Select Page

Presidential candidate John McCain, Texas Border Coalition both oppose construction of border wall


Presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona (second from left), reviews plans by the City of Laredo to help curb illegal crossings from Mexico into their community during his recent visit to that community where he met with the Texas Border Coalition, an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials from the 14 counties which border Mexico. TBC is championing major improvements for border security, and increased commerce and travel through the legal ports of entry along the Texas-Mexico border, says TBC chairman Chad Foster, who serves as mayor of Eagle Pass. But Foster adds that the group stands united against plans that call for paying billions of dollars for fencing – more commonly referred to as a wall – to be constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border. “The Texas Border Coalition has a resolution that we are against the wall,” said McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz. “Sen. McCain said he was also against the wall. He recognizes there have to be some kind of barriers to protect the border, but he favored more technology, more sensors. He felt the wall was a waste of money.” See related story later in this posting.



Gilberto Garza, Jr., formerly interim superintendent for the Edinburg school district, on Tuesday, April 24, was appointed permanent superintendent by the Edinburg school board.

In naming Garza as superintendent, the school board provided him with a 14-month contract that runs through June 2008 and a salary of $172,000, plus a $1,000 monthly stipend for auto allowance, cell phone, and other incidental expenses. The school board approved the contract on a 6 – 0 vote, with trustee Jaime Chavana absent for the vote.



The South Texas Border Business Contracting Expo Planning Committee is looking for Valley businesses interesting in obtaining government and corporate contracts. The STBBCE is scheduled for June 21 at the McAllen Convention Center. Seated Brenda Lee Huerta, McAllen Hispanic Chamber; Robert Chavarría, U.S. Small Business Administration; Froy Garza, Office of Congressman Henry Cuellar; and Desiree Méndez-Caltzontzint, Office of Congressman Rubén Hinojosa. Standing are Elizabeth C. Martínez, The Business Times of the Rio Grande Valley; Beth Walker, Rio Grande Valley Partnership; Minnie Lucio, Cameron Works; Matt Ruszczak, the University of Texas-Pan American Small Business Development Center; Alex Brimer, UTPA Veterans Business Outreach Center; Johnny Clark, Thomas/Price and Associates; Esperanza Pérez, SBDC; Maggie Treviño, Central & South Texas Minority Business Council; and Mark Winchester, SBDC. For more on this story, please see article later in this posting.


Presidential candidate John McCain, Texas Border Coalition both oppose construction of border wall


U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who is also a candidate for President in 2008, covered a wide array of issues crucial to Texas and the border region, including the opposition to a proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, during a key session in Laredo on Monday, April 16, with the Texas Border Coalition.

The Texas Border Coalition is an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials from the 14 Texas counties that border Mexico.

“It was a rare and special occasion to have the opportunity to have a sit-down, face-to-face meeting with a presidential candidate,’ said Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chairman of the Texas Border Coalition. “We had a lot of issues to discuss, but the focus was on immigration reform and especially border security, which is the top priority, not only for Texas, but for the nation.”

As part of his visit with TBC, McCain shared his belief that the nation’s immigration policies must be humanitarian.

“We talked about the illegal acts of people who come here illegally, but the exploitation and the mistreatment of people who come to our country who have no protection under our law — terrible things happen and terrible things are done by coyotes that are unspeakable,” McCain told the Laredo Morning Times and other border news media.

TBC is championing major improvements for border security, and increased commerce and travel through the legal ports of entry along the Texas-Mexico border, but the group stands united against plans that call for paying billions of dollars for fencing – more commonly referred to as a wall – to be constructed along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The Texas Border Coalition has a resolution that we are against the wall,” said McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz. “Sen. McCain said he was also against the wall. He recognizes there have to be some kind of barriers to protect the border, but he favored more technology, more sensors. He felt the wall was a waste of money.”

Increased funding for the U.S. Border Patrol, lighting, vehicle barriers, sophisticated high technology sensors, and access roads are among some of the options to a wall that have been proposed to increase border security.

“We were very happy with most of the issues he shared with the border mayors and county judges. We will continue to have a friend in Sen. McCain for us to advance the needs for the southern border, for our national government to favor us more financially to improve our ports of entry. There has been a lot of investment in the infrastructure and personnel in our ports of entry,” Cortéz reported. “Overall, I believe we all left the meeting feeling pretty good that we had a senator who was going to support, substantially, the positions of the Texas Border Coalition,”

Brownsville Mayor Eddie Treviño Jr., who also participated in the TBC session with McCain, shared his thoughts about the meeting, particularly what he called the “wall to nowhere.”

“As border leaders, I believe Sen. McCain heard our united focus and concerns about immigration reform and the proposed ‘wall to nowhere’. We alerted him to the fact that the Secure Fence Act, which calls for the building of the wall, included a provision directing the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security to investigate, study and then make recommendations on how to better secure our border with Canada. We all felt that this same method of fact-finding should have also been utilized as to our border with Mexico before, not after the passage of this legislation. Border security must take into account our border economies, and not take them for granted.”

Among the positions McCain has publicly taken on the issue of immigration are the following proposals:

•Vastly improve border surveillance and enforcement capabilities;

•Increase the manpower, infrastructure and capabilities necessary to block, apprehend, detain and return those who try to enter the country illegally;

•Strengthen the laws and penalties against those who hire illegal aliens and violate immigration law;

•Achieve and maintain the integrity of official documents to stop fraud, verify immigration status

and employment, and enforce immigration law; and

•Encourage immigrants to come out of the shadows so we know who is in this country and develop a

sensible guest worker program that will serve the nation’s best economic and security interests.

Laredo Mayor Raúl G. Salinas noted the significance of the Arizona senator’s meeting with the organization. “We welcome people from all parties and want someone with an open mind to do what’s right for mankind, especially as we go through immigration reform,” Salinas told the Laredo Morning News.

Foster, Cortéz, Treviño, and Salinas were joined at the Laredo session with McCain by other key members of the coalition, including Del Rio Mayor Efraín Valdéz; Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas; Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos; and Webb County Judge Efraín Valdéz.

Mike Allen, TBC vice-chairman representing the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, said the gathering was the latest in a series of efforts “to continue bringing the border region together on key issues that affect all of us.”

The other members of TBC are: Pat Townsend, Jr., TBC treasurer representing the Mission Economic Development Agency; Brownsville Mayor Eddie Treviño, Jr.; Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa; El Paso Mayor John F. Cook; Hidalgo Mayor John David Franz; Maverick County Judge José Pepe Aranda; Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas; Pharr Mayor Leopoldo Palacios, Jr; Roma Mayor Fernando Peña; and Weslaco Mayor Joe V. Sánchez.

The Texas Border Coalition maintains a web site at


Rio Grande Valley Partnership supports high-security driverslicense, opposes creation of a border wall


A proposed new type of drivers license that would help Texans more easily travel in and out of Mexico, while increasing border security, has been endorsed by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, which also has come out against calls for a “border wall” that would separate the U.S. from Mexico.

The Rio Grande Valley Partnership is a regional chamber of commerce for deep South Texas. Active at many different levels, including economic development and state and federal legislative affairs, it is headquartered in Weslaco.

On Thursday, April 26, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership approved Resolution No. 2007, which endorsed the passage of Senate Bill 2027 by Sen. Elliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, that proposes the establishment of a pilot program that could lead the the issuance of high-security drivers licenses for state motorists.

Resolution No. 2007 also objects to the federal Secure Border Initiative, a plan that calls for the construction of barriers, most commonly referred to as a “border wall”, between the U.S. and Mexico.

The action by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership is consistent with the positions that have been previously taken by the Texas Border Coalition, an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials representing the 14 Texas counties which border Mexico.

The Valley Partnership’s Resolution No. 2007 contends that any such border wall, “be it fences, barriers, or other mechanisms, is inhospitable, a stark contrast to the gracious and genteel qualities that characterize local border communities; moreover, its construction, particularly through the application of eminent domain, is insidious, an affront to the pride and privilege of land ownership.”

Such barriers could cost billions of dollars, according to federal government estimates, and opponents say those resources could be better used for other homeland security measures that would not hurt international commerce, economic development, and good will between the two nations.

“As the regional chamber of commerce, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership works to build business and to foster goodwill with our neighbors in Mexico,” said Bill Summers, its president and chief executive officer. “A border wall goes against everything this organization has been working towards for more than sixty years, and everything our local business work towards every day. By our resolution today, we commend Sen. Shapleigh in the Texas Legislature for his proactive efforts to create mechanisms that facilitate business and goodwill, rather than some federal initiatives that wedge barricades against them.”

Measures such as Shapleigh’s SB 2027 are much better and more effective solutions that help improve homeland security, the Rio Grande Valley Partnership maintains.

As proposed, SB 2027 authorizes the Department of Public Safety to initiate a permissive high security driver’s license pilot program, to adopt rules to implement the program, and to enter into a memorandum of understanding with any federal agency for the purposes of facilitating the movement of people between Texas and Mexico, according to the bill analysis of the measure.

SB 2027 was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security on April 24, and is awaiting a scheduled date for action by the full Senate.

According to the bill analysis of SB 2027, recently, the State of Washington enacted a high security driver’s license pilot program to provide enhanced driver’s licenses and personal identification certificates (certificate). Under this program, applicants have the option of choosing standard or enhanced driver’s licenses or certificates. Those who choose an enhanced license or certificate receive a license or certificate that appears standard, but contains a radio frequency identification chip that will include certain information that can be scanned at entry points on the border. Noted advantages of the enhanced license or certificate include lower costs and faster turnaround time compared to a passport. It may benefit both the state and persons traveling between Texas and Mexico to implement a similar program.


Edinburg school board names Gilberto Garza Jr. as new ECISD superintendent


The Edinburg Consolidated ISD Board of Trustees has named Gilberto Garza, Jr. as the new superintendent of schools for the Edinburg school district.

Garza has been serving as the interim superintendent of schools since last December. He was named acting superintendent last August before the start of the 2006-2007 school year.

In naming Garza as superintendent, the school board provided him with a 14-month contract that runs through June 2008 and a salary of $172,000.

Garza has resided in Edinburg since he graduated from San Isidro High School in 1966. He received his Bachelor’s of Science and Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Texas – Pan American. Other certificates that he has received include supervisory, mid-management and superintendency from UTPA.

He served as a teacher and as a principal at Hargill Elementary, De la Viña Elementary and San Carlos Elementary, before becoming the district’s Director of Elementary Education in 1997.

Garza is married to the former Anita Requenez of Edinburg (a retired teacher) and they have two children and four grandchildren. Garza comes from a family of educators whose siblings are either retired administrators or retired teachers.

In making the announcement, Melba González, president of the school board, said, “Gilbert Garza is a proven leader in education and education administration in the Edinburg school district. His 30 years of experience as a teacher, a principal, and as Director of Elementary Education have made him a well-rounded and respected educational leader.”

“In the period that Gilbert Garza has served as acting superintendent, the Edinburg school district has made many important strides that have taken the district forward,” said González. “Under his leadership, the district has taken measures to address the need for additional classroom space at the elementary level; the renovation of a school facility to serve as a new middle school; and the implementation of a comprehensive program to improve the safety at the campuses for all students and staff.”

“Gilbert Garza has proven that he can lead this great district with great vision, understanding, temperament and respectability for all teachers and campus staff as well as for the Edinburg community,” she added.

The Edinburg CISD is the second largest school district in the Rio Grande Valley. It spans over 945-square miles (largest in the state) and has a student membership of 29,000 plus and more than 4,200 employees.

As an administrator and interim superintendent, Garza will have the huge responsibility of guiding and influencing the direction of an education program that will serve the needs of all students in one of the Rio Grande Valley’s fastest growing school districts.

Carmen González (no relation to Melba González) , vice president for the board, said “Gilbert Garza is the type of leader that inspires the best in others to come out.”

“His leadership and character serve to unite and inspire passion among his teachers and principals, paraprofessionals and classified employees to do the best job they can and not forget that the whole purpose of education is to Teach the Children.”


Congressman Hinojosa votes for phased pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq by March 2008


Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, April 25, joined a majority in the House of Representatives to approve the conference report on the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans’ Health and Iraq Accountability Act.

This measure demands accountability from the Bush Administration, delineates a phased plan for the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future, and outlines a timeline for the redeployment of U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Specifically, the report calls for the redeployment of U.S. combat troops to begin by October 2007, at the latest, with a goal of being completed by March 2008. This represents the approach recommended by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which also called for a goal of redeployment being completed by March 2008.

Hinojosa said:

“Today I cast my vote for a plan that will take Iraq in a new direction. While I will continue to see that our military has all the equipment and training they need, I cannot support an Administration policy that puts more troops in harm’s way with no clear goals on how to win the fight.

“It is time the President be made accountable for his gross mismanagement of this war. The Administration did not have accurate information four years ago when we went to war with Iraq and they do not have an accurate picture of the situation now.

“Instead, our troops are now caught in the middle of a civil war between religious groups that have hated each other for centuries. The task of imposing and growing democracy in a place where it has never been is not the job for our military. It must come from the political will of the Iraqi people.

“Only the Iraqis can decide whether they want to put aside centuries of discord and come together to create a stable, democratic country where the rights of every group is recognized. This bill demands that the Iraqi government take responsibility for its own future.

“Now is the time to reevaluate our strategy in Iraq. We need to redeploy our troops so they are not targets and the source of increased tension. We need to show the Iraqi government that they must step up to the plate now and make the hard political decisions necessary to save their country. They will never do this if we continue to prop them up.

“I call upon the President to sign this bill and show his support for our troops and veterans. A veto would only be another case of the President’s destructive irresponsibility.”


Edinburg’s jobless rate in Marchbest in Valley again at 4.4 percent


Edinburg’s jobless rate, which is a key indicator of the strength of the local economy, remained the lowest in the Valley for the third consecutive month in 2007, averaging 4.4 percent in March, an improvement from 4.8 percent in February and 4.9 percent in January.

The city’s unemployment rate was keeping pace with the statewide average in March of 4.3 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.

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.

As of March, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, 1,245 Edinburg residents were looking for jobs, while 26,969 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 6.5 percent in March, an improvement from 7.4 percent in February and 7.7 percent in January.

The March jobless rate for Hidalgo County represented 17,623 area residents without jobs, while 254,508 residents were employed during the third month of 2007.

McAllen had the second lowest monthly unemployment rate in March – 4.6 percent – or 2,698 of their citizens out of work, while 55,864 residents of the City of Palms were employed that month. In February, McAllen’s jobless rate was 5 percent, while in January, its jobless rate was 5.1 percent.

Harlingen’s unemployment rate in March was 4.9 percent, while Pharr posted a 5.3 percent jobless rate that month.

Mission came in with a 5.4 percent unemployment rate in March, followed by Weslaco at 5.9 percent.

In Cameron County, Brownsville’s unemployment rate in March came in at 5.9 percent.

Cameron County’s jobless rate in March was 5.8 percent. In March, 8,356 residents of Cameron County were looking for work, while 135,427 residents were holding down jobs.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission:

The March seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 4.3 percent, down from 4.5 percent in February and 5.0 percent a year ago.

Seasonally adjusted nonagricultural employment in Texas grew by 15,000 jobs in March. This increase followed a revised gain of 32,100 jobs in February 2007.

With an annual job growth rate at 2.3 percent, the Texas economy gained 225,500 jobs over the past 12 months. The Midland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) experienced the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.9 percent (not seasonally adjusted).

The Odessa MSA was second at 3.3 percent, followed by the Amarillo MSA at 3.4 percent.

“Our falling unemployment rate and continued job growth are clear-cut indicators of a healthy Texas labor market,” said Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Chair Diane Rath. “The Texas unemployment rate now stands at 4.3 percent, below the national unemployment rate of 4.4 percent.”

Leisure & Hospitality posted the biggest gain, adding 5,300 jobs in March. Trade, Transportation & Utilities followed with 4,400 jobs added over the month and 21,600 jobs added in the past 12 months. Professional & Business Services went up by 3,600 jobs over the month, for a 4.0 percent gain since March 2006.

“Sustained job growth drives our state’s economic development,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ron Lehman. “Employers are recording impressive annual job growth rates in industries, including Mining at 11.6 percent and Construction at 4.2 percent.”

Jobs in Construction increased by 2,100 positions in March, following February’s substantial gain of 7,900 jobs. In the past 12 months, the industry has added 25,300 jobs.

“Employment is up, and that means more workers are finding jobs,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Ronny Congleton. “The labor force in Texas is now at an all-time record, with more than 11,078,300 workers employed.”

Initial claims for Unemployment Compensation in March 2007 were 52,901, down 2.1 percent since March 2006.


Judge J.D. Salinas pushes for improvements on U.S. Highway 281 north of Hidalgo County


Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III and leaders of cities along U.S. Highway 281 recently met to discuss plans to convert the main northbound route from Hidalgo County into an interstate-like non-stop thoroughfare.

The purpose of the “U.S. 281 Coalition” meeting, called by Judge Salinas, was to garner support for the highway’s inclusion in plans for Interstate 69, a trans-national trade route envisioned to be the shortest and fastest link between the economic centers of the United States, Mexico and Canada. Because the majority of cross-border trade moves by truck, I-69 is needed to increase mobility, safety, air quality and fuel economic development opportunities.

There have been discussions about whether to designate U.S. 281 or U.S. 77 as the route for I-69. Factors such as environmental impact studies, cost-benefit analysis and economic considerations will be key determinants. A commission will ultimately make the final decision — both highways could be included in the final plan — but regardless, U.S. 281 needs to be prepared.

“The bottlenecks have got to go,” said Salinas.

Several TxDOT-proposed improvements along U.S. 281 would make it more attractive for the I-69 project. The proposed improvements are:

1) Direct connectors from U.S. 59 Eastbound to IH-37 Northbound and from U.S. 59 Westbound to U.S. 281 Southbound in George West;

2) An overpass in the school zone in Ben Bolt; and

3) A possible tolled relief truck route around Premont or tolled freeway though Premont. Construction is expected to start as early as the end of this year on seven miles of freeway with three overpasses in Falfurrias.

“First and foremost, making these improvements along U.S. 281 is vital to relieving congestion, increasing safety, facilitating trade and improving our evacuation routes,” said Salinas.

“In addition, wherever TxDOT puts I-69 will determine growth. The question we aim to answer is how do we position ourselves to benefit from the economic activity that will be generated from increased trade along this route? What the coalition does collectively impacts the economic future of the entire region.”

Discussions about U.S. 281/I-69 are by no means over. Salinas will meet with the County Judges of Jim Wells, Live Oak and Brooks counties just before a quarterly meeting of the I-69 Alliance from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Friday, May 4, 2007, in Corpus Christi.


Rep. Martínez votes against voter ID bill, contends it amounts to a “modern day poll tax” on the poor


Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, on Tuesday, April 24, joined Democratic Senators, leaders from the America Association of Retired Persons, the League of Women Voters, and other groups Monday in opposition House Bill 218, which would require voters to present a qualified voter ID before casting a ballot.

The legislation was approved by the House of Representatives, with all Valley state representatives voting against the measure on third reading, which is the final vote taken on a measure.

Martínez said HB 218 was “an assault on Texans’ voting rights,” contending the bill, if passed into law, which would substantially decrease voter participation in Texas.

“I find it very hard to believe that there are individuals out there who are still trying to make it difficult for minorities and seniors to vote, but that is what happened with the passage of HB 218”, Martínez believes. “We all live in a country where one’s right to vote is the very foundation of our society. When a person is issued a voter’s registration card, that should be sufficient. There is no reason to require and implement additional hurdles for the voting public.”

Passed in the House on a party-line vote, if the “voter suppression bill”, as Martínez labeled it, becomes law, it will require voters to present a photo ID card at the polls, in addition to a valid voter registration card, in order to vote. As a practical matter, this requirement would disenfranchise thousands of elderly and minority Texans by denying the right to cast a ballot that counts, he said.

“A recent study commissioned by the Federal Election Assistance Commission found that, in 2004, states with Voter ID laws, such as HB 218, have experienced a 10% drop in the turnout of Hispanic voters. We should find ways to encourage individuals to go out and vote, not ways to discourage voting,” Martínez said.


Texas GOP says voter ID legislation will help crack down on voter fraud, protect election integrity

The Republican Party of Texas on Tuesday, April 24, applauded Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell, for authoring and passing legislation which would require photo identification to vote in Texas. The Texas House of Representatives voted 76 to 68 to pass House Bill 218 by Representative Betty Brown.

All Valley state representatives voted against HB 281 on third reading, which is the final vote taken on a bill. Those legislators are all Democrats.

“We applaud Rep. Brown for authoring and passing a common sense bill which safeguards the electoral process from voter fraud. Her leadership and perseverance served the voters of Texas well today,” said Hans Klingler, spokesman for the Texas GOP.

House Bill 218 would codify what most Texans do already which is provide some form of photo identification to cast a ballot in Texas. The bill has a fail-safe system for eligible voters over 80 years of age by exempting these individuals from this legislation. Since 2004 Attorney General Greg Abbott, also a Republican, has prosecuted several cases of voter fraud in Texas, including one case in Bee County in South Texas where the accused posed as their deceased mother to vote after her mother had passed away.

“House Bill 218 will ensure that an eligible voter’s ballot is not cancelled out by someone who is casting a ballot fraudulently. This is a safeguard which is supported overwhelmingly in Texas and long overdue,” continued Klingler.

House Bill 218 will now move to the Texas Senate where it will be considered in the coming weeks. Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican, has signaled publicly his support for the bill.


Counties could provide street lighting to rural areas under legislation authored by Rep. Gonzáles


Texas counties located within 150 miles of the Mexican border would be able to establish, maintain, and charge rural residents for street lighting in neighborhoods that are outside the city limits under a measure filed by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen.

The legislation, House Bill 573, was approved by the House Committee on County Affairs on Monday, April 24, and is awaiting action by the House Local and Consent Calendars Committee, which sets the date for House votes on noncontroversial or unopposed bills.

It was requested by the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court.

In addition to Gonzáles, who is the prime author of the bill, joint authors include Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Norma Chávez , D-El Paso, and Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo. Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, is a co-author of the measure.

According to the bill analysis of the bill:

Currently, municipalities have the authority to assess fees for the costs of installation, operation and maintenance of street lighting to the citizens that it benefits. However, in unincorporated areas, a county does not have this same authority even when residents of a subdivision are perfectly willing to incur a cost in order to obtain street lighting.

The version of Gonzáles’ bill approved by the House committee will grant authority to certain counties so that they may distribute the cost of installation, operation and maintenance of street lighting to the citizens it benefits, currently a common practice within municipalities and further allows the county to contract with an outside party for the collection of those fees.

House Bill 573 amends Chapter 280, Transportation Code, by adding Section 280.003 to provide counties that have any of their territory within 150 miles of the border the ability to charge residents of unincorporated areas for the installation, operation and maintenance of street lighting. It also adds a provision which ensures that the section does not supersede applicable provisions for street light service contained in the tariff of an electric utility.

If approved by the Texas Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry, the bill would go into effect on September 1, 2007.


Sen. Zaffirini, Rep. Guillen appointed to conference committee that will hammer out state’s budget


Lt. Governor David Dewhurst on Wednesday, April 25, named Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to the appropriations conference committee that will write the final draft of the $153 billion state budget. The committee comprises five senators and five representatives who will reconcile the Senate and House versions of the appropriations bill.

This is Zaffirini’s seventh appointment to the appropriations conference committee. She is serving her third consecutive term as vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, on which she has served since 1991.

“I truly am grateful that Lt. Governor Dewhurst again appointed me to the appropriations conference committee, and I am committed to working closely with him and my fellow conferees to produce a comprehensive and cooperative budget that prioritizes families,” Zaffirini said. “My priorities include providing funding for the maximum reduction of community-based and home services waiting lists, which includes more than 90,000 Texans; providing essential funding for early education and higher education excellence; and funding for important programs and projects statewide and in Senate District 21.”

During conference negotiations Zaffirini will work to increase the Senate’s $107.1 million to reduce community-based, home services and care waiting lists and to fund the $75 million in the Article XI “wish list.” Zaffirini also will seek $150 million in new grants for the Instructional Facility Allotment (IFA) that helps poor school districts with facility construction.

