Medical, legislative, and community leaders from Edinburg and Hidalgo County participated in a July 11 ribbon-cutting ceremony welcoming the $15 million Cancer Center at Renaissance to southwest Edinburg, the latest phase in a $150 million expansion of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. The 54,000-square-foot facility will bring 50 new employees and generate a $30 million economic impact to the city and the surrounding communities, said Mayor Joe Ochoa. “This is only a tip of the iceberg, knowing that we will have, when all of this expansion is finished, more than 1,000 employees and more than $1 billion in economic impact to this region and its economy,” Ochoa added. Former Mayor Richard García, who serves as the president of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation – of which Ochoa is also a member – said the Cancer Center serves as another economic-development prize and recruiting tool for the city. “From an economic development standpoint, a facility such as this helps to retain and attract major employers, because one of the things their employees look for is access, locally, to very high-quality health care,” said García. “Many people were having to go to San Antonio and Houston to receive the technology that this hospital now has available.” See story later in this posting.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, left, meets with Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos (center) and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III, on Wednesday, July 11, to hear concerns from border leaders over key issues. Among other topics, Cornyn updated Valley leaders on border security and immigration reform. He reiterated his commitment and work to ensure that no border fencing will move forward without local input. He also committed to work with them to find innovative solutions to border security, like enhancing natural barriers and the control of Carrizo cane. See relates story later in this posting.
Mikal Watts, center, is one of two Democrats who have announced preliminary plans to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the November 2008 general election. Watts, shown here during a recent fundraiser hosted in Edinburg at the home of former Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García, could be facing Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, for the March 2008 Democratic Party nomination to face Cornyn. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, has signed a letter urging Noriega to run for U.S. Senate, while Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who represents southwest Edinburg, says she is not ready to take a sides in the potential Democratic showdown. Featured with Watts at the local fundraiser are, from left: García; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Watts; Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa; and Judge Linda Yañez of the Texas 13th Court of Appeals. See story later in this posting.
Hundreds show up for ribbon cutting ceremony at sophisticated DHR Cancer Center in Edinburg
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
The Cancer Center at Renaissance, which is the latest phase of a $150 million expansion of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in southwest Edinburg, opened for business on Wednesday, July 11, with several hundred medical, political, community, and business leaders participating in a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The recently completed 54,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art treatment facility, representing an estimated $15 million investment, is located at 2717 Michael Angelo Drive, on the corner of Dove and McColl in the three-time All-America City.
The Cancer Center at Renaissance will provide, mostly on an out-patient basis, comprehensive diagnosis, treatment and support to cancer patients from the Rio Grande Valley, according to Mario Lizcano, Marketing Director for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.
Hospital officials predict the Cancer Center will treat almost 700 patients in its first 12 months of operation.
A team of specially-trained doctors and nurses are backed up by the most sophisticated equipment, including two linear accelerators, 30 infusion treatment stations, a PET CT scanner, and a 16 Slice CT.
World-class facility for small city
DHR officials said the facility represents much more than the latest cancer-fighting advances – it helps bring world-class medical care far beyond what most cities the size of Edinburg can only dream about.
“This facility really needs no one to speak for it, because it speaks for itself,” beamed Dr. Lawrence Gellman, MD, the CEO of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. “No other nation could have a community of this size that would have a facility as advanced as this. No other nation has such advanced technology available to so many.”
Gellman said the personnel and facility are dedicated to fighting one of the most dreaded diseases anyone could ever face.
“Cancer is terror. It is physically, psychologically, economically exhausting. It is a battle within ourselves, with ourselves, inside ourselves, which is what makes it so exhausting,” Gellman said. “But with this facility, we have a weapon to help the afflicted with that problem. We are not the first cancer center in the Rio Grande Valley, but we are the most comprehensive and the most advanced. It allows the population to come here, to be with friends, be near home, be with family, and be with the physicians with which they are familiar when they undergo their treatment. That is a great benefit, I believe.”
Dr. Carlos Cárdenas, DHR chairman of the board, echoed the same theme.
“Cancer focuses all the powers of medicine that are brought to bear to fight this disease. There is probably no one in this room who hasn’t either had cancer themselves, or a family member or someone you know that has been afflicted with this disease. It knows no boundaries,” said Cárdenas.
$30 million economic impact for Edinburg
Mayor Joe Ochoa told the gathering of mostly DHR physicians and staff that the city was very appreciative of their presence.
“Thank you for providing these amazing health care facilities to this community and to this region. But more importantly, thank you to all the physicians, nurses, and staff who provide great quality health care to all our citizens here in Edinburg,” Ochoa said.
The Edinburg mayor noted that the Cancer Center at Renaissance brings 50 new employees and a $30 million economic impact to this community and the surrounding area.
“This is only a tip of the iceberg, knowing that we will have, when all of this expansion is finished, more than 1,000 employees and more than $1 billion in economic impact to this region and its economy,” Ochoa added.
