Hidalgo County leaders on Friday, May 1, commemorated the historic infusion of about $300 million in federal funds for the Hidalgo County Levee Rehabilitation Project during a special recognition ceremony and press conference at the Hidalgo Pump House Museum and World Birding Center Nature Park. Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III, featured first on right, released an economic impact study, commissioned by his office and conducted by Sai Mullapudi of the University of Texas-Pan American’s Data and Information Systems Center Division of Community Engagement, that highlighted the economic impact of the levee upgrades. The study indicates that the entire levee rehabilitation project, when completed, will produce nearly 5,000 local jobs and generate $508 million in economic impact. From left, in this photograph, are: Ron Vitiello, chief for the Rio Grand Valley Border Patrol sector; Mayor John David Franz of Hidalgo; Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen; and Salinas. See story later in this posting.
May marks National Mental Health Month and to recognize the month-long health campaign in the Rio Grande Valley, the South Texas Behavioral Health Center hosted an advocacy reception for community leaders on Friday, May 1. Area leaders spanning from law enforcement, military, elected officials, health care practitioners and social service providers attended the event in recognition of the advancements and challenges of mental health care in the Valley. Standing, from left, are: Solomon Torres, District Director for Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Doug Matney, Vice President of Acute Care and Group Director for South Texas Health System; César Matos, MD; Joe Rodríguez, CEO for South Texas Behavioral Health Center and Michael Sauceda, Business Development Director for South Texas Behavioral Health Center. See story later in this posting.
Manuel Garcia and Johnny Rodriguez, two of the board members for Edinburg Child Care, Inc., a non-profit business dedicated to providing nutrition and education services to children in day care homes, display a cake that helped mark the 25th anniversary of the local entity. The local firm, which helps generate a multi-million dollar economic impact for the region, hosted a celebration in the Edinburg/San Manuel region on April 25, 2009, as a treat for many of its participants. Operations consist of reimbursements to day care homes and day care centers for meals served to children under their care and administrative costs. All seed funds/startup costs were provided by Romeo Villarreal, a local businessman and educator. The policy-making board of directors oversees the program, which is administered by an executive director. Since 1991, this program has generated between $2 million to $2.3 million dollars annually and disbursed to providers from Corpus Christi to Laredo, to Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley. Three hundred to 500 small business owners of day care centers are being supplemented annually through this agency. Edinburg Child Care, Inc. is located 2002 West University, Suite 3, Edinburg, 78539. They may also be contacted by telephone at 956/383-6789; by fax at 956/383-6888; and toll-free at 1/800-281-6780. Mary Villarreal, the company’s executive director, may also be reached via Internet [email protected] or [email protected].
The Texas Senate on Monday, May 4, unanimously voted for Senate Bill 1443 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, that would provide financial relief to students and their families, while recognizing the shared responsibility of the legislature and higher education institutions to keep college affordable and accessible without sacrificing excellence. The bill focuses on total academic costs, not simply on tuition; caps increases and links them to formula funding; offers an optional 4-year guaranteed tuition rate; includes additional cost-cutting measures; and establishes legislative oversight. See story later in this posting.
Asian citrus psyllid nymphs, shown here in their development stages by a U.S. Department of Agriculture photograph, can live on citrus trees that are infected with the Citrus Greening Disease and can acquire that plague just before reaching the adult stage. Once that happens, those insects can immediately transmit the disease to uninfected trees, which ruin the trees and citrus. The greening disease, which has not yet been detected in Texas, could devastate the state’s $159 million citrus industry, most of which is located in Hidalgo County. A bill by Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, has been passed by the House of Representatives. The measure would give the Texas Department of Agriculture the needed policy powers to help citrus growers prevent a potentially-devastating outbreak of this plant disease. See lead story later in this posting.
House passes bill by Rep. Martínez to protect Texas’ $159 million citrus industry from new plant plague
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
The $159 million Texas citrus industry – which is primarily located in the Rio Grande Valley – may soon get a state-sponsored, comprehensive advanced warning and management system to protect it against citrus greening and citrus canker, two exotic plant diseases with the potential to wipe out thousands of acres of citrus trees.
Texas ranks second in the nation for the production of grapefruit and third for oranges.
About 28,000 acres in the Rio Grande Valley are dedicated to citrus production, with most of the citrus production taking place in Hidalgo County.
Both plant afflictions represent serious threats to the citrus industry, with citrus products considered the most valuable fruit crops in international trade.
The Citrus Greening Disease poses the biggest threat to citrus anywhere in the world.
Under his measure, the Texas Department of Agriculture would be given new powers and responsibilities to monitor, and when needed, take action to prevent these two plant diseases from becoming an outbreak
Currently, there are no reports of Citrus Greening Disease in Texas.
But its presence can be masked for several years, making it almost impossible to detect before it is too late to save the tree and its fruit.
"Citrus greening would devastate the Texas citrus industry if an outbreak were to occur," warned Rep. Armando "Mando" Martínez, D-Weslaco, who has come up with a plan to help reduce the potential destruction to the state’s important citrus-producing sector.
"The Florida citrus industry is already in a crisis due to the outbreak of the disease," Martínez added. "More than 100,000 acres of citrus trees have been destroyed in Florida due to the disease. The Florida crisis was exacerbated due to the Florida Agriculture Department’s lack of legal authority to respond to such an outbreak."
His legislation, House Bill 4577, would give the Texas Department of Agriculture such needed legal authority.
Staples: "These are the kind of tools we need…"
Martínez’ concerns have been echoed state and Valley agricultural leaders, including Todd Staples, the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, during Staples’ testimony on March 26 before the House Committee on Agriculture and Livestock.
"This is a very serious issue, and we recognize the devastation that has occurred in other citrus-producing states. The industry has been forward-thinking in ways to prevent that in order to sustain this part of our dynamic agricultural economy," Staples said. "These are the kinds of tools that are going to have to be available in the toolbox in order to ensure that the diversity of Texas agriculture can be as dynamic as it is today."
Citrus greening is defined as a bacterial disease that attacks the vascular system of plants. Once infected, there is no cure for the disease, and in areas where the disease is endemic, citrus trees produce bitter inedible fruit, and die.
Citrus canker is defined as a destructive bacterial disease of citrus plants that attacks seedlings and mature plants and causes defoliation and death.
On Tuesday, April 28, the House of Representatives took a major step towards dealing with those two agricultural bacterial infections by unanimously approving Martínez’ HB 4577.