Included in the Senate’s version of the budget are funding increases for both the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio (UTHSCSA) and Texas A&M International University in Laredo. Among Zaffirini’s priorities are increased funding for early childhood education, the Texas Early Education Model (TEEM) and advanced research programs within the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The committee substitute for House Bill 1 by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, reflects more than a six percent increase over the 2005 budget. The Senate version spends approximately $2.1 billion more than its House counterpart.

Senate Finance Committee members named by Dewhurst to the appropriations conference committee are Senators Ogden, chair; Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock; John Whitmire, D-Houston; Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; and Zaffirini.

House Appropriations Committee members named by Speaker Tom Craddick are Representatives Chisum, chair; Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City; Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown; Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; and Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. Conferees will develop a final proposal that will be voted on in both chambers before the session ends on May 28.


Sen. Cornyn, Texas border sheriffs meet with DHS Secretary on immigration reform, border security

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the top Republican on the Immigration and Border Security subcommittee, met with Texas border sheriffs and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Tuesday, April 24, in Washington. The meeting, held at Cornyn’s request, focused on issues important to the border region, including border security, immigration reform and funding for law enforcement efforts.

It is essential that local officials along the border continue to have input as we work to secure the border,” Cornyn said. “This meeting was a good opportunity for Texas border sheriffs to voice their needs and concerns directly to Secretary Chertoff.”

The meeting was part of Cornyn’s ongoing efforts to ensure the voices of state and local officials are being heard in Washington. He has continually worked in the Senate to assist the law enforcement community with resources to crack down on violence, drug smuggling and other crimes.

On hand for the discussion were members of the Southwest Border Sheriffs Coalition (SWBSC) from Texas and other border states, including Sigifredo González, Jr., of Zapata County, Texas —Chairman of the SWBSC Intergovernmental Relations Committee. Leaders of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition and the National Sheriffs Association also participated.

“We must provide those who work on the front lines of border security every day the resources they need to do their jobs,” Cornyn said. “I will continue working closely with law enforcement officials and other local leaders on the border as we work to improve border security and reform our broken immigration system.”

Cornyn reiterated his support for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP), which reimburses states and counties for the costs of detaining illegal immigrants arrested in connection with crimes other than immigration violations.He said Congress must provide adequate funding for the program. In addition, Sen. Cornyn co-sponsored an amendment last year to provide $50 million for border law enforcement.

Cornyn said reforming our immigration laws and securing our borders is among the top priorities this year for Congress. “We’ve taken some needed steps to improve border security, but we can and must do more,” he said.

The Southwest Border Sheriffs Coalition unites sheriffs’ departments in counties along the border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California in their law enforcement efforts.

Earlier this year, Sen. Cornyn hosted a similar meeting in Laredo with Texas border mayors, county judges and Secretary Chertoff.That meeting came as a follow-up to a discussion in Washington co-hosted by Cornyn and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.


Sen. Hutchison address border issues with Southwestern Border Sheriffs Coalition


Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, on Wednesday, April 25, hosted a meeting with the Southwestern Border Sheriffs Coalition in her Washington, D.C. office to address border security issues and federal funding for costs associated with immigration enforcement.

“We must support and gather input from border sheriffs who are on the ground working to secure our borders,” Hutchison said. “Local officials dealing with these threats must be part of the solution, and I am committed to providing them with the resources they need to safeguard our nation.”

Hutchison has long advocated federal support for border security duties carried out by local officials.

In September 2006, Hutchison announced the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition would receive a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to provide equipment and supplies for the Operation Linebacker Task Force. She has consistently backed measures that provide funding for increased border security personnel and infrastructure, including the $250 million Border Law Enforcement Relief Program and the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program.

Hutchison hosted a February 9, 2007 meeting with Cornyn, U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and border mayors and local leadership to give them an opportunity to provide local input on border fencing concerns.


House approves bill by Rep. Gonzáles to set up “Genuine Texas” branding program for industry


State Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, on Thursday, April 26, saw passage by the House of Representatives of one of her legislative initiatives, the so-called “Genuine Texas” branding program.

Gonzáles is one of five joint authors of the measure, which calls for the establishment of a branding program to be named “Genuine Texas” for products manufactured in the state.

The legislation, which still has to clear the Senate, would develop a campaign to provide a competitive edge for Texas manufacturing industry by creating the logo for Texas-made goods for consumers to identify.

“The ‘Genuine Texas’ campaign will be the ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ of this century,” said Gonzáles. “I am excited for this bill’s potential to encourage consumers to support Texas manufactured goods. We have seen the effective efforts through the Texas Parks and Wildlife anti-littering campaign; ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ and I look forward the implementation of this program that will further fuel Texas manufacturing.”

Under the measure, House Bill 3446, a fee of up to $100 can be charged for the right to use the exclusive state logo, “Genuine Texas”. The branding program would also establish product quality standards for Texas manufacturers, set penalties for violations of improper use of the logo by manufacturers and create an advisory board of members.

“Texans have a long honored legacy of state pride and this bill promotes state pride through support of the manufacturing industry here at home,” said Gonzáles.”While the manufacturing sector is a strong contributor to the State’s economy, the branding program would keep the state competitive against increased cheap labor available overseas which could take manufacturing jobs away from Texas.”


Sen. Lucio says Senate ready to act on Rep. Flores’ bill to exempt travel trailers from property taxes


Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, author of the Senate legislation that would exempt certain recreational vehicles from ad valorem taxation, announced on Friday, April 27, that the bill has gained full approval from the House and will soon be considered by the entire Senate.

Rep. Kino Flores, D-Palmview, authored the companion bill to Lucio’s in the House.

The bill specifies that because recreational vehicles (RVs) are not real property and are not substantially affixed to real estate or permanent fixtures, owners of these RVs must pay sales taxes on their units and maintain current auto vehicle registrations. Therefore, this property tax has created a hardship for many of these occupants, especially since their average age is 69. Eighty percent of Winter Texans live in mobile RVs.

“This unfair tax impacts so many of our Winter Texans because they are generally the people who own the kind of recreational vehicle that is currently assessed this tax,” said Lucio. “My bill primarily ends the practice of subjecting to ad valorem taxation those travel trailer owners who are not local residents and are not offered the right to participate in local government, like real property owners.”

The Rio Grande Valley benefits from the $450 million in revenues these visitors inject into the economy. However, the usual 150,000 Winter Texans who visit every year is down 20 percent from 2002, when the tax became effective. A constitutional amendment in 2001 inadvertently allowed counties to impose a tax on RVs.

“The increased sales tax revenue and tourism dollars generated by the influx of visitors as a result of lifting this tax will far outweigh any property tax revenue loss in those counties, and as a result there will be no quantifiable harm to school funding,” added Lucio. “Since only a few counties in Texas, including Cameron and Hidalgo, tax these trailers as real property, there should be no significant loss to general revenue.”

This bill also provides a narrow definition of park model travel trailers for taxation purposes that conforms to the existing definition already in state statute, and is also the nationally recognized standard. This bill clarifies that structures that are primarily used for temporary living arrangements, built on a single chassis, and less than 400 square feet are exempt from ad valorem taxation.

The senator added, “We are looking to protect park model travel trailer purchasers from unjust double taxation. Passage of this bill will encourage tourism and economic activity in the state of Texas and help local businesses by encouraging more people to stay in Texas for an extended period of time.”


Senate passes Sen. Zaffirini’s SB 1052 to provide financial incentives for community college students


The Texas Senate on Tuesday, April 24, passed Senate Bill 1052 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would provide financial incentives for students who complete core curriculum requirements at community colleges to transfer to four-year institutions.

Providing incentives for students to transfer from two- to four-year institutions would increase college accessibility and affordability while helping increase attendance and participation at universities throughout Texas. The bill significantly would help close educational gaps within the state and promote student success and institutional excellence.

“The rapid growth of our state, coupled with the goal of enrolling another 600,000 students in higher education, require planning and incentives,” Zaffirini said. “By promoting transfers from two- to four-year institutions, we increase students’ options for success. SB 1052 is essential to closing the gaps in higher education by providing an incentive for students to transfer from two- to four-year institutions.”

The bill must be passed by the House of Representatives before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Perry for final approval.


Gov. Perry announces drop in border crime as a result of Operation Wrangler III

Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, April 24, announced the reduction of crime by 30 percent in the El Paso area during a recent border security operation known as Operation Wrangler III. Operation Wrangler III was a high-intensity surge operation that lasted 30 days in the El Paso border region.

“The success of this border security surge operation demonstrates once again that more boots on the ground, working together as a team, increases our safety and border security,” Perry said. “When criminal organizations are forced to shut down their smuggling activities, our communities are safer, and the quality of life improves for all Texans.”

As in previous state-led surge operations, the objective of Operation Wrangler III was to shut down organized smuggling activity between the Ports of Entry to prevent the illegal crossing of drugs, contraband and people into Texas. Local sheriffs’ offices and police departments worked side-by-side with their state and federal partners in three Texas counties (El Paso, Hudspeth and Culberson counties) and two New Mexico counties (Dona Ana and Luna counties) to deny Mexican criminal organizations and transnational gangs entry into the U.S.

A key benefit of securing the border is crime reduction. Operation Wrangler III resulted in the overall reduction of crime by 30 percent during the 30 day period of operation. The El Paso Sheriff’s Office documented an 82 percent reduction in aggravated assaults and 43 percent reduction in robberies. The El Paso Police Department reported a 16 percent reduction in robberies and 26 percent reduction in sexual assaults during the period of this operation.

“We are sending a clear message that an increased law enforcement presence is the key to securing our border,” Perry said. “Working with numerous state, federal and local agencies we can reduce drug trafficking, human smuggling and other crime in a significant way.”

In addition to the successes of Operation Wrangler III, border-wide surge operations have had a sustained impact on crime along the entire Texas-Mexico border. With 13 of the 18 border counties reporting, January-April of this year saw a 20 percent decrease in overall crime along these border areas compared to the same period of time last year. The 13 counties include Brewster, Culberson, Dimmit, El Paso, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Maverick, Pecos, Star, Terrell, Val Verde, Zapata and Zavala.

The statistics from local law enforcement agencies in these 13 counties comparing January-April, 2006, to January-April, 2007, revealed the following overall results:

• Criminal Mischief reduced 34 percent

• Theft reduced 30 percent

• Burglary reduced 13 percent

• Aggravated Assault reduced 16 percent

• Sexual Assault reduced 59 percent

• Murder reduced 15 percent


South Texas Border Contracting Expo Expo to bring contracting opportunities to South Texas businesses


The 2007 South Texas Border Business Contracting (STBBC) Expo will be held on June 20-21 at the new McAllen Convention Center located at 700 Convention Center Blvd. The expo will offer area small businesses and manufacturers an opportunity to obtain contracting awards by government buying agencies, federal prime corporations and other corporate purchasers.

Honorary Co-Chairs of the 2007 STBBC Expo are Congressman Ruben Hinojosa (District 15) and Congressman Henry Cuellar (District 28).

The McAllen Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and Chair of the STBBC Expo Planning Committee Cynthia Sakulenzki is expecting approximately 150 exhibitors, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, the University of Texas System Office of Facilities,

Planning and Construction, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Lottery

Commission, Texas Transportation Institute, Texas Workforce Commission, Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.

This exciting event will not only include an exhibit hall filled with agencies and corporations looking to do business with South Texas businesses, but will also include match-making sessions, and four different training tracks that incorporate several seminars that will help businesses succeed in obtaining contracts. Networking events and optional Valley excursions, such as a Maquila Tour, a golf tournament at Palm View Golf Course, and lunch in Progreso, Mexico will be available to help participants acquaint themselves with each other and the region.

To register or for more information on how you can participate in the 2006 STBBC Expo, please call the McAllen Hispanic Chamber at 928-0060 or visit Conference cost for small businesses is $50 per person. Sponsorship opportunities are available. Deadline to register is June 1, 2007.

The 2007 STBBC Expo Planning Committee includes representatives from the following organizations: Texas State Technical College, U.S. Small Business Administration, S.C.O.R.E., the University of Texas-Pan American Veterans Business Outreach Program, UTPA Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Community Investment Corp., Texas Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Division, Rio Grande Valley Partnership, The Business Times of the Rio Grande Valley, Thomas/Price & Associates, Time Warner Fable, Office of Hidalgo County Judge, UTPA Small Business Development Center, Texas Department of Agriculture, Central & South Texas Minority Business Council, and the UTPA HUB Program.


Senate passes Sen. Zaffirini’s bill to protect against “botnets,” cybercrimes


The Texas Senate on Thursday, April 26, passed Senate Bill 1009 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which combats the use of “botnets” — networks of compromised computers used to perpetrate cybercrime.

Senate Bill 1009 will prohibit the creation of botnets and penalize convicted violators with significant fines.

“Botnets are being used by criminals around the globe to steal bandwidth from hijacked computers and make money from nefarious Internet activity,” Zaffirini said. “They are used primarily to send messages or software without the user’s knowledge, to make a computer resource unavailable to its intended users, to commit click fraud or to steal personally identifiable information. My bill combats the use of botnets by updating Texas’ cybercrime statute and strengthening laws to protect valuable Texas e-commerce.”

SB 1009 clearly will define the term “botnet” as a collection of computers that become compromised without the knowledge of the owner or operators. Compromised computers either run under a command and control infrastructure or are used to forward transmissions, including unsolicited e-mails and viruses, to other computers with online access. What’s more, the bill would authorize civil penalties for using botnets, including a cause of action for victims, and provide injunctive relief and the recovery of actual damages or $500,000 per violation.

The bill must be passed by the House of Representatives before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Perry for final approval.


House passes Congressman Hinojosa’s amendment to improve America’s science laboratories


Congressman Rubén Hinojosa D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, April 24, applauded the passage of legislation that will help reinvigorate and modernize America’s ailing high school science laboratories. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the “10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds Science and Math Scholarship Act,” which included the Partnerships for Access to Laboratory Science amendment that Hinojosa introduced earlier this year.

“For more than 150 years, lab experiments have been an essential ingredient in a comprehensive science education,” said Hinojosa. “Unfortunately, the quality of today’s laboratory instruction is woefully under-par in most schools. Our future scientists and engineers are attending institutions that lack the resources required to develop their talents.”

Specifically the amendment authorizes a $5 million grant to establish a laboratory science pilot program at the National Science Foundation. Projects funded by the grant will go toward enhancing the quality of instruction and developing models for redesigning laboratories in high-poverty high schools.

Hinojosa’s legislation could not have come at more critical time: The National Research Council recently released a report concluding that the current state of laboratory experiences is poor for most students. The group also found that schools with higher concentrations of non-Asian minorities and higher concentrations of poor students are less likely to have adequate lab facilities than other schools. In fact, the latest Nation’s Report Card revealed an astonishing figure: only one in four Black or Hispanic students take the three major laboratory sciences – biology, chemistry, and physics – needed to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors during college.

“With these types of statistics, it should come as no surprise that we are losing our edge in producing experts in math, science, and engineering,” said Hinojosa.“We must redouble our efforts to engage young people in these fields early on in their academic careers. Our nation’s future competitiveness depends on it.”


Senate passes SB 1234 to enhance Texas’ higher education master plan


The Texas Senate on Thursday, April 26, passed Senate Bill 1234 by Senators Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, which would redefine planning for higher education. It would require the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to redirect its higher education master plan to prepare students to participate effectively in the state’s public affairs and in the global economy.

To meet the goals of closing the gaps in higher education, SB 1234 would provide greater specificity as to how the Coordinating Board develops its plan and would ensure that the state is best able to address the needs of its students and institutions.

“SB 1234 combines three effective bills that will enhance greatly the state’s ability to create higher education excellence,” Zaffirini said. “In Closing the Gaps, Texas established an ambitious plan to ensure that more students are able to receive an outstanding college education. My and Sen. Watson’s bill improves this plan by directing the Coordinating Board to consider more detailed and more specific issues leading to statewide higher education success.”

“This legislation offers a roadmap to make Texas a force in the 21st Century economy,” Watson said.”Texas can and must do a better job of preparing future generations for the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead.Here, we will approach higher education through a long-range lens, and that holds great promise for our children and our state.”

The bill would require THECB’s master plan to define the missions and roles of public institutions of higher education consistently with state needs and goals; establish more effective methods for funding higher education; establish a coherent long-term financial aid strategy that takes into account both needs and merit; strengthen collaboration between two- and four-year institutions; and develop and institutionalize long-term collaboration between primary, secondary and higher education.

What’s more, it includes provisions from SB 1055 by Zaffirini, which would direct the THECB to consider the number of new faculty members needed to achieve the goals of Closing the Gaps, as well as the disciplines in which these faculty members would be needed; the number of qualified persons available to serve as faculty members in Texas and throughout the nation and the demand for their services; and the capacity of institutions in Texas to prepare future qualified faculty members.

SB 1234 includes provisions from SB 1919 by Watson, which would charge the THECB with considering the state’s allocation of and need for resources for medical education, including graduate medical education; geographic distribution of these resources; and the value of associating a medical school with a top-tier academic campus.

The bill also includes provisions from SB 1772 by Watson, which would charge THECB with discovering incentives and requirements for seamless student transitions between and among high schools, community and technical colleges, universities, and health-related institutions, including concurrent enrollment and dual credit; examining the current and projected capacity concerns of The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University in College Station; methods for ensuring that these institutions maintain their competitiveness with other flagship universities; the creation of additional flagship public research universities; alternative methods of funding universities and community colleges, in particular whether and how research universities should be funded; and a new component of the TEXAS Grant program to include a work study program that targets students in grades P-12 to ensure that they become college ready.

The bill must be passed by the House of Representatives before it can be sent to Governor Rick Perry for final approval.


Congressman Cuellar announces $4 million renovation of Falcon Dam


Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Friday, April 27, announced that a $4 million federal grant has been awarded for the renovation of the facilities at Falcon Dam. Located near the dividing line between Starr and Zapata Counties, the Falcon Dam facilities will be renovated internally and externally.

“The renovation of facilities at our international borders is vital to increasing the efficiency and security of our border communities. In Congress, we are working hard to make sure that citizens in these communities benefit from federal funding and resources,” said Congressman Cuellar.

Originally constructed and dedicated on Oct. 19, 1953, the federal facilities at Falcon Dam serve as a point of entry between Mexico and the United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines originally dedicated the facilities and spoke of a lasting international friendship.

“I want to thank Elsie Acevedo from the General Services Administration and Chris Cantú from the Customs and Border Protection for their efforts in making the renovation of Falcon Dam a reality, and I also commend the partnership between federal and local agencies,” said Cuellar.

“Securing federal funds for vital projects in Texas’ 28th District is a key priority of mine. When our communities prosper and grow, all of South Texas and our friends across the border reap the benefits,” said Cuellar. “Enhancing trade and tourism while maintaining and improving border security is a critical issue in border communities, and I will continue work hard to increase access to federal aid for projects in these areas.”


Senate Passes SB 120 by Sen. Zaffirini to help preventing online solicitation of minors


The Texas Senate on Monday, April 23, passed Senate Bill 120 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would help protect children from online solicitation and exploitation by establishing a clearinghouse of educational resources related to Internet safety at the Texas School Safety Center.

The bill also would direct school districts to update their discipline management programs to prevent the use of the Internet for sexual solicitation and would increase the penalty for an adult convicted of online sexual solicitation of a minor.

“Children are especially vulnerable to victimization over the Internet,” Zaffirini said. “More and more children are using the Internet on a daily basis, which provides offenders with easy and anonymous means to find and exploit them. SB 120 addresses this growing problem by increasing the educational resources regarding online solicitation that are available to families and schools and by providing school districts with programs designed to combat and prevent online solicitation of minors.”

SB 120 works in conjunction with Zaffirini’s SB 6, which the Senator passed in March. SB 6 increases the penalty for sexually explicit on-line communications with a minor who is from 14 to 16 years old from a state jail felony to a third degree felony and increases the penalty for on-line sexual solicitation of a minor who is from 14 to 16 years old from a third degree felony to a second degree felony.

SB 6 also will require internet service providers (ISP) to respond immediately to subpoenas, search warrants or other court orders during an emergency; will allow prosecutors to seek consecutive prison sentences for the online solicitation of a minor; direct the Crime Stoppers Advisory Council to use state rewards programs to emphasize reporting and apprehending predators and criminals; and create a clearinghouse of ISP contact information in the Attorney General’s office so prosecutors can access important information necessary to prevent online predatory behavior.

The bills must be passed by the House of Representatives before they can be sent to Governor Rick Perry for final approval.


University of Texas-Pan American moves spring graduation to new McAllen Convention Center


This spring semester, The University of Texas-Pan American will be changing the venue for the commencement ceremonies, scheduled for Saturday, May 12, from the UTPA Fieldhouse to the new McAllen Convention Center, located on South Ware Road and Expressway 83.

The University’s decision to move the commencement venue was prompted by the increase in UTPA graduates and their guests over the years said Dr. Ana María Rodríguez, chair of the Commencement Committee and senior vice provost for undergraduate studies. This semester, the 1,452 prospective candidates for degrees include 1,103 for bachelor’s degrees, 336 candidates for master’s degrees and 13 for doctoral degrees.

“Our fieldhouse can only accommodate so many people. When we began to issue a limited number of tickets to students, they began to request that we look at holding commencement at a location where we could accommodate more people. Therefore, the administration’s decision to change the venue was made in response to student needs and with a great deal of student input. The safety of graduates, their families and guests was also an issue that was considered,” Rodríguez said.

The McAllen Convention Center will seat 528 graduates and 4,894 guests, while the UTPA Fieldhouse seats between 450-500 graduates on the floor and 3,700 guests on the bleachers.

The committee took two years in exploring several venues around the Rio Grande Valley before settling on the $62 million facility she said. The committee found the UTPA commencement calendar, which is planned three to four years in advance, and the convention center calendar were a good match for this academic year.

“The McAllen Convention Center is a new venue in the Rio Grande Valley that is able to accommodate a large number of people for one event,” she said. “The staff at the convention center has worked well with us in planning and designing the event, since an event such as this will be a first. There is also ample parking spaces available to accommodate the guests.”

This semester, prospective graduates will be allotted 12 tickets for their family members and guests to comply with the Fire Marshal’s Code of maximum seating capacity for the convention center. In previous semesters they were designated six tickets each. Guests attending the commencement ceremonies will be required to present a ticket to be admitted.

“Graduates, their families, guests and audience can expect grand ceremonies, solemn and celebrative, as they have always been at the UTPA Fieldhouse, but now held in a brand new majestic center,” Rodríguez said.

Also this semester, the University will go to a three-ceremony format starting at 9 a.m. with the College of Education, which features 393 prospective graduates, the largest group in any of the six colleges. At 1:30 p.m. the College of Business Administration (224) and College of Health Sciences and Human Services (240) will share the arena. The final ceremony of the day at 5:30 p.m. will combine the College of Arts and Humanities (223), College of Science and Engineering (218) and College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (154).

Serving as the 2007 spring commencement speakers will be Noé Hinojosa Jr., president and CEO of Estrada Hinojosa & Company, Inc., who will be speaking at 9 a.m.; Edward H. Muñoz, principal of Muñoz Group, who will be addressing the 1:30 p.m. ceremony; and Sylvia M. Courtney, vice president of engineering for Raytheon Company, will speak at 5:30 p.m.

For more information or special accommodations, contact the Office of the Registrar at 956/381-2389 no later than Thursday, May 10.


Congressman Ortíz details frustrations faced by veterans because there is no VA Hospital in RGV

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortíz, D-Corpus Christi, testified Thursday, April 26, before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’Committee’s Subcommittee on Health about the plight of veterans in South Texas who have to travel many hours for health care services that are not available to them near where they live.

Several members of the Veteran’s Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley were in attendance, showing committee members the faces of veterans in need. Veteran’s Alliance members attending the hearing were: José María Vásquez, Rubén Córdova, and Max Belmarez, Polo Uresti, Frank Albiar, and Félix Rodríguez.

