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Hundreds show up for ribbon cutting ceremony at sophisticated DHR Cancer Center in Edinburg

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Medical, legislative, and community leaders from Edinburg and Hidalgo County participated in a July 11 ribbon-cutting ceremony welcoming the $15 million Cancer Center at Renaissance to southwest Edinburg, the latest phase in a $150 million expansion of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. The 54,000-square-foot facility will bring 50 new employees and generate a $30 million economic impact to the city and the surrounding communities, said Mayor Joe Ochoa. “This is only a tip of the iceberg, knowing that we will have, when all of this expansion is finished, more than 1,000 employees and more than $1 billion in economic impact to this region and its economy,” Ochoa added. Former Mayor Richard García, who serves as the president of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation – of which Ochoa is also a member – said the Cancer Center serves as another economic-development prize and recruiting tool for the city. “From an economic development standpoint, a facility such as this helps to retain and attract major employers, because one of the things their employees look for is access, locally, to very high-quality health care,” said García. “Many people were having to go to San Antonio and Houston to receive the technology that this hospital now has available.” See story later in this posting.

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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, left, meets with Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos (center) and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, III, on Wednesday, July 11, to hear concerns from border leaders over key issues. Among other topics, Cornyn updated Valley leaders on border security and immigration reform. He reiterated his commitment and work to ensure that no border fencing will move forward without local input. He also committed to work with them to find innovative solutions to border security, like enhancing natural barriers and the control of Carrizo cane. See relates story later in this posting.

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Mikal Watts, center, is one of two Democrats who have announced preliminary plans to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the November 2008 general election. Watts, shown here during a recent fundraiser hosted in Edinburg at the home of former Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García, could be facing Houston state Rep. Rick Noriega, D-Houston, for the March 2008 Democratic Party nomination to face Cornyn. Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, has signed a letter urging Noriega to run for U.S. Senate, while Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, who represents southwest Edinburg, says she is not ready to take a sides in the potential Democratic showdown. Featured with Watts at the local fundraiser are, from left: García; Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco; Watts; Edinburg Mayor Joe Ochoa; and Judge Linda Yañez of the Texas 13th Court of Appeals. See story later in this posting.

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Mike Allen resigns from Texas Border Coalition to battle illness; will remain on STC Board of Trustees

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Mike A. Allen, featured right, founder and former chairman of the Texas Border Coalition, has announced he will resign from the organization in order to focus on medical treatments for an undisclosed illness. Allen is also stepping down from the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, but he will remain on the South Texas College Board of Trustees. Shown with Allen is Maverick County Judge José “Pepe” Aranda. See story later in this posting.

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Elva Jackson Garza, a former member of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation board of directors, has been honored for her community service by the Texas House of Representatives. House Resolution 1801, authored by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, was unanimously approved by state lawmakers on Friday, May 18. Featured with her on Thursday, May 17, are, from left: Mayor Joe Ochoa; Letty Martínez, president of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; Garza; Cris M. Torres, incoming chair of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; and Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas. See story later in this posting.

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El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez, chairman of Texas Border Coalition’s Committee on Border Health, has delivered a letter in behalf of TBC to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst requesting his supports to expand medical coverage for children under the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Texas Border Coalition, an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials from El Paso to Brownsville, support efforts to make it easier to qualify for, and remain on, the CHIP. Featured with Rodríguez during a recent legislative TBC update in Austin are, to his left, Veronica Cantú, legislative liaison for the city of Laredo, and Wanda F. Garza, Executive Director for Workforce and Resource Development at South Texas College. See story later in this posting.

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Alex Hernández, standing, is featured with State Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, recently on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. Hernández has been in Austin since the beginning of the 80th Legislative Session in January as a legislative aide working with the local lawmaker. See story later in this posting.

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Mike Allen resigns from Texas Border Coalition to battle illness; will remain on STC Board of Trustees

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Mike Allen, a major player in the Texas political and economic development arenas, announced on Tuesday, May 15, that is resigning from the Texas Border Coalition in order to concentrate on medical treatments for an undisclosed illness.

The Texas Border Coalition, formerly known as the Texas Border Infrastructure Coalition, is an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials representing more than 2 million residents who live along the Texas-Mexico border.

