Featured, from left: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who also serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation; Ronnie Larralde, Executive Director, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; and Hiren Govind, Chair, Board of Directors, Edinburg Chamber of Commerce, on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at the Edinburg Depot, located at 602 W. University Drive.
Photograph by NAYELI ZENTEÑO
Rep. Canales providing leadership, vital constituent services, for District 40 during COVID-19 pandemic
As Americans nationwide battle the dangerous COVID-19 pandemic, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and his staff in Edinburg and at the Texas Capitol in Austin, are working overtime, including by partnering with local, state, and federal officials to help House District 40 constituents, many who are facing a wide range of hardships.
His House District 40 legislative district includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr, and Weslaco.
Canales, who also serves as Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, has been successfully working with his colleagues and the state’s top elected and appointed leadership in making vital changes in state policies that are helping protect Texans, including:
Suspending STAAR® Testing for this academic year
In the wake of school closures across the state, Canales led the effort to call for a suspension of STAAR® testing. Responding to concerns from parents and teachers, Canales asked the Texas Education Agency and Gov. Greg Abbott to take action to suspend state standardized testing for the year.
“School districts across the state have canceled classes leaving uncertainty with students and school faculty regarding their school calendars and the upcoming STAAR® tests,” Canales told Mike Morath, Commissioner, Texas Education Agency, on Friday, March 14, 2020. “High stress is normal around our state’s standardized testing in a normal year without these disruptions, and in light of recent events, I urge TEA to waive STAAR testing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year.”
Abbott on Monday, March 16, 2020, used his statutory authority as the governor of Texas under Texas Government Code, §418.016 to suspend the Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR®), which is the annual academic assessment requirements for the remainder of the 2019–2020 school year. TEA will work with the United States Department of Education to request waivers from federal testing and accountability requirements for the 2019–2020 school year.
Temporarily suspend most residential evictions
Canales also led the charge in the effort to call on Abbott and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht to temporarily hold eviction and foreclosure proceedings on residential homes and properties.
“As we have seen in other nations who are currently battling the spread of the COVID-19 virus, safely keeping people in their own homes has been paramount in slowing the spread of this disease,” Canales explained. “We are not asking you to void debts, merely to help maintain social stability in this time of crisis.”
The Texas Supreme Court, on Thursday, March 19, 2020, suspended most residential evictions through April 19, 2020 – and that order may be extended by the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court. The order notes that while filings can still be submitted, no trial, hearing, or other eviction proceedings may be conducted until after April 19, 2020. The order may be extended by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
“Temporarily suspending residential eviction proceedings will provide Texans whose personal income has been affected by the spread of this virus with greater flexibility to meet their housing needs and provide for their families,” Canales responded.
In a related matter, President Trump on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, announced that the federal government would suspend evictions and foreclosures on properties owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) until Thursday, April 30, 2020.
“Today, I’m announcing that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing immediate relief to renters and homeowners by suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April,” the president said.
Public safety employees to receive reimbursement for COVID-19 medical expenses
After hearing that the state’s first responders, such as peace officers, emergency medical service (EMS) employees, firefighters, and others, may not have medical expenses covered if they contract COVID-19 while performing their work duties, Canales wrote Abbott to request that all first responders who contract the virus be presumed to have received the virus in the course of their employment.
“The state has a responsibility to protect our first responders who contract COVID-19 during their employment,” said Canales. “Normally in our state, the worker has to prove he contracted the virus while working in order to get their medical expenses and lost wages covered; however, there is practically no way for a first responder, like a police officer, to prove that he contracted COVID-19 while in the course of his employment even though he or she was engaging with countless individuals every single day and became sick.”
Around the same time, Abbott suspended certain laws to allow public safety employees of the state, similar to those first responders listed above, the ability to obtain reimbursement for their medical expenses through their employer in the event they contract the disease. However, the waiver does not reimburse a first responder’s lost wages when he or she contracted the virus.
“I was pleased that Gov. Abbott took these measures to help our first responders, but this does not go far enough because it does not protect the first responder’s lost wages,” said Canales. “Almost all first responders will lose their wages when they stop working after contracting the virus. First responders and their families depend on this income, and these folks are putting their lives on the line to protect the rest of us,” Canales responded. “I absolutely appreciate the governor’s steps here, but there is more work to do on this issue,” he continued.