HB 4577 amends the Agriculture Code to authorize the Texas Department of Agriculture to adopt rules that provide for a program to manage or eradicate exotic citrus diseases, including citrus canker and citrus greening. The bill requires the rules to establish, based on scientific evidence, when a healthy but suspect citrus plant must be destroyed and authorizes the rules to provide for compensation to an owner of a destroyed plant.
HB 4577 authorizes the department to seize a citrus plant, citrus plant product, or citrus substance that the department determines is located within proximity to a plant that is infected by a disease dangerous to any agricultural or horticultural product and that is determined by the department to likely be infected by that disease, regardless of whether the plant currently exhibits symptoms of the disease.
The bill requires the department, if such a plant, product, or substance is seized in such a situation, to notify the owner that it is a public nuisance and must be destroyed or treated. The bill entitles the owner of such a plant, product, or substance destroyed to compensation from the department for the destruction of such plant, product, or substance.
Learning from Florida’s pain
Florida is the nation’s top producer of citrus products, but the self-proclaimed "Sunshine State" also has become Ground Zero in the battle against citrus greening, creating chaos in its citrus industry and serving as a warning to the rest of the nation’s citrus producing states.
"Citrus greening has now been declared by citrus plant pathologists to be the most serious citrus disease anywhere in the world. It is absolutely devastating to the Florida citrus industry," Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual, said in support of Martínez’ bill during the March 26 committee hearing.
Texas Citrus Mutual, located in Mission, is a non-profit trade association established in 1958 represent the interests of the Texas citrus grower.
"They have suffered a perfect storm over there – they are actually wondering if their industry is going to be able to survive They had more than 800,000 acres at one time, but it has declined considerably since then," Prewett said. "But they, too, think that this is the worst disease that they have ever faced."
Prewett noted that there are few options to eliminate the citrus greening disease, but taking no action would be the worst thing to do.
"There is no actual treatment of the trees to get rid of the disease, but there are two things that can be done," he explained. "One, you try to suppress the psyllid population as low as we possibly can; the second thing is to remove the infect plants so the psyllid can’t spread it from one plant to another."
The psyllid, more formally known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid, is an insect that feeds on the leaves and stems of citrus trees and other citrus-like plants – but the real danger lies in that it can be a carrier of Citrus Greening Disease, also called Huanglongbing (HLB), according to state agricultural experts.
Legislation follows formation of task force
Martínez’ HB 4577 came soon after a major task force was created late last year to begin dealing with the threat of Citrus Greening Disease, with the formation of a special task force by the Texas Agriculture Commissioner.
Bryan Black and Verónica Obregón, with Staples’ office, provided the following account of that action:
Staples on November 14 appointed a task force aimed at protecting the Texas citrus industry from citrus greening.
"As Texans, we are accustomed to going to the grocery store and having a variety of grapefruit, oranges, lemons and limes available for our picking," Staples said last November. "To ensure we continue to have this available and affordable supply of citrus, we are taking action to protect our industry from harmful agricultural pests and diseases."
Citrus plants are also very popular backyard plants throughout the southern half of Texas. If citrus greening becomes established in the state, Texas could lose this important economic and aesthetic part of its landscape.
"Texas citrus growers have seen the devastation of citrus greening in Florida and are supportive of aggressive efforts to prevent a similar fate in Texas," Prewett said following the creation of the task force. "The appointment of this task force by Commissioner Staples is a very important step in doing everything the state and the industry can do to prevent the establishment of this disease in Texas."
The citrus greening task force will work to control the Asian Citrus Psyllid in Texas; create a plan with protocols for protecting the citrus nursery industry; and develop a plan for managing citrus greening if it enters Texas. The team will then forward any recommendations to the Texas Department of Agriculture’s Regulatory Division.
"With the assistance of the newly created task force, I am certain we can implement appropriate measures that will protect our vital citrus industry and the livelihood of our farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley," Staples said.
Texas’ premier universities could offer courses at STC under Rep. Flores bill approved by House
By DAVID A. DÍAZ
With high costs facing South Texas College students who wish to seek four-year degrees not available in the Valley, the House of Representatives on Tuesday, April 28, passed a bill by Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, that would make it easier for any of the state’s public universities, including the most prestigious systems, to offer academic courses in deep South Texas.
House Bill 3308 by Flores for the first time would allow STC or any of the other 49 community colleges in Texas to partner with the likes of the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech University – the largest public higher education systems in the state – to provide crucial academic programs at the local level.
STC features five major campuses – three in McAllen, one in Weslaco, and one in Rio Grande City – which combined serve more than 20,000 students.
HB 3308 would authorize STC and all other junior college (community college) districts to set up new education partnerships designed to benefit their constituents.
According to the bill analysis of the measure, HB 3308 "amends the Education Code to remove the condition that an institution of higher education have a campus or other educational facility located in the same state uniform service region as a junior college district in order for the board of trustees of the junior college district to enter into a cooperative agreement with the governing body of the institution of higher education regarding the operation and use of a dual usage educational complex established by the junior college district."
If approved by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, HB 3308 would represent a major step forward in the development of partnerships between community colleges and the state’s public university system.
"Under a current law which Sen. Zaffirini (D-Laredo) and I passed in 2005, a community college can team up with local universities to offer academic courses," Flores said. "Under this proposed law, any public university in Texas can team up with STC at the local level."
He said there are thousands of university courses statewide that are not offered by UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville. HB 3308 would help increase the number of university-level courses available for South Texas students.
Flores sees the day in the not-too-distance future that the state’s flagship universities – UT Austin and Texas A&M – will be pressed to offer academic courses outside of their hometowns.
A flagship university is generally defined as a state’s most prestigious and wealthiest institutions, which offered the most academic programs.
House Bill 3308 would also help out the state’s universities efforts to bring more Hispanics into the fold, Flores, said.
"Despite their efforts to boost the number of Hispanic and other minority students, UT and A&M continue to fall short of having a student body that reflects the diversity of Texas," he said.
In Texas, Mexican Americans make up more than one-third of the state’s population. But that figure is not reflected in the student enrollment at UT and A&M.
According to a recent story by the Houston Chronicle, only 16 percent of students at UT Austin are Hispanic.
In the Spring of 2008, only about eight percent of the students at Texas A&M are Hispanic.
A big part of that problem, Flores contends, is that many Valley students simply cannot afford to pull up their roots and move hundreds of miles away from home to get the academic courses they need.
"Our South Texas students are more than qualified to attend any of the state’s universities, but with high costs involved with studying away from home, they would literally have to mortgage their financial futures by taking out huge student loans to pay their way," Flores said.
