and Registry of the Court.

“These are exciting times for the District Clerk’s Office,” said Hinojosa. “I am more committed than ever to improving customer service, developing our staff and organization, and continuing to restore the public’s trust and confidence in the District Clerk’s Office.”

The office staff will observe this day by spending their lunch hour at a staff development luncheon on County grounds.

Laura Hinojosa was elected Hidalgo County District Clerk in November 2006. She was inaugurated on January 1, 2007. Her father is U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes.

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Congressman Hinojosa votes for new tools to fight record high gasoline prices as summer approaches

By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI

As Americans approach the summer driving season, Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, joined an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress and voted to approve new tools to fight record high gas prices. On Tuesday, May 22, and Wednesday, May 23, Hinojosa voted for legislation to crack down on gas price gouging and OPEC state-controlled entities average of $3.09 per gallon of regular gas, which is 132 percent higher than the average in 2001.

“Families in Texas are suffering each time they go to the gas station,” said Hinojosa. “This legislation will help crack down on price gouging and fight against those who attempt to fix the price of oil and stick the American people with the bill.”

On Tuesday, May 22, the House approved H.R. 2264 to authorize the Justice Department to take legal action against OPEC state-controlled entities that participate in conspiracies to limit the supply, or fix the price, of oil. Nations or organizations that limit oil supply can artificially inflate the cost of gas and hurt American consumers.

On Wednesday, May 23, the House approved The Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act, H.R. 1252, which would give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to investigate and punish companies that artificially inflate the price of gas. The bill sets criminal penalties for price gouging, and permits states to bring lawsuits against wholesalers or retailers who engage in such practices.

While a bipartisan majority in Congress supports these bills, President Bush has threatened to veto both pieces of legislation.

“As the summer driving season approaches, families can barely afford to drive to the local pool, much less go on vacation,” Hinojosa said. “President Bush is wrong to oppose these bills and I urge him to join our efforts to bring down the cost of gasoline.”

Nationwide, families are paying $3.22 a gallon on average for regular gasoline – more than double the cost when Bush took office, up 89 cents from the beginning of the year. Last year, families paid $1,000 more on average for gasoline than in 2001, and each additional 10 cents per gallon of gasoline adds $14 billion to America’s annual gasoline bill.

The high cost for families come as oil companies continue to prosper. The six largest oil companies announced $30 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2007. This is on top of the $125 billion in record profits they made in 2006.

In addition to the legislation approved this week, the Democratic Congress has already voted to roll back $14 billion dollars in taxpayer subsidies for Big Oil companies and reinvest the money in clean, alternative fuels, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Democrats are also developing an Independence Day package to boldly address energy independence and global warming by rapidly expanding the production of clean, alternative fuels and increasing energy efficiency, which will help protect our environment and bring down the cost of fuel for American consumers.

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Let’s do immigration reform right negotiated in private, bill deserves a full public airing

By U.S. SENS.

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON

and JOHN CORNYN

As your U.S. senators, we have been heavily involved in the congressional debate on immigration reform for several years. We have taken a leadership role on this issue because we represent a state that uniquely benefits from the contributions of legal immigrants, but is also uniquely vulnerable to the dangers of illegal immigration. Throughout this process, our principles have been clear and consistent: We must secure our borders, and we cannot encourage illegal behavior through amnesty.

Two weeks ago, the Bush administration, along with a small group of senators, announced a compromise immigration bill that would take a necessary first step in improving border security. We did not join in the announcement. While our efforts had a positive influence, we were not convinced the announced proposal guarantees repair of our current broken system. We are particularly concerned that we may be repeating the mistakes of the failed 1986 national amnesty.

As of late Friday, May 18, the actual text of the “grand compromise” had not yet been published. Major questions remain about details of the plan, and how it would work. We believe the bill, which was negotiated privately, deserves a full public airing before it’s considered.

The bill promises some long-term positive changes, including significant border security measures, an end to chain migration and a switch to green card distribution based on merit.

But many problems have not been satisfactorily addressed. For example, we must make certain that convicted criminals are not eligible for any legalization, and if these individuals attempt to stay here, that they are arrested and promptly deported.

We must ensure that only those who have played by the rules and not those engaged in identity theft receive Social Security benefits. This proposal would enable illegal immigrants to collect Social Security benefits for the time they were unlawfully in our country. At a time when we are already facing major shortfalls in our ability to pay benefits for future retirees, this represents an unfair burden on the American taxpayer. We must end the rampant document fraud that plagues our workplaces today, and do it in a way that is legally enforceable.

Some of our colleagues, sensing the fragile nature of the proposed compromise, want to rush it through the Congress immediately. This would be a major mistake. It is too important and too complicated to rush. The legislation requires extended Senate debate, with full opportunity for public input and criticism, and an open process for amendments to strengthen its provisions.

In 1986, the Congress approved a similar compromise plan that, in return for amnesty for most immigrants here illegally, promised an end to porous borders and disregard for our laws. Those promises were not honored. The amnesty legislation instead actually encouraged further disrespect for our laws, and led directly to the situation we face today.

As the bill reaches the Senate floor this week, our goal will be restoring the integrity of our borders, providing guest workers with opportunity, not amnesty, and preserving our Social Security for all who legally qualify. Our contributions to the debate will continue to be positive and constructive.

Our country needs immigration reform. We must ensure that it’s done, and done correctly.

Hutchison and Cornyn, both Republicans, represent Texas.

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Texas House passes legislation by Rep. Peña, Sen. Zaffirini targeting online sexual child predators

By ORLANDO SALINAS

The Texas House of Representatives approved legislation on Friday, May 25, making the Internet safer for children from online sexual predators. Senate Bill 6 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is on the way to the governor.

SB 6 increases the penalty for sexually explicit online communication with a minor who is 14 to 16 years old from a state jail felony to a third degree felony. It increases the penalty for online sexual solicitation of a minor who is 14 to 16 years old from a third degree felony to a second degree felony and provides that sentences for certain offenses arising out of the same criminal offense may run concurrently or consecutively.

“Online solicitation and sexually explicit communication with a minor are serious and dangerous offenses,” said Peña. “Sexual predators are using the Internet and other technology to prey upon our children. The legislation we passed today gives law enforcement more tools to apprehend and prosecute these offenders.”

SB 6 instructs the Attorney General to establish an Internet Service Provider (ISP) database and require the preservation of certain records and information. The bill establishes a timeline for ISPs to respond to subpoenas, search warrants and other court orders. This bill also directs the Crime Stoppers Advisory Council to emphasize programs targeted at detecting unregistered sex offenders.

“Internet Service Providers, citing privacy concerns, have sometimes been reluctant to cooperate with law enforcement authorities,” said Peña. “We need to have the opportunity to quickly obtain information to combat and stop these online threats. If one of these predators has made contact with a child we need to verify his identity and find him.”

NBC’s Dateline program, To Catch a Predator, has shown the public the opportunity and ease in which these child predators operate in our communities. The Dateline program has identified over 200 child predators in its televised stings. Local, state and federal officials also continue to operate stings designed to catch these people engaged in online solicitation of minors.