Former Mayor Richard García, who serves as the president of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation – of which Ochoa is also a member – said the Cancer Center serves as another economic-development prize and recruiting tool for the city.
“From an economic development standpoint, a facility such as this helps to retain and attract major employers, because one of the things their employees look for is access, locally, to very high-quality health care,” said García. “Many people were having to go to San Antonio and Houston to receive the technology that this hospital now has available.”
The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council. In addition to García and Ochoa, the other EEDC board members are Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.
In addition to the doctors, nurses and technology, the Cancer Center at Renaissance professionals will help patients maintain quality-of-life through nutrition counseling and patient support groups.
Throughout the treatment, the multi-disciplinary team will work together tending to the patients’ needs to ensure that they receive only the best medical care, Lizcano added.
“The state-of-the-art radiation therapy equipment will be able to provide IMRT, which is a very precise manner to deliver radiation therapy while minimizing side-effects of treatment,” explained Dr. Óscar García, the radiation oncologist.
“Also, stereotactic radiosurgery will be available at this center to treat brain tumors without surgery,” Dr. García continued. “High-dose rate of brachytherapy will also be available to treat internal organs at specific locations, minimizing exposure to other organs.”
The event drew other dignitaries from the area, including Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview; McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz; and McAllen City Commissioner Marcus Barrera.
Rep. Peña urges Hispanic lawmaker to challenge Sen. Cornyn, Rep. Gonzáles says Rep. Noriega, Mr. Watts are both fine by her
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is one of 49 Democratic state representatives who has signed a letter encouraging a fellow Hispanic legislator – Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston – to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in the November 2008 general election.
There are 68 state representatives who are Democrats in the 150-member House of Representatives.
However, Rep.Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who represents southwest Edinburg in her district, did not sign that letter because another likely Democratic candidate – trial lawyer Mikal Watts of San Antonio – would also be an outstanding candidate for her political party.
Noriega and Watts have made recent appearances in Edinburg, including a fundraiser for Watts at the Edinburg home of former Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García.
Both men are in the preliminary stages of putting together their campaigns.
Cornyn is not mentioned in the letter, which also was signed by other Valley state representatives, including Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville; Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City; Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito; and Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville.
In addition to Gonzáles, Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview, did not sign the letter, entitled “A Joint Call from Democratic Legislators: Draft Lt. Col. Rick Noriega as a Candidate for United States Senate”.
Gonzáles says she is not willing to pick a side in the Democratic Party Senate showdown – at least for now.
“In the capacity in which I know them, they are both very accomplished and respected by myself as well as by our fellow colleagues. I find both to be exceptional candidates for the U.S. Senate and I welcome working with either one of them in this new capacity for the betterment of Texas,” she said.
“For this reason, I do not find it possible to endorse one over the other at this time.”
Peña, who strongly supported the January 2007 reelection of state Speaker of the House Tom Craddick, a Republican, placed his signature in the letter, which was released July 1.
Peña: “…Republicans’ misguided priorities…”
The letter not only praises Noriega, but it also highlights the alleged failings of Craddick’s Republican Party.
“Some of us broke quorum on a historic trip to Ardmore, while our colleagues in the Senate went to Albuquerque, but all of us in our own way have defended challenges to human rights of all people, whether it is in education, health care, the courts, the marketplace, or the voting booth,” Peña writes. “We have been the voices of fiscal common sense and compassion – speaking out against the Republicans’ misguided priorities and standing up for children’s health insurance, public schools, and the need to protect our God-given natural resources.”
In recent public appearances, Peña has contended that his support for Craddick resulted in him being appointed by the GOP speaker to a powerful committee chairmanship, which placed Peña in a position to bring state funding for major state projects to his House District 40, which includes most of Edinburg.
So far, no Valley Democratic lawmaker has challenged Peña’s belief that Craddick is good for deep South Texas.
The Edinburg lawmaker was one of a handful of state representatives who in early January seconded Craddick’s successful nomination to a third two-year term as speaker.
In May 2003, Peña and almost all of the House Democrats secretly fled the state to Ardmore, Oklahoma in protest against a plan, strongly supported by Craddick, to eliminate up to five Democratic congressmen from Texas.
The exodus meant the GOP-controlled House of Representatives no longer had a quorum, which meant the House of Representatives could take no actions on any bills.
The political ploy succeeded, but eventually, the Republican Party in a later special session achieved their goals.
Texas Senate Democrats – who like the House counterparts were the minority party in the Texas Legislature, also secretly flew to Albuquerque, New Mexico later that summer, in an equally bold move orchestrated by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
But that move eventually served only to delay the political inevitable.
Lawmakers to address local chamber
Peña and Gonzáles will have their chances to spell out their viewpoints on Noriega, Watts, and Craddick when the two state representatives, along with Hinojosa, headline the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce’s legislative update at the ECHO on Thursday, July 19.