"This bill is part of the South Texas’ successful efforts in bringing the state’s higher education resources to our region, just like our current plan to create a full-fledged medical school and many other higher education advances secured in the last few years by the Valley’s legislative delegation," said Flores, who was the author of an groundbreaking state law that allowed STC to become one of a handful of community colleges authorized to offer university-level degrees.
State agency approves effort by Sen. Hinojosa for engineering program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
By ARTURO BALLESTEROS
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on Thursday, April 30, gave final approval to a proposed mechanical engineering program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, whose legislative district includes Corpus Christi, is a strong supporter of the proposed engineering program. Hinojosa is a key member of a special legislative panel that is working to secure funding for that new academic program.
"The Higher Education Coordinating Board’s approval of the engineering program at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi marks another step toward making this program a reality," Hinojosa said. "The Senate Finance Committee, in its version of Senate Bill 1 – the state budget – included the necessary funding for the engineering program. While the Texas House Committee on Appropriations did not include the funds in their version of the budget, it is one of my top priorities to secure the funding needed for this engineering program."
Hinojosa is vice-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a member for the conference committee on Senate Bill 1. The conference committee is composed of five senators and five state representatives that ultimately write the state’s biennial budget.
The news from Austin of the approval for the new Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering drew positive responses from Coastal Bend leaders. THECB approval was the final step in creating the new program which will offer classes in fall 2009.
The curriculum will specialize in issues related to the university’s location on the Gulf of Mexico, including coastal observation systems, ships, offshore platforms, offshore wind turbines and sea floor mapping.
“This is an important milestone for both Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and the community,” said University President Flavius Killebrew. “As the sixth-largest seaport in the United States, Corpus Christi needs highly-qualified mechanical engineering graduates to meet the employment needs of existing businesses. This new program will also help attract new engineering-related businesses that will strengthen the Coastal Bend economy.”
Because the university already offers a mechanical engineering technology degree, existing laboratory space can be expanded to meet immediate needs, Killebrew added. However, additional unrestricted and endowed funds will be necessary for scholarships, faculty, and research opportunities. The program has received strong backing from the business community which is striving to meet a challenge goal of $3 million, including $1 million from Corpus Christi’s economic development sales tax.
Since the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents approved the bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in January, the university has received hundreds of inquiries from prospective students and many have already made application to the 129 semester hour program.
(Marshall Collins and Steve Paschal contributed to this article.)
Senate passes bill by Sen. Zaffirini’s to cap college tuition, provide financial relief to Texas students
By CELESTE VILLARREAL
The Texas Senate on Monday, May 4, unanimously voted to cap college tuition and fees and tie them to state appropriations.
Senate Bill (SB) 1443 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, would provide financial relief to students and their families, while recognizing the shared responsibility of the legislature and higher education institutions to keep college affordable and accessible without sacrificing excellence.
The bill focuses on total academic costs, not simply on tuition; caps increases and links them to formula funding; offers an optional 4-year guaranteed tuition rate; includes additional cost-cutting measures; and establishes legislative oversight.
A priority of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the bill is co-sponsored by 26 senators. It would provide tuition relief and increase access to higher education by limiting the amount general academic teaching institutions are permitted to raise designated tuition for a given biennium based on the amount of general revenue appropriated by the state.
"I am delighted that the Lieutenant Governor and 31 senators voted to provide financial relief to Texas families," Zaffirini said. "Keeping college affordable without sacrificing excellence is among my top higher education priorities."
Specifically, SB 1443 would cap increases in total academic costs to the lesser of the rate of inflation or five percent and links tuition and fees to formula funding.
"Hard work during the interim based on a charge from Lt. Gov. Dewhurst and collaboration with university students and leaders across the state resulted in this bill," Zaffirini said. "Only by reaching consensus among them and their respective senators could we pass this legislation."
SB 1443 was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Also on Monday, the Senate voted in favor of a bill that would reform the system of eminent domain in Texas.
SB 18, by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, would require any land taken by a governmental entity to be for public use, though the bill does not define what constitutes public use.
It would require a bona fide offer to be made in writing to a property owner, and includes penalties for entities that do not operate in good faith. The bill would require compensation to an owner for loss of market value to property due to diminished access.
The bill would also permit the original owners or his or her heirs to repurchase the land taken at the price paid by the governmental entity after ten years if the public use of the land is cancelled or there is no progress toward the purpose for which the land was taken.
SB 18 now heads to the House for further consideration.
(Senate Media Services contributed to this article.)
Senate passes Sen. Zaffirini’s bill to create additional national research universities; none in South Texas
By CELESTE VILLARREAL
The Texas Senate on Wednesday, April 29, unanimously voted to create a pathway for seven emerging research universities to become national research universities and foster the development of centers of excellence at 26 other institutions.
Senate Bill (SB) 9 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, is a priority of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and is co-sponsored by 22 senators. It would provide a path for Texas universities to compete for elite, or "tier one" status, by providing matching funds for eligible universities that reach certain goals in research funding and private donations.
Creating additional national research universities in Texas would enable institutions to bring together a critical mass of talent that would enrich academia and the state. By not having more elite institutions, Texas loses out in research funding and venture capital, top students who choose out-of-state institutions and in attracting top faculty, researchers and scientists.
"I am delighted that the lieutenant governor and all senators voted to pursue excellence in higher education in Texas," Zaffirini said. "The bill would authorize mission-specific matching incentive funding to increase the prestige of Texas’ two national research universities, namely, The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M, and of seven emerging research universities, namely, Texas Tech University, University of Houston, University of North Texas, UT-Arlington, UT-Dallas, UT-El Paso and UT-San Antonio.
"The result would enhance Texas’ national and international profile in the academic arena and, ultimately, in the competitive business domain as well."
Specifically, SB 9 would codify and expand the Texas Competitive Knowledge Fund. This matching fund program would help the nine universities recruit and retain high quality faculty, enhance research productivity and receive additional funding based on their research efforts and student success.
SB 9 also would create the Texas Centers of Excellence Performance Fund to promote strong undergraduate curricula and focused research centers of excellence. It would authorize matching funds to the other 26 Texas universities, based on degrees awarded, number of National Merit Scholars and number of students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
SB 9 also would create the Texas Research Incentive Program (TRIP). The matching fund would enable eligible universities to leverage private gifts to enhance research productivity and to recruit and retain high quality faculty.
"Our bill is the result of our higher education committee’s work during the interim, based on a charge from Lt. Gov. Dewhurst," Zaffirini said. "It also reflects the collaboration of the chancellors and presidents who administer the impacted universities. Only by reaching consensus among them and their respective senators could we pass SB 9 unanimously."