Ortíz’s testimony:

Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to speak on behalf of South Texas veterans and help this subcommittee understand the urgent need for a veterans’ hospital for the men and women who fought for us.

Here with me today are members of the Veterans Alliance of the Rio Grande Valley/America’s Last Patrol – so you can see the faces of the South Texans affected by the lack of a hospital. Here with me are: José María Vásquez, Córdova, and Max Belmarez … and Mr. Félix Rodríguez.

My legislation gives the government flexibility in establishing a way to deal with hospital services in South Texas… but the only real solution for the area is a hospital. Bottom line: veterans’ in-patient health care must be available where the veterans live, not several hours away. These guys have fought, bled and sacrificed for this nation – they need something that belongs to them … a hospital that gets them the care they need where they live – not five hours away.

We know the VA plays the numbers game – but the numbers do not reflect the need… particularly in the Rio Grande Valley. When the VA commissioned their CARES study they recognized the Far South Texas area was in need of acute inpatient care. They decided to meet this demand through contracting or leasing beds in local communities, an approach simply not working. Veterans are still traveling in large numbers to Audie Murphy in San Antonio for care, and for many who are treated for emergencies at area hospitals, the bills go unpaid by VA.

Many veterans are so disgusted by the level of VA health services, they simply do not sign up for VA health care. You have heard me describe the conditions of South Texas Vets; today I want to show you experiences of veterans themselves … veterans who shed blood for our nation … veterans whose health care is utterly inferior. South Texas veterans regularly travel five hours there and back to a 15 minute appointment that took months to get.

Sometimes they need to stay overnight in San Antonio… sometimes, veterans find after the strenuous trip, their appointment has been canceled. We’ve scrubbed the names to prevent any retaliation for truth telling…. And my time will run out before I’m done, but want you to hear the stories I hear:

1) A 21-year-old Iraq war veteran came home badly wounded in his spine. He’s now at Audie Murphy in San Antonio. He was being moved by hospital staff from the bed to a wheelchair – but they moved too quickly and damaged his spine even more. He has a lifetime of going back and forth to San Antonio for treatment … and his family has a lifetime of committing to take him there regularly.

2) One veteran underwent emergency heart surgery; his wife called the local clinic and she was directed to call 911; he was admitted for the emergency surgery locally. His benefits coordinator told him to follow up with a local cardiologist to chart his progress since there wasn’t a cardiologist at the clinic. He did, but VA did not pay and on the third visit, the cardiologist’s office told him to pay up front for all services.

The VA clinic then told him he should have gone to a cardiologist in San Antonio. By now, his sutures were infected and leaking. Eventually, he got an appointment to see a VA cardiologist five weeks later. The stress from all this prompted his psychiatrist to increase the dosage on his meds.

When he got to San Antonio, the cardiologist was surprised to learn he had surgery. He was prescribed more high blood pressure medication. That made him faint from low blood pressure, panicking his wife … she called a home health nurse who suggested stopping all meds and going immediately to the hospital.

He did not want to go the hospital because they had not been paid and he might be refused. He was poor – so the nurse recommended that he drink a coca cola with crackers, which helped temporarily. Due to a faulty medical records system, he was prescribed too much medication. Since then, he travels to San Antonio to monitor his heart.

He travels five hours, has a ten minute procedure done, and once was told to return in 48 hours. He did not qualify for lodging so he returned to the Valley. After two days he returned for a procedure that took under five minutes. That equals two trips to San Antonio in two days … traveling about 25 hours … to be seen a total of 15 minutes.

3) A retired disabled veteran is in the midst of several surgeries to correct service injuries, in numerous visits to San Antonio, the nearest VA hospital to the Valley. When he had shoulder surgery, he spent the night in his car so the anesthesia could wear off… and he didn’t take any pain medication so he could make the four hour drive back home. He had to stop several times along the way to vomit from the pain. He also had to sleep once slept in his car in San Antonio to make an early appointment because by the time he arrived in San Antonio all the rooms available for veterans had been taken.

4) A constituent’s brother had a triple by pass done in San Antonio Audie Murphy Veterans Hospital in 2005. During the course of his recovery at home, he developed complications that needed to be monitored closely. The VA medical provider told him that he needed to be monitored closely; then later that day, got a call from the VA Clinic that he needed to go to the nearest hospital taking Veterans.

Once there, he was moved by ambulance to another area hospital, where he was admitted after advising the hospital he was a Veteran and showed his ID Card. The hospital got the clearance from San Antonio VA and admitted him. His medical bills there have not been paid because the VA is claiming that “VA facilities were feasibly available to provide the care.”

The VA said his brother could have traveled to San Antonio under the dangerous medical problems he was having. His brother does not want to “rock the boat” because of his heart condition and other medical problems. In a sense, he is held hostage by our government.

5) A family member said this: Congress should also hear about the hardship that the vet’s family must also endure. She has a full time job but must miss work, taking leave, to take a loved one to San Antonio. She cannot let him go by himself whenever they do procedures that require anesthesia or manipulation of his neck or spine.

He is usually in so much pain and/or drowsy with medication that he cannot drive. He has a hard time sitting for long periods, and San Antonio is five hours away. They must also make arrangements for the kids if they are not getting back before school’s out. A couple of times he’s had to go alone because she couldn’t leave work or find another driver. Then she is so worried about him driving that she cannot function at work, going out several times to call to make sure he is OK.

She also notes the travel pay is woefully insufficient, given gas prices. They have to fill up twice to get there and back, plus pay for meals. She notes that hospitalized vets would be better off near friends and family to keep them in good spirits.

6) A Vietnam vet still being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder; has two sons, both active-duty military, who have served multiple tours in Iraq. After a late-night phone call from a son saying that he’d been hurt in an IED explosion, his Post Traumatic Stress surfaced … when he called to see the psychiatrist, he was told the soonest appointment was in six months.

7) The district director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the Valley says VA provides good medical care. The doctors and staff do the best they can with what they have. The problem is getting into the system to get the care. He says, “We believe we’ve earned the right to see a doctor where we live.”

8) State Rep. Aaron Peña says what isn’t spoken is the sense that veterans are being ignored despite the long history of Hispanics’ service to the U.S. military. We’ve fought in almost every American war … and we’re still being ignored.

9) The disabilities of a Port Isabel veteran who served 2 tours in Viet Nam are made worse by a round trip on a crowded van, and an overnight stay in a dirty hotel. 14 months ago he went to a private emergency room, which then sent him by ambulance to San Antonio to treat a kidney infection. VA still has not paid for the emergency visit – ironically today, April 26, is his deadline to pay the local hospital $10,000 since VA won’t pay.

10) An Iraq veteran is haunted by some of the terrible things he saw in combat leading to depression and thoughts of suicide. His friend got him to go to the VA office … where he was referred to the VA hospital in Waco for evaluation for post-traumatic stress. He was told him he needed to begin regular sessions, and said he’d get an appointment in the mail. Three weeks later, he got a letter from VA that he could see the doctor in eight months.

11) Another veterans notes: “It’s hard to hold a job when you have to miss work four or five times a month to travel to San Antonio for medical appointments.”

12) One veteran has utilized the V.A. health care systems in Reno, Nevada and Fargo, North Dakota, and he reports both were very good. Conversely, his experience with the clinics in Harlingen and McAllen are “ongoing nightmares.” Lately he’s been trying to get an appointment with the psychiatrist in Harlingen. Every time he calls, he’s put on hold and eventually hangs up after waiting and waiting. He was not alone among veterans who suspect some manner of “federal racism” when our nation is only anxious to send border patrol agents, but no hospital to treat military veterans who live here.

13) A daughter who misses her dad says her father served in the U.S. Army and came home needing psychological care catered to what a veteran experiences – and taking into consideration the stigma a Hispanic man feels with depression. She lost her father to suicide and wishes that care was available.

14) Another veteran learned the VA now accepted that Agent Orange could have affected sailors in the Tonkin Gulf. The VA did not respond to him since he was not a “wounded veteran.” He also has diabetes for which they will not treat him. He believes they want to wait until he cannot care for himself at all rather than helping him prevent the devastation of diabetes while he can.

15) A former military wife said her ex husband and daughter now live in San Antonio and her son has plans of retiring there too – merely to be closer to military medical facilities. Veterans are forced to choose between living near home and family, or living near health care.

16) Another veteran notes many Soldiers from the Valley can not afford the trip, much less the expense it takes to visit these facilities. He notes many veterans have died never getting the Medical attention they needed. He calls the VA health system in South Texas a “disastrous situation.”

17) A former sergeant says: the cruel irony of extra stress on various disabilities caused by traveling 5 hours to a VA hospital makes conditions even worse. And like several others I heard from, he issued an invitation for any of my colleagues here today to join them the 5 hour ride to SA in the van.

18) A retired Major notes local access would promote early diagnosis and early cure for ailments that would otherwise generate higher treatment costs if left untreated. He also has the novel suggestion of using hospital ships as a veteran’s hospital.

19) A retired Air Force sergeant – who is covered by Tricare benefits – knows he is lucky to have access to local Medical facilities. Always a soldier, he volunteered to drive the van to San Antonio. He would drive from Raymondville to Brownsville to pick up veterans at 6 a.m. then to San Benito then Harlingen and then back Raymondville, where the actual trip to San Antonio commenced.

He reiterated what many people said: It’s not a straight five-and-a-hour trip since they had to stop various times for rest rooms breaks. And he was prohibited from helping the vets in and out of the van out of liability concerns. Most Veterans he drove had to wait hours to be seen for just a 15 minute visit, then they began the long trek back.

20) The widow of a Vietnam-era vet said he died nine years ago of a heart attack and almost certainly from a lung problem associated with his exposure to Agent Orange. He never pursued a diagnosis because the San Antonio facility was too far and he was not able to make the trip. The one time he did for hearing loss from a mortar concussion while in Viet Nam, he found that the number of people they were trying to serve was too great for quality care. He never went back again.

21) A Captain with the 1st Cav in Iraq was wounded in 2003 by IED that ruptured both ears drums and left his right side littered with pieces of shrapnel, many still remain. He plans to retire in the next four years. He said he’s gotten good treatment while on active duty, but worries about the time when he retires, and no local VA Hospital in the area. He talks regularly with local Veterans that can not afford to make the drive to San Antonio because they can’t afford the gas or can’t drive or have no one to take them.

22) Another veteran echoes many voices in saying south Texas veterans should be treated by local medical resources. He lives in Corpus Christi, but worries about what the cost of transportation does to an aging veteran’s population with higher poverty rates in the Rio Grande Valley. Extended trips place unnecessary physical stress on veterans, it places a financial burden on valley veterans and their families as well.

He sustained a head injury, which resulted in a visible dent in the skull. After headaches and memory issues, the V.A. physician sent him to Audie Murphy for a CT scan; and he had no option but to drive the 300 mile round trip to the VA facility. That trip not only put him at risk, but the safety of other drivers as well.

23) Another veteran invites all of us to come experience the long and painful ride from South Texas to San Antonio to visit a doctor.

24) A South Texan speaks on behalf of friends married to veterans; she is incensed that for health care they must be inconvenienced financially (gas, food, overnight stays for vets and families) and time-wise, which interferes with their jobs.

25) The brother of a constituent is medically retired from the Air Force and must travel to San Antonio every month for his medical treatments. It takes a day out of his life and requires a long ride back and forth.

26) Another retired veteran chooses the expense of private care over the time it takes waiting at the local clinic or taking the time to travel to San Antonio.

27) Another veteran also speaks to the trouble and time consuming nature of going so far for procedures. He knows that by the time you arrive your problems just seem to increase.

28) A Corpus Christi Veteran laid out the context of getting treatment in San Antonio: she said it is a 12 hour ordeal to get to San Antonio, get tended to at Audie Murphy, and return home. It costs two gas tanks and a whole day of work. The $26.00 dollars for travel does not cover nearly the cost.

29) Plácido Salazar, State Veterans’ Affairs Officer of The American GI Forum of Texas tells me that Valley were recently in San Antonio for three days of appointments; they told him that a manager at the associated hotel would not release a room to them until 6:00pm, (using very abusive language); with one of the veterans not getting a meal in more than 24 hours.

Solomon P. Ortíz is member of Congress for the 27th Congressional District in Texas. A Democrat, Ortiz resides in Corpus Christi. He is also an Army veteran.

With passing of his brother, Mayor Ochoa loses his mentor and father-figure in life


Elisa Guerra Sekula, featured front row, fourth from right, rejoices as she holds the ceremonial scissors  she used to celebrate the grand opening on Friday, April 20, of the $3 million, 36,000-square-foot Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library, named in honor of her late son, an 18-year-old U.S. Marine who was the first Hidalgo County resident killed in action in Iraq.  Among the scores of family members, dignitaries, and well-wishers that joined her for the event were, front row, from left: former Mayor Richard García; Librarian Leticia S. Leija; Dustin’s sister, Danielle; Dustin’s brother, Derek; Dustin’s mother, Elisa; Rep. Verónica Gonzáles; Rep. Aaron Peña; and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa. Not shown is Dustin’s father, Daniel, and Mayor Joe Ochoa, who was absent because of a death in his family.


With passing of his brother, Mayor Ochoa loses his mentor and father-figure in life


As profound as the loss of a brother is to anyone, the death on Wednesday, April 18, of Alejandro Ochoa, Sr. of Edinburg marked a solemn day for his surviving brother, Mayor Joe Ochoa, who said he lost his mentor and father-figure as well.

Alejandro, 72, a life-long Edinburg resident and Korean War veteran who was wounded in the line of duty, would come back from overseas as a proud U.S. Marine to work with the City of Edinburg for more than three decades.

The former veteran, whose prayer services on Friday, April  20, prominently featured the flag of the U.S. Marine Corps, impacted the development of his community not only as a public servant, but also as a beloved and trusted advisor to his younger brother, Joe, who has been mayor for more than a decade.

“He worked for the City of Edinburg for 34 years, and we would always discuss different issues,” the mayor reflected Friday evening, after a rosary for his brother was concluded. “What always impressed me about him was that he was a very well-organized individual. He planned way ahead on things to come. A lot of my vision, my planning and organizational skills are skills that he instilled in me. I attribute a lot of my successes to him.”

In the mayor’s eyes, Alejandro was a man of humility who stood tall as a mountain.

“My brother was a very simple individual. He never asked anything of anyone. He served his country well as a Korean War veteran, where he was wounded,” Mayor Ochoa said. “He has always been that type of person.”

Alejandro, who along with his wife, Hilda, would successfully raise a wonderful family, also accepted the mantle of responsibility for his siblings after their own parents’ untimely deaths.

The mayor remembered that as a young man, their parents – who came from humble beginnings – both passed away, and Alejandro helped fill the devastating void that was left,

“Coming back from college, I was only able to enjoy my parents for two years after that, because they died when I was in my mid-20s,” Mayor Ochoa said. “He led me through some difficult times. He was my advisor,  and then my father when my parents died when I was getting out of college. He was my mentor.”

Alejandro was generous with his time and his resources, even though the family had struggled financially as they were growing up.

“We didn’t have any money – my father was a laborer, my mother washed clothes and ironed for people,” Mayor Ochoa recalled. “One of the things I remembered was going off to the University of Texas and not having any money. Students didn’t get their loans and grants coming in until the middle of the school semester. He sent me money to be able to survive that first semester.  That was my big brother.”

Several hundred people attended the Friday evening prayer service, including elected officials and community leaders.

As part of the eulogy, delivered by the mayor, Alejandro, true to form, had prepared in advance for the terrible day that was sure to come, taking care of all his affairs in order to reduce the trauma for his family, the mayor said.

Alejandro especially wanted to comfort his relatives and friends, instructing several months earlier that the following passage be read during his services:

“I know you’re sad and afraid, because I see your tears. I’ll not be far, I promise that and hope you’ll always know that my spirit will be close to you, wherever you may go.

“Thank you so for loving me, you know I love you too. That’s why it’s hard to say goodbye and end this life with you.

“So hold me now, just one more time and let me hear you say, because you care so much for me, you’ll let me go today.”

Alejandro entered into eternal rest on Wednesday, April 18, 2007, at Retama Manor Nursing Home in Edinburg. He was born July 17, 1934 in Hargill and lived all his life in Edinburg. He was preceded in death by his parents, Aniceto and Angélica Ochoa; a sister, Irene Ochoa; a brother, Aniceto Ochoa, Jr.; and his best friend,  Óscar Ponce.

He is survived by his loving wife, Hilda; two sons, Alejandro Ochoa, Jr. (Rosalinda), Alberto Ochoa; a grandson, Alejandro Ochoa, III; and granddaughter, Carolina Ochoa; a brother, Mayor Joe Ochoa; a sister, Alicia O. (Fidel) Rodríguez; mother-in law, Esperanza R. Sáenz; and numerous nephews and nieces.

Alejandro was a loving husband, father, grandfather and a true friend to all. He took great pride in being a Marine and served his country during the Korean Conflict. After leaving the corp he went to work for the City of Edinburg and retired in 1991 after 34 years.

The family thanked the dedicated nurses, nursing assistants and the physical therapy staff of Retama Manor Nursing Home, Dr. Miguel Alemán and his staff for their care and concern shown to Alejandro and his family.

A very special thank you was extended to Mr. Miguel (Mike) Cruz, who helped care for Alejandro at home, in the hospital and at the nursing home for the last five months.

He was loved by many and will be greatly missed by all that knew him.

Visitation was held from 5 to 9 p.m. with a 7 p.m. rosary on Friday, April 20, 2007, at Memorial Funeral Home, 208 E. Canton in Edinburg. Funeral service was at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 21, 2007, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Edinburg. Interment followed at Hillcrest Memorial Park in Edinburg. Military honors were conducted by the U.S. Marines Corps.

Pallbearers were Jaime Rodríguez, Luis Rodríguez, Óscar  Rodríguez, Ricky Rodríguez, Omar Ochoa and Carlos Ochoa.

Funeral services were under the direction of Memorial Funeral Home in Edinburg.


Despite being wounded, Dustin Sekula sacrificed life to save trapped Marines

“Although he was just barely 18 years old, he was as big a man as you will ever see.”

-Major John Terri, U.S. Marine Corps,

recalling Dustin Sekula’s heroism


Several hundred residents at the Friday, April 20 grand opening of the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library found out, without a doubt, that the namesake of the $3 million, 36,000-square-foot learning center was a true American hero in every sense of that word.

The 18-year-old U.S. Marine from the three-time All-America City was killed in action on April 1, 2004. He was the first resident of Hidalgo County to be fatally wounded in combat in Iraq.

That sacrifice moved the Edinburg City Council, under the leadership of then-Mayor Richard García, to announce that a planned new city library would bear his name in his honor.

Few in South Texas knew the full details of his bravery, with official military statements revealing little, only that Sekula, a graduate of Edinburg North High School, “died due to injuries sustained from enemy fire in Al Anbar Province, Iraq.”

But with heavy cloud cover blocking out the sun during the Friday morning ceremonies, the true nature of Sekula’s courage came to light, bringing honor upon himself, his family, his hometown, his fellow Marines, and his beloved nation.

The day after he died, Sekula was bestowed with the Purple Heart, which is a military honor awarded in the name of the President to veterans who are killed or wounded in combat.

Heroism revealed

Three years after his death, the Marines announced that Sekula was also posthumously bestowed with the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat V, a decoration signifying heroism.

Major John Terri, representing the U.S. Marine Corps, said that Sekula’s conduct under fire went beyond the call of duty.

“It was really determined that some extraordinary action on Dustin’s part took place, and it was determined that more honor should be bestowed upon this Marine,” Terri said. “I can tell you that on that night, on April 1, Dustin stood up. Although he was just barely 18 years old, he was as big a man as you will ever see.  It’s important to Lisa that you know exactly what happened that night.”

Terri then read the official account of Sekula’s actions that led to his death, but that saved the lives of his brothers-in-arms.

According to the Summary of Action prepared by Sekula’s company commander:

At approximately 2200 hours on 1 April 2004, the 3rd section of the 81mm Mortar Platoon was on a combat patrol escorting an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team to an enemy weapons cache south of the city of Kubaysah in the Eastern Al Anbar Province of Iraq.

Private First Class Sekula (he was posthumously promoted to Lance Corporal) was riding in an open high-back HMMWV as a member of the security element for this patrol.  As the patrol reached the edge of the city, Anti-Coalition Forces (ACF) initiated an ambush with a volley of automatic weapons fire from a concealed machine gun position.

Private First Class Sekula’s HMMWV was to the left of the enemy firing position at a distance of approximately ten meters.  The enemy was firing from a ditch that was not visible to the patrol due to low visibility and terrain.

Fought fearlessly

During the initial volley of enemy fire, Private First Class Sekula was struck in his right shoulder, and was knocked to the floor of the vehicle, temporarily incapacitated by the impact of the round.

Private First Class Sekula, determined to fight on, lifted himself to the edge of the vehicle and immediately returned a heavy volume of fire on the enemy while the driver attempted to move out of the kill zone.

Disregarding the proximity of his exposed position to the enemy machine gun and ignoring the pain of his own wounds, Private First Class Sekula continued to provide suppressive fire, which enabled the remainder of his squad to dismount, return fire, and managed to move the HMMWV to a position approximately thirty meters from the enemy firing position.

At this point, another volley of machine gun fire was directed at the vehicle. Realizing that his vehicle was still in the kill zone and his fellow Marines were not in a position to return fore on to the enemy position, Private First Class Sekula held firm, returning suppressive fire from his exposed position in the open cargo bed of the vehicle.

He continued to fight fearlessly.  As he maintained suppressive fire on the enemy position, he was struck again, this time in the face and mortally wounded by enemy machine gun fire.

Because of his sustained suppressive fire, the Marines of the patrol were able to assault the machine gun position and force the enemy to break contact.

In disregarding his own wounds and maintaining fire on the enemy position, Private First Class Sekula paid the ultimate sacrifice so he could protect the men of his patrol and accomplish the mission they had been assigned.

His actions that night demonstrated, in the clearest focus, what is means to be a sturdy professional, and his actions have served as inspiration to all those around him.”

Sekula is survived by his immediate family, which includes his father, Daniel, his mother, Elisa, his brother, Derek, and his sister, Danielle.

(The Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library, located at 1906 South Closner, has all of the resources it offered at its now-former location at 401 East Cano, plus new services and features, such as teen programs, Wi-Fi Internet access, independent study rooms, a computer training room, a young adult reading area, and a children’s reading area. Residents may call the library at 383-6246 for more information.)


Library marks political and personal milestones for former Mayor García


As the solemn drama and joyful celebration surrounding the grand opening of the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library played out on Friday, April 20, former Mayor Richard García – who spearheaded the construction and naming of the multi-million dollar complex – took the high road by being low-key about the role he played in bringing the dream into reality.

Normally, any public project that carries the price tag and emotional symbolism of the library, named after one of Edinburg’s fallen heroes from the war in Iraq, draws every political figure that had anything to do with it.

Sekula is a U.S. Marine who in April 2004 became the first Hidalgo County resident killed in action in the war in Iraq.

He is survived by his immediate family, which includes his father, Daniel, his mother, Elisa, his brother, Derek, and his sister, Danielle.

Then-mayor García and the Edinburg City Council had already planned to build a new library, but when the tragic news broke of Sekula’s death in combat, they announced their desire to name the facility in honor of the 18-year-old native son.

That vision came to fruition on April 22, when the grand opening ceremony opened the doors of one of South Texas’ latest advancements in education.

But in García’s case, the one-time U.S. Army veteran didn’t even ask to be among the dignitaries at the front podium who shared center stage with Sekula’s immediate family, state and local leaders.

Instead, García sat quietly among the seated audience, beaming with pride over the state-of-the-art public library, reflecting over the loss of Dustin Sekula’s life, and hoping that the addition of this learning resource will help countless residents make a better life for themselves.

“It is just fabulous to see what this developed into,” said García, who continues to serve the city as president of the five-member Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

“I expected to see something great for the city, but it is beyond great,” he said of the $3 million, 36,000-square-foot, two-level building.  “They did a beautiful job. I can’t get over the size.”

The aesthetics of the building’s architecture and furnishings notwithstanding, García said thee library is above all, an education resource for all.

