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Featured: The 2020 Senator Judith Zaffirini Teachers’ College Student Loan Debt Grant Award recipients are, front row, left to right: Gloria S. Becerra, United Independent School District; Dr. Carolyn M. Schmies, representing Prakash K. Mansinghani (’10, ’11), Laredo College; Dr. Gilberto Martínez, Texas A&M International University, Laredo; Sandy Webb (’13), St. Augustine Catholic School; and Rebecca Mendoza (’12), Laredo Independent School District. Back row: Dr. Minita Ramírez, Vice President for Student Success, Texas A&M International University, Laredo; Víctor Villarreal (’09), Judge of Webb County Court-at-Law II; Sen Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whose legislative district includes Starr County; Dr. Pablo Arenaz, President, Texas A&M International University, Laredo; and Dr. Tom Mitchell, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Texas A&M International University, Laredo. Four of the five recipients are alumni of Texas A&M International University.

Photograph Courtesy TEXAS A&M INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY

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Sen. Zaffirini: New laws take effect with the new year, including court costs reform, taxpayer protections

By SARAH POLLOCK

Legislation passed during the 2019 Regular Session of the Texas Legislature continue to take effect, with 24 new laws becoming effective on New Year’s Day 2020. 

Three of those bills were authored or sponsored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whose legislative district includes Starr County: 

• Senate Bill 346;
• House Bill 69; and
• House Bill 1885.  

Senate Bill 346, of which she was the primary author, significantly reforms Texas’ confusing system of court costs, fines, and fees by consolidating some and eliminating unnecessary others. 

“The criminal court cost system in Texas has been difficult for defendants to navigate, for county and district clerks to administer and for the state to audit for compliance,” Zaffirini said. “Senate Bill 346 not only will make the system more streamlined and efficient, but also will protect vital programs that currently are funded by court costs.”

The author is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). The Senate allows multiple primary authors for each bill or resolution. The House of Representatives allows only one primary author, the House member whose signature appears on the original measure and on the copies filed with the chief clerk. Both chambers also have coauthors, and the House of Representatives has joint authors.

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, were coauthors of Zaffirini’s Senate Bill 346.

A coauthor is a legislator authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives allow an unlimited number of coauthors on a bill or resolution. A coauthor must be a member of the chamber in which the bill was filed.

Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, was the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 346 in the Texas House of Representatives, with Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Ft. Worth, Rep. James White, R-Hillister, and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, White and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, serving as sponsors.

The primary sponsor is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The primary sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.

When the Texas Legislature returns to work in January 2021 for its five-month regular session, Zaffirini said she will propose similar improvements for civil cases.

The House Research Organization, which is the research arm of the Texas House of Representatives, provided additional insights into Senate Bill 346 when it went before state representatives for their review and action:

Concerns have been raised about the complexity of and potential constitutional issues relating to the administration of criminal fees, court costs, and fines; 

Senate Bill 346 would consolidate and standardize the collection of certain court costs and fees payable to local governments upon criminal convictions and direct how such amounts would be allocated, eliminating a number of separate criminal court costs and fees;

The bill would increase court costs payable to the comptroller upon a criminal conviction and would modify how such costs were allocated; and

Senate Bill 346 also would change the statutory language to distinguish between amounts assessed as criminal court costs, fees, and fines.

The full bill analysis of Senate Bill 346 by the House Research Organization is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba86r/sb0346.pdf#navpanes=0

Zaffirini sponsored House Bill 69 by Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, which ensures representatives of a deceased person’s estate can fairly terminate a lease and retrieve his or her belongings. 

“While many leases include protections for this type of situation, the law formerly did not provide guidance, nor were such protections available to all tenants,” Zaffirini said. “House Bill 69 establishes a reasonable process for all involved parties, ensuring persons are not exploited following the death of a loved one.” 

The House Research Organization provided additional insights into House Bill 69 when it went before state representatives for their review and action:

Property Code sec. 92.014 governs the process by which a landlord may remove or allow the removal of a deceased tenant’s personal property and requires the landlord to refund the tenant’s security deposit, less lawful deductions, to a person lawfully entitled to the refund. If a landlord and tenant agree to a different procedure for removing, storing, or disposing of property in the case of the tenant’s death, that agreement supersedes this section.

It has been noted that current law does not mandate policies that prevent a deceased tenant’s surviving family from having to pay future rent or early termination fees for the remainder of the tenant’s lease.
CSHB 69 would allow the estate of a deceased person to terminate the person’s residential lease without incurring liability for future rent or other sums due for early termination under the lease.