Dewhurst assigned the bill one of his priority numbers, signaling his support to legislators.
SB 9 was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration. The continued progress of this and all bills authored by Zaffirini can be monitored via the Internet at http://www.legis.state.tx.us or by contacting the Texas Legislative Reference Library’s toll free in-state hotline, 1/877-824-7038.
United League returns Edinburg’s nickname, logo, by renaming Coyotes back to the Edinburg Roadrunners
Everyone who has seen the cartoons in the movies or on TV knows the Roadrunner always wins out over the Coyote. On Thursday, April 30, it happened again, but it has taken a bit longer. More than three years longer.
The United League Baseball, at a press conference that afternoon at Edinburg Baseball Stadium, announced the Edinburg Coyotes would again be the Edinburg Roadrunners.
Before a large crowd of media, area city and county leaders and other dignitaries, who readily welcomed the change back, the new-old logo was presented at the stadium.
Those attending showed their approval even more with loud applause when "Rowdy," the Roadrunner mascot showed up, as TV and newspaper representatives quickly fired off shots as he paraded around the crowd.
"When we (the ULB) took over the operation here from the previous owners we changed the name, which was necessary at the time. However, that did not set well with many fans," ULB President Byron Pierce said. "Now the Roadrunners are back."
When the ULB took over the stadium with its ball club – after the now-defunct Central League was booted from the facility by the city of Edinburg for failure to pay its stadium rent – the league officials changed the name from Roadrunners to Coyotes.
Much has changed since then.
The original founders of the league – Byron Pierce and former U.S. Rep. John Bryant – who negotiated the ULB with the city, later left the league over a dispute.
However, they recently took back the league following court action that included the others still involved in the league filing bankruptcy and the group by Pierce and Bryant paying $550,000.
"We are proud to present to you the Edinburg Roadrunners and we promise superior baseball," Pierce said.
Edinburg General Manager Doug Leary greeted those in attendance and introduced Lupe Salinas, Mexican League player-coach, who will be the clubs’s pitching coach. The Edinburg staff also was introduced. Arriving soon will be Vince Moore, who has been field manager for the Edinburg club for four years.
Hidalgo County levee rehabilitation project to create 5,000 jobs, generate $508 million economic impact
By CARI LAMBRECHT
The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court commemorated the historic infusion of about $300 million in federal funds for the Hidalgo County Levee Rehabilitation Project along with its partners on Friday, May 1 in a special recognition ceremony and press conference at the Hidalgo Pump House Museum and World Birding Center Nature Park.
Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III released an economic impact study, commissioned by his office and conducted by Sai Mullapudi of the University of Texas-Pan American’s Data and Information Systems Center Division of Community Engagement. The study indicates that the entire levee rehabilitation project, when complete, will produce nearly 5,000 local jobs and generate $508 million in economic impact.
“The infusion of federal funds and the fusion of our ideas have made Hidalgo County a better place all around,” Salinas said. “This levee project saves lives, protects property and, may well be considered the ultimate stimulus package for our county. In this time of stress and hardship, this is some good news that uplifts our community to know that we are helping to create jobs and keep the economy strong.”
The county judge continued: “This is an accomplishment that could have only been completed with the help of Congressman Henry Cuellar, the vision of Sen. John Cornyn, the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and our local Border Patrol Chief Ronald Vitiello as well as the U.S. IBWC, the late Commissioner Marin and the current Commissioner Ruth, as well as the mighty efforts of congressmen Rubén Hinojosa (D-Mercedes), Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin), Ciro Rodríguez and Solomon Ortiz and let’s not forget Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). All of our federal delegation (D-San Antonio) worked on this project and have some hand in it, as did the Gov. Rick Perry."
He also praised area mayors and city commissions, including the Edinburg City Council, area economic development directors, the members of the Texas Border Coalition, the U.S.-Mexico Border Counties Coalition, "and, of course, our taxpayers, for allowing us to proceed on such a challenging project.”
Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, remarked on the historic nature of the Hidalgo County Levee Rehabilitation Project.
“This project is a sweeping, bold, and decisive step that will create jobs right away and strengthen the economy in the Rio Grande Valley for years to come. With nearly 5,000 jobs to be created as a result of the levee construction, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is living up to what it was intended to do – to stimulate the economy. This historical and unprecedented infusion of federal dollars to the Rio Grande Valley is an indication of the great working relationships between local, state, and federal governments,” said Cuellar. “Once fully operational, these levees will also protect life and property.”
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who was not able to attend to the local event, issued the following statements regarding the levee project
The state’s junior senator noted that he is urging the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to act quickly on legislation he has filed to allow for local governments to recapture funds spent on the federal levee system. When those funds are recaptured, other critical drainage infrastructure projects can then get the help they need.
“The IBWC levees are multi-purpose structures that impact several counties and millions of residents in the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico. Not only are the levees a critical safety measure against flooding, they also serve as important infrastructure for national security operations," Cornyn said. "I commend Judge Salinas, the Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court, Mayor Franz and all of the local leaders for their hard work to bring attention and resources to the IBWC levee system and its desperate need for repairs."
Cornyn added that he was “pleased Phase 1 of the project has been completed, but our work is not done. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to ensure every necessary repair is made to protect families and businesses here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. I will continue work with Congressman Cuellar and other members of the South Texas Congressional delegation to push for passage of my legislation as soon as possible.”
U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission Commissioner C.W. “Bill” Ruth, too, expressed his pleasure that his agency could ensure a brighter future for Hidalgo County.
“I am very pleased that the USIBWC will be able to rehabilitate 100 additional miles of federal levees in Hidalgo County by the end of next year so that we can certify the levees for FEMA, allowing for continued economic growth of the region,” Ruth said.
The host of the event, Mayor John David Franz, also commented on the levee-barrier and the entire levee project’s impact on the City of Hidalgo and the county as a whole.
“We have worked closely with Hidalgo County Judge Salinas and Chief Vitiello of Customs and Border Protection to ensure that the levee wall does not negatively impact our historic pumphouse, our birding center, hike and bike trails or our community. We appreciate the cooperation extended by federal officials responsible for securing the area in terms of not interfering with public use of our nature park," Franz said.
The area mayor added that he was "confident that the residents of Hidalgo are now more protected than ever from the threat of a flood and there is no doubt that this levee barrier will divert a significant amount of narcotics and human smuggling to areas away from Hidalgo. This in turn will lower the risk for anyone choosing to enjoy our beautiful birding, hiking and biking trails. All in all, our community should be a much safer place.”