Allen is the founder, former chairman, and the driving force for TBC, which lobbies Congress and the Texas Legislature for laws and policies that benefit the border region from El Paso to Brownsville.

Allen also will step down as Executive Vice President of Strategic Affairs and External Projects with the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. He was the longtime president of the MEDC, but voluntarily reduced his oversight role in the jobs-creation non-profit entity when he first learned of his illness.

Both actions were effective Friday, May 18.

Allen later did say that he would remain a member of the South Texas Community College Board of Trustees, which is an elected governing body.

“Because of my health situation it has become necessary to resign in order to take some specialized treatments over the next several months,” said Allen. “I do not believe I can adequately handle some of the responsibilities that I currently have.”

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said Allen has contributed in more ways than one to the improvement of his fellow man.

“In his remarkable career, Mike Allen has used his wonderful talents to inspire a huge number of people from all walks of life to seek and achieve a better way of life,” Hinojosa said. “There are a lot of people who will be praying for a very successful outcome for him.”

In his letter of resignation, Allen expressed confidence in the work of the Texas Border Coalition.

“I know that with the structure that we have now and the people that are involved with this organization, we will continue to be a driving force in supporting the Workforce, Healthcare, Transportation, and other Border Issues in our communities,” Allen said. “I appreciate the support everyone has provided me during my tenure with the Texas Border Coalition.

“I would like to thank (Eagle Pass) Mayor (Chad) Foster (chairman of TBC) and all of you, whom I had the opportunity to work with,” Allen wrote to his fellow TBC leaders. “It has been a great experience and I certainly think we have achieved many great things for the border. I hope that I can stay in touch with each and every one of you.”

Allen has been in the forefront of some of the most important legislative and economic developments for the Texas border region, ranging from helping lobby for more than $1 billion in new state money for border highway projects to participating in congressional hearings on matters ranging from transportation and international trucking to health care and infrastructure development.

His current work includes rallying border political and business leaders to oppose plans by the federal government to build reinforced fencing – characterized as a border wall by its critics – along more than 100 miles of the Texas boundary with Mexico. Opponents say the border wall, which is intended to help reduce illegal immigration from Mexico, will cause economic chaos in many border cities.

“For nearly two decades, Mike Allen has rendered extraordinary service to the people of the Rio Grande Valley as he has sought to address the development needs of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States, and for his tireless dedication and remarkable vision,” Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, stated in a resolution she authored honoring Allen in 2005.

Some of Allen’s many other accomplishments are noted in the House resolution honoring him. That resolution states:

WHEREAS, Michael A. Allen has long played an instrumental role in the economic development of McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley; and

WHEREAS, President and chief executive officer of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation since its inception in 1988, this esteemed Texan has led MEDC to repeated success in its mission to attract new industry, upgrade local infrastructure, and facilitate trade and commerce; and

WHEREAS, With Mr. Allen at the helm for the past 17 years, MEDC has recruited to the U.S. side of the border more than 215 companies, employing over 18,000 persons; the corporation has also

brought more than 250 companies to Reynosa, Mexico, thereby adding another 75,000 jobs to the area; and

WHEREAS, Mr. Allen and his staff have generously shared the knowledge and expertise of MEDC with their Mexican counterparts; at the invitation of Don Florencio Salazar, coordinator with Plan Puebla-Panama, Mr. Allen consulted on the economic development of a number of Mexican states and the city of Merida; during that trip, he and other MEDC staff met with various state governors and economic development teams and offered insights into how to attract industry to each of their regions; and

WHEREAS, Under Mr. Allen’s guidance, MEDC has also sought to forge international links by fostering sister-city relationships with more than 10 cities in Mexico, as well as with cities in Canada and China; and

WHEREAS, Mike Allen’s personal achievements include his contribution as a cofounder of the South Texas Border Partnership, a coalition of five cities in Hidalgo County, and as the founder and chairman of the Texas Border Infrastructure Coalition, which has brought job training funds to the Valley and secured $1.1 billion in highway funds for the region stretching from El Paso to Brownsville; and