SB 6 will now face one more procedural vote before being sent to the Governor’s desk. Peña is the Chair of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and is a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means. He is serving his third term in the Texas House.

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MySpace.com to turn over information on sex offender profiles to Texas Attorney General Abbott

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Monday, May 21, ordered MySpace.com to release the names of all convicted sex offenders who have set up online member profiles.

MySpace.com agreed to turn over first and last names of its online users that are registered sex offenders in Texas. MySpace.com will also provide IP addresses, E-mail addresses, and their online profile information. This data will help the attorney general crack down on sex predators who use the Internet to prey on children.

“By providing this information, MySpace.com is helping law enforcement crack down on online sex predators,” Abbott said. “Social networking sites must continue to make their Web sites and content safer for our children. We urge all social networking Web sites to take all necessary steps to keep children safe from the unwanted advances of online predators.”

Abbott, a nationally recognized leader with more than 500 sex predator arrests, has repeatedly pressed MySpace.com and other social networking sites to implement definitive safety measures to protect young users of their Web sites from sexually explicit images and unwanted solicitations. Since the push from Attorney General Abbott and other attorneys general, MySpace.com has taken steps to improving safety on its site, including screening profiles for inappropriate content and making certain profiles private.

“The incorrigible nature of sex predators requires public officials, law enforcement, industry leaders and parents across Texas to join together to make the Internet a safer place,” Attorney General Abbott added. “Without meaningful safeguards in place, no child is safe from the unwanted advances of chat room predators.”

The Attorney General, along with state leaders, has also fought to make Texas the toughest state in the nation, creating one of the nation’s toughest versions of “Jessica’s Law”, tightening penalties for Internet predators and providing district attorneys more tools to prosecute child sex crimes.

Last March, the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 6, which provides additional tools that will improve law enforcement’s ability to investigate cyber crimes. Under SB 6, authored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to promptly respond to court orders and subpoenas issued by law enforcement. Today, when the Texas House of Representatives debates SB 6, legislators will consider an amendment that would amend SB 6 by expanding its applicability to entities such as MySpace.com. If passed, this provision would further improve the Attorney General’s ability to quickly obtain critical information about cyber predators from ISPs, social networking sites, and other online resources.

Abbott has earned a national reputation for aggressively arresting and prosecuting online child predators. In 2003, he created the Cyber Crimes Unit, which protects children from online sexual exploitation. The Cyber Crimes Unit and the Fugitive Unit, which locates sex offenders who have violated the terms of their parole and could be stalking children, have combined to arrest more than 500 sex offenders. Cyber Crimes Unit investigators also have traveled to schools and communities statewide to offer educational cyber safety programs.

In May 2006, Abbott’s Cyber Crimes Unit was awarded a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention to establish an ICAC Task Force. The Texas Attorney General’s ICAC Task Force is one of almost 50 federally funded task forces across the country dedicated to this project.

In July 2006, Abbott was invited by U.S. Congressman Joe Barton to testify at a congressional hearing in Washington on federal legislation limiting access to commercial social networking sites at publicly funded schools and libraries.

To find out more about Abbott’s efforts to crack down on sex predators, visit the Attorney General’s Web site at http://www.oag.state.tx.us or call (800) 252-8011.

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Expert on birding warns of dire consequences to environment, economy if border wall is built in area

By KEITH HACKLAND

When I moved to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1997 I did not have the knowledge to appreciate the richness of our birds and wildlife here. After nine years of exploring, photographing, guiding, reading, listening, teaching, writing, and marketing our area to birders, I am just beginning to grasp what makes this the richest, most diverse birding spot in United States and Canada. As I continue to observe and explore this amazing place, I have discovered that the forest along the river is the richest of all.

During the past 100 years of border economic growth, Texas and Mexico cleared and ploughed the Lower Rio Grande floodplain, destroying over 95 percent of the river forest. The dams (Falcon in 1953) and levees built to stop annual floods have caused our floodplain to become drier, resulting in shrinkage of remaining river forest. “Periodic droughts are probably the factor triggering death of many large trees. In these areas, a “reverse succession” allows thorny trees and shrubs – retama, huisache, prickly pear, granjeno, and others – to invade,”(Page 35, Timothy Brush, Nesting Birds of a Tropical Frontier).

Since the 1940s samples of river forest have been saved, and we are replanting corridors of trees along the river, to connect these survivors. The best samples can be seen at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, and Bentsen RGV State Park, around seasonally filled resacas (oxbow lakes) that keep the earth damp. At Santa Ana NWR follow “A Trail” to Willow Lake. Starting out in thorn forest with prickly pear and lacy mesquite, retama and huisache, there is an abrupt transition to river (riparian) forest, containing “. . . taller trees and more luxuriant vegetation than do other wooded habitats. Mexican ash, black willow, sugar hackberry, and cedar elm are common in moister sites, while Texas ebony, anacua, and coma grow on higher, drier terraces.” (Page 34, Timothy Bush).

The tall, damp “. . .riparian forests support some of the rarest breeding birds in the United States: Muscovy Duck, Gray Hawk, Red-billed Pigeon, Rose-throated Becard, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Brown Jay, Clay-colored Robin, Altamira Oriole, and Tropical Parula,” (page 35, Timothy Brush). Spanish moss and ball moss, amazing butterflies, rare dragonflies, amphibians and reptiles flourish.

The unique birds in our river forest bring birders from across United States, Canada and Europe. Birders spend hundreds of millions of dollars, paying for the jobs of thousands in the Valley. Here in Alamo, the Gateway to Santa Ana NWR, at Alamo Inn I make my living providing services to birders, and our city restaurants, motels, and shops all serve them too. At El Dorado restaurant they recognize the many birders eating there. Alamo’s Casa Santa Ana is a birder’s B&B located adjacent to Santa Ana NWR. The birding industry is big not only in Alamo, but in cities all across the Valley.

Remove the Valley’s river forest, and 100,000 to 200,000 birders a year, including thousands of long stay Winter Texan birders, would not visit us. That would be an economic disaster for thousands of Valley workers, costing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Furthermore, it would dramatically reduce birding and nature tourism across the Texas Coastal Region, Texas Hill Country, West Texas, and North East Mexico, where birders attracted to the Lower Rio Grande extend their tours and spend additional hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Yet that is literally the plan, starting this summer. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) distributed maps indicating they have plans that will have to include bulldozing and clearing the Texas banks of the Rio Grande to install river patrol roads and river fencing. DHS is a protected part of the Federal Government that can operate without being sued and without consulting residents. The Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, has the power to wave any and all federal laws in the name of homeland security. He can authorize the construction of river fences and any other structure on federal and private lands without the landowner’s consent. This is supported in Section 102 of the 2005 REAL ID Act which states: “…the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to waive, and shall waive, all laws such Secretary, in such Secretary’s sole discretion, determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this section.”

The Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge includes property along 80 miles of the Lower Rio Grande’s last 240 miles (Boca Chica to Falcon Dam) and it protects a significant part of what little river forest remains (less than five percent of the historic river forest). DHS plans could clear-cut much of our remaining river forest. DHS river fences could cut us off from access to our drinking water, and leave it and the adjoining land under the control of Mexico. DHS plans could cut ranchers and farmers and their livestock off from water. DHS river fences could prevent birding and fishing the river. DHS plans could destroy our rarest and most valuable birds and butterflies, amphibians and plants. The critical Rio Grande river forest grows adjacent to the Rio Grande from Boca Chica (its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico) through Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties, to Falcon Dam. Some of our most rare river forest birds (Brown Jay, Muscovy Duck, Red-billed Pigeon) now occur chiefly along the river in Starr County where it is quieter with less river forest disturbance, but where the river forest is thinnest and most fragile.

DHS river fence plans could close down our top birding sites and destroy our thriving birding tourism industry. Look at a detailed map of the Lower Rio Grande. Our three top river forest refuges, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Santa Ana NWR, and Bentsen RGV State Park all occupy bends in the Rio Grande, peninsulas pointing into Mexico. A straight fence could cut off the peninsula refuges from Texas and birders, abandoning that land and our river to Mexico. That would devastate our Texas birding industry because Santa Ana NWR is number one, our most visited refuge, and Sabal Palm and Bentsen RGV State Park are in the top ten refuges.

The Rio Grande is already a barrier to illegal immigrants. No one drives across it, so we don’t need a fence adjoining it, because those who swim or boat the river will simply use ladders. Furthermore, a twisting and curving river fence system following the river bank would be very unsafe, allowing border patrol units to be trapped, possibly between two fences, out of sight of other units.

The million people living in the Valley do not support the river fence plan. There are workable alternatives to a river wall, river fence, or river road. A virtual (electronic) fence could be deployed to track people. Control mechanisms, whether virtual or physical, could follow the extensive existing infrastructure, building them alongside the existing levee road system, and next to military highway, thereby minimizing the effect on river forest. Also, if we make legal immigration to United States easier and faster, the legitimate majority will cross at bridges and submit to thorough background checks, screening, and documentation, reducing the volume of illegal crossings, and documenting all residents.

Please visit birding sites on the Rio Grande to show your support. It could be your last chance. Join Friends of Santa Ana NWR (956-784-7500). Join Valley Nature Center, which educates 80,000 Valley children, adults and visitors annually about Valley birds and nature, because it needs your support to extend its work (956-969-2475). Talk to people and share this information about the river fence and its threat to birding tourism across the state of Texas.

Most important of all, please write your politicians at every level this week and ask for help to change the DHS Rio Grande river fence plan. The best way to change it is through the same political process that launched it. You could make a difference.

References:

1. Nesting Birds of a Tropical Frontier, The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, by Timothy Brush, 2005. Dr Brush is an ornithologist who teaches at UTPA, Edinburg, TX

2. Numerous TexBirds list serve discussions

3. Numerous articles in Advance News Journal (Pharr, TX), The Monitor (McAllen, TX), Houston Chronicle (Houston, TX)

4. Updates from Martin Hagne, Executive Director of Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, TX http://www.valleynaturecenter.org

5. http://www.southtexasnature.com

Keith Hackland is an innkeeper from Alamo, Texas. He writes extensively on birding in the Rio Grande Valley.

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Former Dallas Cowboys Walls honored by House for donating a kidney to teammate Springs

Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, on Friday, May 25, honored her constituent, former Dallas Cowboys football player Everson Walls, on the House floor. In February, 2007, Walls selflessly gave one of his kidneys to his former Cowboys teammate and close friend, Ron Springs.

While many individuals struggle with becoming organ donors for a family member much less a stranger or a friend, Walls generously gave his friend what he so desperately needed, a kidney.

Springs has experienced serious health problems as a result of diabetes yet as a result of the transplant surgery his prognosis has increased dramatically. As a result of this remarkable gift, Springs is expected to regain the use of his hands, to walk again on his own, and to be able to end his dialysis treatments.

“Everson Walls and Ron Springs are a shining example of the power of love and lifelong friendship. Mr. Walls is an inspiration. Recognition on the House and the Senate floor are the least the state of Texas could do to recognize such a compassionate and upstanding citizen. Many people have stood where Mr. Walls stood today, and few have been more deserving of this recognition. He reminds us all that one of God’s greatest gifts to man kind is the gift of friendship – a gift that really does keep on giving,” Giddings said.

The bond between these former athletes was forged in the early 1980s when both were members of the Cowboys. Walls began his NFL career in Dallas in 1981 after starring as an All-American defensive back for Grambling State University. In his 13 seasons as a professional he was named to four Pro Bowl teams, led the league in interceptions in 1981, 1982, and 1985, and was recognized as one of the top cornerbacks in the game. He has been inducted into the Grambling State University Athletic Hall of Fame, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame, and the Southwestern Athletic Conference Hall of Fame.

A Dallas native who continues to reside in the Metroplex, Everson Walls hopes that his compassionate action in helping his friend will also work toward a greater good as he and Ron Springs plan to create a foundation that will encourage organ donation. The publicity surrounding the transplant has already focused attention on this important medical issue.

“It is my hope that the bond between Mr. Walls and Mr. Springs inspires each of us to do what we can to help our fellow man. Furthermore, I commend the two gentlemen for having the initiative to begin a foundation to encourage organ donation for both living and deceased donors. With death can spring life, and with compassion spring hope,” Giddings explained.

House passes Texas Border Coalition’s bid to protect Skills Development Fund

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Wanda Garza of McAllen, during a Thursday, March 29 meeting in Austin of the Texas Border Coalition, shared a copy of an editorial cartoon depicting difficulties that face Texas workers if they do not have enough training to keep and hold good jobs. Garza, who chairs the TBC Workforce Development Committee, praised the House of Representatives for the Tuesday, March 27 passage of House Bill 48, which would protect millions of dollars a year for the state’s Skills Development Fund, which pays for crucial workforce training along the Texas border region. The bill, whose principal authors are Rep. Norma Chávez, D-El Paso, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, now goes to the Senate for action. Featured in this photograph with Garza is El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez, while in the background, from left, are Celestino Hernández of Eagle Pass and Ignacio Madera, Jr. of Austin. See story later in this posting.

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Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, March 28, announced that he had abolished the Texas Youth Commission’s governing board and replaced it with a juvenile prison czar during a press conference in Austin. Perry was flanked by various legislators, including Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who were appointed to the select committee investigating the agency. See story later in this posting.

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The Texas Disability Policy Consortium and the AARP in conjunction with a coalition of aging and disability groups and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Lardo, on Wednesday, March 29 rallied at the State Capitol to encourage legislators to eliminate waiting lists and fund access to community care for 90,000 persons with disabilities. Currently more than 90,000 Texans are on waiting lists for home and community based services and care. “With only 61 days before the 2007 legislative session adjourns sine die, it is absolutely imperative that we unite to pass good legislation, stop bad bills and focus especially on increased funding to reduce the waiting lists for health and human services programs,” said Zaffirini. “We should do everything in our power to adopt a 10-year plan to eliminate waiting lists and invest the much needed resources so long term care services can be provided at home.” As vice chair of Senate Finance, Zaffirini worked to secure funding for a 10 percent wait list reduction and will continue to work toward increased funding for an additional 10 percent.