“I think there is a lesson here. When I was growing up, this was a sleepy little village. A few of us received an education,” he said. “Many of the people I went to school didn’t go on to college because finances were a problem for all of us.”

But a public library breaks down the wall facing many working families who thirst for knowledge and education.

“In Spanish, we say, ‘querer es poder,’ which has a double meaning.  It can mean desire is power, but it can also mean that ‘where there is a will, there is a way,’ García said.

“When they came to me and my city council with this need for a library in this city, that is the first thing that came to my mind: ‘querer es poder,'” he remembered. “We sat the city staff down, and even though there were budget considerations, I said, ‘Let’s find a way.’ I am thankful to them for all their work, because they did find a way, and we have this today. That is a lesson to be learned. It should guide our lives in the way we look at things.”

Although very pleased with this major achievement from his administration, García said he also had a lot of personal satisfaction invested in the former library, whose future use has not yet been determined by the city.

“I was remembering the former library, and I was just looking at my name up on the Founder’s Wall from the old library,” he reflected.  “I guess I have lived a lifetime since we broke ground a year ago.  I remember my wife (Peggy, who passed away in 2006) used to do puppet shows on Saturday mornings (at the old library) as  a volunteer many years ago. My daughters used to hang out in the children’s wing.”

But life goes on, he acknowledged, and he views the new library as the hope and salvation of today’s young people and future generations to come, including his own family.

“I have gained a grandson since then, and maybe he will get a shot at doing the same thing, being an Edinburg resident,” García added. “And I am pleased about that, too, of course.”


Senate passes Sen. Hinojosa’s comprehensive reforms for Texas Youth Commission


After two years of comprehensive work on youth corrections reform, Sen.  Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa’s omnibus Texas Youth Commission reform bill, Senate Bill 103, was unanimously voted out of the Senate on Thursday, April 19.

The entire Senate was signed on as co-authors of the measure. It now goes to the Texas House of Representatives for action in that chamber.

“I want to thank the entire Senate and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for their assistance in getting this bill passed and for their input in this comprehensive legislation.” said Hinojosa. “We are rebuilding the Texas Youth Commission from the ground up so that we have a humane system for rehabilitating youth that is accountable to the people of Texas.”

Hinojosa and his staff began looking into the juvenile justice system two years ago when riots broke out at the Evins Regional Juvenile Center in Edinburg. Hinojosa pre-filed his comprehensive reform legislation and has continued to work with stakeholders since the TYC controversy erupted to rebuild the scandal-wracked commission.

Hinojosa’s bill calls for improved security by requiring TYC guards and other staff to undergo at least 300 hours of training before being assigned to guard duty; caps the guard-to-youth ratio at no more than 12 to 1 to maintain order and safety; and requires fingerprint and national criminal history checks for employees.

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 guidelines 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.

The senator’s bill also provides for the creation of a criminal investigation unit to look into crimes committed by TYC youth, or against them by guards and other juvenile justice employees.

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

“I look forward to working with the House now to pass comprehensive reforms for TYC,” Hinojosa said.


House approves giving retired teachers a one-time “13th check” in September to boost pension earnings




Thirteen could wind up being a lucky number for state lawmakers seeking reelection in 2008 if a bill that would give a one-time, extra monthly pension check in September to qualified retired teachers becomes law.

On Monday, April 16, the House of Representatives unanimously approved House Bill 1105 by Rep. Ruth McClendan, D-San Antonio, that would require the Teacher Retirement System to make a one-time supplemental  payment, or “13th check,” to eligible TRS annuitants no later than  September of 2007, according to the House Research Organization.

This additional payment would be equal to the amount  of the annuitant’s August 2007 gross annuity payment and subject to all  applicable tax withholding and other required deductions, the HRO noted.

The House Research Organization is a non-partisan team of lawyers and researchers, funded by the House of Representatives, that provides detailed background on all major legislation considered by the full House.

While McClendan is the main author of the legislation, Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, was one of five joint authors of the measure, which must still still be approved by the Senate and Gov. Rick Perry.

The rest of the Valley state representatives also were listed as co-authors of HB 1105.

“Providing a benefit increased to our retired teachers is long over due,” said Peña. “At the beginning of session I made a promise to local retirees that we would get something done. This bill allows us to provide some immediate relief to our retired teachers while laying the foundation for a permanent annuity increase.”

A week earlier, the House of Representatives approved their version of the state budget that included funding to cover the cost of HB 1105.

The bill increases the state’s contribution to the TRS Pension Fund from the current constitutionally mandated minimum of 6 percent to 6.7 percent.  That increase will allow the pension system to amortize its liabilities over 31 years.  State fiscal policy does not allow the Teacher Retirement System to increase benefits unless the fund is deemed actuarially sound.

“We will require TRS to cut a 13th check for our current retirees,”  said Peña. “For too long these Texans have lived on fixed incomes while inflation has far outpaced any recent cost of living adjustments.  I am proud that the Texas House is trying to fulfill our commitment to the men and women in communities all across the state who dedicated their lives to educating our children.”.”

The Texas Constitution, Art. 16, sec. 67(b)(3) requires that the state  contribution to state retirement systems, including the Teacher Retirement  System (TRS) pension fund, be at least 6 percent and no more than 10  percent of payroll. These constitutional limits are established in statute in  Government Code, sec. 825.404(a).

The current statutory state  contribution rate to the TRS pension fund is 6 percent of payroll.    Government Code, sec. 811.006 prohibits the Legislature from granting  benefit increases to retirees unless the pension fund is considered  “actuarially sound,” meaning that the pension system is able to amortize  all of its liabilities over 31 years.


Sen. Lucio appointed vice chair of Texas Legislative Tourism Caucus


The South Texas enator who represents one of the areas with the highest tourism rates, Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., was recently named Vice Chair of the Legislative Tourism Caucus for 2007-08.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst from Brenham is the new Chair of this 80-member body dedicated to maintaining and expanding the state’s travel and tourism industry. Lucio has served two consecutive terms on the Board of Directors.  He is Chair of the Senate International Relations and Trade Committee and serves on the Committees on Business and Commerce, Finance, State Affairs, and the Subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development.

Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, will serve as Secretary and Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, as Treasurer. Members of the newly elected Board of Directors include:  Rep. Alma Allen, R-Houston; Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth; Rep. Betty Brown, R-Terrell; Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine; Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville; Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola; Rep. Tracy King, R-Batesville;, Sen. Kel Seliger (Amarillo), Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Southlake; and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

“I consider this appointment extremely important, especially to my district where thousands of tourists annually visit South Padre Island and the surrounding area, including a constant flow of visitors from Mexico,” said Lucio. “Tourism generates jobs and spurs both our local and state economies.”

The Economic Development and Tourism Division in the Office of the Governor reported that Cameron County hosts an estimated two million domestic visitors annually, and in 2005 they contributed more than $625 million to the local economy through visitor spending. This spending supports nearly 8,000 tourism industry jobs with wages totaling around $135 million. Visitor spending also generates approximately $34 million in state tax receipts and $13 million in local tax receipts.

Most of these visitors vacation in South Padre Island and many also cross the border into Mexico for a day. Conversely, Mexican visitors’ expenditures along the U.S.-Mexico border reportedly generate $9 billion in sales annually.

“It will be my goal to ensure that Texas continues to expand its travel and tourism opportunities so that people from throughout the country, the world and our own Texas residents can enjoy our marvels, attractions and hospitality, and so that we can benefit economically from this great industry,” added Lucio.

Tourism is a $49 billion industry for the state, and visitor spending in the state directly supports more than 500,000 jobs.

The Texas Gulf Coast region alone draws millions of visitors, stretching 350 miles from South Padre Island and the Rio Grande Valley, all the way to Beaumont and the Louisiana border. In 2006, South Padre Island was named by the National Geographic Adventure Magazine as one of the top 10 nationwide  Trips with a Splash for 2006. South Padre Island was selected for its exceptional water sports, and even received recognition on ABC’s “Good Morning America” show.

“Tourism has long been recognized as a strong economic development generator of revenue and jobs for the Texas economy,” noted Lucio. “I am proud to be a part of the Tourism Caucus to help promote this industry for the benefit of Texas.”


Sen. Hinojosa pushing for new state holiday honoring Hispanic icon Dr. Héctor P. García


The late Dr. Héctor Pérez García of Corpus Christi, a Texas political giant and civil rights champion whose distinguished life included time spent in Edinburg and Hidalgo County, could have a new state holiday named in his honor if a bill by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is approved by the Texas Legislature.

Senate Bill 1805, which was approved by the Texas Senate on Thursday, April 20, would designate the third Wednesday of September – which also falls in the middle of National Hispanic Heritage Week – as Dr. Héctor Pérez García Day in memory of his significant contributions to the Mexican American civil rights movement.

The holiday wouldn’t involve any day-off for government employees or public schools, but it would require that “Dr. Héctor Pérez García Day” would be “regularly observed by appropriate ceremonies and activities in the public schools and other places to properly commemorate the importance of the contributions made by the longtime South Texas leader,” according to Hinojosa.

It also would be the second state holiday designated in honor of an Hispanic.  In 1999, legislation filed by Sen. Carlos Truan, D-Corpus Christi, was approved designating March 31 as “César Chávez Day” in Texas.

“This bill would incorporate into the state academic curriculum lessons learned from Dr. García’s efforts on behalf of civil rights and veteran causes,” said Hinojosa, himself a U.S. Marines combat squad leader in Vietnam. “That day would committed to teaching the lessons of Dr. Hector P. García.”

García was born in Llera, Tamaulipas, Mexico, according to archives, and his parents and family fled with him to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1917, immigrating to Mercedes.   He attended Edinburg Junior College as a young man, hitchhiking 30 miles daily.  He would go on to attend the University of Texas at Austin.

An identical measure – House Bill 3535 by Rep. Juan García, D-Corpus Christi (no relation to Dr.  García) – was heard in a public hearing on Monday, April 17, before the House Culture, Recreation and Tourism Committee.

Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, is a joint author of HB 3535, while two other Valley state representatives – Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito – are co-authors of HB 3535.

“Dr. García left an undeniable impact on Texas, the nation, and the world,” said Hinjosa. “His service and accomplishments in life were many and included some of the most memorable occasions in recent Texas history.”

In 1948, García  founded the American GI Forum, aimed at giving Hispanic veterans equal access to the education, job training, and home loans promised by the GI Bill of Rights, Hinojosa noted.

García, whose passing in 1996 left a remarkable legacy, was a physician/surgeon, Army veteran who served in World War II, a civil rights champion, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among his many achievements.

But he was most famous for the role he took in the first major political stance taken by his GI Forum, when a Mexican American soldier who was killed in action was refused a burial site in Three Rivers because it was reserved for Anglos.

“Dr. García made national headlines with the group’s first big fight, which came after the family of a Hispanic World War II veteran killed in the Philippines was turned away at a Three Rivers funeral home and told to bury him in a segregated cemetery for Hispanics,” Hinojosa recalled. “The doctor contacted state and federal lawmakers and eventually secured a full military burial for the veteran, Private Félix Longoria, in Arlington National Cemetery.”

The event made the cover of the New York Times and marked the launch of the American GI Forum as a civil rights organization, according to a Senate committee bill analysis of the proposed holiday.

From then until his death in 1996, García fought for Mexican-American rights, both locally as a respected doctor and in the national arena, the bill analysis noted.

García was an alternate ambassador to the United Nations, the first Mexican-American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and a recipient of the nation’s highest civilian honor when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.

Throughout his distinguished career, García was awarded multiple accolades from various governments and other organizations. They include:

?The U.S. Army’s Bronze Star and six battle stars, 1942-1946;

?The American G.I. Forum’s Medalla al Merito, 1952, for his work with Mexican American


?The Republic of Panama’s Condecoracion, Orden Vasco Nunez de Balboa, with the rank of

commander, 1965;

?The 8th United States Marine Corps District honored him with a plaque in recognition of

his service to the war deceased, 1967;

?A humanitarian award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s

Corpus Christi chapter, 1969;

?The Distinguished Service Award from the National Office of Civil Rights, 1980;

?The Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1984;

?Honor Al Merito Medalla Cura Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon A.D.P.E., Mexico City, México.

?Corpus Christi Human Relations Commission’s Community Service Award, 1987;

?The Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organization’s Humanitarian

Award, 1988;

?The National Hispanic Leadership Conference’s Hispanic Heritage Award, 1989;

?The Midwest/Northeast Voter Registration Project’s National Hispanic Hero Award, 1989;

?MAPA Award for outstanding service to Hispanics from the Mexican American

Physicians’ Association, 1990;

?The National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Distinguished Lifetime Service Award,


?The Equestrian Order of Pope Gregory the Great from Pope John Paul II, 1990; and

?Corpus Christi State University’s first honorary doctorate of Humane Letters, 1991.


Senate passes Sen. Zaffirini’s measure to improve the Community Living Options Process


The Texas Senate on Thursday, April 19, passed the committee substitute for Senate Bill 1870 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would require the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS) to contract with local mental retardation authorities (MRA) to implement the community living options process (CLOP) for adults residing in Texas state schools.

The bill would ensure the integrity of the process by requiring that it be conducted free of conflicts of interest so it provides maximum benefits for persons with intellectual disabilities who reside in state facilities.

Current law perpetuates a conflict of interest by allowing state school personnel to administer the CLOP to residents aged 22 or older. The CLOP was created to inform persons with intellectual disabilities and related conditions and their legally authorized representatives about alternative community living options.

“This bill ensures that adults with disabilities who are residents of state schools receive complete information regarding their community living options,” Zaffirini said. “As legislators we have an obligation to improve and enhance the quality of life for persons who have developmental disabilities. Providing comprehensive information for them and their families is essential to meet this goal, and I am proud to sponsor this legislation.”

In 2006 the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated the Lubbock State School and found that Texas fails to provide community services to persons who reasonably can be accommodated, and, contrary to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, that interdisciplinary teams appear to endorse and promote the retention of persons in state institutions.

CSSB 1870 would enable DADS to respond to DOJ by requiring DADS to contract with local MRAs to develop a more effective community living options information process. What’s more, the bill would eliminate the conflict of interest created when state school personnel are responsible for informing residents of their community living options.

The bill must be passed by the House of Representative before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Perry for final approval.


Texas House approves bill that would help save fuel taxes for Edinburg fire department fire trucks


Volunteer fire departments all across the state, including Edinburg’s fire department, would  be exempt from paying gasoline and diesel taxes if actions by the Texas House become law.

State Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is one of five joint authors of HB 685 which would give volunteer fire departments an opportunity to receive a state tax rebate for gasoline and diesel purchased for official firefighting business.

“Volunteer fire departments provide critical emergency services to almost every community in my legislative district,” said  Peña. “These brave men and women donate their time and sometimes their own resources to operate and maintain these departments.  This sales tax rebate will allow these departments to provide more essential services to our communities.”

The state tax on gasoline and diesel fuel is 20 cents per gallon.  Volunteer fire departments will be eligible to apply for a rebate with the State Comptroller of Pubic Accounts for fuel purchased for fire department business.  The bill precludes volunteer fire fighters from using the rebate for their own personal vehicles.

The cost of fueling emergency service vehicles and fire trucks constitutes a large portion of a volunteer fire department’s budget.  These departments usually receive some funding from a local government or a local emergency service district.  Many departments supplement their budgets with grants, private donations, and fundraisers.

“These fire engines and heavy duty emergency service vehicles aren’t known for their fuel economy,” said Representative Peña. “As fuel prices continue to rise it is appropriate that the state provide some help to these departments that serve the public good.”

HB 685 is now headed to the Senate.

David A. Diaz contributed to this report.


Senate approves bill by Sen. Hinojosa, Sen. Lucio to create mechanism to help cities obtain water rights


Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville,  passed Senate Bill 847 on Thursday, April 20, to create a mechanism for transferring water rights for municipalities.

Currently, there is no existing law providing a fair mechanism for the transfer of irrigated water rights to municipal water rights in the Lower Rio Grande region, according to a bill analysis of the measure.  A process needs to be established for the subdivision of urban non-agricultural land on water rights in certain counties, including Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo counties.

SB 847 authorizes irrigation water rights owned by water districts, other than a drainage district, in the Lower Rio Grande region that cover counties adjacent to Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico or adjacent to such a county to be converted from irrigation water rights to municipal water rights for use by municipal suppliers in the region and details the conversion process in a uniform manner for the Lower Rio Grande region.

“For many years there has been much debate over how to transfer irrigation water rights to municipalities,” Hinojosa said. “We are one of the fastest growing areas in the country and water has become the top issue of concern for our region. This bill helps address some of the issues we have been grappling with regarding the prices and processes for the conversion of water rights.”

Lucio, Jr. is co-author of SB 847.

“I commend my colleague, Sen. Hinojosa, for spearheading this bill which will shape the future of South Texas when it comes to water rights,” Lucio.  “It was a pleasure working alongside Sen. Hinojosa in bringing together the coalition that has helped us solve major water rights problems for the entire region.”

SB 847 is the result of 18 months of negotiation from stakeholders representing the irrigation districts and the municipalities.

“This bill is the product of a lot of hard work and negotiations from all of the parties involved,”  Hinojosa said.

An identical bill is being carried in the House of Representatives by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen.  That measure, called a companion bill, is House Bill 1803, which was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, April 11.


Reforming Windstorm Insurance


D-Corpus Christi

Despite being promised that the 2003 changes in insurance law would provide relief, Texas homeowners continue to pay the highest premiums in America.

Windstorm insurance rates in Texas are twice the national average. Responsible home and business owners know they need an insurance policy, but they’re forced to assume more and more of the risk through higher deductibles, caps on replacement costs, and fights over payouts. Along the coast, companies are refusing to renew tens of thousands of property policies. It’s no coincidence that “Home For Sale” signs increasingly dot the Coastal Bend as many families simply can’t keep up.

What steps is the Texas Legislature considering to address this crisis?

One proposal calls for changing the State Insurance Commissioner from a gubernatorially-appointed position, as it is now, to an elected one, as twelve other states do. The idea is that if the commissioner were directly accountable to voters every four years, he or she would be much more responsive to consumers, and help end the “revolving door” between the office and the corporate boards of large insurance companies. Opponents contend that this would only invite those same large insurance interests to “buy” their candidate with exorbitant campaign contributions. However, Texas voters already select the state’s agriculture commissioner, the state’s chief tax collector, and the railroad commissioners (overseers of the oil and gas industry).

Another measure addresses policy-owner frustration over a spike in their premium anytime they actually make a claim. The bill would guarantee that homeowners would not be penalized for making their first claim by prohibiting insurance companies from increasing premiums until after a second claim during a given three-year period. Policy-holders should not be punished for making legitimate claims on a policy they have faithfully made monthly payments on for years.

Still another idea being debated is an attempt to stem the flow of insurers willing to write windstorm policies in the so-called “Tier 1” areas (the coastal counties). The measure would end “cherry-picking” and provide an incentive for companies to stay in the area by prohibiting them from writing homeowners insurance anywhere in Texas for five years after they quit writing such policies along the coast. The legislation would not apply retroactively, so companies that have already left would be welcomed back, and hopefully those considering leaving, after weighing the loss of the entire Texas market, would think twice.

A final initiative would address the shortfalls of the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), the last resort for citizens when coverage is not available. The TWIA, or the ‘Pool’ as it is commonly referred to, has over the years been allowed to slip into disrepair, with assets equaling only a tenth of exposure. Fixing it will require accepting as a premise that when a major hurricane comes, the damage will not be just a coastal disaster, but will have a severe impact on the entire state (residents of northern Mississippi and northern Louisiana learned this when foodstuffs, petrol, and manufacturing goods couldn’t get in or out of devastated ports after Katrina). The measure calls for an additional fee on premiums statewide, either pre or post-event, to be used in the bond market to fill the gap in the Pool’s mismanaged resources.

Statistics indicate that the “Big Storm” striking the Coastal Bend is not a question of ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’. Hurricane Season is just a few months away. Finding the right formula of measures is critical for this legislative session.

Rep Juan Garcia represents Calhoun, Aransas, San Patricio, and parts of Nueces Counties.


Senate approves measure by Sen. Zaffirini to modify repayment portion of “B-On-Time” Loan Program


The Texas Senate on Wednesday, April 18, passed Senate Bill 1496 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would amend the loan forgiveness provision of the Texas B-On-Time Loan Program to allow students who are graduated within five years from an eligible four-year institution with at least a 2.5 grade point average (GPA) to have 50 percent of their loans forgiven.

SB 1496 builds upon the success of SB 4 (2003) by Zaffirini, which created the B-On-Time Loan Program. It provides Texas students with a zero-interest higher education loan and requires them to be graduated with a 3.0 GPA within four years for a four-year degree or within five years for a five-year degree to have 100 percent of their loans forgiven.

“This legislation is a priority of Lt. Gov.  David Dewhurst,” Zaffirini said. “The bill would promote timely graduation, ease the cost of higher learning and increase higher education access.”

SB 1496 would encourage students to complete their degrees timely and make the requirements for loan forgiveness less stringent. Its purpose is to increase student participation.

Several universities and community colleges throughout the state reported recently that work-study and low-income students seldom take out student loans. These students, many of whom must work, claim the loan forgiveness criteria of B-On-Time are difficult to satisfy. SB 1496 would enhance higher education access and affordability by modifying the B-On-Time program to make loans more appealing to students.

“I truly am delighted this bill was passed by the Senate, and I appreciate especially the leadership of Lt. Gov. Dewhurst in including the B-On-Time loan program among his higher education priorities,” Zaffirini said. “We created B-On-Time to make college more affordable and to encourage students to be graduated timely.”

The bill must be passed by the House of Representative before it can be sent to Governor Rick Perry for final approval.


CVS/pharmacy cited by Attorney General Abbott for allegedly exposing hundreds of customer records

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott took legal action on Tuesday, April 17, against CVS/pharmacy for allegedly exposing its customers to identity theft.

According to court documents filed by the Attorney General, CVS violated a 2005 law requiring businesses to protect any customer records that contain sensitive customer information, including credit and debit card numbers.

Investigators with the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) discovered that a CVS store in Liberty, near Houston, exposed hundreds of its customers to identity theft by failing to properly dispose of records that contained sensitive information. The investigation was launched after reports indicated that bulk customer records were tossed in a dumpster behind the store. Investigators also found several medical prescription forms that included each customer’s name, address, date of birth, issuing physician and the types of medication prescribed. The documents obtained by OAG investigators also contained hundreds of active debit and credit card numbers, complete with expiration dates.

“Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States,” Attorney General Abbott said. “Texas law protects sensitive personal information in order to prevent this widespread crime. Texans can rest assured that we will continue aggressively cracking down on vendors who jeopardize the confidentiality of their clients’ sensitive information.”

CVS is accused of violating the 2005 Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act, which requires businesses to protect and properly dispose of documents that include clients’ sensitive personal information. Under the law, the OAG has the authority to seek penalties of up to $50,000 per violation.

The Attorney General also charged CVS with violating Chapter 35 of the Business and Commerce Code, which requires businesses to develop retention and disposal procedures for their clients’ personal information. The law provides for civil penalties of up to $500 for each abandoned record.

Attorney General investigators are also working to determine if any exposed data has been used illegally. Consumers who interacted with CVS’ Liberty location should carefully monitor their bank, credit card and any similar statements for evidence of suspicious activity. Customers should also consider obtaining free copies of their credit reports.

Consumers who wish to file a complaint may contact the Office of the Attorney General at (800) 252-8011 or file a complaint online at Consumers can also obtain information on how to detect and prevent identity theft.

The April 17 legal action against CVS is the fourth identity theft enforcement action by the Office of the Attorney General in recent weeks. On April 2, Attorney General Abbott took legal action against Fort-Worth based RadioShack Corporation after a Corpus Christi-area store improperly dumped several boxes of receipts that contained customer-identifying information.

On March 14, the Attorney General took legal action against Jones Beauty College in Dallas for improperly discarding student financial aid forms with Social Security numbers and other personal information. Also in March, Attorney General Abbott took legal action against On Track Modeling, a North Carolina-based talent agency that abruptly shut down its Grand Prairie office and abandoned more than 60 boxes containing hundreds of confidential client records.