WHEREAS, In addition, he has campaigned for the Anzalduas International Crossing, a project jointly supported by the Cities of McAllen, Hidalgo, and Mission; he has also worked to unite customs brokers, truckers, and Mexican officials in efforts to expedite trucking, and he has coordinated those same groups, together with civic leaders in Hidalgo County, in developing

support for the construction of Interstate 69; and

WHEREAS, Mike Allen can take tremendous pride, moreover, in MEDC’s involvement in the creation of the Regional Academic Health Center, a Lower Rio Grande Valley extension of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio; division campuses of the RAHC have been established in McAllen, Brownsville, Edinburg, and Harlingen; and

WHEREAS, Affiliated with numerous economic development organizations, Mr. Allen has further served as a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Management and Relations, as a board member of the Alliance for Security and Trade and of the Border Trade Alliance, as a director of the Rio Grande Valley Council of Governments, and as a trustee of South Texas College; the breadth of his knowledge is reflected in his participation in congressional hearings on matters ranging from transportation and international trucking to health care and infrastructure development; and

WHEREAS, For nearly two decades, Mike Allen has rendered extraordinary service to the people of the Rio Grande Valley as he has sought to address the development needs of one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the United States, and for his tireless dedication and remarkable vision he is indeed deserving of warmest commendation; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 79th Texas Legislature hereby honor Michael A. Allen for his immeasurable contributions to expanding economic opportunity on both sides of the Rio Grande and extend to him sincere best wishes for continued success in all his endeavors; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Mr. Allen as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives.

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Texas Border Coalition urges Lt. Gov. Dewhurst to support expansion of CHIP health insurance

By ELHIU DOMÍNGUEZ

and

DAVID A. DÍAZ

Efforts to make it easier to qualify for, and remain on, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is in the hands of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who is being urged by the Texas Border Coalition to support House Bill 109, a measure that could help reverse the increase in the number of uninsured children in Texas.

Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, is a joint author of HB 109, which also in co-authored by the majority of the Texas border legislative delegation in the House.

CHIP is health insurance designed for families who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, yet cannot afford to buy private health insurance, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. CHIP enrollment fees and co-payments are based on the family’s income. Enrollment fees are $50 or less per family for each six-month term of eligibility and most co-payments for doctor visits and prescription drugs range from $3 to $10.

The Texas Border Coalition is an alliance of elected leaders and economic development officials representing more than 2.1 million residents who live on the Texas side of the border with Mexico.

El Paso County Attorney José R. Rodríguez, chairman of TBC’s Committee on Border Health, has delivered a letter in behalf of TBC to Dewhurst requesting his support to expand medical coverage for children under the CHIP program.

In his letter, Rodríguez requested Dewhurst to “please lead the Texas Senate in passing comprehensive legislation this session that simplifies the CHIP enrollment process.”

The letter also suggest that, in exchange for the implementation of yearly renewals, a system could be set up to closely monitor those applicants with incomes near the limits imposed by the federal government, reducing the likehood of families with earnings 200 % above the poverty level from remaining enrolled in the program.

Rodríguez added that expanding coverage of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”) is a wise decision, because “it saves local tax dollars, helps education and improves our state’s economy.”

TBC contends that only Dewhurst’s strong support can assure that a similar bill filed in the Senate is brought up for a vote before the legislative session comes to an end. In the past weeks, Dewhurst has expressed his opposition to any bill that would allow children to apply every year instead of every 6 months as it is currently required.

However that particular change is considered key to increase the number of children enrolled in the program.

Since September 2003, when the 6 month re-enrollment provision was adopted, the number of children covered under the program declined more than 35 % of the total. The decrease affects particularly border communities such as El Paso, who now have the highest rates of uninsured children among all Texas counties.

Besides negatively impacting children’s health, high rates of uninsured hurts local communities in many ways, Rodríguez said. It costs counties and hospitals millions of dollars in paying for unnecessary emergency room services; it costs the school districts millions in absenteeism, and the state misses the opportunity to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding.

Dewhurst has expressed his willingness to work out a compromise to allow the annual renewals if a system is set in place to ensure that only eligible children are covered.

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Elva Jackson Garza, former EEDC board member, honored with resolution by House of Representatives

Elva Jackson Garza, a familiar face in Edinburg business and political circles, has been honored for her community service by the Texas House of Representatives. House Resolution 1801, authored by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, was unanimously approved by state lawmakers on Friday, May 18.

Garza, a public relations expert, is a former member of the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation board of directors, among her many achievements. Currently, she serves as Vice President and Marketing Officer with Edwards Abstract and Title Company.