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House passes Texas Border Coalition’s bid to protect Skills Development Fund

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

A measure seeking to prevent a decrease in September of $6.4 million a year in the state’s Skills Development Fund, which is a customized workforce training program that has been beneficial in the Texas border region, was approved Tuesday, March 27, by the House of Representatives.

It now goes to the Senate. As of March 27, no Senate sponsor had been selected by the House authors of the legislation.

The legislation, House Bill 48 by Rep. Norma Chávez, D-El Paso, would protect a funding formula that dedicates money to the Skills Development Fund and the Texas Enterprise Fund. Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio are joint authors of the measure.

It is one of the top legislative priorities of the Texas Border Coalition. TBC is an alliance of elected officials and economic development leaders from the 14 Texas counties which border Mexico. They represent an estimated 2.1 million residents. The goal of the Skills Development Fund, according to the Texas Border Coalition, is to increase the skills levels and wages of the Texas workforce.

“Let business dollars work for business,” said Chávez. “This bill keeps more money for worker training and creates more jobs. The positive impact of enhancing the Skills Development Fund is universal because employers, workers, and the economy all benefit.”

The Skills Development Fund is an important part of the TBC’s efforts to bring higher paying jobs to the border areas by providing a trained workforce.

“Over 12,000 workers have been trained or retrained and millions of dollars have been spent in our areas to provide that training,” said Guillen. “Economic growth and job creation are a major part of the solution to other border problems such as limited health care and educational opportunities,” Guillen said.

Wanda Garza of McAllen, chair of the TBC Workforce Development Committee, praised the lawmakers for their work in the House.

“We would like to commend Rep. Chávez, as well as border and Texas legislators, for their commitment to skills training. Protecting the Skills Development Fund will directly impact economic growth in every community across the state. We must have a skilled workforce in order to stay competitive in the global economy.”

Without passage of HB 48, the Skills Development Fund’s share of dedicated money, which is generated from an assessment on employers, would drop from 33 percent to 25 percent on September 1. According to the House committee’s bill analysis, dropping from 33 percent to 25 percent would represent a loss of $6.4 million a year to the Skills Development Fund.

HB 48 would keep the 33 percent share intact and prevent the $6.4 million annual loss to the Skills Development Fund.

The skills development program is a customized workforce training program, with funds distributed as a partnership grant between a business and a community college in the area, according to a bill analysis of the proposal.

The Texas Border Coalition maintains a web site at http://www.texasbordercoalition.org.

According to the House Research Organization, which provides analyses of all major legislation set for debate by the full House, supporters of the measure such as TBC say:

HB 48 would result in more money for the skills development fund by retaining the percentage allocated to the fund in the most recent fiscal year, rather than diminishing that percentage beginning on September 1, 2007.

Skills and workforce training is under-funded in Texas. The Texas Workforce Commission has said it receives three requests for training for every dollar it spends, demonstrating a need for skills development in Texas without a means to provide it.

The skills development program is a customized workforce training program, with funds distributed as a partnership grant between a business and a community college in the area. The job training can be either for new workers or for incumbent workers to acquire new skills. The program trains workers only when an employer has demonstrated a need and requested that employees be trained in a specific area. The funds for training are put to immediate and specific use.

One of the best ways to combat unemployment is to have a more stable, larger, and better trained workforce, and the skills development fund can help with this. As the cost of training increases, it would be beneficial to have a dedicated funding source for an effective training program.

The skills development fund would a better place to allocate more of the money from the employment and training investment assessment (ETIA) because the Texas Enterprise Fund uses money from current employers to attract future competitors. The TEF has been used primarily to attract out-of-state employers with money from in-state employers paying a state tax.

Through this program, in-state employers use their own money to provide tax breaks to get their competition to Texas at their disadvantage. These are tax breaks for which in-state employers often are not eligible.

Further, the TEF has benefited primarily urban areas of the state, while the skills development program benefits communities in all regions of Texas. The TEF rarely is used by itself but is often used in conjunction with other subsidies so that the benefit the TEF brings is low for each dollar spent.

••••••

House budget includes combined $5 million in state funding for UT-RAHCs in Edinburg and Harlingen

By ORLANDO SALINAS

and

DAVID A. DÍAZ

As the Texas House of Representatives began debate on the state’s $151.1 billion budget during the final days of March, critical funding for the University of Texas – Regional Academic Health Centers in Edinburg and Harlingen were included prominently in the House of Representatives’ version of the state budget.

In February, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, filed legislation securing that amount for both campuses, which are part of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Initially, Peña said he wanted $5 million for the Edinburg RAHC campus, but the legislation that was finally approved in the House budget leaves it up to the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio on how much each campus receives from that appropriation, according to James Lampley, Peña’s chief-of-staff in Austin.

However, Lampley remained confident that the Edinburg RAHC would get enough state funding for its needs during the Legislature’s upcoming two-year budget cycle, which begins September 1.

Peña negotiated with House leaders to include the $5 million in combined funding RAHC funding in Article 3 of the budget bill.

“Getting these $5 million in Article 3 of the state budget is critically important in assuring that the RAHC gets the funds it needs to staff this facility with world-class scientists,” said Peña. “There were hundreds of amendments and contentious debate on the budget bill. I worked hard to ensure that this funding makes it to our community.”

The Senate still has to pass its version of the state budget, which could include more, less, or different funding formulas for the Edinburg RAHC and all other state government agencies and functions.

The University of Texas-Pan American serves as a partner in providing faculty, administrative and research support for the Edinburg facility.

Research areas may include the study of diabetes, emerging infectious diseases, aging, environmental health, mental health and other conditions that may affect residents in deep South Texas.

The $20 million Edinburg RAHC campus houses 12 laboratories, state-of-the-art class room spaces and administrative offices.

••••••

Rep. Peña: Reducing drug demand necessary part of an effective border security plan

By ORLANDO SALINAS

As the Texas House of Representatives debated immigration and border security on Wednesday, March 28, many of the witnesses testified about the growth of drugs, violence and the rise of drug cartels on the border.

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, responded to those concerns by amending the House’s version of the state’s budget to include $4 million for a substance abuse treatment center to be located in Edinburg.

House Bill 1, the House’s budget plan, was approved after hours of debate on Thursday, March 28.

“An integral part of the strategy in making our state safer is to give people the tools to break the dependency of drugs,” said Peña. “Cutting demand will cut the supply of drugs and violence along our border. South Texas needs a facility where families can help their loved ones break the devastating cycle of substance abuse.”

The treatment facility, included in Article 11 of the bill, is a part of a broader state-wide strategy to stem the flow of drugs and violence through our borders and address substance abuse and rehabilitation issues in our criminal justice system.