Senate approves Sen. Lucio’s bill to create address confidentiality program to protect crime victims


Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. announced the Senate has approved his bill that would create an address confidentiality program to assist eligible victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Currently, an address confidentiality program does not exist for victims of family violence in Texas. According to the Texas Council of Family Violence, 143 women died in 2005 as a result of domestic violence, some of which might have been avoided if the addresses of family violence victims had been kept confidential.

In cases of family violence, the violence often escalates when victims leave the relationship and seek a new address.

Without the existence of such a program, many victims of family violence do not obtain a driver’s license or register to vote, for fear of making their address open to the public. There is an increasing need for address confidentiality for victims of family violence due to the public’s increased accessibility to personal information.

The purpose of an address confidentiality program would be to protect the identity of victims of family violence, sexual assault, and stalking through the establishment of a confidential mailing address. Such programs protect these victims by allowing them to conceal their whereabouts so their assailants cannot locate them.

Lucio’s Senate Bill 74, which was approved by the Senate on Thursday, April 12, would direct the Attorney General to establish the program by designating 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 designed to help victims of family violence, sexual assault or stalking from keeping their locations confidential to protect them from their assailants,” said Lucio. “This program affords such protection.”

These particular crimes are intrusive to the victims because of the ongoing threat that those who harmed or stalked them can still locate them. “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, who testified in support of SB 74 and whose grandmother was killed in her home by her grandfather after she had ended the relationship.

Lucio added, “Often, victims of these crimes remain in danger even if they move, so if we can create a safety net for them through this program, then perhaps we can protect more lives.”

The bill must now be considered in the House.

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles. D-McAllen, is carrying an identical measure – House Bill 569 – which was approved by the House State Affairs Committee on Thursday, April 4.

Gonzáles is the primary author of HB 569, while Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, are joint authors of the Gonzales measure.


Rep. Martínez appointed to Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures


Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, on Wednesday, April 18,  was  appointed by House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, to serve on the Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) “Strong States, Strong Nation” 2007 annual meeting on August 5-9 in Boston, Massachusetts is expected to draw more than 7,000 attendees, including state legislators, legislative staff and private sector representatives.

“It is an honor to have been appointed to serve on the Health Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures,” Martínez said. “I feel the issues facing this committee directly affect us all no matter where we reside, we are all affected.  I am proud to be serving this federal responsibility to this extent.”

Martínez said the National Conference of State legislators will have the opportunity to share ideas and learn from experts about how to build and maintain strong state governments.  The annual conference provides several forums to discuss legislation on various specific public policy issues including: higher education, civic education, health care and state economies.

“Knowledge and accessibility to health care is not only an issue affecting my district, but one that affects all Americans,” Martínez observed.  “It is my hope that I, along with my fellow colleagues, will be able to compare and share innovative public policy on health care, so that all children and adults will have an opportunity to access quality and affordable health care.

Bert Ogden RGV breaks ground for Fiesta Chevrolet in east Edinburg


Mission Mayor Norberto Salinas, who also serves on the Texas Border Coalition, on Friday, April 13, helped honor law enforcement officers and firefighters in his hometown during the city’s Second Annual Law Enforcement and Firefighters Appreciation Day, sponsored by the Mission Housing Authority. Featured in this photo at the event with the mayor, whose work with TBC includes efforts to improve homeland security and economic growth for the border region, are, from left: Romeo de la Garza, MHA board member; his wife, Norma de la Garza; José Garza, Chairman of the Board of the Mission Housing Authority; the mayor; Rolando Pérez of Edinburg, owner of Keys and Hardware; and Joel González, executive director of the Mission Housing Authority. For more information on the Texas Border Coalition, see story later in this posting.



Eddie Aldrete, Senior Vice President for International Bank of Commerce in Laredo, focuses on major immigration issues of importance to the Texas Border Coalition during a recent TBC legislative strategy session in Austin. TBC, an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials from the Texas border region, is supporting legislation in Austin that could help stem the flow of undocumented immigration and help the border and state economies. See story later in this posting.



Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin on Tuesday, April 10, donated 50 computers to the Hidalgo County government to help train county employees in the use of software that will improve their work production and help serve more residents. On hand for the dedication were, from left: Mike Robledo, Hidalgo County Information Systems Administrator; JD Salinas, Hidalgo County Judge; Steve Hawkins, Lockheed Martin; Rusty Boone, Lockheed Martin; Renan Ramírez, Hidalgo County Chief Information Officer. See story later in this posting.



Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa, featured center, joined Bob and Janet Vackar, featured to his left, and other dignitaries on Tuesday, April 10, for the groundbreaking of a new, multi-million dollar Fiesta Chevrolet dealership that is being built along U.S. Expressway 281 near Trenton Road in east Edinburg. Up to 150 people will eventually be employed at the facility, which is set to open for business on July 1. City leaders predict other major businesses will soon locate along that stretch of prime real estate as part of the continuing economic boom in Edinburg. See story later in this posting.



Mayor Joe Ochoa and the City of Edinburg proclaimed Thursday, May 3, as National Day of Prayer (NDP). As part of the NDP, the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce is inviting the community to join the mayor for a prayer breakfast to be held at The Social Club, located on 205 Conquest Blvd in Edinburg. The event begins at 7 a.m. The cost to attend is $10 and includes breakfast along with a chorale, invocation, the presentation of colors, and other custom activities that take place on this special day. The intention of the National Day of Prayer is to have a day where members of all faiths can pray together. In 1952, a bill unanimously passed by both houses of congress proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer. President Truman signed the bill into law. The bill required the President to select a day for national prayer each year; and in 1988, a bill was introduced to Congress which fixed the annual National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May; and on May 05, 1988, the bill was signed into law by President Reagan. “We are very lucky to have the freedoms to celebrate such an important proclamation” said Ochoa. More information is available through the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce at 956/383-4974.


Bert Ogden RGV breaks ground for Fiesta Chevrolet in east Edinburg


Bert Ogden Rio Grande Valley, one of the premier vehicle dealerships in the nation, on Tuesday, April 10, broke ground along the U.S. Expressway 281 frontage road in east Edinburg for its latest addition – Fiesta Chevrolet, a multi-million dollar facility that will showcase, sell, and service the American-made passenger vehicles.

The complex, located immediately north of the U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters near the intersection of Trenton Road and U.S. Expressway 281, is the first phase of development on the 17-acre tract of land, which was purchased by the Valleywide dealership, which has deep roots in the three-time All-America City.

Fiesta Chevrolet will employ up to 150 people, and represent an investment of $2.5 million, company leaders confirmed. It will occupy about six acres of the site, which is currently vacant.

The late Bert Ogden of Edinburg opened his first car dealership more than a generation ago, and his vision – following his and his wife’s untimely passing 15 years ago – was proudly carried on by their son-in-law and daughter, Bob and Janet Vackar, said Richard García, president of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation board of directors.

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

In addition to García, the EEDC governing board includes Mayor Joe Ochoa, Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.

“From those local beginnings, the Ogden/Vackar families have become a major economic force and employer in deep South Texas, with state-of-the-art facilities in McAllen, Mission, Harlingen and Edinburg – which will now open this latest complex as early as July 1,” added García.

Ochoa, who was one of dozens of company officials and local dignitaries on hand for the Tuesday morning ground breaking ceremony, said the east Edinburg site will be a major boon for that part of the community.

“The vision always has been to improve the development of infrastructure in these areas because we knew they would be huge attractions for commercial development, and this is exactly what is transpiring,” Ochoa said. “It will bring opportunities for the expansion of Trenton Road to the east side, and be able to connect to the feeder of I-Road. This is one of the first businesses that will be going up in this area, and we look forward to seeing many, many more.”

Bob Vackar, who serves as CEO for the Bert Ogden dealerships, shared the bright economic forecasts of the city leaders.

“We are sitting right here on the bypass of U.S. 281, which will be Interstate Highway 69 in the future,” Vackar said. “You have to be proud of Edinburg and what has been been going on in the last 10 years.”

He said Fiesta Chevrolet will carry the honored tradition not only of the Odgen/Vackar families, but also of Roberts Chevrolet, which was purchased by Bert Ogden Rio Grande Valley.

“We acquired Roberts Chevrolet, which has now been renamed Fiesta Chevrolet, and we are building it on this six-acre site here,” he said. “We are looking to take this facility to about 100 new Chevrolets a month, 50 to 60 used cars, maybe 200 retail units a month. By the end of 2008, we will have to move the Bert Ogden Buick/Pontiac/GMC out here (from its current location at Trenton and Business 281). We will have a major facility here with six acres reserved for any future dealerships or future development.”

The former Roberts Chevrolet, located north of the downtown square, was bought in March by Hidalgo County for $5.7 million. The former Roberts Chevrolet will become the site of the county courthouse’s new parking lot by next fall.

Meanwhile, when Bert Ogden Buick/Pontiac/GMC comes online at the new location, Vackar said the company will have invested about $7 to $8 million on the two dealerships.

“We are looking at a 32,000-square-foot facility, with a parts department, a service department, and a showroom (for Fiesta Chevrolet). When we build the Buick/Pontiac/GMC dealership, Fiesta

Chevrolet will feature a Chevrolet showroom only, and they will share the service facility,” Vackar added.

As for the current Buick/Pontiac/GMC complex in Edinburg, Vackar said the latest plans call for it to eventually be transformed into a Mazda dealership.

Initially, Bert Ogden RGV officials were considering relocating its existing Edinburg dealership to the new site, but once news broke of an $80 million shopping center to be built near the current facility, their plans changed for the better.

“Unbeknown to us, when we first bought this property, we wanted to make a move (from its current Edinburg location). But now that there will be a new mall, there is going to be a retail boom in the area,” he said. “There is going to be a lot of traffic coming into Edinburg.”

That renovation of its existing dealership will occur as the planned Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley begins to materialize.

“We will bring the General Motors products over here, and when the shopping center comes in, we will build a new Mazda dealership,” he said. “We will tear down the north end of the current structure down, and we will build a new Mazda Revolution architecture.”


Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa secures $49.2 million for Regional DPS Facility


Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, on Wednesday, April 11, announced that he has succeeded in securing $49.2 million in the Senate budget bill for a new DPS regional office to be located in Hidalgo County.

The facility will help accommodate the growth in the region and give DPS officers a new crime lab and an expansion of office and storage space, Hinojosa said, as well as enough resources for necessary construction of new buildings.

“Our DPS officers are working hard to deal with rapid growth in a region that faces such serious challenges as the prevention of drug smuggling and ensuring public safety,” Hinojosa said. “Officers covering the 13 counties along our section of the border are long overdue for a facility that can accommodate the growing number of employees we have at the regional office.”

Senate Bill 1, the appropriations bill for the Senate, passed out of the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, April 9. Hinojosa is a member of the committee.

“My fellow senators realize that the border region is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation,” said Hinojosa. “South Texans appreciate their cooperation with me to secure the funding for this important facility.”

The $49.2 million will be financed through General Obligation bonds and general revenue.

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, said he would work with House members to secure matching funds for the DPS complex.

“South Texas is the fastest growing region in the state,” said Peña. “The Department of Public Safety must keep up with that growth. We have some unique border security issues that troopers don’t see in other parts of the state and we need to ensure that we provide them the resources they need to keep doing their outstanding work. This funding request is similar to a rider we filed in last session’s budget and I am going to continue to work with my colleagues to fight for this important state appropriation.”

Orlando Salinas contributed to this report.


Texas Border Coalition wants Legislature to help Mexico reduce flow of undocumented immigration


The Texas Border Coalition is supporting a plan that would establish a joint interim legislative study to look at programs that can contribute to increased economic prosperity in the home countries of incoming immigrants.

The study, according to a bill analysis provided by the House Border and International Affairs Committee, would examine opportunities to encourage business and economic development, both in Texas communities that receive immigrants, and in the countries and states from which they come, as a way to stem the tide of undocumented immigration and ensure prosperity in Texas communities.

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.

Members of TBC are: Chad Foster, TBC chairman and Eagle Pass mayor; Mike Allen, TBC vice-chairman and representing the McAllen Economic Development Corporation; Pat Townsend, Jr., TBC treasurer representing the Mission Economic Development Agency; Brownsville Mayor Eddie Treviño, Jr.; Cameron County Judge Carlos Casco; Del Rio Mayor Efraín Valdéz; Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa; El Paso Mayor John F. Cook; Harlingen Mayor Richard Rodríguez; Mayor John David Franz of Hidalgo; Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas; Mayor Raúl G. Salinas of Laredo; Mayor Richard Cortéz of McAllen; County Judge José Aranda of Maverick County; Mayor Norberto Salinas of Mission; Mayor Leopoldo Palacios, Jr. of Pharr; Mayor Fernando Peña of Roma; and Mayor Joe V. Sánchez of Weslaco.

The goals are contained in House Bill 2717, jointly-authored by Rep. Tracy King, D-Eagle Pass, who is chairman of the House Border and International Affairs Committee, and Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen. An identical measure – known as a companion bill – is Senate Bill 1139 by Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

HB 2717 was unanimously approved on Tuesday, April 11, and is now before the House General Calendars Committee, awaiting a scheduled date for action before the full House. If approved by the Texas Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry, HB 2717 would become effective on September 1, 2007.

According to the bill analysis:

Texas has experienced a large influx of immigrants over the past 15 years. Along with the large number of legal immigrants, there are also many undocumented immigrants, often from Latin America. Some of the root causes of this immigration are the lack of job, education, and business opportunities in the immigrants’ home countries.

HB 2717 would require the Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade, the House Committee on Border and International Affairs, and the House Committee on Financial Institutions to conduct a joint interim study to investigate current programs in Texas or in other states and possible new programs, that would provide opportunities for immigrants to voluntarily invest in development efforts in their home states or countries, or offer certain exchange programs between Texas, Mexico, or other Latin American countries.

The bill requires the study include an assessment of the viability and capacity of the State of Texas to facilitate such programs.

The bill requires the Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade, the House Committee on Border and International Affairs, and the House Committee on Financial Institutions to report the results of the joint interim study, along with recommendations for statutory changes, to the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house of representatives, and members of the 80th Legislature on or before September 1, 2008.

The bill provides that this Act would expire October 1, 2008.

Joe García, one of the legislative consultants for the Texas Border Coalition, represented the group’s support for the measure during the House committee hearing. Other individuals/groups registering in support of HB 2717 were: John Guerra, representing the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce; Rebecca Bernhardt, representing the America Civil Liberties Union of Texas; Ann Baddour, representing Texas Appleseed; and Luis Figueroa, representing the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

TBC maintains a web site at

House Bill 2717, as approved by the House committee, follows verbatim:



relating to a joint interim study of ways to promote economic development in nations that are a primary source of undocumented immigrants in Texas.



(a) The Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade, the House Committee on Border and International Affairs, and the House Committee on Financial Institutions shall conduct a joint interim study to investigate:

(1) current programs operating in Texas or in other parts of the United States that:

(A) provide opportunities for immigrants to voluntarily invest in development efforts in their home states or countries; or

(B) offer exchange programs between teachers, medical professionals, business people, or local government officials from the United States and professionals in Mexico or other Latin American countries;

(2) possible new programs that would:

(A) provide opportunities for immigrants to voluntarily invest in development efforts in their home states or countries; or

(B) offer exchange programs between teachers, medical professionals, business people, or local government officials from the United States and professionals in Mexico or other Latin American

countries; and

(3) the viability of programs described by Subdivisions (1) and (2) of this subsection and the capacity of the State of Texas to facilitate such programs.

(b) The Senate Committee on International Relations and Trade, the House Committee on Border and International Affairs, and the House Committee on Financial Institutions shall report the results of the joint interim study conducted under Subsection (a) of this section, together with recommendations for statutory changes, to the governor, the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house of representatives, and the members of the 80th Legislature on or before September 1, 2008.

SECTION 2. This Act expires October 1, 2008.

SECTION 3. This Act takes effect September 1, 2007.


Senate panel approves TYC reform bill championed by Sen. Hinojosa


After two years of comprehensive work on youth corrections reform, Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa’s omnibus Texas Youth Commission reform bill, Senate Bill 103, was approved Wednesday, April 11, by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“The young people in state care, their parents and loved ones, and the taxpayers who foot the bill deserve a system that rehabilitates our youth, not a system that systematically abuses them and then throws away the key,” said Hinojosa. “My intent with SB 103 is to rebuild the commission from the ground up so that we have a humane system for rehabilitating youth that is accountable to the people of Texas,”

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

Hinojosa’s bill calls for improved security by requiring TYC guards and other staff to undergo at least 300 hours of training before being assigned to guard duty; caps the guard-to-youth ratio at no more than 12 to 1 to maintain order and safety; and requires fingerprint and national criminal history checks for employees.

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 guidelines 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.

The senator’s bill also provides for the creation of a criminal investigation unit to look into crimes committed by TYC youth, or against them by guards and other juvenile justice employees.

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

“The current problems in the Texas Youth Commission demand short-term and longer-term challenges to improve security, provide more training, and enforce strict accountability measures so that the mistakes that led to recent scandals never happen again,” Hinojosa said.


Criminal Justice Committee approves Sen. Zaffirini’s bills protecting Texans from sexual offenses


The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday, April 11, recommended passage of Senate Bill 120 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and House Bill 76 by Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin and Zaffirini, which would strengthen laws to prevent sexual offenses, including the online solicitation of a minor, and require state law enforcement agencies to collect pertinent information from victims of sexual assault.

HB 76 by Naishtat and Zaffirini would require the Department of Public Safety’s (DPS) Bureau of Identification and Records to collect comprehensive information regarding sexual assault for the purposes of statewide statistical reporting. Current law requires DPS to collect data regarding family violence offenses, but not for sexual assault offenses, and does not require local law enforcement agencies to report sexual assault statistics to DPS for statewide data collection. HB 76 changes that.

“The Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) reports that 13 percent of Texans are sexually assaulted during their lifetime, but only 18 percent of those assaults are reported,” Zaffirini said. “This bill would increase required reporting to enhance agencies’ ability to prevent sexual offenses.”

SB 120 by Zaffirini would help protect children from internet predators by establishing a clearinghouse of educational resources related to on-line safety at the Texas School Safety Center and directing school districts to update their discipline management program to prevent the use of the internet for sexual solicitation.

These bills build on Zaffirini’s legislation that protect persons and families from sexual offenses and sexual exploitation. Last month the Senate unanimously passed SB 6 by Zaffirini, which would protect Texas children and families from sexual communication and solicitation via the internet.

“As legislators we have an obligation to protect persons, families and communities from sexual crimes,” Zaffirini said. “These bills greatly would improve procedures for preventing and prosecuting sexual offenses. I look forward to passing these bills.”


Work at Doctors Hospital, five schools helps power construction in Edinburg


Total construction activities in Edinburg during the first two months of the year totaled more than $63 million, readily outpacing the $34 million level reached during the same period last year, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

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

It is governed by a five-person board of directors, which includes Mayor Joe Ochoa, former mayor Richard García, who is the EEDC board president, and Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.

For the month of February, total construction activities in the city were more than $20.2 million, compared with almost $14.9 million in February 2006.

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance again achieved top billing for the most valuable construction project in the latest monthly report, for work valued at almost $6.1 million for a medical facility being built at 5501 Raphael Drive in the Doctor’s Center Phase II Subdivision.

The major medical complex is undergoing an estimated $150 million expansion in southwest Edinburg.

A building permit is permission issued by a city’s planning department to oversee and approve any changes to structures.

They are documents designed to guarantee that any construction work, from remodeling to demolition to building a new home or business facility, meets the city’s building codes.

The value of construction projects is included when the city issues a building permit.

The building permits do not include the price of the lot.

Building permits for new construction in February 2007 also included other major commercial projects.

The Edinburg school district was issued building permits for work on four of its campuses: Edinburg CISD at 3615 W. Rogers Road; Truman Elementary at 701 Rogers Road; Cantterbury Elementary at 2821 Canton Road; and Escandon Elementary at 1100 E. Trenton Road.

The value of work for each of the school district projects is $933,000.

Meanwhile, the private Discovery School, located at 1711 W. Alberta Road, in February also began work, valued at $800,000, for additions/remodeling of its facility.

Steve Heb Da was issued a building permit for work, valued at $882,000, for a commercial facility being built at 2137 W. Trenton Road in the Trenton Crossroads Plaza Subdivision.

Ector Casas was issued a building permit for work, valued at $500,000, for a commercial facility being built at 303 Conquest in the Sheaval Subdivision.


Edinburg’s jobless rate in February lowest in the Valley at 4.8 percent


Edinburg’s jobless rate, which is a key indicator of the strength of the local economy, remained the lowest in the Valley for the second consecutive month in 2007, averaging 4.8 percent in February.

The city’s unemployment rate was keeping pace with the statewide average of 4.5 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.

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.

As of February, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, 1,370 Edinburg residents were looking for jobs, while 26,920 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 7.4 percent in February, down from 7.7 percent in January.

The February jobless rate for Hidalgo County represented 20,199 area residents without jobs, while 254,041 residents were employed during the second month of 2007.

McAllen had the second lowest monthly unemployment rate in February – 5 percent, or 2,952 of their citizens out of work, while 55,761 residents of the City of Palms were employed that month. In January, McAllen’s jobless rate of 5.1 percent.

Harlingen’s unemployment rate in February was 5.5 percent, while Pharr posted a 5.8 percent jobless rate.

Mission came in with a 6.1 percent unemployment rate in February, followed by Weslaco at 6.9 percent.

In Cameron County, Brownsville’s unemployment rate in February came in at 6.7 percent, while Harlingen reported a 5.5 percent jobless rate that month.

Cameron County’s jobless rate in February was 6.6 percent, the same as in January. In February, 9,525 residents of Cameron County were looking for work, while 134,719 residents were holding down jobs.

According to the Texas Workforce Commission:

Seasonally adjusted nonagricultural employment in Texas increased by 14,300 jobs in February – almost double the five-year average February job gain. With an annual job growth rate at 2.3 percent, the Texas economy gained 231,200 jobs over the past 12 months.

The February seasonally adjusted unemployment rate held steady at 4.5 percent, down from 5.1 percent a year ago.

The Midland Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) experienced the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 3.2 percent (not seasonally adjusted). The Amarillo and Odessa MSAs followed at 3.7 percent.

“The Texas labor market continues to grow at a rapid pace across many different industries,” said Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) Chair Diane Rath. “Broad-based job growth and an unemployment rate in line with the national rate of 4.5 percent are clear signs of our state’s robust economy.”

Professional & Business Services gained 5,500 jobs, posting a seventh consecutive month of over-the month increases. Trade, Transportation & Utilities added 4,400 positions, for a year over year gain of 25,900 jobs.

“The Texas business outlook continues to show sustained job growth,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Employers Ron Lehman. “Over the past year, Texas employers have posted widespread industry job gains which benefit employers, workers and communities alike.”

The Construction industry recorded a gain of 3,700 positions in February for a strong annual job growth rate of 4.4 percent. Mining employment gained 1,800 jobs, following an increase of 1,400 positions in January. In the past 12 months, Mining gained 20,700 jobs.

“More jobs mean more opportunities for Texans to find work,” said TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Ronny Congleton. “Continued job growth in 10 of 11 sectors the past year creates more opportunities for workers of all skill levels.”

Initial claims for Unemployment Compensation in February 2007 were 43,908, down 25.8 percent from January 2007 and 1.6 percent since February 2006.


Rep. Gonzáles wants Texas to provide Spanish translation services to help treat medical patients


A measure filed by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, which would set up Spanish language interpreter services for physicians, hospitals, and health care professionals to help them communicate with Spanish-speaking patients, continues to move through the legislative process.

Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, is a joint author of the measure, House Bill 161.

According to a bill analysis of the measure, HB 161 would require the Texas Department of State Health Services to provide oral language interpreter services for certain health care providers via a toll-free telephone number. Interpreter services would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

HB 161 received widespread support during its public hearing in late March, when it cleared the

House Public Health Committee, and is now before the House General Calendars Committee.

The House General Calendars Committee sets the dates for which all major legislation is debated by the full House.

