Featured, from left: Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, on Thursday, July 9, 2015, following their presentations before the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s 84th Legislative Wrap-up Luncheon, held at the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel in McAllen.
Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR
Plans to build the South Texas College Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence in Pharr received final approval from the STC Board of Trustees on Tuesday, January 26, 2016, a move that will result in a multi-million dollar economic impact for the city while improving law enforcement throughout South Texas, said Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission. On a unanimous vote – with District 5 Trustee Dr. Alejo Salinas, Jr. of Edinburg excused on important business – the remaining six board members present for the public meeting approved an interlocal agreement with the City of Pharr and the Pharr San Juan Alamo Independent School District that will result in a major presence by STC on a 113.9 acre site located between U.S. Highway 281 and South Veterans Boulevard. “Obviously, this is a huge step for the people of Pharr and the PSJA school district because it brings one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in Texas into our community,” said Muñoz, whose House District 36 includes a large section of Pharr. “This is a landmark event, the latest success story in the Valley, and I congratulate the many people who worked long and hard to help make this happen.” The STC Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence was made possible in large part by Muñoz, who successfully authored House Bill 1887 last spring before the Texas Legislature. HB 1887 led to statutory authority for the STC to undertake the development of regional law enforcement training. “The Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence will increase necessary access to training opportunities for officers in the Rio Grande Valley region and, in turn, improve public safety and border security,” Muñoz further explained. “The training provided at the regional center also would provide officers with college credit toward either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, while the four police academies in the area would not.” The importance of establishing the STC complex in Pharr was emphasized during the State of the City Address on Wednesday, December 23, 2015, by Mayor Ambrosio “Amos” Hernández. “We are proud to announce that we have entered into a partnership to have a South Texas College facility in Pharr,” proclaimed the mayor, who was elected to his first term in May 2o15. “The facility will bring $9 million in economic impact and approximately $3 million in payroll.” Hernández shared Muñoz’ vision of the potential for the complex, with the mayor calling it “an STC Branch for PSJA ISD students.” Muñoz, a three-term state legislator who serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which shaped the current $200+ billion state budget, praised his fellow Valley lawmakers for helping pass the state law authorizing and helping fund the South Texas Regional Center for Public Safety. “Sen. Juan Hinojosa was the Senate author of my House Bill 1887, while Rep. Terry Canales, Rep. Bobby Guerra, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, and Rep. Ryan Guillen were joint authors in the House, and they all deserve credit for this huge accomplishment,” said Muñoz. “There is no substitute for experience when it comes to getting what we deserve from the Texas Legislature.” According to STC, with the interlocal agreements with the city and school district be approved, it will take between 18 months and 24 months to build the 21,800 square-foot facility, which will be the initial heart of The Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence. The project will include classroom facilities, vehicle driving range, outdoor shooting range, firearms simulator, mobile firearms simulator/live firing range, driving simulator, obstacle course, fitness rooms, and administrative offices. The estimated initial construction cost is $6.782 million, which includes $4.2 million from South Texas College’s Series 2013 Bond Issuance, $1.5 million provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety, and $1 million provided by the PSJA school district. The City of Pharr will contribute 59 acres and the PSJA school district will contribute 10 acres to begin the project. Within two years, the City of Pharr has proposed contributing another 32.24 acres, and within five years, the City of Pharr proposes contributing 12.55 additional acres.
Featured, seated from left: Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, fields questions on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives from Steve Taylor, the publisher and editor of the online publication, The Rio Grande Guardian.