There is a $10 fee, payable to the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, which will include lunch and beverages. More information is available by calling chamber officials at 383-4974.
The local lawmakers’ appearances at the chamber’s Public Affairs Luncheon will begin at 11:30 and end a 1 p.m.
“The Public Affairs Luncheons are a new initiative introduced in 2006 and our vision is that it will inform, involve and educate our chamber investors and civic leaders,” said Elva Jackson-Garza, Vice Chair of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Membership Committee. “This event allows business people to meet, network and create opportunities for the companies they represent. We encourage all chamber investors and others interested in learning about hot topics affecting our community and the Rio Grande Valley to attend.”
Edinburg Chamber to host legislative update and luncheon on Thursday, July 19
By EVANA VLECK
Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, State Senator District 20, Aaron Pena Jr., State Representative District 40, and Verónica Gonzáles, State Representative District 41 will address the community as part of the upcoming Public Affairs Luncheon, on Thursday, July 19th from 11:30 am- 1:00 pm at the Echo Hotel in Edinburg. The speakers will address a “Legislative Update” as the topic of discussion. Sponsors for the event are Edwards Abstract & Title Co., and Time Warner Cable.
The Public Affairs Luncheons are a new initiative introduced in 2006 and our vision is that it will inform, involve and educate our Chamber investors and civic leaders. The event allows business people to meet, network and create opportunities for the companies they represent. We encourage all Chamber investors and others interested in learning about hot topics affecting our community and the Rio Grande Valley to attend,” commented Elva Jackson-Garza Vice Chair of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce Membership Committee.
Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa was raised in Mission, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa served South Texas for 16 years in the Texas House of Representatives and was elected to the Texas Senate in 2002 to represent District 20. Sen. Hinojosa was twice named one of Texas’ top 10 legislators by Texas Monthly magazine, and he was named “Legislator of the Year” by the National Organization for Women. He also received the John Henry Falk Award, presented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Aaron Peña, Jr. (born June 8, 1959) is a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Representative Peña represents a district in Hidalgo County in Deep South Texas. In November 2002, he was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives as a Democrat. Representative Peña is an attorney with the law firm of Rodriguez, Colvin, Chaney, and Saenz. He is married to Monica (Solis) and is the father to five children.
Verónica Gonzáles. State Representative Verónica Gonzáles was elected in November, 2004 to represent District 41 in the Texas House of Representatives. District 41 is contained entirely in Hidalgo County and includes portions of McAllen, Edinburg, and Mission. Representative Gonzales sits on the Judiciary, and Public Health Committees. Gonzales serves as Secretary of the State Democratic Caucus, to which she was re-elected to her second term. As a member of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, she was appointed as the Chair of the Immigration Task Force. She is the first female elected to represent District 41.
Cost to attend is $10 per person, and will include a hot lunch, beverage and dessert. For more information on programs and events sponsored by the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, please call 956-383-4974.
D.C. trip focuses on proposed veterans hospital, levee funding, and alternatives to border wall
BY CARI LAMBRECHT
A regional delegation of elected officials, drainage experts and local veterans have returned to the Rio Grande Valley from a three-day trip to Washington D.C. with good news on three key issues: the fence, the levee and the VA hospital.
Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III, Hidalgo County Commissioners Hector “Tito” Palacios and Sylvia Handy, Hidalgo County Drainage District No. 1 director Godfrey Garza and the consultants from Dos Logistics, Inc., along with Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos met with several high-level federal officials holding key committee positions in Washington D.C. July 10 through July 12.
“We took a regional approach, and we got more attention for it,” Salinas said. “The staff at the Veterans Administration kept commenting on how impressed they were that we agreed on the issues of the proposed border wall, bringing a VA hospital to the Rio Grande Valley and working to fix our levees. We went to every meeting together, spoke as one, and we got a lot accomplished.”
The Border Wall
According to Salinas, the two Texas senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, listened to “specific local recommendations” regarding the proposed border wall that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could construct in the Rio Grande Valley by the end of 2008.
The Secure Fence Act authorized the construction of 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the southwestern border of the United States, while the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill of 2007 allocated $1.2 billion for fencing, vehicle barriers, technology, lighting and tactical infrastructure.
“Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Hutchison both agreed that there may be more viable options other than a fence,” Salinas said.
Cameron County pushed for a weir to be built in Brownsville in lieu of a wall that could threaten the economy and the environment. The Hidalgo County delegation asked that river banks be cleaned of invasive Carrizo cane and also suggested that the existing U.S. Border Patrol station and former headquarters near the McAllen Miller International Airport be moved to Pharr, where the U.S. Border Patrol says it has a hot spot for drug smuggling and illegal immigrant traffic.
“Sen. Hutchison has already shown her support for giving local communities input on the proposed border wall. But I think it was informative to our federal leaders to hear just exactly what alternatives the locals were proposing,” Salinas said.