No date for a House vote had been set as of Sunday, April 15.

The plan, is enacted into law, would go into effect on September 1, 2008.

According to the bill analysis:


Currently, no statewide oral interpreter service is available to our physicians, hospital employees or other healthcare providers in the event that an onsite interpreter is unavailable to patients whose primary language is Spanish.

HB 161 establishes a toll-free number for healthcare providers to assist them in supplying expedient healthcare services to persons with limited English proficiency and ultimately reduces medical liability associated with miscommunication. The toll-free number will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will be answered by a healthcare interpreter trained to orally communicate with physicians, hospital employees and other healthcare providers attempting to administer medical services to individuals whose primary language is Spanish.


HB 161 defines a health care interpreter (interpreter) as a person who is trained to orally communicate with a person whose primary language is Spanish by accurately conveying the meaning or oral health care related statements in English and Spanish. The bill requires the Department of State Health Services (department) to establish a telephone number that is answered by an interpreter 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The interpreter shall provide certain services to physicians, hospital employees, and other health care providers to assist those individuals in communicating with patients whose primary language is Spanish. The bill requires the executive commission to adopt rules to implement the bill, including establishing qualifications required for interpreters who answer the toll-free telephone number.

The bill would require the executive commissioner of the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to adopt rules to implement the provisions of the bill. HHSC indicates rules could be developed and adopted within the agency’s existing budget.

The Department of State Health Services (DSHS) indicates 5 full-time-equivalent positions would be needed to provide interpreter services 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is assumed salaries and associated operating costs would total $283,233 in General Revenue in fiscal year 2008 and $277,548 in General Revenue in each subsequent fiscal year.


DSHS estimates information technology costs of $6,740 per fiscal year for computer hardware and software.

Local Government Impact

No fiscal implication to units of local government is anticipated.

No one testified against the measure when it was considered by the House Public Health Committee. According to the committe minutes, the following individuals were present for the public hearing:


Adams, Gordon Lee (Texas Academy of Physician Assistants)

Courtney, Skip (Universal Health Services)

Díaz, Esther (Self and Austin Area Translators & Interpreters Assn. & Texas Association of Healthcare Interpreters & Translators)


Jourdan, Laura (Tx Health & Human Services Commission)

Registering, but not testifying:


Banda, Jennifer (Texas Hospital Association)

Capelo, Jaime (Texas Academy of Physician Assistants)

Ellis, Randall (Legacy Community Health)

Figuevoa, Luis (Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund (MALDEF))

Finch, Dan (Tx Medical Assn)

Hernández, Benny (American Civil Liberties Union of Texas)

Jamison, Mazie (Children’s Medical Center Dallas)

Parker Coburn, Katie (Texas Association of Community Health Centers)

Trolin, Brenda (Catholic Health Assn of Texas)

Wilkes, Catherine (Christus Health)


Patrick, Donald (Self and Texas Medical Board)


Senate budget includes $6 million for UT-Pan American’s Starr County Upper Level Center


The Texas Senate on Thursday, April 12, passed CSHB 1, which would allocate $152.9 billion to fund state programs.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee, secured funding for several top priority projects and institutions throughout Texas and within her senatorial district.

CSHB 1 includes $313 millionfor the debt service for $1.9 billion in tuition revenue bonds authorized by Zaffirini’s HB 153 (2006), including $37.6 million for A&M International and $6 million for UT-Pan American’s Starr County Upper Level Center. The bill authorized 63 projects at 48 higher education institutions, the largest investment in higher education ever made in Texas.

CSHB 1 includes more than a six percent increase in spending, compared with the previous (2005) legislative session’s budget. The Senate’s version of the budget, however, spends approximately $2.1 billion more than the House version.

“Working with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Senate Finance Committee members, I am committed to developing a budget that prioritizes the needs of Texas families,” Zaffirini said. “Communities in my senatorial district and throughout the state greatly will benefit from the funding we worked hard to secure in this budget.”

Included in CSHB 1 is a $21.3 million increase compared with current level spending for the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio (UTHSCSA) and a $13.8 million increase for Texas A&M International University in Laredo. Funding includes $3 million for expanding programs at the Laredo campus of UTHSCSA and $2 million for the Student Success Program and a PhD program in business at A&M International. Included in Article XI of CSHB 1 is $6 million for the San Antonio Life Sciences Institute — a joint program between UT San Antonio and the UTHSCSA.

Zaffirini also secured $100 million in new grants for the Instructional Facility Allotment (IFA), which helps poor school districts with facility construction; $1.5 million for the Surplus Agricultural Product Grant Program, which offsets the costs of harvesting, gleaning and transporting agricultural products to Texas food banks; and $8.4 million for debt service for interest on $87.5 million for the Economically Distressed Areas Program, contingent upon passage of a statewide bond election.

CSHB 1 also includes $120 million above the bill as filed for state parks; $448.5 million for State Water Plan programs; $1 million for a new independent living center that could be established in Laredo; $5 million to help compete for a wind turbine contract located largely in Senate District 21; $5 million for waste tire remidiation; and $800,000 to combat zebra chip disease threatening Texas potato crops.

“Although proud of much of what we have accomplished in this budget, more must be done to ensure Texas appropriately funds our priorities,” Zaffirini said. “I look forward to working under the leadership of Lt. Governor Dewhurst and our colleagues in the legislature to ensure that we continue to serve persons most in need.”

The House version of the budget was passed on March 30, and members from both the House and Senate soon will be appointed to the Appropriations Conference Committee so differences in both budget versions may be reconciled.


Statue of César Chávez to be unveiled October 9 at The University of Texas at Austin

The unveiling of a statue of civil rights leader César Chávez at The University of Texas at Austin has been scheduled for Oct. 9 as part of a celebration honoring his legacy for social justice. It will become the first statue of a Hispanic person on the 123-year-old campus.

Stacy Torres, chair of the university’s César Chávez Statue Committee, said the artist, Pablo Eduardo of Gloucester, Mass., plans to complete the sculpture this spring. Work on the site preparation and foundation are expected to begin in early summer. The statue will be placed on the West Mall between Battle Hall and the West Mall Office Building.

“Our committee is excited to move forward with plans for this historic event,” said Torres, a senior majoring in government and one of the Student Government leaders instrumental in moving the statue project forward in recent years. “The unveiling ceremony will be a day of great joy as we honor the life and legacy of Mr. Chávez and celebrate the contributions of students as the driving force of this project since its inception.”

Dr. Juan González, vice president for student affairs, said, “We are proud of the students of The University of Texas at Austin for conceiving and bringing this concept to fruition on the campus. We also want to recognize the significant achievement of the committee in the realization of this long-time dream of the students.”

For many years, members of the university community have discussed the need for ethnic and gender diversity represented by statues and other works of art prominently displayed on campus. The ideas for the statue of Chávez and also a statue of Barbara Jordan, the first African American woman from the South to serve in the U.S. Congress, came from students. The committee for the Jordan statue project is in the process of selecting an artist.

Chávez, who fought for the rights of farm laborers and minorities, was chosen by the We Are Texas Too student organization, which prompted the formation of the César Chávez Statue Committee.

The issue was taken to a campus-wide student referendum during the spring 2003 semester and was approved by the University of Texas System Board of Regents that summer. During the 78th legislative session, the Texas House of Representatives and the Texas Senate approved House Bill 1537 supporting a student fee to pay for the statues. Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law on June 20, 2003.

Collection of the student fees began in the spring 2004 semester and will conclude with the summer session of 2007. Leftover money will go toward a scholarship fund.


Mexican American Legislative Caucus elects Rep. González to executive committee


The Texas House Mexican America Legislative Caucus has elected Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, as Secretary for the 80th Legislative Session. MALC addresses legislative issues affecting Latinos across the State.

Gonzáles expressed her enthusiasm to being elected to the Caucus’s Executive Committee.

“MALC has been instrumental this session in advocating legislation that impacts the Latino population positively and in fighting legislation that is harmful to our constituents. MALC remains committed to championing legislation to decrease the number of uninsured children in Texas and to serve as the clearinghouse to provide analysis on potentially divisive immigration bills,” said Gonzáles. “Since the State Affairs Committee is not representative of border Texans, it is vital for MALC to serve as advocate on this immigration issues and ensure the State makes the federal government accountable in enacting comprehensive immigration reform.”

Gonzáles is the only member from the Rio Grande Valley to hold an officer position in both the House Democratic Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, of which she also serves as Chair of the Immigration Task Force.

“I value the confidence of my fellow Caucus members and look forward to the opportunity to further contribute to MALC,” said Gonzáles.


Reporters’ “Shield Law,” co-authored by Sen. Hinojosa, approved by Senate committee


The Senate Jurisprudence Committee on Wednesday, April 11, passed Senate Bill 966, the Free Flow of Information Act, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to protect journalists from being forced to testify or disclose confidential sources.

The “Free Flow of Information Act” is also commonly referred to as a “shield law” for journalists because it offers protections from prosecution for news media reporters who, under certain circumstances, refuse to reveal the identify of their confidential sources.

Senate Bill 966, co-authored by Senator Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and sponsored in the House by Corbin Van Arsdale, R-Houston, and Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, passed 4-0 and will now be considered by the full Senate.

“This effort is about the public’s right to the free flow of information,” said Peña. “Information regarding corruption from whistleblowers should be encouraged. The legislation I championed seeks to strike a delicate balance that allows information to be gathered while at the same time allowing prosecutors to seek justice.”

In 2003, Peña filed House Bill 188, a similar bill that would have created a privilege for journalists.

“The press plays a vitally important role in our democracy and must be protected from government intimidation,” said Ellis. “With the face of journalism and law enforcement rapidly changing in the 21st century, it is time for Texas to pass the Free Flow of Information Act to ensure journalists and their sources are protected in their jobs of keeping the public informed.”

Thirty-two other states and the District of Columbia currently have some form of law protecting journalists and their sources, including California, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and every single state bordering Texas. Similar legislation is on its way to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire’s desk; the United States Congress is also currently debating legislation — offered by two Republicans – to enact a federal free flow of information law.

There is currently no state or federal constitutional protection for journalists who are called to testify, turn over reporters notes or otherwise participate in a criminal case in the state of Texas. Ideally the First Amendment would be such a shield, but the courts have largely taken away the understood privilege of the press to protect whistleblowers. The need to protect the confidentiality of sources is often fundamental to a reporter’s job.

“Senate Bill 966 strikes the delicate balance between preserving the public’s right to know the truth from an independent press, and the state’s ability to uphold justice,” said Ellis. “It ensures journalists can keep their sources and notes confidential, while still allowing law enforcement the ability to acquire truly necessary material. It is not an unbreakable shield, but simply a limited privilege for journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources.”

“Today marks the furthest advancement of this bill,” said Representative Peña. “This is a result of intense negotiations and is an attempted compromise between the competing interests. I will continue to advocate for its passage.”

Orlando Salinas contributed to this report.


Congressman Hinojosa applauds report calling for higher education policy reform for immigrants


Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education, Lifelong Learning and Competitiveness, on Wednesday, April 11, urged the expansion of access to higher education in light of a groundbreaking study released today by the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The report, Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, found that immigrants have lower college enrollment and graduation rates because of multiple barriers that prevent them from accessing and succeeding in higher education. The report is the most comprehensive examination to date of one of the nation’s largest but unrecognized student populations.

“The immigrant population is growing faster than it ever has; this country will be at a very serious disadvantage if it does not extend higher education to the whole of its population,” said Hinojosa. “Equity of college opportunity is one of the most important ways we can ensure that our workforce remains competitive and our nation is at the forefront of global economic and social development.”

The report found that legal immigrants are more likely to experience risk factors linked to dropping out of college, such as family and work responsibilities, financial need, and lack of university-level English skills. It also states that while legal immigrants currently comprise 12 percent of the undergraduate population, a percentage that puts them on par with other minority student groups in the United States, only 23 percent of those who enroll actually graduate.

To combat these troubling statistics, the study recommends that legal permanent residents be eligible for all forms of state and federal financial aid, including the Academic Competitiveness Grants and the National Science and Math Access to Retain Talent (SMART) Grants, which are currently limited to U.S. citizens. It also advocates increasing the availability of English as a Second Language classes for both teenage and adult immigrants, as well as developing programs designed to assist Latino immigrants and those who immigrate as teenagers–the two immigrant groups least likely to enroll in college. It further endorses a more transparent financial aid and college application process, including widespread dissemination of information, resources, and contacts in immigrant communities.

“Higher education is an integral part of the American Dream and we must make certain that all our nation’s students have the opportunity to attend and graduate from college,” said Hinojosa. “The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act gives us our opportunity to do that. I want to thank IHEP for its timely contribution to our deliberations.”


Gov. Perry joins state legislators in support of the Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act

Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, April 10, joined by state legislators and Texas families, stood in support of House Bill 3678, the Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Act. The bill, authored by Rep. Charlie Howard, R-Sugar Land, does not expand religious expression in schools, but reiterates a student’s existing right to expression. The bill offers clarity for teachers and administrators who may be confused about what religious rhetoric is permitted.

“Freedom of religion should not be mistaken for freedom from religion. It is one thing to prevent government from sponsoring or endorsing a particular religious view. It is quite another for government to sanitize all dialogue from religious viewpoints in a public setting,” said Perry. “The constitution prohibits the former, but was never meant to prohibit the latter.”

The United States Supreme Court holds religious discussion in schools legal. However, some schools have found to be misapplying the law and restricting legal expression. In an effort to promote a neutral learning environment, some schools are unintentionally suppressing religious expression.

Isolated instances in Texas public schools led to the creation of HB 3678. In one case, a school prohibited students from wishing troops serving overseas a “Merry Christmas.” Another school reprimanded a first grader for invoking the name and image of Jesus when she was asked what she thinks of when she thinks of Easter.

“We don’t need to shield our children from religious expression and allow them to only be exposed to the religion of secularism in our schools,” said Perry. “Discussion does not lead to indoctrination. Rather, it leads to open-mindedness and personal and educational betterment.”


Hidalgo County accepts donation of 50 computers from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin Corporation on Tuesday, April 10, donated 50 personal computers to Hidalgo County during a ceremony at the Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg.

The computer systems will be used by county employees to learn software applications used by the county and to enhance their computer skills to better serve the residents of Hidalgo County.

The ceremony took place at the weekly commissioner’s court meeting at 1100 Closner Blvd in Edinburg.

County Judge J.D. Salinas, and Precinct Commissioners Sylvia S. Handy, Héctor ‘Tito’ Palacios, Joe M. Flores, and Óscar L. Garza, Jr. were all on hand to receive the donation. The effort was spearheaded by Mike Robledo, Information Systems Administrator of Hidalgo County and Stephen Hawkins, Director of State & Local Information Technology Solutions for Lockheed Martin.

“This donation by Lockheed Martin is a great example of the type of partnerships with the private sector that benefit our employees and also saved taxpayers $42,000 in computer costs,” Salinas. “We hope this partnership opens the door for discussions about how we can work with Lockheed Martin and other similar companies to expand technology education and employment opportunities in this region.”


Rep. Eddie Lucio pushing legislation to help secure health insurance for children with Down’s Syndrome


State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, has laid out a bill in the House Human Services Committee that could provide affordable health insurance to children with disabilities.

The measure, House Bill 1738, received the House committee public hearing on Thursday, April 5. It was left pending for further action.

HB 1738, also known as Zariah’s Bill, would create a Medicaid buy-in program for families with disabled children. Often times these families have incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid, but must still pay the high costs of medical care for their disabled child with no assistance.

“Hearing stories about families who move to lower paying jobs, refuse promotions, and even file for divorce just so they can qualify for Medicaid is heartbreaking,” said Lucio. “These hardworking families are doing everything they can to meet the special needs of their children, and the State should do its best to provide them with affordable healthcare.”

The bill would allow these families to receive coverage under Medicaid by paying a small monthly premium that is based on their income. Currently, children with disabilities whose families have incomes above the Medicaid guidelines can only receive coverage through special waiver programs.

“The waiting lists for these waivers in Texas can be incredibly long,” said Lucio. “Children can sometimes spend years on a waiting list and never even receive coverage. I feel blessed to be in a position where I can help to change this. Children are the future of our state, and we need to do everything that we can to help those who are most needy.”

Special guests from Lucio’s legislative district attended the hearing to testify in favor of the bill, including the family of Zariah Zarate, a young girl with Down Syndrome, and representatives from several children’s advocacy groups, including Down By the Border and the San Antonio Down’s Syndrome Association.

Down’s syndrome is the most common cause of mental retardation and malformation in newborns. It occurs because of the presence of an extra chromosome.

“For me the committee hearing was a very emotional time,” admitted Lucio, “seeing how much these families have gone through and how hard they are working to care for their children is extremely humbling. Their bravery and faith is a constant inspiration to me, and I hope to do everything I can this session to fight for them.”

Lucio and his staff are working closely with various health care agencies and advocacy groups, and will continue to collaborate with other Representatives on this very important bill.

Other highlights of Lucio’s bill, contained in a bill analysis provided to the committee, include:

The bill would add Section 32.02491, Medical Assistance for Children with Down Syndrome, to Subchapter B, Chapter 32 of the Human Resources Code.

It would require the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), regardless of the availability of federal matching funds, to provide medical services to a person younger than 18 who has a diagnosis of Down Syndrome, and who is not otherwise eligible for Medicaid. The bill would require HHSC to adopt rules that require the agency to provide services only to the extent that the person has no other health insurance or other plan under which services are available.

The bill requires HHSC to actively pursue federal authorization for Medicaid matching funds to provide services under this section. The bill would take effect September 1, 2007.


For the purposes of this cost estimate, it is assumed that medical services include both acute and long-term care services. Therefore, the cost of acute care, vendor drug and community-based care are included above. The cost is allocated to General Revenue; however, under the provisions of the bill the agency is directed to seek federal financial participation. Should this occur, approximately 60 percent of the cost could be funded with Federal Funds.

HHSC states that there are approximately 7,500 instances of Down Syndrome children per year. It is assumed that 40 percent are not currently on Medicaid and that 46 percent of this sub-set are people without private insurance. It is assumed that private insurance may cover some long-term care services.

The first year impact is assumed to be one-third, due to time required to implement the program. This provides a caseload impact of 460 in FY 08 and 1,380 in fiscal years 2009 through 2012. No growth in caseload is assumed from FY 09 forward.

Cost estimates are assumed to be $12,906 per year for acute care services through HHSC and $34,407 per year for community-based care at the Department of Aging and Disability Services (DADS). The cost for acute care services is based on the cost to serve disabled and blind individuals in the Medicaid program currently. DADS’ estimate of cost is the same as that for the CLASS waiver.

Multiplying caseload times cost results in a total of $21.7 million in fiscal year 2008 and $65.3 million in fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2012.

In addition, HHSC states they would require 1 FTE in fiscal year 2008 at a cost of $95,364 and 3 FTEs in fiscal year 2009 and beyond, costing $286,092 per year. Professional services costs, travel, cost pool and start up costs add $201,291 in fiscal year 2008. These costs going forward are $159,936 per year.


Texas House votes to support cost savings on certain energy efficiency products used in home


Texans may be able to enjoy additional tax free weekends if legislation joint-authored by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, becomes law.

Peña joined House colleague Lon Burnam, D-Ft. Worth, as a primary joint-author of the legislation.

On Wednesday, April 11, the Texas House of Representatives unanimously approved Pena’s bill for the creation of two tax free weekends for energy efficient appliances. House Bill 1000 would exempt certain energy efficient products from sales taxes on two weekends per year.

“This simple piece of legislation will allow the people of our communities an additional tax free weekend to purchase energy efficient products for their homes,” said Peña. “This bill is good for our people and good for our state.”

HB 1000 would create a sales tax exemption during the Memorial Day weekend and the weekend closest to the Fourth of July, beginning in 2008, on certain Energy Star products and appliances.

The products must be purchased for noncommercial home or personal use in order to be tax exempt.

The bill exempts the following energy efficient products from sales tax: air conditioners, a split system ducted residential air conditioning system with a seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) at least two point higher than that required by federal law, clothes washers, ceiling fans, dehumidifiers, dishwashers, compact fluorescent light bulbs, programmable thermostats, and refrigerators whose sales price does not exceed $2,000 in 2007, with an increase of $100 until 2016 and does not exceed $3,000.00 in and after 2017.

“Every year our state adds more demands to the electric grid,” said Peña. “HB 1000 not only promotes energy efficiency, potentially providing real savings to homeowners, but it also provides consumers with a tax break and helps lessen our impact on the environment.”

The bill received broad support from both consumer organizations and the business community. That broad based support was reflected in the unanimous vote. Wednesday’s vote effectively sends the bill to the Senate for approval.


Gov. Perry reiterates need for border security funding, praises radio communications plan

Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, April 11, praised the progress of the state’s radio communications capabilities. At the governor’s direction, local officials have worked with the state’s 24 regional councils of government to help Texas reach a key milestone in radio communications interoperability.

Perry also reiterated his support for HB 13 and Rep. David Swinford’s effort to dedicate $100 million to Texas border security efforts.

One of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission is to ensure that when disaster strikes, first responders are able to communicate. A network of interoperable radio systems is a vital component to a swift, coordinated disaster response strategy. Two years ago, Perry set forth an ambitious priority objective to achieve level four radio interoperability throughout Texas by January 2007.

“Radio interoperability in Texas is particularly challenging because of its size and geographic diversity,” Perry said. “As a result of local leadership, I am proud to report to you today that Texas has achieved level four radio interoperability throughout the state, and in some areas, it is as high as level six.”

Level four radio interoperability allows fire fighters, emergency medical responders, police officers, deputy sheriffs and state troopers to go anywhere in the state and have immediate radio communications with each other using their own equipment on established channels.

“The importance of achieving this goal was demonstrated last year when first responders from around the state battled devastating wildfires and floods, and for the first time, were able to communicate with one another using their own radios to coordinate their efforts,” Perry said.

Perry also reiterated his support for HB 13 by Rep. Swinford which will increase border security funding by $100 million. Texas has launched several major border security operations, beginning with Operation Linebacker in 2005, Operation Rio Grande in 2006, and most recently and still ongoing, Operation Wrangler. These surge operations have a proven record of significantly reducing crime, and Perry will continue to urge the Texas Legislature to approve funding to sustain border security efforts for the next two years.

“In Texas, we have a border security strategy that works,” Perry said. “When we substantially increase law enforcement personnel and resources, we see a significant disruption of criminal and illegal activity. I urge the Texas legislature to fully fund these proven strategies and pass HB 13.”

Perry was joined at the news conference by U. S. Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Michael Jackson, Congressman Michael McCaul, Austin Mayor Will Wynn and members of the Texas Radio Coalition.


Congressman Cuellar, TXDot’s Jorge, meet to discuss Starr County highway projects


Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Monday, April 9, met with Texas Department of Transportation (TXDoT) district engineer Mario Jorge and other county and city officials to discuss upcoming projects that will affect Starr County.

Among the numerous issues discussed were the implementation of new traffic lights along U.S. Highway 83, improvements to FM 755 and the refurbishing of rest areas.

“These projects represent significant improvements to the infrastructure in Starr County,” said Cuellar. “Starr County has provided an example of how a community can benefit by partnering with the federal government, and I want to thank Mario Jorge for all of his hard work.”

The design work for the traffic lights is in the early stages and is expected to be completed this summer. The Texas Department of Transportation expects to begin work in late July and complete the work by the end of August.

The realignment of FM 755 will occur at the Starr/Camargo Bridge and will improve the flow of traffic to and from the international border crossing. Also along FM 755, drainage will be improved by the construction of a one-way curb and gutter section.

TXDoT is currently working with the Rio Grande City Maintenance foreman to upgrade the current rest areas in Zapata and Starr Counties. The refurbishing of the rest areas will include re-roofing and re-painting of existing facilities.

“I am glad to see these projects moving forward. By communicating with TXDoT, local officials and Starr County residents, we have been able to bring much-needed assistance to our local communities. As a Member of Congress, I will continue working with community leaders to ensure that the people of South Texas experience further progress and improvements to our transportation systems,” said Cuellar.