With hurricane season approaching, Sen. Cornyn pushes for federal reimbursement for Valley levees
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Thursday, April 30, wrote to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations urging them to quickly bring up for consideration his legislation to allow for reimbursements to local government entities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley for critical repairs to the levee system.
With hurricane season just over one month away, Sen. Cornyn pressed Committee leadership to pass his bill as soon as possible so local government leaders can make immediate repairs to the outdated system to protect local families and businesses against flooding.
The full text of Sen. Cornyn’s letter is as follows:
The Honorable John Kerry
The Honorable Richard Lugar
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Chairman Kerry and Ranking Member Lugar:
I am writing to request that the Committee on Foreign Relations bring up for consideration S. 302, which I introduced on January 22, 2009. This legislation was referred to your Committee for review.
The International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) reported 5 years ago that the levees along the Rio Grande River were inadequate to protect Texas communities in a 100-year flood event, and a number of levees would have to be raised to protect against flooding. These levees serve a critical role for the safety of Valley residents, and also play a significant role in our national security.
As a result, communities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have taken on federal responsibilities to reconstruct the levees. The federal government has a responsibility to reimburse communities for expenses incurred in repairing these federal levees. My legislation would allow county governments in the Lower Rio Grande Valley to make immediate repairs to their outdated levee system and be reimbursed by the federal government at a later date.
While I am pleased the IBWC received funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to undertake some needed repairs, I strongly believe more must be done. Committee consideration and eventual Senate passage of this bill would be a major step toward living up to this federal responsibility. I urge the Committee to act on this important legislation as soon as possible.
Hidalgo County confirms first area case of Swine Flu, opens telephone hotline for residents to get updates
By CARI LAMBRECHT
The Hidalgo County Health and Human Services on Monday, May 4, confirmed the first Type A H1N1 Influenza case in Hidalgo County out the Weslaco area.
“When county and state public health officials supported the Weslaco school district with its decision to close its campuses last week, it was based on fact and was done in the best interest of the students and employees of the district,” said HCHHS director Eduardo Olivarez. “We feel this quick action may have isolated and prevented the spread of the swine flu.”
HCHHS continues to communicate with local districts regarding school closures.
In a related action,Hidalgo County officials have opened a hotline for residents needing additional information on the Type A H1N1 Influenza virus.
The hotline is 1/866-613-5277.
Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and it will be open during the weekend.
The Hidalgo County emergency operations center also remains open to deal with the ongoing situation. All activities are documented and posted online at http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us/swineflu.
Hidalgo County officials are also encouraging the use of the Hidalgo County Prescription Discount Card. The card, which has saved residents more than half a million since its launch in November, is available at local independent pharmacies and can only be used at local independent pharmacies. A full list can be viewed at http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us/pharmacy.
“The Hidalgo County Prescription Discount Card will provide users with a valid American prescription with an 11 percent discount on Tamiflu off the retail price,” said Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas. “We are committed to getting our residents the help they need.”
Tamiflu should only be taken with a doctor’s prescription. The medication is being provided to individuals who exhibit legitimate flu-like symptoms, which according to the CDC are fever, coughs, sore throat and body aches.
(More here: http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/swineflu_you.htm)
Since last week, Hidalgo County health and emergency management officials have continued to coordinate with area school districts, cities, local law enforcement and Mexican counterparts to monitor the situation. Hidalgo County Health and Human Services is collaborating with public and private organizations to ensure adequate distribution of supplies.
On Monday, May 4, the World Health Organization announced that it may increase the awareness level, calling the Type A H1N1 influenza a “pandemic.”
While use of this word may raise fears among the public, pandemic does not refer to the severity of the disease but rather the geography of the disease. The Texas Department of State Health Services reports that there have only been 30 hospitalizations across the United States, and the disease behaves much like seasonal flu and is “mild to moderate” in nature.
For more information, visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us or visit on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hcpio and http://www.twitter.com/jdsalinas3 or Salinas’ blog at http://www.judgejd.com and the Hidalgo County Judge’s Office Facebook group.
Congressman Hinojosa urges calm, notes federal responses being taken regarding Swine Flu
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, April 28, released the following statement on the Swine Flu:
The confirmed cases of swine flu in Texas, and across the U.S., are something I take very seriously. They are a cause for concern, but not panic. It is important at this time that we remain calm and take every precaution to keep our communities safe. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health held a hearing Thursday, April 30, on the outbreak and our federal response.
My office is working with public health and security authorities to make sure we are taking every step necessary to protect the health and safety of the American people. The Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency as a precautionary measure to ensure that we have the resources we need available.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, symptoms of swine flu in people are similar to those of regular flu and include fever, fatigue, lack of appetite and coughing. Some with swine flu also have reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Individuals with these flu-like symptoms should call the state’s swine flu call center at 888-777-5320. These lines are operational from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Our ability to deal with this sort of threat to the public health depends on Americans being smart about flu prevention, and depends heavily on the competence and excellence of our doctors and scientific community.
Gov. Perry issues disaster proclamation as precautionary measure to deal with Swine Flu
Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, April 29, bolstered the state’s precautionary measures to address the swine flu threat as a result of confirmed cases in certain parts of the state by issuing a disaster declaration for the entire state of Texas.
The disaster declaration allows the state to implement emergency protective measures and seek reimbursement under the federal Stafford Act for protective measures associated with the state’s response to this public health threat.
“Texans need to know there is no cause for panic and Texans can be assured that the state will take every necessary precaution to protect the lives of our citizens,” Perry said. “My office, along with the Department of State Health Services and other state, local and federal partners, have a plan in place to protect Texans should there be a pandemic flu outbreak or other health emergency.”
The governor was joined by Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey and Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott at a press conference to discuss the state’s response to this threat. The state of Texas continues to closely coordinate with local and federal health officials and emergency management partners by monitoring and responding to this changing threat.
Perry also announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has approved his increased request for 25 percent (850,000 courses) of the Texas allotment of antiviral medication from the CDCs Strategic National Stockpile to be pre-positioned in the state. This request augments more than 840,000 courses of antiviral medication on hand in Texas following a purchase authorized by Gov. Perry and the 80th Legislature in 2007.
CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) has large quantities of medicine and medical supplies to protect the American public if there is a public health emergency (terrorist attack, flu outbreak, earthquake). For more information on the SNS, visit http://www.bt.cdc.gov/stockpile.
To date, the CDC has confirmed 91 human swine flu cases in the U.S., including 16 confirmed cases and one death in Texas.
Symptoms of swine flu in people are similar to those of regular or seasonal flu and include fever, fatigue, lack of appetite and coughing. Some with swine flu also have reported runny nose, sore throat, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
Health officials say everyone should follow standard precautions to reduce the spread of any respiratory illness.