HB 1 includes over a $100 million for border security. The border security component of the legislation provides funding for local and state law enforcement to hire more personnel. The bill also includes monies for training, operations, DPS helicopters and pilots and grants for local police departments and sheriffs offices.

“Providing increased funding for border security, coupled with substance abuse treatment programs for the general public and inmates in the state criminal justice system is a new approach for the state of Texas,” said Peña. “Many of my colleagues in the legislature have embraced the idea that drug and alcohol treatment can keep many people out of our criminal justice system.”

The budget includes more funding for substance abuse treatment and diversion programs for low level, non-violent offenders at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The bill also adds treatment and capacity dollars at the local level to give judges and the parole board an alternative to sentencing offenders and considering probation and parole options.

The Texas Juvenile Probation Commission will receive an increase of funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment services and post-adjudication facilities. This is expected to keep hundred of kids from entering into the Texas Youth Commission.

“I have long advocated the strategy of treatment and diversion rather than spending hundreds of millions of dollars in building more prisons,” said Peña. “The more we can keep adults and kids out of our prisons the better we are all off. It is important that we are looking at a variety of strategies to combat the terrible effects that illegal drugs have in our community.”

••••••

ECISD trustee candidates draw for positions on ballot

By GILBERT TAGLE

School board candidates seeking election to the ECISD Board of Trustees in the May 12th elections drew for ballot spots Tuesday, March 20.

The election is to fill positions for Place 4 and Place 5 on the board currently held by Melba González and Gregory “Greg” García, respectively.

Both incumbents did not, however, draw first position on the May 12 ballot. The top position on the ballot for Place 4 will read: Robert Pena (who is challenging González), followed by Melba Gonzalez.

The top position on the ballot for Place 5 will read: Dr. Martín Castillo, followed by Cris Treviño in the number two spot, and Gregory “Greg” Garcia in the number three spot.

The Edinburg school district also released key contact information about the candidates, which is contained in public documents filed with ECISD, for distribution to the community.

Place 4

Robert Peña, 1112 Loyola, Edinburg, Tx 78540

(w) 318-1000/(c) 207-3644

Employment: Robert is a businessman involved in construction

Campaign Treasurer is Alex Zúñiga, of Edinburg

(h) 381-5800

Melba González (Pl. 4 Incumbent and current board president)

P.O. Box 1042, Edinburg, Texas 78540

(h) 318-0148/(c) 457-9793

Employment: PSJA ISD elementary school teacher

Campaign Treasurer is María Natalia González

(c) 533-1798

Place 5

Dr. Martín Castillo, Jr., 3020 W. Rogers Road, Edinburg, Tx 78540

(h) 381-0551

(c) 393-1130

Employment: Chiropractor in Pharr

Campaign Treasurer is Felipe de la Garza — (h) 383-6454

Cris Treviño, 975 Ebony, Edinburg, Texas 78539 — (h) 383-1415

Employment: Did not list

Campaign Treasurer is Cris Treviño

Gregory “Greg” García (Pl. 5 Incumbent)

604 E. Van Week, Edinburg, Texas 78539 — (w) 968-2504

Employment: Boys & Girls Club in Weslaco

Campaign Treasurer is Xavier Morín

••••••

Gilberto Garza voted sole finalist for ECISD superintendent’s job

By GILBERT TAGLE

The Edinburg Consolidated ISD Board of Trustees voted Tuesday, March 27, to make Gilberto Garza Jr. the sole finalist for the job of superintendent of schools.

Garza has been leading the Edinburg school district since August when he was named acting superintendent by the school board. He was named interim superintendent in December.

Garza is a veteran educator in the Edinburg school district who served as a teacher, an elementary school principal, and director of Elementary Education prior to being tapped to fill the superintendent’s job which became vacant early last August.

Dr. Jacques Treviño, attorney for the school board, said that under the government code the district must post notice of the school board’s decision to make Garza the sole finalist for the job for 21 days. At the end of that time period the school board has the option of voting to officially make Garza the superintendent of schools or continuing it search for a new superintendent.

Board president Melba González said the same down-to-earth nature and fairness in leadership that Garza has demonstrated as a principal and as an administrator has made him a successful interim superintendent of schools.

“Mr. Garza has brought unity to the school district in dealing with important academic, financial and operational issues. The response from the community to Mr. Garza’s role as interim superintendent has been very positive,” said González. “He is doing an excellent job and we are confident that our district will rise to new heights under his leadership.”

••••••

House passes House Bill 1, the state’s proposed $150 billion, two-year budget, says Speaker Craddick

By ALEXIS DELEE

Early Friday morning, March 30, the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 1 (HB1), the Appropriations Bill for the 2009-2010 biennium. HB 1 presents a fiscally conservative and responsible budget that funds the state’s responsibilities while saving revenue for future appropriations, according to Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

The budget totals just over $150 billion, an increase of 5.4 percent from the previous biennium. Compared to the state’s population growth and the rate of inflation since that time, this increase represents a fiscally conservative use of taxpayers’ money. This amount also leaves $4.2 billion unappropriated, which will be carried forward to the following biennium.

In addition, the state’s Rainy Day fund is expected to accumulate $4.3 billion by the end of the 2009 fiscal year. The combined $8.5 billion ensures that homeowners will continue to enjoy property tax reductions enacted during the 79th Legislature.

“I’m thrilled that we were able to accomplish so many goals at once with this budget,” Craddick said. “We have met the state’s funding obligations, put away revenue for future appropriations and protected tax cuts for Texas homeowners.”

Several key programs saw increased general revenue funding with HB 1. When compared to FY06-07 funding, education received a $3.6 billion increase, covering the Teachers’ Retirement System, financial aid and additional funding for public schools and higher education.

More than $2.5 billion was added to health and human services for increased Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program costs, improved provider rates for physicians and other healthcare professionals, increased trauma funding for hospitals, and a new mental health crisis stabilization program. Additionally, corrections received nearly $600 million to meet projected inmate population growth and increase border security.

Before debating HB 1 on the House floor, members voted to require that any new spending item added to the budget must be accompanied by removing another item of equal value. In this way, representatives worked to ensure that they maintained fiscal responsibility in crafting the budget for the 2009-10 biennium.

••••••

House Democrats pass historic teacher pay raise, kill school vouchers, say party leaders

BY KEVIN VICKERS

Texas House Democrats on Thursday, March 29, passed an historic increase in teacher pay and killed efforts to fund private school vouchers today, flying in the face of opposition from Republican Speaker of the House Tom Craddick.

Led by Reps. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, and Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, Democrats in the House led a bipartisan coalition to convert a controversial and divisive teacher incentive pay program—which is opposed by teachers across the state—into an across-the-board pay raise for every teacher in Texas and drove a nail into the coffin of private school vouchers.

During Thursday’s debate on the $165 billion Texas budget, Noriega authored a measure to increase teacher pay by approximately $900 annually for every Texas teacher, librarian, counselor, and nurse.