In a landmark meeting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission, FEMA said it would cooperate with Hidalgo County on the release of what has become a much-talked about flood map.
“FEMA is still in the process of evaluating the hydraulic model information it needs. The agency may not be able to meet the Sept. 30 deadline for the map’s release. This will give us more time to show them that Hidalgo County is committed to fixing the problem. Signing the memorandum of understanding with the USIBWC on Monday begins the rehabilitation process.”
“The end result of this meeting is that requiring mandatory flood insurance could be much further off than anticipated, or it might never happen at all,” Salinas said. “After this meeting, it is unlikely the county would take legal action against FEMA as well. This meeting, in particular, was extremely productive.”
The counties also asked Cornyn and Hutchison to garner support for funding the Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project. Passage of the FY 08 State-Foreign Operations bill in the U.S. House of Representatives included funding for the project at the amount of $15.5 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $10 million for the project.
The senators were asked to support increased funding for the levee repairs. If the IBWC is successful in obtaining the $15.5 million for the project and the environmental impact study is completed in August, as it is currently planned for, it is likely that the project will be completed at a speed more conducive to the needs of Hidalgo County.
Federal officials are also working to include language in the Water Resources Development Act under Section 211F to give non-federal government entities the ability to obtain reimbursement for local funds expended on the project.
The regional delegation met with many important contacts to build consensus for the construction of a Veterans Administration hospital in the Rio Grande Valley.
The South Texas Veterans Access to Care Act of 2007 (H.R. 538, authored by Rep. Solomon Ortíz, D-Corpus Christi, directs the secretary of Veterans Affairs to determine whether the needs of veterans for acute inpatient hospital care in Texas’ southmost 24 counties would be best met through a public-private venture to provide long-term care to veterans in an existing facility; the construction of a new fullservice, 50-bed hospital with a 125-bed nursing home; or a sharing agreement with a military treatment facility.
Bob Filner, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Veterans’ Affairs Committee, confirmed that he would be making a personal visit to South Texas from Aug. 5 to 8 to speak with veterans about the options in H.R. 538. Filner will be meeting with veterans in San Antonio, Del Rio, Laredo, Rio Grande City, Weslaco and Brownsville.
“This is an important step in the process. Mr. Filner will be able to see for himself how far San Antonio is from the Valley. He will also be able to see our strengths in numbers. Of the 5.3 million veterans registered with the VA, 1.7 million are in Texas. There are nearly 114,000 veterans in the South Texas VA system, including nearly 45,000 from the four-county area of the Rio Grande Valley. But, of course, those numbers don’t take into account those not registered, the Winter Texas that visit the Valley or those veterans living in Mexico. I’m glad Mr. Filner will be able to make this very important visit,” Salinas said.
A small group of veterans and state Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville, who is a veteran, accompanied the judges to their meetings.
Salinas said the veterans put true stories of long drives and wait times out there and made a real impact on the situation.
Hutchison said she would be pleased to introduce Senate-side legislation pending the release of the Booz Allen Hamilton study she commissioned. She professed that she would keep the consultants accountable and adhere them to the end of July for a release date.
“On Wednesday night, leaders from all along the border met for dinner, and it was a highlight of the trip. It’s so rare to have so many influential players in the same room, listening intently to what you have to say. I appreciate the time they took out of their busy schedules, and I just know that good things are going to happen for Hidalgo County,” Salinas said. “This trip was well worth it. We made some great advances.”
Sen. Cornyn: FEMA must work with Valley officials on levee project
By JOHN DROGIN
Following a visit to Washington by Cameron and Hidalgo County officials last week, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on Friday, July 13, called on FEMA to work with Valley leaders to ensure their concerns on the levee project are addressed. He also committed to continue fighting in Congress for adequate funding for levee repairs and upgrades.
Cornyn hosted a meeting in his Washington office with Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos, Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, Brownsville Mayor Pat Ahumada and other local officials to discuss the levee project. Also, at Sen. Cornyn’s request, federal officials came to the table to listen to the concerns of Valley leaders. On hand for a meeting in Sen. Cornyn’s office were representatives from the FEMA headquarters, the International Boundary and Water Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The levee project is important to prevent flooding and protect lives, homes and property in the Rio Grande Valley. I’m committed to making sure the concerns of Valley leaders are addressed and that they have all necessary input with federal officials as this initiative moves forward,” Cornyn said. “The meetings this week were part of that effort, and I’ll continue coordinating with local and federal officials. In the meantime, I am working with other members of the Texas Congressional delegation to fight for adequate funding for levee repairs and upgrades.”
Among other topics, Cornyn updated Valley leaders on border security and immigration reform. He reiterated his commitment and work to ensure that no border fencing will move forward without local input. He also committed to work with them to find innovative solutions to border security, like enhancing natural barriers and the control of Carrizo cane.