•Stay home when you are sick to avoid spreading illness to others.
•Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or a tissue and properly dispose of used tissues.
•Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Individuals with these flu-like symptoms should call the state’s swine flu call center at 888-777-5320. For health care providers with questions about assessing, evaluating and treating swine flu, call 877-623-6274. These lines are operational from 7:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
For additional information on the swine flu, please visit:
To reach the Texas Department of State Health Services press office, contact Doug McBride, DSHS Press Officer, 512-458-7524 or 512-532-4950.
Congressman Hinojosa supports long-term economic plan approved by U.S. House of Representatives
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Wednesday, April 29, supported the long-term economic plan that puts America on a path towards renewed prosperity and growth. The plan cuts taxes, cuts the deficit, puts restraints on spending and makes targeted investments in health care, energy and education that will grow the economy and create jobs.
“This budget is a long-term economic plan that includes targeted investments that will create new jobs, help transform our economy with clean American energy, prepare our students for the jobs of the 21st century and reform our health care system to make it affordable for families and help businesses compete.” said Hinojosa.
The budget resolution takes significant steps reduce health care costs – one of the largest contributors to the deficit and a drag on American businesses – improving the quality of care and expanding coverage, without adding to the deficit. The long-term economic plan also increases investments in new energy technologies made in America, and lays the groundwork for legislation that will cut pollution and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Hinojosa touted the budget for its fairness to American families and fiscal responsibility – cutting taxes on almost all American families and cutting the deficit by nearly two thirds by 2013.
“This plan will make America stronger and give the people of South Texas more tools to achieve prosperity in these tough times,” said Hinojosa. “It will take time to turn our economy around, but this budget is a bold step in the right direction.”
The plan approved by the House on April 29 ushers in a new era of honesty and accountability in budgeting. While the previous administration masked costs like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and natural disasters to make the deficit appear smaller, President Obama and this Congress are including estimates of these costs for every year in the budget. The budget also reinforces a commitment to statutory pay-as-you-go (or PAYGO) rules, an important tool of fiscal discipline.
“This economic plan saves taxpayers billions of dollars with new initiatives to root out waste, fraud and abuse,” said Hinojosa. “We must make smart investments in our future, but review every taxpayer dollar spent as we go along to restore fiscal accountability. The long-term economic plan we passed today is a much needed step towards getting America back on the road to prosperity.”
Senate, House panel approve measure to ensure health insurance for survivors of slain law officers
By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.
In 2007 a young wife and new mother grieving the death of her game warden husband who was murdered faced many decisions that included how to make a living.
As if these conditions weren’t overwhelming enough, she learned that her health insurance premiums were going to increase from about $300 to over $1,000 a month. The state was demanding that she pay the cost that the employee normally pays plus the state’s portion for the employee, her husband, Justin Hurst of El Campo.
Unable to afford these rates, Amanda Hurst began shopping around but kept getting rejected for a pre-existing condition because she had sought grief counseling for the her husband’s death.
Although Mrs. Hurst’s case is heart-wrenching, she isn’t alone. Survivors of law enforcement officers throughout Texas continue to face such unfairness, which wasn’t supposed to have ever occurred.
Working together with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), I passed a bill in 1997 that was intended to allow survivor families of fallen peace officers to continue purchasing their health insurance from their employers at the same rate the officers were paying prior to their death.
Many employers, particularly counties and municipalities, have complied with the intent of the statute. However, some have not, including the state of Texas.
CLEAT was shocked to learn that the state was forcing survivors of our law enforcement heroes to pay these outrageous health insurance premiums.
In essence, the Employee Retirement System of Texas is charging the survivors the family rate, the cost for two adults plus any dependents.
After learning of these situations from other survivor families, I decided to act as promptly as possible. This session, I’ve had the opportunity to file legislation clarifying that a survivor of a Texas peace officer killed in the line of duty may continue to purchase health insurance from the employer and at the rate paid by active employees.
Through Senate Bill 872, we are correcting a grave injustice to the families of those who put their lives on the line to protect ours.
SB 872 was approved by the Senate on April 7, then approved by the House Appropriations Committee on April 28. It is awaiting action by the full House of Representatives.
This bill also changes current law that eligibility expires after a surviving spouse remarries or becomes eligible for insurance through another employer. Currently, once coverage is dropped, it cannot be regained. Even though there’s no guarantee that the new marriage will last, a survivor is forced to either not remarry or drop the coverage. This is especially problematic when a child is involved. Furthermore, other insurance options should not preclude a person from continuing the deceased spouse’s insurance, and the same should hold true for minor dependents.
Also contained in my bill are provisions requiring the employer to send a second written notice by certified mail to the eligible survivor no later than the 150th day after the officer’s death, and it gives a survivor 180 days instead of just 90 to decide whether to continue with the same health insurance coverage.
This bill is simply about doing what’s right for those who serve our state and its citizens with such bravery. Most of all, it lets the families of those who have died know that we honor their sacrifice, and that Texas will maintain its commitment to the families of these heroes.
South Texas Behavioral Health Center promotes mental health awareness
By DALINDA GUILLEN
May marks National Mental Health Month and to recognize the month-long health campaign in the Rio Grande Valley, the South Texas Behavioral Health Center hosted an advocacy reception for community leaders on Friday, May 1, 2009.
Area leaders spanning from law enforcement, military, elected officials, health care practitioners and social service providers attended the event in recognition of the advancements and challenges of mental health care in the Valley.
César A. Matos, a psychiatrist and Medical Director at the South Texas Behavioral Health Center explained that for a long time, the South Texas Behavioral Health Center was the only mental health facility in the area offering the necessary resources to alleviate the patient’s burden on their recurrent and devastating mental health issues.
“The South Texas Behavioral Health Center has been the community’s source of support services for the Valley’s mentally ill,” he said. “Over the years, they have helped many in our community to deal with mental health issues in a compassionate, ethical and effective manner.”
Joe Rodríguez, CEO for South Texas Behavioral Health Center spoke on the center’s history and described the center’s ongoing efforts to provide community education and encourage those
“Seeking help is the first step to mental health recovery,” said Rodríguez. “That’s why we are offering free and confidential mental health assessments as part of our community outreach. Anyone can participate by calling our toll free number at 1/888-977-1400.
Mental Health Month, is an opportunity for the community to better understand the value of South Texas Behavioral Health Center’s commitment to innovative approaches for meeting the behavioral health needs of the Rio Grande Valley. Accessible behavioral health services are helpful to the advancement of Valley children, schools, businesses, healthcare and many other factors that contribute to a healthy society.