“Hardworking Texas teachers deserve to be paid what they are worth. Texas teachers are paid thousands of dollars below the national average. The teacher pay raise we passed today will help to get Texas teacher pay closer to the national average,” commented House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam, D-Waco.

Following the vote increasing teacher pay, Heflin led a bipartisan coalition to kill efforts to rob public schools to pay for private school vouchers.

“Texans have spoken and we’ve been on their side—we hear them loud and clear,” said Dunnam. “Texans support our public schools and they simply do not believe it is right to rob our public schools to pay for more failed social experiments. Today, a bipartisan majority of the House rejected the radicalism of Rick Perry (and) Tom Craddick.”

“By passing an across-the-board pay raise for Texas teachers and killing vouchers, House Democrats are delivering on the promises we have made the people of Texas. We will continue to work hard for hard-working families,” Dunnam concluded.

••••••

Rep. Peña secures $750,000 for Museum Park in state budget approved by Appropriations Committee

By ORLANDO SALINAS

The Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg stands to receive $750,000 for construction of a park and renovations to the historic Hidalgo County Jail House if efforts by Rep. Aaron Peña are successful.

The state budget, approved on Thursday, March 29, included a rider in Article 11 authored by the Edinburg Democrat securing that amount for the museum.

“This year’s budget includes more funding for our state and local parks,” said Peña. “Our state has shown that it is committed to enhancing our quality of life by investing in our communities. This appropriation will only serve to improve the beauty of our community.”

The funds will be applied to the completion of the Will Looney Legacy Park in downtown Edinburg. The project includes the conversion of recently acquired property to a sanctuary that features educational stations, a palapa, an archeology pit, and a windmill. The park will also feature a sculpture commissioned by the Looney family in honor of their son, Will, and his grandmother, Mrs. Margaret Looney.

The funding may also be used for the preservation of the Museum’s cornerstone structure, the 1910 Hidalgo County Jail House building, a Texas Historic Landmark. A companion structure to the former Spanish revival county courthouse, the jail was designed by Atlee B. Ayres and includes a hanging tower, which was used once in 1913. The jail is deteriorating due to rising damp and age. A master plan for its preservation has been developed.

“Growing up in Hidalgo County we have all heard stories about the old county jail,” said Peña. “I am going to continue to fight to save this South Texas treasure.”

The budget is now headed to the Senate for consideration. After passage in that chamber the bill heads to conference for final approval.

Peña is serving his third term in the Texas House of Representatives. He is Chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence and is a member of the House Committee on Ways and Means.

••••••

Rep. Gonzáles’ bill to protect home buyers from toxic drug exposure risks unanimously approved by House

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Tuesday, March 27, passed her first bill of the 80th Legislature with unanimous support of the House.

Her House Bill 271 requires disclosure by home sellers whether they are aware of any previous use of a residence for the manufacture of methamphetamines.

Residents living in former meth labs can suffer long-term effects such as cancer; damage to the central nervous system, liver, kidneys; birth defects and miscarriages.

“A home is a huge investment – for many of us our largest investment – and buyers should know exactly what they are getting” she said.” HB 271 protects the public from the lingering effects of meth labs.”

Gonzáles’ bill defends the interests of buyers and sellers.

“The disclosure protects those in the chain of sale – that is the seller, the realtor and most importantly, it protects the buyer of the home. Children are especially vulnerable to develop adverse health effects from exposure to residue from methamphetamines,” Gonzáles said.

Like mold, if meth labs have not been properly cleaned, young children and others with compromised immune systems can suffer respiratory problems for the rest of their lives. “Meth is the new mold,” said Gonzáles. “Disclosure in this bill promotes consumer health and the integrity of the real estate industry.”

In 2005 alone, Texas seized 269 meth labs which raised the urgency to address the need to extend the protection of buyers’ health as well as the liability of banks and realtors selling homes that were previously used to manufacture methamphetamines. “I commend the state and local authority’s efforts to prevent and reduce the existence of meth labs, but it is also necessary to address how to deal with the long term effects produced by meth labs after they have ceased to exist,” said Gonzáles.

Gonzáles is currently serving her second term representing parts of McAllen and Hidalgo County in the Texas House. In addition to serving on the influential Judiciary and Public Health Committees, she has also been elected by her colleagues to serve as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus and has been appointed to the National Conference State Legislature standing committee on Health.

••••••

Senate approves $250 million funding authority by Sen. Lucio for water/wastewater Services

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Senate on Tuesday, March 27 approved Senate Joint Resolution 20 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, the Chairman of the International Relations and Trade Committee.

Lucio’s measure would would allow the Texas Water Development Board to issue the an additional $250 million in general obligation bonds for economically distressed areas to obtain water and wastewater services statewide if approved by Texas voters.

“As Chairman of IRT, for the last two years, I’ve been working with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to address the water and wastewater needs of distressed areas of our State. Today, with the passage of SJR 20, we are a step closer to bringing essential water and wastewater services to the most economically distressed areas in Texas,” said Lucio.

“On behalf of the communities impacted by the IRT Committee, I want to thank Lt. Gov, Dewhurst for appointing me to the powerful Senate Finance Committee,” said Lucio. “This appointment has enabled me to work with Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Kip Averitt, R-Waco, to address a number of issues outlined in our IRT Interim Report, including acquiring the necessary funding to finish out the original Economically Distressed Areas Program – EDAP I – and setting aside the necessary debt service revenue in the base state budget to support the newly expanded statewide EDAP II program, which would be funded by SJR 20.”

SJR 20 is the accompanying joint resolution of the bill Lucio amended last session with the help of Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, and Rep. Kevin Bailey, D-Houston, which took the Economically Distressed Areas Program statewide. SJR 20 provides for a constitutional amendment that if approved would give the TWDB up to $250 million in Bonding Authority to address the estimated $5.4 billion in water & wastewater needs for distressed areas of the state.

Lucio added, “My committee, along with the Texas Water Development Board, identified communities statewide during the interim that are in dire need of water and wastewater services, and SJR 20 will afford them an opportunity to apply for critical EDAP funding.”

When approved by the House, SJR 20 will be one of the constitutional amendments up for voter approval in November. “My good friend, Rep. Norma Chávez from El Paso, will be the main sponsor of SJR 20 in the Texas House of Representatives. Her leadership and understanding of the water/wastewater needs of Texas will ensure that SJR 20 will be found on the Governor’s desk in the weeks to come,” added Lucio.

••••••

Rep. Peña encourages immediate action from TYC conservator

By ORLANDO SALINAS

The embattled Texas Youth Commission has been placed into a conservatorship, thus allowing a single executive to take control of the agency.

Gov. Rick Perry made the announcement on Wednesday, March 28, flanked by various legislators, including Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who were appointed to the select committee investigating the agency. The press conference revealed the strategy of permanently abolishing the Texas Youth Commission’s board and replacing it with a juvenile prison czar.

“Less talk and more action, this is what many of us are demanding,” said Peña. “Today’s announcement will allow the agency’s conservator to start cleaning house. The first to go should be the firing of the 111 TYC employees with felony convictions. I strongly encourage the conservator to take immediate action.”