UT regents direct UTPA President Cárdenas to repay more than $7,000 for reimbursements, but clear her of any wrongdoing following anonymous complaint
James R. Huffines, chairman of The University of Texas System Board of Regents, issued the following statement on Wednesday, July 11, regarding an audit investigation at The University of Texas – Pan American.
Statement from Chairman Huffines:
“University of Texas System auditors have presented to the Board of Regents the findings of a recent audit investigation of anonymous allegations concerning certain business practices at UT Pan American. The audit addressed both the specific allegations as well as other transactions. Copies of the audit findings will be made available to the public and members of the news media.
“The Board takes issues related to the expenditure of public funds and the appropriate use of university resources very seriously and last year implemented a series of new policies and procedures to assure best practices are in place and that all expenses on behalf of the chancellor and presidents are audited each year. UT System personnel are working diligently to refine auditing procedures following the first full year of audit results.
“As indicated in the audit report, while President Cárdenas consistently paid a monthly fee for services provided by the physical plant, the services provided were not properly valued. A bill for the full value of the services was never presented to President Cárdenas. The auditors determined that there was no intent on the president’s part to utilize university resources to her personal advantage and the expenditures were made in good faith to assist the president in carrying out her official duties on behalf of the university.
“We are pleased that President Cárdenas agrees with the audit conclusions and as such immediately reimbursed the university for the items identified by the auditors. The total reimbursement was $7,068.57.
“After review of these issues, the Board has instructed the UT System Audit Office to work closely with President Cárdenas and Vice President for Business Affairs James Langabeer to immediately proceed with the development of clear guidelines and rigorous approval procedures to ensure that all expenses incurred by the university conform to current Regents’ Rules and Regulations. Furthermore, UT Pan American should clearly communicate these policies and procedures to the department heads and other senior officials at the institution.”
The complete audit, including the allegations from the anonymous writer, are available online at:
Congressman Hinojosa: Now is the time to change our direction in Iraq
By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Thursday, July 12, joined a majority in the House of Representatives to back legislation to change direction in Iraq. The Responsible Redeployment from Iraq Act was passed by a vote of 223-201 and requires American forces to begin redeploying within 120 days and to complete the transition to a limited presence in Iraq by April 1, 2008.
“This bill would force the President to be accountable to Congress and to the American people for how this war is conducted and for how it will end,” said Hinojosa. “It will force the Iraqi government to realize that America’s commitment is not open-ended and they must be held accountable for their own security and stability.”
The vote came on the same day as the release of the White House Interim Report on Iraq, which indicates that the Iraqi government has failed to meet key benchmarks endorsed by the President in January and that political reconciliation in Iraq is non-existent.
“For four years now, our nation has sacrificed its soldiers for an Iraqi government that has failed to take responsibility for its own security,” said Hinojosa. “While our soldiers have served our country honorably, the President has failed to support them with a viable strategy to succeed. Now is the time to safely redeploy our military from combat so we can better confront emerging threats around the world.”
In addition to requiring the redeployment of American forces The Responsible Redeployment from Iraq Act requires the development of a comprehensive strategy for U.S. policy in Iraq and limits missions any remaining forces in Iraq may undertake to duties such as counter-terrorism, and protecting American personnel at the embassy in Iraq.
In its fifth year, the war in Iraq has cost American taxpayers $450 billion and new reports indicate that America spends $10 billion per month on the war in Iraq. To date, more than 3,600 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq and more than 26,000 have been wounded.
“We must put an end to this drain on our nation’s resources, which could be better used on our priorities at home,” said Hinojosa. “I strongly support this important legislation and request the President heed the call of this Congress to support our troops by redeploying them out of Iraq.”
Critical dollars for South Texas health care infrastructure
By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.
As a father and son legislator team, we’ve worked hard for the good of South Texas.
Serving on the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III on the House Appropriations Committee, we garnered $9.9 million for renovation and associated construction of the South Texas Health Care System (STHCS) in Harlingen this past legislative session.
We were also able to convince our fellow legislators that the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) continues to expand and develop, thus needing an additional $5 million in increased funding. Together these two budgetary initiatives will go a long way toward improving our health care/education infrastructure in South Texas.
After session, Rep. Lucio III reiterated that we worked tirelessly with the Senate Finance Committee, the House Appropriations Committee and the legislative leadership to ensure that the funding would go through. He also added, “Our intended efforts are to make the RAHC, the STHCS and our community one of the best health care centers around the state.”
For decades, the South Texas Hospital has served indigent residents in the Lower Rio Grande Valley through outpatient services. In 1996, the Federal Joint Commission on Accreditation on Health Organizations determined that the South Texas Hospital was laden with serious structural problems and announced that the hospital would not be re-accredited unless a new facility was erected.