According to the company, Jackson joined the Edwards Team in 2002 as Vice President and Marketing Officer. She has devoted almost 30 years to the marketing and public relations field. Her experience includes nine years as marketing officer in the banking industry and eleven years with the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to her marketing and advertising duties, Elva also handles all of the employee and customer education programs for the company. She is recognized as a civic leader with an economic development background serving on various leadership positions such as chairman of the board of the Edinburg Chamber of Commerce; President of the Kiwanis Club of Edinburg; President of the Valley Chamber of Commerce Executives and Edinburg Economic Development Corporation board of directors.

Garza’s achievements were also highlighted in the legislative resolution adopted in her honor:

RESOLUTION 1801

WHEREAS, Elva Jackson Garza has made a lasting impact on the Edinburg community through her active civic engagement, and her achievements are truly worthy of commendation; and

WHEREAS, Mrs. Garza has served the local chamber of commerce for nearly a quarter century; currently in her fifth term on the executive board, she was chair in 1999-2000, and her efforts have helped to shape a number of the organization’s programs, including the Edinburg Today Breakfast, membership campaigns, and Fiesta Edinburg; and

WHEREAS, In addition to her work with the chamber, Mrs. Garza has served on the board of directors for the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and has been a valued member of the Valley Chamber of Commerce Executives and Edinburg Industrial Foundation; moreover, she has shared her time with such groups as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, United Way, and Edinburg Citizens Against Graffiti, which she served as chair; and

WHEREAS, This notable Texan is also a leader in the Kiwanis Club, becoming the first female president of the Edinburg chapter;and

WHEREAS, Mrs. Garza has been vice president and marketing manager of Edwards Abstract and Title Co. since 2002; a number of professional organizations have benefited from her talents, including the Greater McAllen Association of Realtors, Rio Grande Valley Builders Association, Women’s Council of Realtors, and the Hidalgo County Bar Association; and

WHEREAS, Blessed with a loving family, Mrs. Garza credits much of her success to the guidance provided by her parents, the late Albert Jackson, Jr., and Maria Sidia Gracia Jackson, and to the encouragement of her husband, Alfredo Ruben Garza; and

WHEREAS, The strength of our communities depends on the commitment and dedication of civic leaders such as Elva Garza, whose contributions to Edinburg have produced results of lasting benefit to countless Texans; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the 80th Texas Legislature hereby commend Elva Garza for her work in behalf of the citizens of Edinburg and extend to her sincere best wishes for the future; and, be it further

RESOLVED, That an official copy of this resolution be prepared for Mrs. Garza as an expression of high regard by the Texas House of Representatives.

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Alex Hernández of Edinburg completing legislative internship in Austin with Rep. Aaron Peña

By ORLANDO SALINAS

Alex Hernández of Edinburg has taken advantage of the opportunity to work at the Texas Capitol through the Moreno/Rangel Legislative Leadership Program.

The Moreno/Rangel Legislative Leadership Program is an intense program which provides a unique opportunity for Latino undergraduate and graduate students from across Texas to gain first-hand governmental experience working in the Texas House of Representatives during a legislative session.

He is one of only 12 students to be selected this year to participate in the program.

Hernández is currently a senior at the University of Texas Pan American and will graduate this December with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in Spanish. He then plans on attending law school.

He spent his high school years holding various jobs and being involved with numerous school organizations.

At 18, he was able to attain a home for his family with the small income he earned from multiple jobs and the guidance of many. While working, he managed to keep his grades high enough to graduate at the top of his class.

Hernández hopes to one day have a role in shaping policies that affect Latino families.

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Governor signs into law a bill by Rep. González to expedite property tax disputes in local district courts

BY NICK ALMANZA

Ad valorem tax disputes will be prioritized and given expedited status in local district courts of communities with populations of less than 175,000 persons, effective Sept. 1. More timely resolution of property tax disputes will provide appraisal districts and school districts with a clearer picture of their expected tax revenues.

Senate Bill 57 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Verónica González, D-McAllen, which authorizes this change, was signed by Gov. Rick Perry on Friday, May 11.