The South Texas Behavioral Health Center is a 134 bed inpatient hospital providing treatment for a wide range of behavioral health disorders affecting children, adolescents, adults and senior adults. Discovery treatment programs at the South Texas Behavioral Health Center are specifically designed for each of its patient’s needs. The South Texas Behavioral Health Center is a South Texas Health System facility. For more information visit:
Former Starr County Sheriff Guerra pleads guilty to federal charges of involvement with drug trafficking
Reymundo Guerra, 52, of Rio Grande City, on Friday, May 1, pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances, acting United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced today. The former Starr County Sheriff pleaded guilty at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane today in McAllen.
Guerra admitted that since at least January of 2007 he utilized information learned as a result of his position as sheriff to enable José Carlos Hinojosa and his drug trafficking associates to avoid investigation and possible arrest and to hasten their release if they were arrested.
If Guerra knew or anticipated there might be increased law enforcement activity in the area of Starr County, Guerra would warn Hinojosa. Guerra also forced closure of a case associated with one of Hinojosa’s associates. On at least one occasion, Guerra knowingly gave a false document to investigators to deflect suspicion from one of Hinojosa’s associates. Guerra also assisted Hinojosa to learn of information leading to searches of stash locations and residences and/or seizures of controlled substances. Through his actions, Guerra helped Hinojosa and his associates to continue to engage in drug trafficking activities in Starr County. In return for his information and protection, Guerra was compensated through “gifts” from Hinojosa, typically $2,000 to $3,000 at a time.
Guerra is scheduled for sentencing on July 29, 2009. He faces no less than 10 years up to life imprisonment, a $4 million fine and a five-year-term of supervised release. Guerra was allowed to remain on bond but was advised he will be taken into custody on July 29, 2009.
Guerra was one of a total of 27 individuals named and charged with various drug trafficking and/or money laundering offenses alleged in a recently returned superseding indictment. Of those 27 defendants, a total of 20 have entered pleas of guilty to one or more counts of the indictment including the former sheriff. Seven are fugitives and the indictment remains sealed as to a 28th defendant.
The following individuals all have previously pleaded guilty to at least one count of the indictment and are scheduled for sentencing on June 16, 2009: José Carlos Hinojosa, 31, a resident alien from Mexico residing in Roma; Raymundo Edgar González, 37, of Roma; Sergio Iván Olivarez-Flores, 25, a Mexican citizen from Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, Mexico; Jorge Alberto Ramos, 30, of Roma; José De Jesús Hernández, 30, a resident alien from Mexico residing in Houston; Jesús Fabiel Mendoza, 29, of Richmond, Texas; Roberto Eden Moreno, 28, of Palmhurst; Jaime Herrera, 33, of Edinburg; John Louis Jordan, 38, of Missouri City, Texas; Darrell Lamelle Wortham, 37, of Missouri City, Texas; Sharletha Woodard, 30, of Houston; Twandalyn Rénique Jordan, 35, of Missouri City, Texas; San Juanita M. García, 55, of Garcíasville; and Tarsila Villarreal Vidal, 37, of Salineno, Texas.
Mayra Trevino Flores, 26, of Houston, and Javier Óscar Solis García, 47, a Mexican citizen from Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, Mexico, have also pleaded guilty, but are scheduled for sentencing on July 29, 2009. Yanira Barrera, 34, of Houston, pleaded guilty on April 30 and will also be sentenced on July 29, 2009.
Eduardo Nicolas Barragán-Balderas, 32, a Mexican citizen from Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, Mexico; José Alonso Barrera, 33, of McAllen; Luis Fernando Garza Sáenz, 33, a Mexican citizen from Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, Mexico; Sergio Silva Treviño, 25, a Mexican citizen from Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, Mexico; Aldo Reyes, 32, of Rio Grande City; Romel Neftali Huerta, 30, of Roma; and Ricardo Peña Cuellar, 49, of Mission, are currently fugitives. Warrants remain outstanding for their arrests. Anyone having information regarding the whereabouts of these fugitives are asked to contact the McAllen office of the FBI at (956) 984-6300 or the McAllen office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) at (956) 992-8400. The indictment remains sealed as to one defendant.
The investigation leading to the charges was conducted by special agents of the FBI, DEA, the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations Division, Houston Police Department and the Hidalgo County High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force. This Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force case dubbed Operation Carlito’s Weigh is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Toni Treviño.
Congressman Hinojosa coordinates Financial Literacy Day on Capitol Hill
By TENO VILLARREAL
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, the co-founder and Co-Chair of the Financial and Economic Literacy Caucus, on Thursday, April 30, collaborated with several groups on an important financial literacy event.
April is Financial Literacy Month and April 30 marked Financial Literacy Day on the Hill. To celebrate this special day, the Partnership for Financial Literacy Policy hosted the 2009 Financial Literacy Day Fair in collaboration with the Financial and Economic Literacy Caucus.
“Today is an important day on Capitol Hill and throughout the country. I am proud of all the organizations and leaders involved in the financial literacy effort and this fair, which I have been coordinating for five years” said Hinojosa. “Through our collective hard work, the term ‘financial literacy’ is being incorporated into the everyday language of the United States Congress, in States and localities, and in non-profits and community–based groups. Together, we can find the ways and means to improve the financial situation of all those living in the U.S. It is vital to our financial security that we succeed.”
The Financial Literacy Day Fair on Capitol Hill was held at the Cannon House Office Building, Cannon Caucus Room on April 30. The event ran from noon until 4 p.m. and was attended by almost 800 people. More than 50 exhibitors displayed their financial literacy programs and materials to Hill staff, Members of Congress, nonprofits and the public. The program included remarks by Congressman Hinojosa, Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL-13), the distinguished U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), and Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY-4).
The fair provided attendees with information about programs and activities organized throughout the nation by federal agencies, states, localities, schools, nonprofit organizations, community based organizations, businesses, and other entities that provide individuals with the financial and economic knowledge necessary to make sound personal financial decisions during all stages of life. Hill staff and Members of Congress will use the products they selected from today’s events to hold financial literacy town hall meetings, financial literacy fairs and other information events in their respective districts.
The youngest participant was an 11 month old girl and the eldest a 95 year-old man.
The Partnership for Financial Literacy Policy consists of the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, Junior Achievement, and the Council for Economic Education. Sponsors of this year’s financial literacy day luncheon included BancWest, State Farm, the McGraw-Hill Companies, the AICPA, and HSBC – North America.
Hinojosa concluded, “Whether you are just starting school or you are 95 years old, it is never too early or too late to start putting your financial house in order.”