In 1999, I worked on a bill that enabled the state to enter into agreements with health services districts. With the goal of eventually becoming such a district, the South Texas Hospital became the South Texas Health Care System, which allowed public or private providers to contract or directly provide services. STHCS, a state-funded clinic for the indigent, is operated by the Department of State Health Services.
For 10 years, we faced a funding problem from the lack of critical monies to update the facility. Additionally, a number of hurdles prevented us from improving the Harlingen facility, including bureaucratic red tape. Fortunately, by working with the leadership in our respective budget writing committees, we successfully overcame all these hurdles by authoring a unique budget directive which ensures that nearly $10 million will be expended in the next two years. The implications of our budget rider are far reaching since the money will help produce a state-of-the-art facility in Harlingen. This means the Valley will have a clean, efficient complex with modern equipment for our indigent sick.
Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell has been a strong proponent of this initiative. He explained, “The funding for the State Center is an absolute homerun for Harlingen. These are the kinds of initiatives which are cementing Harlingen’s position as the health care leader in South Texas.”
The $5 million for the RAHC also means progress towards improving health care in the region. It is a step in the right direction towards developing a Rio Grande Valley University of Texas Health Science Center and full-fledged Medical School in the future.
We appreciated the support shown by Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa, president of the U.T. Health Science Center at San Antonio. In turn, he expressed his gratitude for our work with these words: “I am most grateful to Rep. Lucio and Sen. Lucio for their efforts, as members of the powerful House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees (respectively), to secure $5 million for the RAHC for the 2008-2009 biennium.
“These much needed state resources will allow us to expand the operations of the new Teaching Learning Lab at the RAHC in Harlingen, as well as support on-going efforts to recruit research scientists/faculty to the RAHC research campus in Edinburg.”
A champion for bettering his community, Mayor Boswell further commended our work. He added, “Increased funding for operations at the RAHC was one of this community’s top legislative priorities for this session. I was pleased that our community was able to provide support and assistance to Sen. Lucio’s and Rep. Lucio’s leadership in pushing the increases through.”
This past session, we also both filed similar bills that would establish the Rio Grande Valley U.T. Health Science Center and Medical School.
Although the bills did not gain approval this time, my son said with confidence and determination, “Our bills weren’t approved, but we started the momentum and will continue to build on it to make sure that South Texas gets its much needed and much deserved, full-fledged medical facility and medical school.”
I agree wholeheartedly. For now, we are pleased with the two-fold funding to improve medical care access and to continue paving the way for a health science center to serve South Texas.
McAllen Mayor Cortéz: Enforcement-only policies will not solve immigration problem
By Richard Cortéz
The federal government wants to solve illegal immigration and secure our border. We, as a Texas border region, must work together and work diligently to be sure our legislators truly understand the issue before they go any further. There is much more at stake in this issue than many may realize.
What is at the core of the immigration debate that you don’t hear anyone in Washington talking about is the simple fact that America is aging. Our workforce growth rate is minimal. It will only grow at a rate of 0.6 percent per year. Today, one in 12 Americans is over 65 years of age. By 2050, one in five Americans will be over 65 years of age. This fact poses the following concerns.
•Where are we going to get the new workers who will contribute to our Social Security Trust Fund and replace aging workers? Our unemployment rate is 4.5 percent with a declining fertility rate that will go negative by 2015;
•With shortages in nurses, nurse assistants, and medical technicians, and healthcare costs rising, who will care for our aging Americans and how will we afford to provide for them with our Trust Fund reserves at zero; and
•How will we avoid our economy shrinking due to the fact that older people consume less? We can only make up this decline through additional foreign trade. Our largest trading partners are Canada and Mexico. In March of 2007, $69.8 billion was traded with Mexico and Canada… $49.1 billion by truck through our legal ports… $29 billion with Canada, $20.1 billion with Mexico.
Under current law, the cost of Social Security will soon begin to increase faster than the program’s income because of the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, continuing low fertility rate, and increasing life expectancy.
The Social Security/Medicaid fund reserves will be exhausted by 2041. A weak economy will only move the Social Security depletion date closer. Imagine not being able to pay our retired Americans their benefits. This is only one reason to fix our legal immigration policy.
The lesson to be learned from the 1986 amnesty program is not that amnesty was granted to three million immigrants… it is that we needed to fix the legal immigrations system, and we didn’t.
Our strong economy and market forces are causing illegal immigrants to come to America seeking work. An enforcement-only policy hasn’t worked for five decades. It now costs more money to apprehend an immigrant, yet more are coming. History tells us that continuing with an enforcement-only policy by building an expensive fence is not the answer.
America needs to fix its legal immigration system before it can fix its illegal immigration problem. We need to increase legal work visas to meet labor needs, provide guest worker programs for seasonal workers and develop a legal path to citizenship for those who are already here and who bring value to our country. Our immigration enforcement agencies need to concentrate on the bad ones and quit chasing the honest, hard-working immigrants who came here to provide a better life for their families.