Film documenting modern-day slavery of women, children premieres Thursday at Cine El Rey theater


Slavery thrives!

Inspired by a true story, a new generation of filmmakers portrays the modern global slave trade, which is larger than slave trade in 19th century.

This intense and inspiring film depicts an innocent woman who is recruited by traffickers with promises of prosperity in America. Upon arrival to New York City, not only does she find herself trapped in slave prostitution, but also her child is sold to the highest bidder. Refusing to give up hope, this severely abused victim fights against the traffickers despite the odds of saving her child and herself.

Dedicated executive producer Scott Elliot Mann has put his money where his mouth is. He has exposed an elapsed age-old human evil—sex slavery. “Fighting this scourge successfully will take more than another United Nations treaty—we must use our artistic might!” protests Mann.

Your attendance will be a tremendous support for all victims of human trafficking and crucial step toward abolition of slavery.

The screening location is at Cine El Rey theater, 311 S. 17th, McAllen, TX 78501 at 7:30 p.m. The tickets are $7 apiece. For more information, please, call 213-926-2987 or email at [email protected]

All proceeds from the screening will go directly to the Human Trafficking Project at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.


Sen. Cornyn to file legislation to streamline federal agencies



Congress recently passed a five-year, $15 trillion federal budget just as many Americans were looking up from calculating their federal income tax bills.

Taxpayers probably didn’t like what they saw, and I don’t blame them. One trillion is one thousand billion. By any standard, $15 trillion is an unimaginable amount of money.

What troubles me is that in this budget Congress is not proposing to eliminate a single program or government agency. Though the administration budget process includes an annual review of ongoing programs, Congress isn’t doing its part.

Many accounts are funded year after year because there are small — but vocal — interest groups backing them — and no effective congressional oversight to determine when ideas have run their course.

In an effort to correct these problems, I’m introducing legislation that would create a federal “sunset” commission to identify federal agencies and programs that should be reviewed — and perhaps trimmed or even eliminated.

Many of our best ideas for the federal government “bubble up” from individual states. That’s the case here. In Texas, the sunset process has led to elimination of dozens of agencies and has saved Texas taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most federal programs are authorized by Congress only for a certain number of years. My bill would establish a commission to scrutinize carefully all unauthorized (technically expired) programs that the federal government continues to fund.

There will be plenty of candidates. A recent 83-page report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that Congress spent just under $160 billion in 2006 on programs and activities — even though their authorization had expired.

The list included hundreds of accounts, big and small, ranging from the Coast Guard ($8 billion) to the Administration on Aging ($1.5 billion) to Section 8 tenant-based housing ($15.6 billion) to foreign relations programs ($9.5 billion). Many of these programs — perhaps most — deserve reauthorization. But Congress should determine whether they’re working as intended.

The bipartisan sunset commission I am proposing would ask a question similar to one the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission asks: “Is an agency or program still needed?”

It would then evaluate each unauthorized agency or program and recommend to Congress whether it should be abolished, streamlined, consolidated or reauthorized with recommendations for improvements. It would also require congressional action on each report.

About half of our states now have a similar process. It’s time the federal government provided equivalent oversight of our massive and growing federal bureaucracy.

I’m also co-sponsoring the Fair Tax Act again, which would eliminate income, capital gains, payroll, estate, gift, corporate and self-employment taxes, and would replace them with a national retail sales tax. The move would have the net effect of “sunsetting” a good part of the Internal Revenue Service as well.

The Fair Tax Act would apply only to the sale of new goods and services made to consumers. To eliminate hardship, it would provide every household with a monthly rebate check to offset the tax imposed on essential goods and services.

We spend an estimated $300 billion filling out forms in our 67,204-page tax code. The simplifications in the Fair Tax Act would eliminate much of that wasted time and reduce a significant drag on our national economy.

Unfortunately, inertia often becomes the rule in Washington. Inefficient agencies, outdated programs and increasingly complicated taxes can attain the status of immortality. And it’s all augmented by a congressional addiction to increased spending.

From property taxes to income taxes, the overall tax burden continues to rise. This year, Texans will have to work from Jan. 1 through April 19 just to pay their combined taxes for the year.

The United States remains a great place to innovate and do business. Our country has prospered because the Founding Fathers provided for limited government and maximum personal freedom. But keeping that legacy requires our constant vigilance.

More Valley lawmakers get on board in support of border light rail plan proposed by Rep. Martínez


Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, left, and Maverick County Judge José Aranda have been working in Austin on state transportation issues of mutual concern to the Texas Border Coalition, which is an allliance of elected leaders and economic development officials from the 14 Texas counties that border Mexico. One of those issues, the possible development of a light passenger rail system for the border region, has been approved by a major House committee and could be set for debate by the full House of Representatives as early as Thursday. See related story later in this posting.



On Saturday, April 28 at 11 a.m., the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, City of Edinburg, Hecho en Tejas and the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library in Edinburg will host the first Edinburg Books and Brunch Series at the new library, located at 1906 South Closner. Sponsoring the event is Corrina’s Tea Room. The Books and Brunch Series is the first of future literary events to come and will include readings, book signings, coffee, sandwiches and deserts. The first series features writers Dagoberto Gilb, Erasmo Guerra and special guest Dr. Rene Saldaña and is free to the public.Dagoberto Gilb, an award-winning fiction writer (Woodcuts of Women) is the editor of Hecho en Tejas. As part of the Rio Grande Valley book tour, he will be doing several readings throughout the Valley. Hecho en Tejas is an anthology of Texas-Mexican authors dating back to the days of the Spanish explorers. The book’s comprehensive sweep includes ballads and corridos, poetry, essays, short stories, letters, photographs, novel excerpts and political declarations such as Juan Nepamuceno Cortina’s 1859 proclamation declaring the establishment of the Republic of the Rio Grande. The anthology is published by The Southwestern Writers Collection (SWWC) at Texas State University-San Marcos. For more information please call Evana Vleck at 383-4974.


More Valley lawmakers get on board in support of border light rail plan proposed by Rep. Martínez


State Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, have added their support for a far-reaching plan by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco – contained in his House Bill 2510 – that could eventually lead to the creation of light rail systems along the Texas-Mexico border.

In general, a light rail system uses special trains designed for urban travel, with capacities of up to 250 passengers per train, along with a bus system, to transport people and luggage while avoiding traffic congestion and other bottlenecks associated with larger population centers.

“HB 2510 will allow the citizens of Hidalgo County, along with the counties that border Mexico, to address one of the issues that results from growth – transportation,” Martínez said.”As our areas grow, so will the need for alternative forms of transportation. My bill, HB 2510, addresses this issue. With a population of over 1.4 million in the Rio Grande Valley, a light rail system will prove to be an invaluable form of transportation.”

Although Martínez envisions a light rail system to link the major cities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, he said he wrote the legislation to allow any of the 14 Texas counties that border Mexico to be able to set up their own versions of light rail.

Gonzáles and Guillen recently added their names as joint authors to Martínez’ House Bill 2510 that would create a light rail district to study, and if necessary, adopt the rules to create and establish a light rail system in the border region.

“I applaud and thank Representatives Verónica Gonzáles and Ryan Guiilen for joint authoring HB 2510. Together, we will make light rail a reality in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “Additionally, I want to thank Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas and the entire Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court for providing a resolution in support for HB 2510. This resolution was very important to the members of the Transportation Committee.”

In addition, according to Scott Jenkines, Martínez’ legislative chief-of-staff at the State Capitol, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has agreed to carry the measure in the Senate.

The Martínez/Gonzáles /Guillen measure is on a fast track, receiving unanimous approval from the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday, April 3. It could be set for action by the full House as early as Thursday, April 13.

If eventually approved by the Texas Legislature and supported by Gov. Rick Perry, HB 2510 would provide the legal authority for any border county to set up the creation, administration, powers, duties, operations, and financing of a commuter rail district, including granting the authority to issue bonds and granting the power of eminent domain.

The new governmental entity would not need voter approval to be created; however, any financing plan that would involve the use of local property taxes would require the approval of the majority of voters in a county-wide election.

According to a bill analysis of the measure provided by the House Transportation Committee, which held the public hearing on the bill, a light rail passenger district could provide a new option for border leaders grappling with increasing motor vehicle traffic congestion and the many related problems.

“The Border Region, especially the Rio Grande Valley, is one of the fastest growing areas in Texas as well as the entire United States,” the bill analysis noted. “As populations grow, so do transportation needs. To address the growing transportation needs and associated problems, alternative forms of transportation need to be studied. If deemed feasible and acceptable, such alternative forms of transportation should be considered for implementation.”

Martínez had earlier predicted legislative support by the transportation panel.

“I am very pleased that the Transportation Committee unanimously voted out HB 2510 and sent it to the Committee on Local and Consent Calendars,” Martínez said.”I appreciate Chairperson Mike Krusee’s, and the remaining eight members’, support of my light rail bill.”


CHIP expansion sought by Texas BorderCoalition receives final approval by Houseof Representatives


An additional 100,000 children in Texas by 2009 could be added to the crucial Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, following overwhelming approval by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, April 3, of House Bill 109, which is supported by 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.

HB 109 cleared third and final reading Tuesday evening on a 126 – 16 vote, and will be picked up in the Senate by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who also is the House Speaker Pro Tempore – second in command – was the principal author of the legislation.

The legislation features key priorities for the Texas Border Coalition, including making it easier for working families to purchase the affordable and comprehensive health insurance protections offered by CHIP, which is administered by the state.

“Common sense policies – like reducing paperwork, deducting child care costs when determining eligibility and not counting families’ savings against them – will ensure that more of our children receive health care,” said Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, one of the many co-authors of HB 109.

El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez, chair of the TBC Healthcare Committee, said the organization was in strong support of the HB 109 because it would move “more kids into insurance, saves local tax dollars, helps education and improves our state’s economy.

“People without health insurance are very likely to obtain their medical care from an emergency room,” Rodriguez added. “In fact, uninsured children are five times more likely than insured children to use the emergency room as their primary source for medical care.”

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, was one of the five primary joint-authors of the legislation and was a key negotiator in ensuring that more children became eligible to receive healthcare under the program.

“The legislation will allow children to receive continuance coverage for a year at a time rather than having to re-qualify every six months. It eliminates a 90-day waiting period for coverage to begin and makes it easier for families to enroll their children for services,” Peña said.

Turner hailed the House passage as a sign of bipartisanship by both political parties.

“Today was a victory for the working poor. The House has shown its support for ensuring the well-being of our children and it’s now up to the Senate to do the same,” said Turner. “All the time and effort that went into drafting this legislation and working on a bi-partisan compromise with Chairman John Davis, Chairman Patrick Rose, and my fellow joint authors, has always been about the children.”

HB 109 addresses key policy changes to the current Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) which will insure approximately 102,224 qualified children per month in Texas by the end of fiscal year 2009.

Turner allowed the bill to stay true to its original intent by keeping the provisions that extend the period of eligibility to twelve months and eliminate a 90-day waiting period for children not previously covered by some type of insurance. As passed, HB 109 protects taxpayers by maintaining and revising the asset and verification tests to increase the limit of allowable liquid assets and vehicle amounts.

Rodríguez provided details on how the border region would be impacted.

According to the Comptroller, in 2005, Texas’ border Metropolitan Statistical Areas (El Paso, McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito and Laredo) had about 11 percent of all uninsured Texans, or more than 600,000, he said.

“Three of these MSAs – Laredo, El Paso and Brownsville-Harlingen-San Benito – had the highest rates of uninsured among all Texas counties, at 36, 33.2 and 32.4 percent respectively,” Rodríguez said. “The Corpus Christi and McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSAs were not far behind, with uninsured rates of 28.3 and 27.8 percent respectively.”

From September, 2003, to February, 2007, enrollment in CHIP declined statewide from 507,259 to 325,479. For the same period, along the 14-county border, enrollment declined from 80,958 to 48,084; that is, 32,874 children of working families along the border lost their CHIP benefits, he noted.

Insurance coverage is critical to the education of Texas children, Rodríguez contended.

“Children without health insurance are 25% more likely to miss school because of illnesses, and school districts in Texas lose millions per day because of absenteeism,” he said.

“Employee productivity also increases with insurance coverage because working parents need to take less time from work for their sick children. CHIP is also good for Texas business; a 2003 report by the Perryman Group noted that the program contributes $1.4 billion in Gross State Product and supports 22,562 jobs,” Rodríguez added.

The Texas Border Coalition maintains a web site at


Sen. Hinojosa counters McAllen Monitor’s editorial; he says CHIP is a government program that works


The newspaper editorial by the McAllen Monitor entitled “Privatization works, even if firms don’t,” suggested that the spectacular failure of a politically connected corporation to meet its obligations under a taxpayer-funded state contract to enroll eligible families in social service programs such as CHIP should not be taken as a failure of privatization itself.

Perhaps you also agree with the Houston-area lawmaker who huffed that his family never had insurance when he was growing up so why should anyone else need it.

I don’t agree. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was passed by a bipartisan Legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor because it is that rarest of government programs — one that works. To qualify, families must have jobs but earn too little to afford private health coverage for their children.

For every $1 Texas spends to fund the program, the federal government kicks in $2.60. And local taxpayers no longer have to foot the bill for uninsured children whose families take them to hospital emergency rooms for routine medical care.

In other words, CHIP is government at its best — a little extra help for those who are working hard and paying their taxes. The bottom line of any business is making a profit — period. The bottom line of government should be serving its constituents in a fair and transparent way that is both humane and worthy of the people who it serves.

Competition is good, especially if it makes vital public programs like CHIP more effective and efficient. Privatization for the sake of shifting tax dollars to political cronies makes no financial or moral sense, and it weakens accountability. This notion that government can be run like a business sounds good until you find out that the business some politicians have in mind is Enron or Halliburton. It should also be noted that Accenture is incorporated in Bermuda where it does not have to pay U.S. taxes.


Planned shopping center in Edinburg lands JCPenney as a major anchor


Edinburg and its planned shopping center have landed JCPenney, one of the country’s largest department store retailers, which has selected the three-time All-America City to be part of a 150 store nationwide expansion that began last fall.

The announcement by First Hartford Realty of Manchester, Connecticut, which is developing The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley, will reportedly result in the construction of a 104,000-square-foot JCPenney retail structure, the first of as many as two dozen stores that will eventually be part of the projected $80 million complex.

The Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley, which is scheduled to be built in stages over the next three years, is located on about 130 acres of currently vacant fields in south-central Edinburg.

The shopping center is bordered by U.S. Expressway 281 and Business 281 to its east and west, respectively, with Trenton Road serving as its southern border.

Ramiro Garza, executive director of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, said details on the groundbreaking schedule for the new JCPenney store will be announced later this spring by company and shopping center officials.

However, the news that JC Penney has chosen the Edinburg shopping center is expected to help land other high-quality stores, he said,

“Eventually, the shopping center could result in 800,000-square-feet of retail space, create up to 1,300 jobs, and have a $90 million annual economic impact on the city,” Garza added.

But for now, the addition of a local JC Penney introduces the company’s newest style of store, known as the off-mall concept, to deep South Texas.

According to a JCPenney announcement last October, Mryon E. (Mike) Ullman, III, JCPenney chairman and chief executive officer, explained the retail giant’s expansion plans, including the use of the off-mall stores, by the Plano, Texas-based national corporation.

The announcement continued:

“There is growing demand for JCPenney stores in markets across the country. We are addressing this by launching the most aggressive store opening program in more than 25 years, which will allow us to offer our customers even more access to style and quality at smart prices,” said Ullman.

Fueled by the success of its new off-mall format, continued improvement in operating results and strong free cash flow, JCPenney previously announced that it expects to open at least 50 stores per year from 2007 through 2009. Eighty percent to 90 percent of the new JCPenney stores, including 17 of the 20 opening Oct. 6, will adopt the off-mall format, although the company continues to pursue opportunities to acquire mall stores in attractive locations. The company currently has 25 stores open in the off-mall design.

The off-mall format, covering approximately 100,000 square feet on a single level, features wider aisles, new lighting designs and concentrated customer service centers. The new store layout helps shoppers easily locate major brands such as The Original Arizona Jean Company, Chris Madden for JCPenney Home Collection, nicole by Nicole Miller, SouthPole, Worthington, Stafford, Bisou-Bisou, Oshkosh, Nike and more.

“Our off-mall stores have exceeded our expectations, generating higher sales per square foot than our mall-based stores and more frequent visits by customers,” continued Ullman. “We have a unique advantage in that our off-mall department stores provide a neighborhood presence that offers convenience and accessibility for mid-week shopping, while complementing our mall stores which continue to be a weekend and holiday shopping destination.”

J. C. Penney Corporation, Inc., the wholly owned operating subsidiary of J. C. Penney Company, Inc., is one of America’s largest department store, catalog, and e-commerce retailers, employing approximately 151,000 associates. As of July 29, 2006, J. C. Penney Corporation, Inc. operated 1,021 JCPenney department stores throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. JCPenney is the nation’s largest catalog merchant of general merchandise, and is one of the largest apparel and home furnishings sites on the Internet.


El Paso state senator invokes Jesus Christ in chastising GOP cuts in health programs


On the eve of Good Friday, one of the most solemn days in Christianity, Sen. Elliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, condemned Republican efforts to cut state taxes at the expense of the poor, invoking the teachings of Jesus Christ to demonize the GOP as the heartless party of the rich.

His essay, featured on his political website,, was released at noon on Thursday, April 5, soon after the Legislature had adjourned for spring break and Easter.

No reaction had been developed by Republican leaders as of this article’s deadline for publication.

In his essay on his political website, which was e-mailed April 5 to key media outlets and community leaders statewide, Shapleigh was unforgiving in his judgment of the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature, especially in how the GOP leadership decides to use a multi-billion dollar state budget surplus.

His comments come as a long-standing lawsuit, Frew v. Hawkins, seeking more money to provide health care to poor children comes to a conclusion on April 13

“With a $14.3 billion surplus, what would Jesus do about Frew?” Shapleigh asked. “Throughout the Bible, from Ecclesiastes to Matthew, Jesus teaches us to defend those who are defenseless. Instead, in an 8-6 vote, 7 Republicans and 1 Democrat voted to rob Peter to pay poorer Paul, all to keep tax cuts tucked away for the wealthy.”

Shapleigh declined to identify the Democrat by name.

His website posting laying out his contentions follows verbatim:


What would Jesus do about Frew?

Frew v. Hawkins, of course, is the lawsuit by low-income Texans wanting to fully fund basic medical services for poor children in Texas. Frew was filed in 1993 after years of funding allegedly so low as to violate basic Constitutional guarantees.

During a session when a lawmaker wants to introduce the Bible into classrooms and “In God We Trust” is permanently displayed in the Senate Chamber, we need to ask what would Jesus do about Frew.

So, what would Jesus do?

For decades, conservatives in Austin have cut and cut again basic health care services. As a result, Texas covers fewer Texas children with health care than any state in America. After 13 years of litigation, Susan Zinn, the activist attorney who filed the suit has won. The Frew case has a final hearing on April 12.

Last Friday (March 30), in the Senate Finance Committee, a rider was introduced by Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) to take whatever funds the Frew case costs the state from existing funds spent on Medicaid and CHIP. In other words, he wants to rob poor Paul to pay poorer Peter. Why? The reason, of course, is tax cuts.

“[I]f the [Frew] decision requires additional spending when the Legislature is not in session, we’re going to stay within the four corners of the appropriations bill, and we’re not going to the rainy day fund to pay for it,” said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, on passage of the rider.

Of course, the “rainy day fund” is $8.5 billion in tax cuts tucked safely away in the House version of the budget for 2010-2011, right when Republicans run in their primaries.

These tax cuts are not for you and me; they are for people who make over $85,000. In fact, 95% of all the tax cuts will go to people who make $85,000 or more.

So, the moral choice in the Frew rider is to rob poor Peter to pay poorer Paul, so more of your tax money can go to millionaires.

With a $14.3 billion surplus, what would Jesus do about Frew? Throughout the Bible, from Ecclesiastes to Matthew, Jesus teaches us to defend those who are defenseless.

As Jesus said in Proverbs 22:16, “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—-both come to poverty.”

In Proverbs, Jesus continued, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

Over the course of American history, caring for the poor has been a core value.

After the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln made caring for widows and orphans in poverty a priority. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the author of Social Security, said following the Great Depression, “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Later, John F. Kennedy cautioned, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Today, when we look into our heart of hearts, Texans know that our first responsibility is to take care of the most vulnerable among us—to defend the rights of the poor and needy.

We are a government of people, by people, for people. We should take care of kids.

Instead, in an 8-6 vote, 7 Republicans and 1 Democrat voted to rob Peter to pay poorer Paul, all to keep tax cuts tucked away for the wealthy.

Do you believe that is what Jesus would do with Frew?

Keep the Faith!


House Democrats pass restoration of health insurance for 100,000 children


House Democrats successfully passed a bill today that will restore 102,000 children to the rolls of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). The CHIP program was slashed by the Republican leadership in the 2003 legislative session. Shortly thereafter, 250,000 children lost their health insurance coverage.

“The reason this bill passed today is because Democrats across the state pointed out the heartless and immoral nature of the 2003 cuts and we have kept that issue alive ever since,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “After the Republican leadership took two steps backward and slashed children’s health insurance in 2003, Democrats fought hard to make sure that we took one step forward today.”

The House Democrats were disappointed that amendments to the bill to make it more comprehensive – in particular one that would have fully restored the 250,000 children to the program – were rejected.

“Fully restoring the cuts made to CHIP and expanding coverage that thousands of more Texas children could receive health coverage is the best public policy we could have advanced with this legislation,” Coleman said. “But at the end of the day, I’m a progressive, and I believe in progress, so I was proud to vote for the bill and restore CHIP coverage for 102,000 Texas children.”

Other amendments offered would have repealed the assets test and other restrictive policies that prevent children from receiving health coverage for CHIP.

“Repealing the assets test would have ensured we don’t punish families for something as simple as saving money for college,” House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam, D-Waco said. “Our work to fully restore CHIP isn’t finished, but we’ve taken an important first step with today’s passage of HB 109.”

Another amendment would have ensured that the dental benefits package provided through CHIP would cover anesthesia.

“Our children shouldn’t have to suffer through a painful procedure because the state is too cheap to pay for the anesthesia,” Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine said. “My hope is that, when the bill goes to the Senate, Governor Dewhurst will add the anesthesia coverage and maintain the other important restorations within the legislation.”

House Democrats pledged to keep the pressure on as the bill arrives in the Senate. Just as the Democrats have been successful in calling attention to the CHIP issue, the House Democratic leaders said they were hopeful that the bill will improve in the Senate and be signed as soon as possible by the governor.

“Democrats want to do a lot more to help our children, and we have a long way to go to deliver a government whose priorities are in line with the people of this great state,” said Dunnam. “But today is a good day and I am proud of the work my colleagues and I have done to protect the children of Texas.”


Rep. Peña: Alarming trend in copper theft addressed by Texas House of Representatives


The Texas House of Representatives on Wednesday, April 4, unanimously approved House Bill 1766 by Rep. Aaron Peña, Jr., D-Edinburg, that would increase the penalty for theft of aluminum, bronze, and copper wiring.

HB 1766 would increase the penalties for the theft of insulated or noninsulated wire or cable that was at least 50 percent aluminum, bronze, or copper and worth up to $1,500. Penalties would increase from misdemeanors to a state jail felony.

As the price of those metals has increased so has there been a global crisis in the theft of items comprised of those materials, the Valley legislator said.

“Aluminum, bronze, and copper wiring are commonly used by municipalities, electric utilities, railroads and telecommunications companies to provide vital services,” said Peña. “Perpetrators are hauling off hundreds of dollars worth of wiring, causing thousands of dollars worth of repairs, lost productivity and commerce but of most concern are the issues of public safety.”

The Department of Homeland Security has reported that the theft of copper has degraded the electric power grid’s reliability, causing outages affecting thousands of customers. The theft of downed power lines and grounding cables following major storms has also hindered recovery efforts in some states.

At least seven individuals were electrocuted last year while attempting to steal copper wire from electric power generation or substation facilities.