“Ad valorem tax disputes often take years to resolve and can result in costly delays of tax revenue receipts for small and rural counties that depend on this revenue to operate school districts and support their communities,” Zaffirini said. “This new law builds on my previous efforts to provide smaller communities and school districts with means to receive their tax revenue timely despite the occurrence of a dispute. I thank Rep. González for her hard work in passing this bill in the House and am delighted that Gov. Perry signed it into law.”

SB 57 is Zaffirini’s third effort to pass the bill suggested by Live Oak County Judge Jim Huff. Her SB 82 (2003) and SB 103 (2005) were passed by the Senate but died in the House of Representatives.

Currently property tax valuation disputes often take from two to three years to be resolved in the courts. Persons or entities who dispute a property tax valuation are required to pay only the amount of tax not in dispute. This adversely affects small and rural counties by causing costly delays in tax revenue receipts that may be crucial to operating a school district.

This new law will provide relief to small and rural counties by applying expedited status to tax disputes and ensuring small counties receive tax-related revenues without delays.

Live Oak County Judge Jim Huff and Gregory-Portland Independent School District (ISD) Superintendent Paul Clore testified in favor of SB 57 during its consideration in the Senate Jurisprudence Committee. The comptroller estimates that there are $39 billion worth of property valuations disputed statewide. Gregory-Portland ISD estimates an annual loss of $800,000 due to tax disputes and Three Rivers ISD estimates $350,000 to $400,000 of lost revenue.

The new law will increase county and ISD funding for education by reducing the turnaround time for appeals of property tax payments. San Patricio and Live Oak county ISDs anticipate that they could receive an estimated $1.2 million each year in property tax revenues if tax disputes are expedited.

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Construction activities in Edinburg pass $76 million in first quarter of 2007

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Total construction activities in Edinburg during the first quarter of the year totaled more than $76 million, with new construction of commercial businesses leading the way from January through March at more than $48.5 million.

The city’s construction level from January through March continued to outperform last year’s pace, which had reached more than $52.6 million during the first quarter of 2006.

For the month of March – the latest figures available from the city government – Edinburg generated almost $13.7 million in total construction, compared with more than for $18.7 million in March 2006.

The latest numbers, compiled by the city’s Code Enforcement Department, were released by the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation, which is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

The EEDC is governed by a five-person board of directors, which includes Mayor Joe Ochoa, former mayor Richard García, who is the EEDC board president, and Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.

A breakdown of the major construction categories year-to-date and by month in Edinburg includes:

•Total new construction, January through March, was $76,665,481, compared with $52,640,845 during the same period in 2006;

•Total new commercial construction, January through March, was $46,584,375, compared with $24,789,000 during the same period in 2006.

•Total new construction of single-family homes, January through March, was $15,832,066, compared with $17,877,989 during the same period in 2006; and

•The construction of single-family homes in the first three months of 2007 totaled 154, compared with 204 from January through March 2006.

Two construction projects each passed the $1 million mark in March.

Johnson Brothers Construction was issued a building permit for work valued at $2 million on a commercial facility located at 4002 South Highway 281 in the Kelley-Pharr Tract Subdivision.

The Rio Grande Valley Bible Institute was issued a building permit, valued at $1,450,000, for additions/remodeling at its campus, located at 4651 South Expressway 281 in the ML Woods Tract No. 4 Subdivision.

A building permit is permission issued by a city’s planning department to oversee and approve any changes to structures.

They are documents designed to guarantee that any construction work, from remodeling to demolition to building a new home or business facility, meets the city’s building codes.

The value of construction projects is included when the city issues a building permit.

The building permits do not include the price of the lot.

Four other projects – all new commercial buildings – were each issued building permits for work valued in the half-million dollar range.

Auriel Investments received a building permit for work valued at $550,000 for a facility at 2224 W. Trenton Road in the Jackson Corner Subdivision.

Texas National Bank is building two facilities, each valued at $500,000, located at 4980 South Jackson Road in the Stoneworks Plaza Subdivision.

Auto Zone also received a building permit for work valued at $500,000 for a new commercial facility to be located at 112 W. Monte Cristo Road in the Juniors Business Plaza Subdivision.