America cannot secure our borders without first securing efficient legal ports of entry. America will be best served if some of the money going to build a fence will be used to make our legal ports more efficient. Little investment from our federal government has come to the Southern border to make trade with Mexico more efficient. In fact, most of the proposed federal policies create more inefficiency and longer lines at our legal ports of entry.
With a strong economy and labor force, America can continue to be an economic superpower. Having a strong economy will give us the resources to protect our homeland. Without it, we are only leading ourselves toward disaster and potentially bankrupting our country with poor fiscal policies, like spending on fences that bring no value to our economy or our relationship with our neighbors in Mexico.
As the mayor of a border city and an American, I am committed to border security and fixing the illegal immigration problem. But the bottom line is that a fence is not the answer. There are better alternatives to a wall.
It is critical for all Americans to have a proper debate on the issue of immigration and a border fence. Closing the door on suggestions from the people who live and work on the border and who understand the border also closes the door to much better solutions.
I urge you to write to your Congressmen and Senators to let them know how you feel about the issue. As a wise philosopher once said, “Get involved in the political process or be governed by those who do.”
Richard Cortéz is the mayor of McAllen and a member of the Texas Border Coalition.
AOL, Attorney General Abbott reach agreement to improve cancellation requests, provide refunds
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Wednesday, July 11, reached a multi-state agreement requiring AOL, one of the nation’s largest Internet service providers, to issue customer refunds and reform its handling of consumer cancellation requests.
Under the agreement, which was filed by Texas and 48 other states, AOL must provide its customers a simple online cancellation method (http://cancel.aol.com). The attorneys general took legal action after AOL customers complained about difficulty and confusion when they attempted to cancel their AOL paid services. In the future, AOL must record and verify telephone calls between AOL customer service representatives and customers calling to cancel their accounts. AOL must also resolve outstanding customer complaints and provide refunds to consumers who complained since Jan. 2005 of unauthorized service charges or improper billing.
Texans deserve straight answers and clear information from their Internet service providers, Abbott said. “Today’s agreement ensures that millions of AOL customers in Texas and across the country are adequately informed about their online services. With more Texans using the Internet every day, we will continue working to enhance online disclosures and protect Internet purchases.”
Prior to today’s agreement, AOL limited the methods available for consumers to cancel their accounts. As a result, the majority of consumers attempted to cancel by directly calling AOL. Customer service representatives received incentives for retaining or “saving” customers in lieu of cancellation, and subscribers complained that cancellation was extremely difficult, if not impossible. Today’s agreement puts strict limitations on this practice and mandates the availability of online cancellations.
The settlement also requires AOL to revise its terminated account reactivation disclosures as well as disclosures involving accounts that are invoiced directly to monthly telephone bills. AOL must also reform its practice of allowing consumers to create “spin off” accounts, which are additional, paid AOL accounts stemming from one original membership. Under the terms of the agreement, these “spin-off” accounts can now only be created over the phone in a recorded conversation with a customer service agent, who must make detailed pricing disclosures.
AOL recently announced that it would begin limiting its role as an Internet access provider, but would allow its customers to convert to free e-mail accounts. The terms of today’s agreement should minimize the potential for consumer confusion during this transition, by requiring additional disclosures and confirmation of calls where customers are transitioned to Internet service offered by third parties.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office has participated in three other multi-state actions against AOL. In 1996, Texas and 19 other states entered into an agreement with AOL regarding the company’s standard services pricing. In 1997, AOL entered into an agreement with Texas and 42 other states that reformed the company’s customer notification procedures about various services, including dial-up accessibility. In 1998, Texas and 43 other states reached an agreement with AOL regarding the company’s disclosures for free-trial offers, premium services, and communication and long-distance charges, as well as advertising to minors and changes to service agreements.
The July 11 settlement also requires AOL to reimburse the states $3 million.
The other participants in today’s settlement are the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia Wisconsin, and Wyoming, the Commonwealths of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
Consumers may file a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at (800) 252-8011 or online at http://www.oag.state.tx.us.
Congressman Hinojosa: Student loan program single largest investment in college aid since G.I. Bill
By ELIZABETH ESFAHANI
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, chair of the Subcommittee on Higher Education, on Wednesday, July 11, applauded the passage of legislation that not only makes the largest investment in higher education since the GI bill but also makes significant investments in Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
The College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 (H.R. 2669), which the House of Representatives approved by a vote of 273 to 149, will boost college financial aid by about $18 billion over the next five years. The bill pays for itself by reducing federal subsidies paid to lenders in the college loan industry.
“This groundbreaking legislation increases student financial aid by a magnitude we have not seen in more than a generation,” said Hinojosa. “It invests in our public servants and in our teachers. It leverages our resources so that more first-generation, low-income college students can realize their full potential.”