“Current Texas law provides penalties for theft that generally vary by the value of the item stolen,” said Peña. “The theft of a train signal wire has a significant business cost but it can lead to deadly accidents and derailments. In these cases the punishment didn’t fit the crime. This law aims to change that and send a message that stealing wire isn’t worth it.”

Home owners, builders and small businesses have also shared their frustrations with the theft of wires from construction and building sites.


Senate passes child passenger safety bill being carried by Sen. Zaffirini


The Texas Senate on Wednesday, April 4, passed Senate Bill 60 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would strengthen current child passenger safety protections.

The bill requires that children 7 years and younger, unless they are four-feet nine-inches tall, be secured in a child passenger safety seat while riding in a motor vehicle.

“This is a bill that will save lives, preclude tragedies and injuries and qualify Texas for $3.2 million in federal funds while saving the state $17 million in health care expenditures.” Zaffirini said. “Each year more than 1,600 children die in vehicular accidents, which is the leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death among children 14 years and younger. SB 60 will strengthen Texas child passenger safety laws and ensure a greater level of public safety.”

In 2005 the Texas Legislature directed the Texas Department of Public Safety Committee on Child Passenger Safety to examine the need for a booster seat law in Texas. The committee advised Texas to pass a law based on national recommendations. SB 60 reflects the committee’s recommended language.

The DPS Child Passenger Safety Committee determined that SB 60 would reduce Texas health care expenditures by more than $17 million and that that an average $30 booster seat generates $2,000 in cost benefit savings. What’s more, by raising child passenger safety standards, Texas also will be eligible for $3.2 million in federal transportation grants each year from 2008 to 2009.

Current law requires only children who are younger than five and shorter than 36 inches be secured properly in child-passenger safety seats during the operation of a vehicle. Children between the ages of five and eight and who are between 36 and 57 inches represent an age group that is at great risk of death or severe injury due to the gap in current law. SB 60 will eliminate this gap and strengthen current child passenger safety protections.

Originally SB 60, as recommended unanimously by the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, included a four-month temporary grace period to inform Texas drivers about this new measure and a fine for non-compliance between $100 and $200.

Zaffirini on April 4 amended the bill to extend the warning period from four months to one year and reduce the penalty to $25, instead of up to $200.

“I amended SB 60 because we want to educate parents about the importance of booster seats and child passenger safety, not punish them,” she said. “A one year grace period will allow the state to inform more families and increase the impact this bill will have on public safety.”

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 or by contacting the Texas Legislative Reference Library’s toll free in-state hotline, 1-877-824-7038.


Gov. Perry urges Legislature to keep transportation projects on track

Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, April 3 encouraged the Legislature to support the state’s current transportation system and to ensure vital transportation projects continue as planned. The governor was joined by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters and Dr. H. K. Park, executive vice president and general manager for Samsung Hard Disk Drive, at the Samsung Austin Semiconductor expansion site currently under construction.

“Our message today is that building needed infrastructure is essential to creating jobs and attracting economic development investments in Texas,” Perry said. “And you can’t accomplish that with a two-year moratorium on needed road projects.”

During the remainder of the session as the Legislature debates critical issues affecting Texas, Perry encouraged the Legislature to consider the successes from past sessions, highlighting key aspects of the existing transportation system. Texas is currently:

• Pouring more concrete and building more roads than any state in the nation; • Attracting multi-billion dollar investments from private partners to build needed roads now; and • Using billions of dollars advanced up front by private concessionaires to build numerous other projects in local communities.

The governor also noted that the land needed for highways will always be owned by Texas, and drivers will always have a non-tolled alternative to toll projects.

“But let no one be confused: there are no such things as freeways,” Perry said. “There are taxways and tollways, and for 50 years we have tried taxways that have been underfunded by Austin and Washington and that have left local communities choking on pollution and brimming with congestion.


Teacher pay raises, CHIP funding increases included in House state budget, says Rep. Martínez


Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, helped pass a statewide teacher pay raise on Thursday, April 5, as part of the votes cast during more than 18 hours of debate, and 200 amendments to Texas’ $150 billion state budget bill (House Bill 1).

Martínez voted for an amendment to increase public school employee pay.

“Ensuring that Texas’ children have access to top-notch public schools is my top priority. Our state must do everything possible to attract the best and brightest educators,” said Martínez. “I voted to provide an across-the-board pay raise for every public school teacher, counselor, librarian and school nurse because a great education begins with them.”

He noted that the House version of the state budget also included crucial funding to improve the Children’s Health Insurance Program and other measures important to young Texans.

“I support a state budget that fully funds the children’s health insurance program, improves access to higher education, strengthens our public schools and provides the necessary funds to ensure Texas children are secure now and in the future,” said Martínez. “I voted for amendments that would strengthen House Bill 1.”

The numerous amendments adopted April 5 helped alleviate some of the concerns about the initial shortcomings of the bill. Martínez voted in favor of the amended bill and will work with Sen. Juan :Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen, Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, as it moves through the Senate.

The House state budget bill and the version that will be approved by the Senate, which will not be identical, will then go to a legislative conference committee, where appointed members of the House and Senate will iron out the differences.

“We made a lot of ground on Thursday. We started with a bill that needed some changes, and we finished with a bill that contained some great provisions, like the across-the-board teacher salary increase,” Martínez noted.


Family violence, stalking victims could more easily qualify for unemployment insurance benefits


The Senate Business and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, April 3, unanimously recommended passage of Senate Bill 142 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would make less burdensome the list of required evidence of eligibility for Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits provided to victims of stalking or family violence.

“Because it is difficult for a victim of domestic violence or stalking to obtain multiple forms of evidence and because some judges in certain counties rarely issue protective orders, the multiple eligibility requirements for UI make it difficult for many victims to access benefits,” Zaffirini said. “This bill would allow victims to present only one form of evidence regarding the violence they are suffering in order to obtain easily the benefits needed to support themselves and their families while evading potentially dangerous domestic situations.”

In 2003 the Texas Legislature passed a measure that allows persons who must leave their job to protect themselves from family violence or stalking to be eligible for unemployment compensation. Victims must substantiate the existence of family violence by providing three pieces of evidence, including an active or recently issued protective order documenting family violence or stalking of the employee; a police record documenting family violence against, or the stalking of, the employee; and a physician’s statement or other medical documentation of family violence against an employee.

SB 142 would make persons eligible for UI benefits if they left the workplace for protection against family violence or stalking and are able to provide only one of the three forms of evidence mandated by the 2003 legislation.


Dr. Linda Villarreal of Edinburg recognized for her contributions by the House of Representatives

Dr. Linda Villarreal, an internist who has been an active player in promoting improved access to medical care for the poor in Hidalgo County, has been honored for her accomplishments by the Texas House of Representatives.

Highlights of her career are included in House Resolution No. 1297, authored by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen. HR 1297 was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, April 3.

The resolution follows verbatim:

WHEREAS, Dr. Linda Villarreal is being honored by the Zonta Club of West Hidalgo County for her outstanding contributions to her community; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Villarreal is known for her competency, compassion, and dedication to practicing preventative medicine, and her endeavors in promoting the health and vitality of her friends and neighbors have earned her their lasting respect and admiration; and

WHEREAS, Outside of managing her own practice, “Dr. Vee,” as she is affectionately called, is a regular volunteer at a local free clinic and is a member of the American Medical Association and the Texas Medical Association-Council on Legislation; this former chief of staff for Edinburg Regional Medical Center is also a mentor to several medical students, a physician advisor for the Texas Medical Foundation’s research pilot program on diabetes, and a member of the Border Health Caucus; in addition, she has worked tirelessly for the Health Services District and given generously of her time and expertise to the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, Arthritis Foundation, VAMOS, and Easter Seals; and

WHEREAS, The strength of our communities depends on the dedication of individuals like Dr. Villarreal, whose considerable talents have benefited countless people who live and work in South Texas; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 80th Texas Legislature hereby commend Dr. Linda Villarreal on her years of professional and civic service to her community and extend to her best wishes for the future; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Dr. Villarreal as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives.


Carol Lynn Looney of Edinburg recognized for her contributions by the House of Representatives

Carol Lynn Looney of Edinburg, who has been part of the economic, educational and cultural advancements of the city, has been honored for many contributions by the Texas House of Representatives.

Mrs. Looney, whose husband, attorney Cullen R. Looney is a former Edinburg state representative, received the public recognition on Tuesday, April 3, when the House of Representatives unanimously passed House Resolution 1296 by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen.

The resolution follows verbatim:

WHEREAS, Carol Lynn Looney is being honored by the Zonta Club of West Hidalgo County for her outstanding contributions to her community; and

WHEREAS, A graduate of Beaumont High School and The University of Texas at Austin, Mrs. Looney has long benefited her community through her tireless volunteer service, and her endeavors in behalf of her friends and neighbors have earned her their lasting respect and admiration; and

WHEREAS, Through the years, Mrs. Looney has lent her time and expertise as a president of the Freddy Gonzalez Elementary School PTO, board member and chair of the Museum of South Texas History, and as a member of The University of Texas-Pan American International Women’s Board; in addition, she is a member of the Edinburg Junior Service League and St. John’s Episcopal Church, where she is involved in the Altar Guild, and she has ably served as a board member of the International Museum of Art & Science, Gladys Porter Zoo, United Way, and the Tip-O-Tex Girl Scout Council; and

WHEREAS, The strength of our communities depends on the dedication of individuals like Mrs. Looney, whose considerable talents have helped make Hidalgo County a better place in which to live, work, and raise a family; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 80th Texas Legislature hereby commend Carol Lynn Looney on her years of service to her community and extend to her best wishes for the future; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Mrs. Looney as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives.


McAllen Mayor Cortéz, a member of the Texas Border Coalition, honored by Texas House


McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz, only the second Hispanic mayor in that city’s history, has been honored for his many accomplishments by the House of Representatives with a legislative resolution authored by Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, and Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco.

The measure, unanimously adopted by the House of Representatives, was filed on Friday, March 23, and approved by the full House a week later, on Friday, March 30. In addition to being mayor, Cortéz is on the governing board of the Texas Border Coalition, an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials from the 14 Texas counties that border Mexico.

Cortéz, through the Texas Border Coalition, has been instrumental on various state and federal legislative initiatives of the organization, including opposing the controversial proposed construction of a wall that would separate the U.S. from Mexico as a way to address the issue of illegal immigration.

Rather, Cortéz and the other leaders of the Texas Border Coalition are championing their own immigration reform recommendations, both at the state and federal levels, with proposals that would strengthen border security while not adversely affecting legitimate travel and trade.

The resolution follows verbatim:

Whereas, Mayor Richard F. Cortéz has truly distinguished himself through his outstanding service to the McAllen community, and he is being honored for his accomplishments at the ninth annual “A Night at the Oscars”sponsored by the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association; and

Whereas, Elected to office in 2005, Mayor Cortéz has brought to his role a wealth of insight gained over the course of his life as a successful businessman, public servant, and community volunteer;

Whereas, Mayor Cortéz is a certified public accountant with a career that has spanned more than three decades; he is a senior partner with the public accounting and management firm of Burton, McCumber & Cortéz, L.L.P., where he is in charge of the litigation support department; and

Whereas, His civic involvement is equally impressive, encompassing service with the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, McAllen Chamber of Commerce, McAllen Community Development Council, Rio Grande Valley Partnership, McAllen International Museum, and Boys & Girls Club of McAllen and The University of Texas–Pan American Business Council; he has also held leadership positions with the Border Trade Alliance, McAllen Housing Finance Corporation, McAllen Public Utilities Board, and International Bank of Commerce-McAllen; and

Whereas, Mayor Cortéz has worked tirelessly in behalf of his fellow Texans; supported by his wife, Elva, four children, and nine grandchildren, he is a dynamic leader who will undoubtedly continue to be an outstanding advocate for his community and for the state; now, therefore, be it

Whereas, That the House of Representatives of the 80th Texas Legislature hereby honor Mayor Richard F. Cortéz for his dedicated service in behalf of the residents of McAllen and extend to him best wishes for the future; and, be it further

Resolved, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Mayor Cortéz as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives.


District Clerk Hinojosa, County Clerk Guajardo to host major conference in McAllen on April 12, 13

Hidalgo County District Clerk Laura Hinojosa and County Clerk Arturo Guajardo will be hosting about 100 of their colleagues in McAllen on Thursday, April 12 and Friday, April 13 as part of a major conference of the County and District Clerks Association of Texas, Region VIII.

Region VIII represents 32 South Texas counties.

The session, which will include appearances by Hinojosa’s father, U.S. Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, along with Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, and members of the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, will be held at the Holiday Inn, 200 W. Expressway, McAllen.

The Thursday session will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., while the Friday meeting will be held from 8 a.m. to noon.

“The purpose of the County & District Clerk Association of Texas is to promote professional standards, to provide the means for education of its members regarding the statutory and constitutional duties of the offices of the county clerk and the district clerk, and to participate in the legislative, judicial and executive processes of government beneficial in the performance of the member’s duties,” said Ricardo Contreras, who issued the announcement on behalf of Laura Hinojosa and Guajardo.


NAHJ disappointed with decline in percentage of journalists of color in U.S. newsrooms


The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is once again disappointed by the lack of progress made toward achieving diversity in the nation’s newsrooms.

As pointed out in the 2007 newsroom census released March 27 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), minority representation in newsrooms slipped by 0.25 percent, to 13.62 percent. The percentage of Latino journalists dropped from 4.51 percent to 4.41 percent.

“Our industry is in the midst of rapid change, but one thing remains the same,” said NAHJ President Rafael Olmeda. “Latinos continue to be severely underrepresented in the newsroom workforce. We are asked to adapt to changes in the industry, learn new skills and think differently about the way newspapers deliver the news to readers. Is it too much to ask the industry to adapt to changes in the U.S. population, changes that make newsroom diversity more necessary than ever?”

This year, for the first time, ASNE’s census included journalists working full-time online, an addition that makes it appear in the survey that newsrooms added nearly 2,000 jobs. Including online journalists helped the numbers for minorities, who make up 16 percent of that sector, according to the survey. Without including online journalists, the picture for minority hiring and retention is even more bleak.

Minorities also make up 10.9 percent of newsroom supervisors, another decline from last year.

Through the Parity Project, NAHJ has proven that news organizations that commit to increasing Latino representation can succeed. The project has not only improved numbers; it has improved coverage of the Latino community and relationships between news organizations and their readers. To date, 150 Latinos have been hired at 25 Parity Project partners.

When ASNE committed in 1978 to achieving parity in the nation’s newsrooms by 2000, the intention may have been noble, but ASNE President David Zeeck referred to it Tuesday as a “hot check” because the association did not have the ability to deliver. Today, the industry strives to reach that goal by 2025, but it is clear to NAHJ that it will be impossible for news organizations to achieve parity at the current rate. The population of the United States is increasingly non-white, while the population of newsrooms just took a step in the other direction.

NAHJ believes it is time for diversity to cease being a slogan or a “value.” It’s time for diversity to be an unqualified commitment at all levels, from coverage to hiring to upper management.

NAHJ encourages media organizations to work with our association and other partners in Unity: Journalists of Color to play an active role in increasing representation in our newsrooms. The Parity Project, in addition to being a strong program, should be a model to the entire industry of how commitment backed by action can change a newsroom.


Senate approves bill by Sen. Lucio declaring April as “Fruit and Vegetable Month”


The Texas Senate on Wednesday, April 4, gave approval to a bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. that designates April as Fruit and Vegetable Month for Texas.

“Senate Bill 555 was necessary because unfortunately, only 23 percent of Texans report consuming the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables,” said Lucio. “This number is unacceptable and needs to be raised by several levels. Declaring April Fruit and Vegetable Month will help encourage Texans to consume more fruits and vegetables.”

Various studies have proven there are countless health-related benefits of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber that may prevent many chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults consume 3.5 to 6.5 cups (7 to 13 servings) of fruits and vegetables daily and children eat 2 to 5 cups per day (4 to 10 servings) depending on their ages. Ninety percent of Americans do not eat the recommended amounts.

“I represent an area of Texas rich with fertile soil and a mild climate, ideal for growing some of the tastiest and most nutritious fruits and vegetables in the country,” noted Lucio. “Nothing can compare to the Ruby Red Grapefruit grown here.

“But no matter where the fruits and vegetables are raised, our children and families should be eating a lot more of them.”

The senator is confident that his bill will “open the door of awareness to the people of Texas and will be part of the strategy to reach out and educate the public of the important contribution of fruits and vegetables in a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle.”


Rep. Martínez announces grant writing seminar to seek funding for health and health-related programs


Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, on Thursday, April 5, announced that a grant writing seminar to help communities seek and obtain funding for health and health-related programs in rural and underserved areas will be held in Weslaco on April 19 and 20.

The seminar will be hosted by the Center for Community Health Development’s (CCHD).

“The center strives to recognize and analyze the practices affecting the health of our community and procedures designed to increase the overall health status,” said Martínez. “Another goal of CCHD is to provide knowledge regarding disease prevention and prevention research to health providers, scholars, and the general population”

The first day of the seminar will concentrate on civic agencies; while the following day will train the health and human service agencies. The seminars will focus on discussing types and sources of funding and reading an RFP. It will also provide valuable tips to successfully write proposals.

“The Center for Community Health Development provides assistance to agencies with understanding and applying data to research and conduct projects,” said Martínez. “It is also a very reliable organization as it will continue its support throughout the entire grant writing process and help in locating potential financial donators.”

For more information, please contact Delia Morales at (956) 688-6325 or view


Financial aid director placed on leave, investigation begun at The University of Texas at Austin


Lawrence W. Burt, associate vice president and director of student financial aid at The University of Texas at Austin, on Friday, April 5, was placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of an investigation into allegations of conflict of interest.

This action results from allegations made on Thursday, April 4, in a letter sent to William Powers Jr., president of The University of Texas at Austin, by the office of Andrew M. Cuomo, attorney general of the state of New York. The attorney general alleged that Burt received stock from Student Loan Xpress Inc., a company that is included on the university’s preferred lender list.

“It is important that the university confirm and ensure the integrity of its financial aid program,” Powers said, “and maintain unimpeachable practices on behalf of students and their families.”

Powers asked James R. Huffines, chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, and Mark G. Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System, to authorize the Office of the General Counsel of the University of Texas System to conduct an investigation in collaboration with the university. The investigation will be led by Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Barry D. Burgdorf of the University of Texas System


Mario Cuomo, New York attorney general, provides details on alleged student loan deceptive practices

On March 15, New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo revealed deceptive practices that he has uncovered in his nationwide investigation into the college loan industry.

According to Cuomo’s announcement, the New York attorney general said in a letter sent to every college and university in New York state, and certain other schools across the country, that he warned them to end or fully disclose potential conflicts of interest in their relationships with private lenders. He also cautioned students and their families to protect themselves against these practices.

Industry practices revealed include: Establishment of so-called “preferred lender” lists without disclosing the basis for selection or the specific benefits associated with these preferred lenders; revenue sharing and other financial arrangements between schools and lenders; denials or impediments to a student or parent’s choice of lender based on the borrower’s selection of a particular lender or guaranty agency; impediments to competition in the lending industry that stifle better loan terms for students and parents.

Cuomo said, “There is an unholy alliance between banks and institutions of higher education that may often not be in the students’ best interest. The financial arrangements between lenders and these schools are filled with the potential for conflicts of interest. In some cases they may break the law.”

Cuomo continued, “I do not want another college-bound class to be taken advantage of by schools or by lenders. Students and their families need to know about the practices in the industry so they can better protect themselves when being steered toward a lender by a college or university. With this knowledge, students have the power to select the lender that is truly best for their situation.”

The New York attorney general has been leading an ongoing investigation into the $85 billion-per-year student loan industry. In February, he requested information from more than 60 public and private colleges and universities nationwide regarding the standards they use to determine which lending companies are included on their “preferred lender” lists. Financial aid administrators often produce such lists to direct their students toward the lenders that are most preferred by the schools but may not be the best deals for students and parents.

On March 15, Cuomo notified over 400 colleges and universities throughout the country, including all in New York state, to end relationships with lenders that have the potential to mislead students and compromise their ability to obtain the best rate for their student loans.

In his letter, Cuomo revealed the following problematic practices in the student loan industry:

1 Lenders pay financial kickbacks to schools based on a percentage of the loans that are directed to the lenders. The kickbacks are designed to be larger if a school directs more student loans to the lender. And the kickbacks are even greater if the schools make the lender their “exclusive” preferred lender.

2 Lenders pay for all-expense-paid trips for financial aid officers (and their spouses) to high-end resorts like Pebble Beach, as well as other exotic locations in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Lenders also provide schools with other benefits like computer systems and put representatives from schools on their advisory boards in order to further curry favor with the schools.

3 Lenders set up funds and credit lines for schools to use in exchange for schools putting the lenders on their preferred lender lists.

4 Lenders offer large payments to schools to drop out of the direct federal loan program so that the lenders get more business.

5 Lenders set up call centers for schools. When students call the schools’ financial aid centers, they actually get representatives of the lenders.

6 Lenders on preferred lender lists agree to sell loans to a single lender so there is actually no real choice for the student.

7 Lenders sell loans to other lenders, often wiping out the back-end benefits originally promised to the students without the students ever knowing.

Rebecca Weber, Executive Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), said, “NYPIRG, as a consumer group and a student group, is particularly concerned about deceptive lending practices that appear to target students and their families. The Attorney General is alerting the colleges to the dangers of doing business with predatory lenders and we think that’s a crucial move as this investigation continues.”

Cuomo also urged students and parents to use these findings to consider whether a college or university is currently engaged in questionable practices. The Attorney General’s office has prepared a pamphlet to help those seeking student loans make more informed decisions. The pamphlet is being distributed to every high school in New York State. It is also posted on the Attorney General’s website at

The investigation is being handled by Executive Deputy Attorney General for Economic Justice Eric Corngold and Assistant Attorneys General Joy Feigenbaum, Melvin Goldberg, and Kevin R. Harkins.


UTPA to be featured in PBS documentary series

The University of Texas-Pan American will be featured in one of 13 episodes of the State of Tomorrow documentary television series, which begins airing this month on PBS stations across the state.

The series examines some of the most exciting work being done by researchers and academics in public higher education to address major challenges facing Texans today. The University of Texas Foundation and Alpheus Media, Inc. in partnership with KLRU-TV, Austin PBS, co-produced the series, and it is paid for with private funding from sponsors including AT&T Inc., Exxon Mobil Corp., and IBC Bank, among others.

UTPA will be highlighted in the eighth episode of the series titled “Faces of the New Texas.” The episode focuses on the increasing population of the state, particularly the growing Hispanic population, and education and access. Dr. Blandina “Bambi” Cárdenas, UTPA president, will discuss how higher education can better serve and reflect its community.

“We are proud The University of Texas-Pan American was chosen to participate in this series and this particular episode, which will highlight our growing Hispanic student population and our dynamic efforts as a University and member of the UT System to make access to higher education possible and affordable for all,” Cárdenas said.

Also featured in the episode will be The University of Texas at Brownsville and The University of Texas at El Paso.

The wide-ranging series explores major challenges in areas including public health, homeland security, energy policy, economic development and education, and highlights new research in biosafety, nanotechnology, and proton therapy.

Faculty from Texas A&M, Texas State, Texas Tech, University of Houston, University of North Texas and University of Texas systems are featured in the series, representing a collaboration among Texas’ public higher education groups that is thought to be unprecedented.

“Public higher education offers solutions to many of the major challenges facing Texas, and it is important for Texans to know that whether or not they ever set foot on our campuses, we work to ensure that they are the beneficiaries of education’s service to society,” said UT System Chancellor Mark G. Yudof.

The State of Tomorrow series, which began airing on Sunday, April 8, will be broadcast beginning at 7:30 p.m. each Sunday at 7:30 p.m. on the local PBS station, KMBH-TV 60 (Time Warner Cable Cable Channel 10).

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


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.



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.



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.



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


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

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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


Aaron Peña, Jr.

Chairman, House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence


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


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


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


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


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 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


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




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.)

Titans of the Texas Legislature