Photograph By HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY
Children who are victims of sexual assault now have 15 years instead of five years to bring civil lawsuits against alleged sex offenders or others who are liable for the injuries sustained as a result of such crimes, said Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, who supported House Bill 189, which became state law on September 1, 2015. House Bill 189, which was approved by the Legislature late last spring, also removed any statute of limitations on the criminal prosecution of suspected serial rapists, whether their victim is a child or an adult. “I have a proven record in the Texas Legislature of supporting the creation of laws, policies, and new funding that protect crime victims and prosecute criminals,” said Muñoz. “I have no pity for rapists, child molesters, or other sexual predators, and I never place the blame of these victims because it is never their fault.” Prior to the passage of HB 189, there was a 10-year statute of limitations in the criminal prosecution of sex offenders who were considered serial rapists. A statute of limitations is generally defined as a law that sets a time limit for bringing certain kinds of legal action. Sexual assault is generally defined as any unwanted, non-consensual sexual contact against any individual by another. In 2014, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there were 18,756 sexual assaults in the state, an increase of 5.1 percent over 2013. House Bill 189, effective September 1, 2015, was needed because of the seriousness of these crimes and the special circumstances that can limit when these victims are ready to speak out about the crime, according to the bill analysis by the House Research Organization. Despite these circumstances, a measure of justice always should be available to victims of these crimes, the HRO report stated. “The significance of HB 189 removing the statute of limitations for serial rape cases is well-documented in the bill analysis,” Muñoz emphasized. “The House Research Organization noted that his vital new protection is tremendously important for fighting sexual assault and violence against women because it encourages survivors to come forward to report their cases, preventing those convicted from attacking again.” Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, the author of HB 189, provided some of her key perspectives soon after she first filed the legislation on November 10, 2014, which was approved by the Legislature on June 1, 2015, and signed into law by the governor on June 18, 2015. “Rape is a horrible crime that is not only physical but mental,” said Thompson. “According to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, sexual assault is a crime in which the assailant uses sexual contact to inflict humiliation or to exert power and control over the victim. Currently, there are 1.8 million survivors of sexual assault in Texas.” As for the civil lawsuit aspects of HB 189, Muñoz, an attorney, said any crime victim may be able to seek monetary damages against people who caused them harm. Muñoz, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which heavily influences the shaping of the $200+ billion state budget, was a coauthor of another new state law, enacted as a result of House Bill 10, that gives law enforcement in Texas more power to fight human trafficking, a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that preys most fiercely on women and children. “Human trafficking is modern day slavery, which also exposes their victims to sexual exploitation,” said Muñoz, who in 2012 was named to the groundbreaking Joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking, which also included Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “One of the results of HB 10 is that even if a victim is an undocumented immigrant, the power of Texas shall be brought to bear to protect the powerless who are forced into the illegal sex trade,” said Muñoz. Muñoz, a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which heavily influences the shaping of the $200+ billion state budget, was a coauthor of another new state law, enacted as a result of House Bill 10, that gives law enforcement in Texas more power to fight human trafficking, a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that preys most fiercely on women and children. “Human trafficking is defined as a crime against humanity, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It involves an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through a use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploiting them,” said Muñoz. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad, according to the United Nations. Every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.