Other significant construction projects in March included:

John Champion, new commercial facility, valued at $350,000, at 4901 S. McColl Road in the Plaza de Oro Subdivision;

Legacy Growers, commercial addition/repairs, valued at $331,000, at 9001 N. Expressway 281 in the Monte Cristo Heights Subdivision;

City of Edinburg, addition/remodeling, valued at $309,000, at 1313 N. Doolittle Road in the Tex-Mex Subdivision; and

The most valuable home built in March belongs to Óscar Cantú, valued at $200,000. That home is located at 3211 Page Avenue in the West Meadows Phase II Subdivision.

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Rep. Flores wants disabled veterans to be exempt from paying property taxes on their homesteads

By ED SERNA

Soldiers who are deemed 100 percent disabled would be exempt from taxation of the total appraised value of the veteran’s residence homestead under a bill sponsored by Rep. Ismael “Kino” Flores, D-Palmview.

Senate Bill 666, authored by Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, on Tuesday, May 15, was explained in the Ways & Means Committee by Flores, and the measure received unanimous support.

The bill is now before the House Calendars Committee, which sets the dates for all bills to be considered by the full House.

“These soldiers answered the call and gave so much to our country and deserve as much assistance as they can get to retain their most important assets, especially their homes,” said Flores. “I am honored to work with Sen. Carona to get this important measure passed so that our state’s injured soldiers can began realizing additional relief.”

SB 666 will exempt persons who are 100 percent disabled as a result of a service-connected disability according to the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) from all ad valorem property taxes on their homestead. Currently, soldiers returning from conflict due to injuries receive a grade from VA on the severity of their disability.

“Most disabled veterans now are only eligible for varying levels of property tax exemptions, which is based on a veteran’s disability rating,” said Flores. “This bill helps ensure that veterans who are severely injured fighting for our country are completely exempted from ad valorem property taxes.”

If passed, SB 666 would be taken to the voter of Texas for approval of the corresponding constitutional amendment. The elections would be held throughout Texas in November 2007.

Flores, an Army veteran, has been actively involved in honoring Rio Grande Valley veterans past and present. Flores played a critical role in securing funding for the Valley’s first state veterans cemetery. He also authored and passed the legislation in 2001 that created the Rio Grande Valley State Cemetery in Mission, which was officially dedicated in November 2006.

Flores represents District 36, which includes parts or all of the Cities of Hidalgo, Granjeno, McAllen, Mission, Palmview, Penitas, and Pharr.

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South Texas needs, deserves professional schools

By SEN. EDDIE LUCIO, JR.

Except for the Irma Rangel School of Pharmacy at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, South Texas has no other professional schools. It is a serious concern that needs to be addressed now or we will continue to shortchange the region.

The five-county area of Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy and Starr has seen a population growth of 39.4 percent from 1990 to 2000, compared to the state’s of 22.8 percent for that same time period. Many South Texans aspire to obtain professional licenses and degrees, but their financial situations prevent them from leaving home to study elsewhere.

A professional school would draw from a big pool of qualified applicants. Studies show that border college students tend to study closer to home; about three in four enroll in local universities. And local graduates would also have a higher tendency to stay and practice where they live, thus curbing the “brain drain” we suffer from.

South Texas has been improving its higher education infrastructure since a 1987 lawsuit drew the attention of state leaders from outside the border to the lack of funding for graduate and undergraduate degree programs. We have seen an increase in Master’s degree programs, Ph.D.s and of course, the implementation of the pharmacy school. But we still lack professional institutions, like a medical and law school.

To address these needs, I have proposed two bills this legislative session. Senate Bill 420 lays the foundation for a free-standing medical facility that would be called the University of Texas Health Science Center—Rio Grande Valley. Establishing the UTHSCRGV, a system to include a medical school and many health-related degree programs, will increase access to health care and supply a labor pool for jobs that are already becoming hard to fill. The current labor force can’t keep up with the health care needs of a burgeoning population, many of them experiencing serious illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and others.

According to state labor projections, by 2014 employment at public and private hospitals will have increased 44 percent and jobs at physicians’ offices by 46 percent over 2004 levels in Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties. The story verified that hospital administrators agree our population growth is the main driver for the increasing number of health care jobs in the Valley.

The UTHSCRGV would serve Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Willacy, Brooks, Jim Hogg, Kenedy and Zapata counties, which would expand health related services and provide a wide range of employment opportunities.

The counties designated for service by the health science center have been classified as “Medically Underserved Areas” by the Department of State Health Services. A medical school would help recruit doctors to improve the underserved area. Also, it is known that medical students from underserved areas are more likely to stay and practice in those areas.