The full bill analysis of House Bill 69 by the House Research Organization is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba86r/hb0069.pdf#navpanes=0

Zaffirini also sponsored House Bill 1885, whose primary author was Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which provides a waiver for penalties and fees related to a property tax bill that becomes delinquent as a result of an error by a bank or other mortgage lender. 

Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, was a joint author of House Bill 1885.

In the House of Representatives, a joint author is a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.

“Taxpayers should not be held liable for mistakes made by their financial institutions,” Zaffirini said. “House Bill 1885 addresses this problem by allowing taxing entities to waive penalties in cases where borrowers receive their bill late but pay their taxes timely upon receipt.” 

The House Research Organization provided additional insights into House Bill 1885 when it went before state representatives for their review and action:

House Bill 1885 would allow a taxing unit to waive penalties and interest on a delinquent property tax if:

• The property was subject to a mortgage that did not require the property owner to fund an escrow account for payment of property taxes;

• The tax bill was delivered by electronic means to the mortgagee, but the mortgagee failed to mail a copy to the property owner as required by law; and

• The taxpayer paid the tax within 21 days of the date the taxpayer knew or should have known of the delinquency.

The full bill analysis of House Bill 1885 by the House Research Organization is available online at:

https://hro.house.texas.gov/pdf/ba86r/hb1885.pdf#navpanes=0

Zaffirini passed 127 bills during the 2019 legislative session, breaking her personal record for the third consecutive session and passing more bills than any other legislator. Since 1987 she has sponsored and passed 1,160 bills and 36 substantive resolutions — more than any other legislator in Texas history. 

“Even after 32 years of serving in the Senate, my constituents continue to amaze me,” Zaffirini said. “Some of our best laws began with their suggestions. They can count on me to listen and develop additional legislation for the next regular session that convenes on Jan. 12, 2021.”

Zaffirini is Vice-Chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Economic Development and of the Senate Select Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety. She is a member of the Administration, State Affairs and Business and Commerce committees and serves on the Texas Judicial Council and the Texas Access to Justice Commission. 

Her work ethic is reflected in her 100 percent perfect attendance in the Texas Senate since 1987, except for breaking quorum deliberately to prevent an untimely re-redistricting that the U.S. Supreme Court (2006) ruled violated the Voting Rights Act and disenfranchised voters in Senate District 21. Continuing her career-long 100 percent voting record, she has cast more than 64,000 consecutive votes.

FIVE EDUCATORS NAMED RECIPIENTS OF 2020 ZAFFIRINI TEACHERS’ COLLEGE STUDENT LOAN DEBT GRANTS

The holidays were the season of giving, and five Laredo educators were given generous grants to help them reduce their college student loan debts through a program established by Carlos Zaffirini, Jr. honoring his mother, Sen. Judith Zaffirini. D-Laredo.

In a reception on Monday, December 16, 2019, at Texas A&M International University’s (TAMIU) Senator Judith Zaffirini Student Success Center, the 2020 recipients of The Senator Judith Zaffirini Teachers’ College Student Loan Debt Grant were named.

The honorees, recognized for their exemplary dedication to Laredo students, are Gloria S. Becerra (’99), kindergarten teacher, Juarez-Lincoln Elementary (United Independent School District); Dr. Gilberto Martínez, Assistant Professional of Theatre Arts, TAMIU; Prakash K. Mansinghani (’10, ’11), Associate Professor of Government, Laredo College (LC); Rebecca Mendoza (’12), fifth-grade teacher, Heights Elementary (Laredo Independent School District); and Sandy Webb (’13), English teacher, St. Augustine Catholic School.  

Four of the five honorees are TAMIU alumni.

Each received $2,000 to help reduce his or her college student loan debts. To qualify, teachers must have taught in Laredo for at least five years, have a college student loan debt of at least $5,000, and be selected by his or her institution, based on program criteria. The program was launched in Laredo in 2018 and extended to southeast Austin in 2019. Participating institutions select their respective recipients each year.

Recipients and their family and friends, community guests, and colleagues from TAMIU, LC, LISD, UISD, and St. Augustine High School attended.

Carlos Zaffirini, Jr. said he established the program to honor his mother, who completed three degrees at The University of Texas at Austin thanks to a National Defense Student Loan, and struggled to pay it back, largely through teacher loan forgiveness programs.

“Her passion since then has been to make higher education accessible and affordable for all Texans, especially South Texans,” he said, “So I thought, what better way to honor her than to help teachers pay their college student loan debts? This is my way of saying ‘thank you,’ not only to her but also to those who made her education possible through student loans.”
Zaffirini confirmed that higher education is indeed her passion.