Delaying local elections until November 2020
On March 17, 2020, Canales contacted Abbott and requested the governor to allow every Texas to vote by mail in the upcoming May 2, 2020, local elections. The governor responded by issuing a proclamation allowing communities to push their local elections until November 2020.
“As COVID-19 continues to disrupt normal day-to-day life for Texans, now is the time to act to ensure the voting rights of our citizens are protected,” the state representative noted. “Texans’ right to vote is undeniable and elections are essential to this democracy. Our democracy could be greatly weakened in Texans fear showing up at polling locations during this election period.”
On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the governor issued a proclamation allowing local elections administrators to postpone elections scheduled for May 2 until November, which at least two counties — Galveston and Williamson — have done. “Right now, the state’s focus is responding to COVID-19 — including social distancing and avoiding large gatherings,” Abbott said in a statement. “By delaying this election, our local election officials can assist in that effort.”
Securing more federal funding for medical and health care in South Texas
On Monday, March 30, 2020, the House District 40 state representative continued pressing for state and federal actions designed to strengthen the delivery of medical services and health care to deep South Texas, calling on Abbott to seek available federal funds “as Texas hospitals begin to face of a surge of cases, especially in our large urban areas.”
“As community spread becomes more prevalent and testing capacity continues to surge, the feedback I hear from hospitals and providers leaves me deeply concerned about our state’s outcomes for the uninsured and our critical healthcare delivery system,” Canales wrote Abbott. “Although the situation is dire, there are tools at our disposal to mitigate (reduce) the impact. Texas should be examining every opportunity to pull down additional federal healthcare funds and expand access to as many people as possible. The impact of this virus is unprecedented, and we must respond in kind.”
He urged Abbott to work with Alex M. Azar II, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and CMS on waiver provisions and additional authorizations that will do the following:
• Broaden Medicaid eligibility standards in Texas and cover low-income Texans currently not served by our Medicaid program;
• Allow cities, counties, and hospital districts the ability to work directly with CMS to broaden eligibility standards as an alternative to a statewide approach;
• Delay or suspend annual renewals and periodic data checks for current Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries;
• Establish a Special Enrollment Period for Marketplace coverage;
• Stay any proceedings that will disrupt our state’s health care delivery system, such as the impending end of funding for the uncompensated care program (UC) and the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment Program (DSRIP);
• Rescind or delay the Medicaid Fiscal Accountability Rule (MFAR). This proposed regulation threatens roughly $11 billion in federal funds to Texas hospitals at a time when they need support the most;
• Urge CMS to extend DSRIP for at least another year beyond 2022 to provide Medicaid beneficiaries and the uninsured with increased access to care and to help stabilize hospital providers in these extremely uncertain times;
• Shorten the duration between Inter-Governmental Transfers (IGT) and reimbursements under the Uniform Hospital Rate Increase Program (UHRIP) and transition the program from a 6-month timeframe to a quarterly time frame for settlement; and
• Implement a new hospital supplemental payment value-based program that consolidates existing hospital quality programs and allows the state to draw down additional federal resources based on hospitals improving quality and meeting metrics.
Protecting safety, legal rights in local court proceedings
Canales also encouraged courts in Hidalgo County to follow the recommendations of the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to avoid risk to court staff, parties, attorneys, jurors, and the public — without a participant’s consent.
He also supported allowing or requiring anyone involved in any hearing, deposition, or other proceedings of any kind in the court system in Hidalgo County — including but not limited to a party, attorney, witness, or court reporter, but not including a juror — to participate remotely, such as by teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or other means.
In response to COVID-19, the Supreme Court issued the following Emergency Orders, which expire on May 2020, unless extended by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:
Emergency Order 1 – Issued 3/13/2020
Permits all judges in the state at their discretion, and requires all judges “to avoid risk to court staff, parties, attorneys, jurors, and the public”, without a participant’s consent.
Emergency Order 2 – Issued 3/17/2020
Clarifies that child possession schedules establishing access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule are not affected by the school’s closure that arises from an epidemic or pandemic and that the originally published school schedule controls.