H.R. 2669 also contains a landmark provision that commits $200 million in grants over the next five years to HSIs, which enroll almost half of all Hispanic college students. Overall, the bill commits $500 million over five years to minority serving intuitions. In the 15th Congressional district, University of Texas-Pan American, Coastal Bend College, Texas State Technical College in Harlingen would gain from the provision, as would the other 41 HSIs and nine HBCUs in Texas.
“Close to half of our public school children are racial or ethnic minorities – one in five is Hispanic,” said Hinojosa. “It is clear that minority serving institutions will only grow in importance. This historic initiative will ensure that our nation has enough qualified graduates to fuel its knowledge-based economy.”
Also under the legislation, the maximum value of the Pell Grant scholarship would increase by $500 over the next five years, a boost that could benefit over six million low- and moderate-income students in America and over 400,000 in Texas. Currently, about 37 percent of Hispanic students receive the Pell Grant scholarship each year.
In addition, H.R. 2669 would cut interest rates in half from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent over five years. In Texas, the debt of a typical need-based student loan borrower at four-year public school is $14,233, which means that once it is fully implemented, this cut would save the typical borrower $4,550 over the life of the loan. Nationwide, about 6.8 million students, and 1.5 million Hispanic students, take out need-based loans each year. In Texas, roughly 205,500 students take out these loans.
“Let us not forget that more than 170,000 low-income, college-qualified students did not enroll in college because of financial barriers,” said Hinojosa. “This legislation puts us one step closer toward our goal of providing all Americans with the opportunity to go to college.”
The College Cost Reduction Act includes a number of other provisions that would ease the financial burden imposed on students and families by the cost of college, including:
•Tuition assistance for excellent undergraduate students who agree to teach in the nation’s public schools;
•Loan forgiveness for college graduates that go into public service professions;
•Increased federal loan limits so that students won’t have to rely as heavily on costlier private loans; and
•New tuition cost containment strategies.
A broad coalition of student advocacy groups and labor organizations support the College Cost Reduction Act.
Sen. Zaffirini secures funding for wind turbine research center in South Texas
By NICK ALMANZA
Ingleside, Texas, located in Senate District 21’s San Patricio County, recently was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as the new home of a state-of-the-art wind turbine research center essential in the development of renewable wind energy technology. As a member of the Appropriations Conference Committee that finalized the state’s $153 billion budget, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, secured $5 million in contingency funding needed to ensure the wind research facility’s establishment in Texas.
“The new wind turbine research facility will help Texas and private companies secure federal grant money for wind testing projects,” Zaffirini said. “I am proud to support these efforts in bringing this facility to Texas and SD 21, partly because I believe that wind power will enhance our state’s power supply and economic development while providing valuable research and development for sources of clean alternative energy.”
A Texas-led coalition of higher education institutions, businesses and government agencies known as the Lone Star Wind Alliance was responsible for organizing the successful proposal submitted to DOE, which supported the establishment of the wind turbine research center in Texas.
The Lone Star Wind Alliance is directed by the University of Houston’s Cullen College of Engineering and is composed of a coalition including The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, West Texas A&M University, the Houston Advanced Research Center, the Texas General Land Office, the Texas Workforce Commission and several other universities and corporate entities from throughout the nation.
Attorney General Abbott reaches $21 million settlement for victims of predatory mortgage lending
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Thursday, July 12, announced that Texas homeowners who were harmed by Ameriquest Mortgage Co.’s deceptive lending practices will share in almost $21 million in restitution. Eligible Texans will receive claim forms from the lending giant in the coming days.
The settlement, a part of Abbott’s ongoing efforts to combat misleading lending practices, resolves allegations that Ameriquest and its affiliates, Town and Country Credit Corp. and AMC Mortgage Services, did not adequately disclose certain terms to prospective homeowners, including whether loans carried fixed or adjustable rates.
The company also charged excessive origination fees and prepayment penalties, refinanced borrowers into improper loans and inflated appraisals that qualified borrowers for loans. About 21,000 Texans who signed contracts with Ameriquest Mortgage Co. between Jan. 1, 1999, and Dec. 31, 2005, may be eligible to receive restitution payments.
The amount of each claimant’s payment will be based on the degree of financial harm they suffered because of the company’s financing schemes.
“Texans will not tolerate predatory lending schemes that lock would-be homeowners into a seemingly endless cycle of debt,” said Abbott. “We are pleased that Texas homeowners who were harmed by this lending giant will share nearly $21 million in refunds. The Office of the Attorney General will continue protecting homeowners from deceptive lenders.”
This week, eligible consumers will begin receiving letters and claim forms explaining the restitution process. To participate, consumers must complete and mail these forms to the settlement administrator no later than Sept. 10, 2007. The settlement administrator’s toll-free number is (800) 420-5875 and detailed information can be obtained online at:
Consumers who opt for restitution relinquish their right to file lawsuits against Ameriquest. Therefore, the Office of the Attorney General encourages consumers to consult with a private attorney before deciding to participate.