“Higher education truly is my passion,” the senator said. “I wish I could express the love, pride, and joy that I feel to see my son not only share it but also embrace it through his generosity in countless arenas, especially in education.”

Zaffirini, Jr., an attorney, businessperson, and philanthropist, is president and CEO of Adelanto Health Care Ventures (AHCV), LLC, a healthcare financial consulting firm. 

Since 2012, he has honored his mother annually with endowed gifts including scholarships at TAMIU, UT-Austin, and the Baylor College of Medicine, the Access to Justice Initiative at the UT Law School, and a family patient suite at the UT Dell Seton Medical Center.

The Teachers’ College Student Debt Grant Program will continue through 2020. To date, 15 Laredo and five Austin teachers have benefitted from the program.

This year Zaffirini also established Senator Judith Zaffirini Good Works Grants. The first, for $5,000, was awarded in December 2019 to the Guadalupe Valley Family Violence Shelter, which serves Guadalupe, Karnes and Wilson counties in her district.

TAMIU is a member of the Texas A&M University System’s state-wide campaign, “We Teach Texas.” 

TAMIU, along with the 11 universities in the A&M system, produces more fully certified teachers than any other university system in Texas.

$100,000 GRANT TO TRAIN LOW-INCOME WOMEN FOR HIGH-DEMAND OCCUPATIONS SECURED BY VALLEY INITIATIVE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND ADVANCEMENT (VIDA)

“Congratulations!  I am so very pleased to inform you that a grant in the amount of $100,000 has been awarded to Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement.”  

With those words in a letter received in late November by VIDA, the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement, the future for a number of women in deep South Texas will change in ways they likely cannot imagine.  

The funding, which is coming from The Meadows Foundation, was announced on Wednesday, December 10, 2019.

“We are thankful for this partnership with The Meadows Foundation,” said Priscilla Dinn Álvarez, Executive Director of VIDA. “One of the most important components of sustainable economic growth is the investment in human capital, and Meadows recognizes this.”

Established in 1948 by Algur H. and Virginia Meadows, The Meadows Foundation exists to assist people and institutions of Texas improve the quality and circumstances of life for themselves and future generations.

Since its inception, the Foundation has disbursed more than $1.2 billion to 3,600 Texas institutions and agencies across all 254 Texas counties. Grants are awarded to 501(c)(3) organizations and public entities in the areas of arts and culture, civic and public affairs, education, health, and human services as well as initiatives promoting the environment, mental health, and public education.

“Over 60 percent of our participants are women, most of whom are single parents with multiple dependents,” said Alvarez.  “This investment from The Meadows Foundation makes it possible to support this high-need population with the support services required to climb out of poverty.”

VIDA leaders say the organization’s philosophy is simple: A well-trained, well-educated population will not only be ready for tomorrow’s jobs but will also live a more prosperous, healthy, and happy life. The ultimate goal is job retention, not job placement, as job retention results in strong citizens who are self-sufficient taxpayers, thus providing a clear return on investment for federal, state, local and private funding. 

VIDA graduates have not only helped the families they support and the businesses that now employ them, but their increased earnings have enhanced their contributions to our tax system and reduced their dependence on public welfare. VIDA has demonstrated a model for success by graduating participants into high-demand occupations, jobs normally left unfilled or filled by people from outside our community.

VIDA’s career counselors/case managers work closely with each student to address barriers that historically plague low-income individuals and ultimately quash their efforts of continuing education. Financial matters, family issues, and time management are but a few of the elements addressed through weekly counseling sessions. In addition, VIDA counselors infuse group sessions with soft-skills training, such as general employability, resume preparation and interviewing financial management, and study skills. 

Guest speakers are invited for open dialogue about home buying, savings, investments, and retirement planning. Wraparound services, training, and counseling equip VIDA participants to enter the workforce with the skills and commitment necessary for success.

VIDA is a community- based, nonprofit 501(c)(3) agency created in 1995 through a local effort led by community leaders of Valley Interfaith and private-industry leaders. The impetus was the need to empower the underserved residents of the region with the tools, education, and training needed to become self-sufficient while fueling the growth of existing employers and recruiting new investors to the area by developing a highly-skilled workforce. 

Since its inception, VIDA’s mission remains constant – to formulate new institutional relationships in the Rio Grande Valley that simultaneously address employers’ needs for skilled workers and link the area’s unemployed and underemployed with high skilled, high-wage jobs in the region. 

To learn more, call 956/903-1900 or 1/800-478-1770 or visit vidacareers.org.

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Lauren Cavazos, Chris Ardis, and David A. Díaz contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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