Emergency Order 3 – Issued 3/18/2020
Modifies Emergency Order 1, prohibits judges from conducting non-essential proceedings in person contrary to local, state, or national directives, whichever is most restrictive, regarding maximum group size.
Emergency Order 4 – Issued 3/18/2020
Prohibits a trial, hearing, or other proceedings in eviction to recover possession of the residential property under Chapter 24 of the Property Code and Rule 510 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure until after April 19, 2020.
Emergency Order 5 – Issued 3/20/2020
All deadlines, whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order, related to attorney professional disciplinary and disability proceedings are tolled.
Emergency Order 6 – Issued 3/24/2020
The 2020 elections for presidents-elect and directors of the State Bar of Texas and the Texas Young Lawyers Association must be conducted online only, by an electronic vote, and not by paper ballot. The voting period is extended to May 29, 2020, at 5:00 pm.
Emergency Order 7 – Issued 3/24/2020
Clarifies possession schedules in Suits Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (SAPCR). For purposes of determining a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule, the existing trial court order shall control in all instances. Possession of and access to a child shall not be affected by any shelter-in-place order or other order restricting movement issued by a governmental entity.
Texas expanding ability to process unemployment checks more rapidly
Canales said many constituents want information and help on other critical concerns that have come as a result of losing their jobs or having their work schedules reduced.
“My office has received hundreds of calls, emails, and messages over the past few days, many of which are looking for help filing for unemployment. We have been on many calls with the Texas Workforce Commission,” he said. “Please continue to reach out to my office if you need help filing for unemployment by calling (956)383-0860. I want to thank my staff who are working hard to help South Texas as we all navigate through this crisis.”
The Texas Workforce Commission, which is a state agency, is hiring hundreds of new employees to help Texans who qualify for unemployment pay get their money quickly. It’s going to take a little bit longer than usual because the number of Texans who have filed for unemployment benefits has jumped more than 10 times, from 16,176 in mid-March to 155,657 a week later.
“But help is coming, and thanks to my colleagues in our Valley congressional delegation, people who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, as a result of COVID-19, will get an extra $600 per week for up to four months, on top of state unemployment benefits to make up for 100 percent of lost wages,” Canales reported. Texans can apply for benefits any time online or call the toll-free number 800-939-6631 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The office is also open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays.
Canales also reminded constituents that there is financial help on the way from the U.S. government, with the passage of the Coronavirus Aid and Relief Economic Security (CARES) Act, which in a few weeks will provide direct cash payments to lower-and middle-income Americans of $1,200 for each adult and $500 for each child, beginning to phase out at an annual income of $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for a household.
These payments will provide individuals with the cash they as soon as possible on how to survive with much of the economy currently shut down.
Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, provides details about the CARES Act on his website at:
Other key efforts by Canales to protect the public
As further evidence of their increased workload, since mid-March, Canales and his staff have been working with Texas’ top leadership on shaping the Texas Legislature’s and state government’s strategies for protecting the public, including participating in high-level conference calls, at least every two days, with:
• Gov. Greg Abbott;
• Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen;
• Bruce Bonnen, Chairman, Texas Transportation Commission;
• Dr. John Hellerstedt, Commissioner, Department of State Health Services;
• Nim Kidd, Chief, Texas Division of Emergency Management;
• Texas Workforce Commission;
• Texas Education Agency;
• Texas Comptroller’s Office;
• The House Democratic Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives;
• The Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House of Representatives;
• Texas Hospital Association;
• Texas Association of School Boards,
• Texas Apartment Association; and
• American Immigration Lawyers Association.
From the lawmakers’ efforts at the state level, he and his staffhave been sharing the vital information and directives with the elected and appointed officials with Hidalgo County, the city governments and school districts in House District 40, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and its School of Medicine, and South Texas College;
House District 40 constituent work continues at full-speed
Canales, who just opened up a new district office at the Edinburg Chamber Depot, located at 602 W. University Drive, had to close his local and Capitol offices due to local emergency orders and to serve as examples for the community.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has recommended that only businesses such as supermarkets, hospitals, pharmacies, gas stations, and the like, upon the public rely on in their day-to-day life, remain open to the public. This recommendation is designed to reduce the spread of the COVID-19.