Jay Kimbrough will serve as conservator until the end of the legislative session in May. After that, the goverrnor will appoint, with the Senate’s approval, another conservator who will serve as the agency’s new chief. Texas law gives conservators the power to hire and fire employees.

“I have seen and heard enough,” said Kimbrough. “We want a fresh start and we are going to have a fresh start.”

Speaker of the House Tom Craddick expressed his support for Kimbrough’s selection by Perry.

“I applaud the Governor’s decision to appoint a conservator to the Texas Youth Commission. This is a serious issue that the Legislature has done an excellent job of quickly addressing. The appointment of Jay Kimbrough will further ensure a rapid and thorough investigation of this issue so we can guarantee the safety and well-being of these children and good management of this agency.”

Peña has been participating in bi-weekly committee meetings investigating all aspects of the management and operation of the Texas Youth Commission. The committee was created after allegations of sexual misconduct came to light in a West Texas juvenile center.

“The sense that we get in testimony from officials and employees at the TYC is that things aren’t moving fast enough,” said Peña. “Even after the increased scrutiny of the commission I am getting word that working conditions at our facility in Edinburg and others centers are getting progressively worse.”

For the past 18 months Peña’s office has maintained a dialogue with guards, staff and teachers from the Evins Center who have shared their concerns of conditions at the unit.

“Today’s announcement will result in having all superintendents of the various juvenile centers reapply for employment,” said Peña. “They should be aware that their re-hiring will be dependent on how well they were able to do their job in the past. This is a positive step in moving this agency forward.”

••••••

Concerns at Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg raised in letter to TYC by Rep. Peña

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, in a March 27 letter to Ed Owens, Acting Executive Director for the Texas Youth Commission, which oversees the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg, raised some of his concerns regarding reported abuses at the South Texas state facility.

His letter follows verbatim:

March 27, 2007

Ed Owens

Acting Executive Director, Texas Youth Commission

P.O. Box 4260

Austin, Texas 78765

Dear Mr. Owens,

At the request of a group of teachers from the Evins Regional Juvenile Center my office was called to a meeting on March 24, 2007 to discuss issues of working conditions at the Edinburg unit. I am writing you this letter to share with you their concerns. A summary of their sentiments follow:

•Claim that Local Administration has created a hostile working environment for those who have expressed concerns about conditions at the Evins Center

• Some teachers and staff feel intimidated and believe they have been subject to retaliation for speaking out against administration of policy

• Local Administration has contributed to hostile working environment by selectively applying policy to curry favor

• Claim that there is selective application of state and federal education policy

• Lesson plans were not required until recently

• No technology allowed in classrooms, no music or vocational programs are available to youth

• Large number of uncertified teachers employed at Center

• Expressed little confidence in grievance policy

• Claim that Local Administration has insensitive attitude towards students and staff

• Principal uses abusive language and gestures in meetings with teachers and staff

• Local Administration has on occasion expressed derogatory attitudes towards youth at facility

• Claim unsafe and unsanitary working conditions at Evins Center

• For six weeks the Center has faced severe water pressure problems limiting the use of toilets and lavatories

• Doors at Center malfunction often being open and closed when they aren’t supposed to

On various occasions over the last year and a half my office has met with guards and staff members from the Evins Center to discuss workplace issues. It concerns me that these educators believe that working conditions have worsened at the Evins Center even after the recent scrutiny of all TYC centers across the state. That same sentiment was expressed to me at the last meeting I had with guards and staff on March 11, 2007.

It remains our duty to provide safe conditions for the rehabilitation of our youth and for the employment of our staff at our TYC centers. I will continue to monitor conditions at the Evins Center. If I can be of any assistance or to discuss this matter further please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff.

Sincerely,

Aaron Peña, Jr.

Chairman, House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence

••••••

Congressman Hinojosa: new report documents what works for first-generation college students

By SUSAN TREBACH

Raising aspirations, navigating the admissions process and robustly supporting the transition to college life are all essential parts of the college access formula for first-generation students, according to a new study by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness, said the researchers focused on Texas students because “our state is making a sincere effort to increase disadvantaged student participation in college.”

Hinojosa cited the College for Texans Campaign and the Higher Education Assistance Pilot Program as evidence of Texas’ commitment.

Hinojosa said that seeking Texas students’ perspectives proved effective: “The Pell Institute’s report enhances our understanding of the complexities of life for first-generation students.”

“Congress now has the opportunity to turn these insights into some effective strategies as we move forward in reauthorizing the federal Higher Education Act,” he continued. “We appreciate this timely, valuable addition to our information base.”

“Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students” offers a comprehensive look at the college access struggles of Texas students who are the first in their families to pursue post-secondary education. Based on intensive focus group interviews with students in Dallas, Edinburg, El Paso, Houston, Kingsville, and San Antonio, the report is a best-practices road map for policymakers and college access professionals across the country.

“As these students make clear, it is not enough to raise first-generation students’ hopes and dreams,” said Colleen O’Brien, Director of the Pell Institute and a co-author of the report. “To make the successful leap to college, disadvantaged students need intensive help with the admissions and financial aid processes and a real comfort level with both campus life and college academic support resources. And once they are in college, the challenges to stay enrolled are just as significant.”

In Texas about 365,000 students (35%) currently attending college are first-generation. They are under-represented at four-year colleges and over-represented at two-year institutions. They tend to be female, from minority backgrounds and from families with mean incomes of $45,000 a year. Nationally, 6.5 million current college students are first-generation.

The report, funded with a grant by the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation (TG), reveals the academic, financial, familial and work issues first-generation students confront on a daily basis as they strive to succeed in college. Some of the key recommendations include:

• First-generation students need to understand why college matters and trust the people delivering the information;

• The message that a college education can move the entire family forward is particularly salient;

• Involving parents and family members early in the process prepares everyone for the challenging transition;

• Pressures on students to earn money for both family and college conflict with students’ need to spend more time on academic work;

• Prior exposure to college life and, once they are enrolled, access to college-based support services are extremely important to first-generation students.

For an online view of the entire report, go to http://www.pellinstitute.org

••••••

Gov. Perry appoints Thomas Wingate judge of the 430th Judicial District Court

Gov. Rick Perry on Monday, March 26 appointed Thomas P. Wingate of Mission as judge of the 430th Judicial District Court serving Hidalgo County. Wingate will serve until the next general election.

Wingate is legal counsel to Wingate Law Offices and CEO of Security Land Title, a Texas title insurance company. He served six years in the U.S. Army as a Captain in the Judge Advocate Generals Corps.

Wingate retired from the Army Reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel after 21 years of service. He is a board certified specialist in commercial and residential real estate law by the State Bar of Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is also a member of the Supreme Court of Texas and the U.S. Court of Military Appeals.

Wingate received a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin.

This appointment is subject to Senate confirmation.

••••••

Senate approves pro-consumer, pro-worker bills by Sen. Lucio

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Senate on Thursday, March 29 approved a bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, designed to assist consumers to comparison shop for home and auto insurance, and another to assist injured employees with legal representation.