Featured: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, addressing the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s 84th Legislative Session Wrap-Up Luncheon, held on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel in McAllen. Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR
The key public meetings of elected governmental bodies in the larger school districts, cities and counties in Texas, including many in the Valley, must now be videotaped in their entirety and made available on the Internet under a state law coauthored by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which went into effect on January 1, 2016. “House Bill 283 will improve transparency and access to our government leaders by ensuring that recordings of open meetings are now easily available to the people,” said Canales. “Many people do not have the available time to attend city council/commission, school board, and county commissioners court meetings because they are working, spending time with their families, or lack access to transportation.” During the public hearing on HB 283 held on Monday, May 11, 2015 before the House Committee on Government Transparency, the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas announced its support for the goals of the legislation. “We feel that the bill is a very good one, puts it out there, people can look online if there is a certain decisions, debates, discussions they are interested in,” said Kelley Shannon, Executive Director for the Freedom on Information Foundation of Texas. “They don’t have to be at the meeting, they can use technology and access it. We support the bill.” The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, founded in 1978 and led by a volunteer board of directors, is a non-profit 301(c)(3) organization devoted to promoting open government and protection of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press, according to its website. The House District 40 legislator also said it was important for public officials to provide the unedited visual/audio recordings of their actions on the Internet so their comments cannot be taken out of context or misunderstood, leaving a false impression of their actions and motives. “Some of the local governments in the Valley and in my legislative district already were providing this and other vital public information services, but now more of our elected leaders are going to do the same beginning this month,” Canales said. “This measure makes it state law that elected officials cannot take away the right of the people to see for themselves through the Internet what is being said and done in their name.” As finally approved by the Legislature during the spring of 2015 and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 17, 2015, HB 283 applies to “district board of trustees for a school district that has a student enrollment of 10,000 or more, an elected governing body of a home-rule municipality that has a population of 50,000 or more, or a county commissioners court for a county that has a population of 125,000”, according to the legislation. Metropolitan rapid transit authorities, regional transportation authorities, and municipal transit departments also are covered by this law. Canales said he encourages area elected leaders in the Valley, who represent smaller populations, to also put their meetings on the Internet, even if they are not required by the new state law. “Technology has improved so much that a community can use even an smartphone to record, with good to excellent quality in the audio and video, their public meetings, and the costs to get it online, such as posting them on YouTube, is very little, if no cost,” the state lawmaker said. “Testimony on this law last spring found that a county in west Texas, with a population of 11,000, was already doing it.
Featured, from left: Gene Powell of San Antonio, who was raised in Weslaco, the Chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents, and Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, on Tuesday, August 26, 2014 in Edinburg for the groundbreaking of the $54 million UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. Muñoz is a co-sponsor in 2013 of legislation that created the medical school, which will provide the first two years of medical education in Edinburg. Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR
More than 365,000 persons who receive their pension, death and survivor benefits from the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) will soon get their monthly payments on the last working day of the month instead of the first working day of the following month under legislation by Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, which has been signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. “For too long, the state of Texas has generated money off the backs of TRS beneficiaries by unfairly accumulating interest, which did not go to the retirees or their survivors, by delaying for up to three days a month the money owed to them,” said Muñoz. “Beginning this September 1, that process will change for the better, and people will get the money owes them without delay.” Muñoz is the author of House Bill 2168, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, which was signed into law by the governor on Wednesday, June 17. Eligible retirees, which include those who receive a disability pension, and their beneficiaries will first see the effect of this new law with their September 2015 pension, death or survivor benefits, which will be paid on Wednesday, September 30, rather than Thursday, October 1, the House District 36 lawmaker said. “But beginning with the October payment, people will really see the difference,” Muñoz further illustrated. “The TRS will issue pension and benefit payments on Friday, October 30, which is the last working day of the month, instead of Monday, November 2.” The Texas Retired Teachers Association, which had been following the fate of HB 2168, praised the measure in its update to its membership in early June, noting the unfairness of delaying the payments. “This practice allows the state of Texas to hold hundreds of millions of dollars in owed TRS annuity payments several days past the month they are owed,” the TRTA stated. “While this budgeting trick may have helped the state, it does not put the hard-earned annuity dollars in the hands of retirees in the same month they are owed.” With the passage of HB 2168, “retirees are one step closer to being treated like all other state retirees. Their annuity checks will be deposited on the last working day of the month they are owed. This is great news for TRS retirees as their payments will come on time and will not be delayed by weekends or holidays,” the TRTA statement added. The Texas Retired Teacher Association is the largest association in the nation for retired teachers with a history of active involvement in the well-being of their communities, according to its website, http://www.trta.org. In 2016, there will be five months where in the past, TRS would have waited three days before issuing the monthly payments. But the new law will get that money to the retirees and beneficiaries sooner.