But even though the offices in Edinburg and at the Texas Capitol are physically closed, the work on behalf of House District 40 residents continues at full-speed, he emphasized, as Canales and his staff remain easily and readily accessible through phone calls and emails.
“My local staff members have families, and some of them have to be home to look after their children. But they are still getting their important work done,” said Canales, who also serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation. “In fact, along with my staff members at the Capitol, we are literally helping our constituents at least 12 hours a day. I am very grateful to them for their professionalism and dedication to the people we represent.”
The public telephone number for his Edinburg District Office, which is (956) 383-0860, is automatically forwarded the respective cell phones of his local staff, while the public telephone number for his office in Austin, which is (512) 463-0426, is automatically forwarded to the respective cell phones of his Texas Capitol staff.
As a result, all of the full-time staff members – Alma Uribe and Karla Ponce in Edinburg, and Curtis Smith and Dylan Matthews at the Texas Capitol – are fielding constituent phone calls throughout the day and into the evening and weekends, he said.
“Our duty to House District 40 will not be stopped by COVID-19,” Canales said. “We are always available and accessible on behalf of the people, not only to help get them through this public health emergency, but also to be ready, through the Texas Legislature, to help them come back stronger than ever, as quickly as possible.”
Rep. Canales’ Facebook postings related to COVID-19
In addition to directly contacting him and his staff, Canales said his Facebook page is providing constant and trustworthy updates on what is happening locally, in the Texas Legislature, and in the U.S. Congress and the White House, regarding COVID-19, including how residents can receive vital financial, health, medical, private and public help from all levels of society.
“Information is power, and that information is available from me and my outstanding staff, not only directly through our District and Capitol offices but also through our Facebook page,” Canales said. “Anyone who wants to know what is going on, and what their elected leaders, including myself, are doing for them during this unprecedented time, should call on us, and especially use our Facebook page, which is available 24-hours-a-day.”
His Facebook page is available online at:
Most recently featured on Canales’ Facebook page are the following highlights, which provide links to more detailed information:
Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks. The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,200 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.
The Texas Department of Health and Human Services provides a regularly-updated website on COVID-19 tests taken in the state, the number of confirmed or presumed positive cases, and a county-by-county breakdown. That website is available online at:
• UTRGV added COVID-19 testing sites on its Brownsville and Edinburg campuses as of Monday, March 30. The drive-thru sites will be open to employees, students, and the public. On-site evaluations will be available by appointment only for those 18 years of age or older who qualify after mandatory telephone screening;
• In this time of coronavirus, being quarantined with an abusive partner poses greater risks. An uptick in domestic violence has already been recorded in China. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is still open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. If you are in an emergency situation, please call 911. For anyone affected by abuse and needing support, call 1-800-799-7233, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522;
• COVID-19 has created an ideal environment for scammers who exploit fears and needs to sell fake tests, cures and even offer to help you get your government aid check. Please be careful. Anybody who believes they’ve been a victim of a scam or has information about suspected fraud can call 866-720-5721, or email [email protected]. This is a contact for the National Center for Disaster Fraud a part of the U.S. Department of Justice. You can also call local law enforcement;
• As a reminder, Texans who believe they have encountered disaster scams or price gouging should call the Texas Attorney General’s toll-free complaint line at (800) 621-0508. For additional information on disaster scams, please visit: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/consumer-protection/covid-19-consumer-issues
• Texas has received a $16.2 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to help communities provide meals for Seniors. This grant will help groups like Meals on Wheels receive additional resources to handle the growing need to feed seniors and those with limited mobility; and
• Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortéz signed an order that would enact a curfew for county residents from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. At the panel, Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said law enforcement officials would be out in the community patrolling for those violating the order. Guerra added that he has spoken to the municipalities and other law enforcement officials to let them know that first and foremost their goal is to educate the community. Guerra added they will be giving warning Monday night so that the community is educated and understands the importance of the order. Guerra also said that if cited, residents could face up to $1,000 fine or 180 days in County Jail.
Dylan Matthews, Curtis Smith, and Christine Mann 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).