Senate Bill 611, the one-stop-shop for insurance comparison, would offer consumers the ability to log onto a website and view a listing of insurers offering homeowners and automobile insurance in this state. The website would simplify one of the most complex financial services to interpret and decide upon.

“Since coverage levels vary so greatly between the different policies, policyholders cannot shop based on price alone,” said Lucio. “My bill directs the Texas Department of Insurance and the Office of Public Insurance Counsel to develop this website with side-by-side comparisons of different policies, rates charged, the percentage by which rates have fallen or risen in the past three years, and other pertinent information.”

Executive Director of Texas Watch, a statewide consumer advocacy and research organization, Alex Winslow, noted, “This legislation will go a long way toward making our insurance market more transparent for consumers by giving them tools they need to make the best choices for their families.”

Senate Bill 287 would provide district courts the authority to appoint an attorney to represent injured employees who have won approval throughout the administrative process of the legitimacy of their employment-related injuries. Generally insurers opt to go to court because the cost is less for legal fees than for payment benefits. Injured employees are usually at a disadvantage in the court room because they cannot afford legal representation and insurers can. When employees represent themselves, the insurer usually prevails.

“No one should have to forfeit a court case with merit because of the lack of money to hire an attorney,” explained Lucio. “Our judicial system should be based on equity, and through this bill, we can ensure fairness to both sides in workers compensation cases.”

••••••

Senate passes SB 64 by Sen. Zaffirini to eliminate PAC campaign contribution disclosure loophole

By NICK ALMANZA

The Texas Senate on Thursday, March 29 unanimously passed Senate Bill 64 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which requires general-purpose political committees (PACs) to disclose contributions of more than $5,000 during the last nine days of a campaign. This disclosure is required of candidates and their campaign committees for contributions of $1,000.

The bill closes a legal loophole that allows large contributions to general-purpose PACs to go unreported for months after a general or primary election.

“We must ensure the integrity of the electoral process, which is why I filed SB 64,” Zaffirini said. “All PACs should be held to the same standards as candidates and campaign committees. This bill provides this essential level of parity.”

Under current law the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) is not authorized to issue penalties automatically for PACs that fail to file timely special reports near an election. SB 64 also will authorize the TEC to notify and issue automatic penalties for campaign committees that fail to submit those reports timely.

The bill must be passed by the House of Representative before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Perry for final approval. The continued progress of this and all bills authored by Zaffirini can be monitored via the internet at http://www.zaffirini.senate.state.tx.us or by contacting the Texas Legislative Reference Library’s toll free in-state hotline, 1-877-824-7038.

••••••

TXU Corp. could be fined $210 million by state Public Utilities Commission, says Sen. Lucio

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Texas Public Utilities Commission staff has recommended a $210 million fine against TXU Corporation, which includes $70 million that would be reimbursed to consumers, said Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville.

The remaining $140 million would be assessed for administrative penalties. It is important that TXU customers be compensated for their overpayments and that refunds go directly to them.

“I am pleased that the Public Utility Commission (PUC) staff has acted expediently to formalize the alleged violations of market power abuse by TXU Corp,” said Lucio. “I feel confident that we are headed in the right direction towards fairness and equity for the consumer.”

The PUC is in the initial step of making a final determination on the independent report. The PUC staff recommendations must still go through the hearing process and be approved by the three PUC Commissioners before final penalties can be assessed.

On March 12, an independent report concluded that TXU, one of the largest generators of electricity in Texas, manipulated the wholesale electric market, causing at least $70 million in higher electricity prices across the state in 2005. That same week, the Senate approved a package of electric utility bills to improve competition in the retail electric market, discourage market and price manipulation, and bring rate relief to Texas households.

Lucio amended one of the electric utility bills to strengthen language that would require refunds to be passed to consumers or to an organization that offers emergency payment assistance. The amendment also included language that would require PUC to make a final determination within 30 days after the Independent Market Monitor issued a report on market power abuses or violations, and that the report be referred to the Attorney General’s office for further investigation and prosecution.

This legislation that passed the Senate in mid-March will likely come before the House this week.

••••••

A Down Payment on Texas’ Future

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

and

SEN. RODNEY ELLIS

Texas faces a looming crisis: while our diverse, high-tech economy relies on a highly skilled, highly educated workforce, we rank near the bottom in the nation at producing college graduates. We lag particularly behind in graduating Hispanics and African Americans

As Texas becomes a more heavily minority-majority state, the future literally depends on increasing college access and success for Hispanic and African American Texans.

Unfortunately, all our efforts to close the gaps in college participation continue to fall far short of what is necessary and, unless the state significantly increases investment in direct grant aid, more and more students and families will be priced out of a college education, further jeopardizing our social and economic future.

So what is Texas doing about this challenge? Sadly, not nearly enough.

In 1999, Texas leaders promised high school students that if they worked hard and followed the rules, we would help them pay to go to college. Senator Rodney Ellis(Houston) and I co-authored legislation to create the TEXAS Grants program, which provides tuition and fees to students who have taken the Advanced or Recommended curriculum in high school. By every account, this program has been a runaway success.

Since we created the program, 161,000 students have received a TEXAS Grant to help them achieve the dream of college. The program has been the key to increasing minority college participation to meet the goals of the Closing the Gaps initiative.

No area has benefited more from this program than the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In just the last four years, 26,423 students have received $67.6 million to help them pay for college. Unfortunately, that success will be destroyed unless the Legislature takes dramatic steps today.

Frozen funding and skyrocketing tuition costs, thanks to tuition deregulation, have forced over 70,000 students to lose their TEXAS Grants in just the last two years and, if nothing is done today, the number of students left behind will soon explode. If funding is not dramatically increased, 150,000 students – 75 percent of those eligible – will be left behind every year, making TEXAS Grants an empty, broken promise.

Texas already compares poorly to other states – our competitors for new jobs – in producing college graduates. The numbers speak for themselves:

·Texas ranks 41st in the nation in the rate of college enrollment;

·Texas ranks 34th in the percentage with a bachelor’s degree or higher;

·Only 26 percent of Texans aged 25-65 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher;

·Only 13 percent of Hispanic Texans have earned an Associate’s Degree or higher;

·Texas spends, on average, $180 million less on direct grant aid than the other five largest states, California, New York, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania;

Unless we significantly increase direct grant aid to students, our state will fall further behind our competitors in producing the graduates needed to fuel the 21st century economy.

To address this looming crisis, we have filed legislation to put our money where our mouth is and fulfill the state’s promise to Texas students and their parents. Our plan, SB 1176, would dedicate $897 million to the TEXAS Grant program, and ensure that every eligible Texas student has a chance to go to college.

This is simply a matter of priorities. We have a $14 billion budget surplus, so the money is there to keep our promise. If Texas is serious about Closing the Gaps and ensuring the doors to college are open to every student who wants an education, we will make this down-payment on our children’s future.

(Senator Eddie Lucio represents South Texas in the Texas Senate. Senator Rodney Ellis represents Houston in the Texas Senate.)