Featured from left: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Agustín “Gus” García, Jr., Executive Director, Edinburg Economic Development Corporation; and Carlton Schwab, President and CEO, Texas Economic Development Council, earlier in the spring in the Extension of the Texas Capitol. Photograph By DIEGO REYNA
A last-minute parliamentary move by Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, will result in the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in property tax payments that will now be invested into jobs-creation and business development in the city, Mayor Richard García has announced. Although the number is not immediately available of the economic development corporations in Texas which had been paying property taxes, as of Fiscal Year 2013, there are more than 700 nonprofit corporations in Texas which collect and administer their respective one-half cent economic development sales tax, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The new law goes into effect on September 1. The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, governed by a five-member board of directors which features the mayor as president, is led by EEDC Executive Director Agustín “Gus” García, Jr. (no relation to the mayor). “When Gus came on board as EEDC executive director, one of the first projects he brought to the city council and the EEDC Board of Directors was the need to remove the EEDC, which is a public entity, from having to unfairly pay property taxes to other local governments,” the mayor said. “The state law that required the EEDC to pay property taxes was vague, so we supported Gus’ decision to have legislation filed to clear up that confusion. One government entity should not be paying property taxes to another government entity.” The payoff for the EEDC, which derives much of its revenue from the local one-half cent economic development sales tax, will be significant, said Gus García. “In 2012, the EEDC was paying more than $440,000 in local property taxes. This immediately triggered the question, ‘Why’?” Gus García explained. “I made some inquiries, and quickly discovered the law wasn’t clear on whether we – a government entity – should be paying property taxes.” The EEDC executive director took his findings to the city’s top elected and appointed leadership, seeking their support to have state legislation filed to resolve the controversy. “I visited with everyone of our board members, the city council and city manager,” Gus García said. “We make it a point to keep lines of communication open so that we are all on the same page when it comes to the legislative needs of the community.” The Hidalgo County Appraisal District, the government entity headquartered in Edinburg, whose powers include determining the market value of taxable property, has the authority to rule on exemptions and special valuations authorized by local entities and the State of Texas. Rather than wait until legislation could be filed, Gus García convinced the Hidalgo County Appraisal District to determine that the EEDC did not have to pay property taxes after all. “We visited with the appraisal district last year, and they were very interested in helping us. They, too, understood the contradiction of paying taxes with taxes,” he said. “As a result, in 2014, we saved approximately $330,000 because we did not have to pay property taxes.” But the uncertainty of the language in state law meant that legal challenges could still be filed against the appraisal district’s action favoring the EEDC, so the Canales’ legislation – House Bill 2305 – would still be needed, Gus García contended. With the help of René A. Ramírez, owner of Pathfinders Public Affairs, which is the EEDC’s and Edinburg City Council’s state legislative consulting team, the Canales’ measure was coordinated for drafting and filing for action by the Texas Legislature in early spring. But the measure remained stalled before the House Ways & Means Committee, with the necessary committee public hearing never being scheduled because that House panel was overwhelmed with 394 other bills requesting action. As Canales worked on dozens of other major issues, ranging from setting up a branch campus of South Texas College in the Delta Region to helping secure almost $100 million in new funding for the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley and its School of Medicine in Edinburg, the state lawmaker kept a sharp eye on amending other state legislation to include the goals of HB 2305. An amendment involves adding new language to a bill, which is an especially difficult challenge on the House or Senate floors during the final days and hours of the legislative session. But Canales was tracking House Bill 1905 by Rep. Drew Springer, R-Gainesville, which proposed eliminating certain other state and local taxes, and HB 1905 was almost certain to beat the legislative deadlines. “I went to Rep. Springer, explained the goals of HB 2305, he agreed with us, and he allowed me to add the key language of HB 2305 to his HB 1905,” Canales reported. “The need for change that was brought up by the EEDC, specifically by Gus García, drew overwhelming support in the Texas Legislature, and on Saturday, June 20, this very important piece of legislation, with statewide impact, was signed into law by the governor.”