Financial literacy, lacking for many Americans, remains a key to survival in tough economic times
By CONGRESSMAN RUBÉN HINOJOSA
In these tough economic times, financial literacy is becoming vitally important for all Americans. Financial security is one of the most important issues for most Americans whether it involves saving enough for their children’s college education, saving for an unforeseen emergency, a house, or their retirement. It is critical that we improve the financial literacy and economic education of all individuals across the United States during all stages of their lives.
In 2005, I co-founded and currently co-chair the Financial and Economic literacy Caucus in the House of Representatives. Through this Caucus, I have been able to move the financial literacy cause forward to address financial literacy and economic education of our children and grandchildren and future generations to come.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling reports that only 39 percent of American consumers keep close track of their expenses; less than half have ordered their credit report; and one-third do not know where to go for financial advice. Some studies show that as many as 10 million households in the United States are `unbanked’ or are without access to mainstream financial products and services. According to the 2007 Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, 43.5% of American families did not save and less than half of the population has a savings account.
For these reasons, and countless more, we need to work with public, community-based, and private sector organizations throughout the United States to increase financial literacy rates for Americans of all ages and walks of life through a range of outreach efforts, including media campaigns, websites, and one-on-one counseling for individuals.
It is my continuing hope that through financial literacy, we can move everyone into the financial mainstream. We can help people across the United States to open checking and savings accounts, establish credit and eventually realize the American dream of homeownership. That is when we will start seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, leading us out of these difficult times towards a bright future for all.
Texas Attorney General Abbott observes National Crime Victims’ Rights Week
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, state legislators and victim advocacy organizations on Wednesday, April 29, observed National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, which marks the passage of the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and “25 Years of Rebuilding Lives.”
In 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the landmark VOCA statute to establish the Crime Victims Fund, which uses fines and fees paid by federal offenders to finance crime victim compensation, nationwide victim services and victim service provider training. Over the last 25 years, the federal Fund has grown from $68 million to more than $2 billion. Under VOCA, Texas Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund has received nearly $300 million in federal funds. A similar amount has been distributed to victim services programs through the Governor’s Office.
“Serving and protecting Texas crime victims is one of our most important and solemn duties,” Abbott said. “As custodians of the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, we are committed to working with crime victim organizations to help victims down the path to recovery. Together, we can ensure Texas crime victims have access to the financial resources and victim services they need to triumph over adversity.”
The Office of the Attorney General administers the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, which helps crime victims and their families with the financial costs of violent crime. Eligible victims may be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses they incurred because of the crime. Reimbursable expenses include medical and counseling bills, funeral costs and victim relocation expenses.
Last year, the OAG received more than 37,000 applications for crime victims’ assistance and awarded more than $66 million to victims and their families. The OAG also distributed nearly $34 million in grants to entities that provide emergency shelter, crisis counseling, court accompaniment and other victim assistance.
The Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund was established by the Texas Legislature in 1979 to help those who cannot afford the financial cost of crime. Fees, court costs and restitution paid by individuals convicted of state felonies or misdemeanors are allocated to the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. When eligible victims and their families have exhausted all other outside means of financial support, including private insurance, the Fund helps them offset their crime-related expenses.
Individuals may be eligible for up to $50,000 in financial assistance from the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. Victims who suffer total and permanent disability as a result of a crime may qualify for an additional $75,000, which may be used to offset specific expenses, such as lost wages, prosthetics, rehabilitation or making a home accessible.
Local hospitals and medical centers can provide crime victims with applications for financial assistance through the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund. In addition, every law enforcement agency in Texas is required by state law to provide crime victims information about the fund, including an application for financial assistance. Victims and survivors can also contact the OAG directly for an application.
To further serve victims of family violence, sexual assault, and stalking, the OAG administers the Texas Address Confidentiality Program (ACP). The ACP provides a substitute post office box address and free mail forwarding service for participants.
For more information about the Crime Victims’ Compensation Program, contact the Crime Victim Services Division at (800) 983-9933 or visit the agency’s Web site at:
Senate approves bills to require more accountability for public schools and to enhance college readiness
By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES
The Senate last week approved a new accountability plan for public schools, one that puts college readiness as the main factor in gauging a school’s success.
Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chair of the Senate Education Committee who was the author of the legislation, said preparing students for life after high-school should be the goal of every educator.
"The passing standards on the [current] assessments lack any link to success after graduation," she said. "The world today requires sound preparation. All students must be prepared for post-secondary education." The bill, Senate Bill 3, would determine success based on math and reading preparation for students entering college. It would also look at end-of-course exams in four core subjects: science, social studies, math and English."
The bill is more flexible in judging school districts, said Shapiro.
School assessments would be based on three-year rolling averages, rather than just a single year. Schools could also win recognition in a variety of areas, from academic achievement and student growth to excellence in fine arts and second-language education, and would permit students to take eight elective courses in high school. The bill now heads to the House.
The Senate also passed last week to the state’s windstorm insurance system.
The Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), intended to be the insurer of last resort for coastal residents and businesses, is now virtually the only insurer in that area. Coupled with a catastrophic fund that is completely empty the state could be responsible for up to $68 billion in damage claims should another major hurricane hit the Texas coast, said Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay.
He said on Thursday, April 30, that passage of his bill, SB 14, is vital to protecting the state from an enormous cost.
"I said before the session started, we have to pass two bills this session, one is the budget, and the other one is the TWIA windstorm bill, and I still believe that," he said.
His bill would use bonds issued before or after a storm to pay for damage claims, with surcharges on coastal insurance policies used to pay those bonds back. Above $2 billion in claims, and the rest of the state would chip in through premium surcharges, splitting the cost 70/30 with coastal residents. The state could also assess millions to TWIA member companies in the event of a hurricane.
In committee last week, the Senate State Affairs Committee heard testimony about a bill that would permit the concealed carrying of handguns by licensed individuals on Texas college campuses.
Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said on Monday, April 27, that Texas students need to protect themselves in the event of a school shooting like what happened at Virginia Tech.
"I don’t want Texas college students picked off like sitting ducks by some deranged madman who comes on campus with a weapon as has happened on other campuses throughout the country," he said. The bill would still prohibit carrying a concealed handgun at college sporting events, and would permit universities to set rules about storing guns in residential halls.
Students, parents and activists from both sides of the issue testified before the committee.
Opponents of the bill say putting more guns on campus would increase the danger to students, while supporters said individuals with concealed carry licenses are careful, conscientious gun owners who have the right to defend themselves wherever they are. The bill remains pending before the committee.