Under my proposal, research and training facilities would be established within the existing infrastructure of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) at U.T. Brownsville, U.T. Pan American and at Harlingen, with an estimated cost of $28 million for startup. The primary goal for the upcoming sessions is to obtain the necessary funding to establish and expand such a health system. Currently, there are eight medical schools in other areas of Texas, with the southernmost in San Antonio.

Developing these facilities would increase the availability of physicians culturally sensitive to the area’s population. Fewer miscommunication problems occur when health care providers understand and are educated to work with the cultural composition of the population.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2002 study on new medical schools designated the Rio Grande Valley and El Paso as potential sites for a new medical school. SB 420 passed in the full Senate but is awaiting House approval.

The other bill I filed (Senate Bill 1400) would establish the first public law school in South Texas at U.T. Brownsville. In 2002, the Coordinating Board determined that South Texas is the region of the state with the greatest need for a law school. It is also underrepresented for Texas attorneys. On average, there is one attorney for every 328 people. Cameron County has an attorney to population ratio of 1:788 and Hidalgo County of 1:821, more than twice the state average.

With the success of programs such as the Pharmacy School and the RAHC, it is evident that South Texans have a strong desire to pursue professional degrees for the betterment of the area. I welcome support from the community and the media so that our voices ring loud in Austin.

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Gov. Perry urges Texans to prepare for 2007 hurricane season

Gov. Rick Perry has proclaimed May 20-26, 2007, Hurricane Awareness Week. Perry, along with the National Weather Service and the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, is urging all Texans to be prepared for the 2007 hurricane season, which officially starts June 1.

“I urge all Texans to be mindful of the dangers presented by hurricanes, to stay informed about current threats, and to take steps toward preparedness,” Perry said. “While residents along the coast are among the first impacted by a hurricane, we must keep in mind that these massive storms can cause flooding and tornadoes hundreds of miles from the coastal areas where they make landfall.”

Families should designate a place to go in case of evacuation, develop an emergency plan for communicating with relatives and friends in other areas, and put together a “readiness kit” of important supplies, including items such as a battery-operated radio and flashlight. Texans are also urged to heed all warnings, information and instructions provided by emergency management personnel.

In fall 2005, Perry appointed the Task Force on Evacuation, Transportation and Logistics to take testimony from local officials, emergency response personnel and citizens on lessons learned from Hurricane Rita. In March 2006, the governor issued an executive order implementing the task force recommendations, which focus on five key areas: the evacuation of people with special needs; command, control and communications; traffic management; fuel availability; and public awareness.

Two weeks ago, the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management hosted the 2007 State Hurricane Preparedness Conference in Galveston, where local, state and federal officials and the emergency response community joined to discuss preparations for the upcoming hurricane season. From June 4 – 7, the state will also conduct a multi-dimensional Hurricane Preparedness Exercise, involving local, state, federal and private sector partners.

“State officials and first responders have collaboratively enhanced the state’s hurricane preparedness and response plans following the recent devastating hurricane seasons,” said Perry. “But there is still more we must do. Advanced planning and preparation by officials and residents are essential to protecting property, reducing risk and ultimately, saving lives.”

For more information about hurricane preparedness, please visit the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management website at http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/dem/

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Texas Task Force Two created to help in times of hurricanes, other emergencies in state

Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday, May 17, praised the recent addition to Texas’ urban search and rescue capabilities, Texas Task Force 2 (TTF2). TTF2 was developed by the City of Dallas and received training and developmental support provided by Texas Engineering Extension Service Texas Task Force 1. TTF2 will be activated and deployed by the governor with the concurrence of the City of Dallas city manager.

“Texas Task Force 2 will play a vital role in search and rescue missions throughout the state in times of disaster,” Perry said. “Texas is uniquely prepared for disaster situations with the skilled emergency personnel of Texas Task Force 1, and now, Texas Task Force 2, who are all trained to act swiftly to protect and save lives when Texans are most vulnerable.”

TTF2, a Type III Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, is located in Dallas and is administered by the Dallas Fire Department. With more than 160 members trained in multiple disciplines, the task force is capable of deploying to areas across the state with one of three 42 member platoons. TTF2 emergency response includes the capability to perform technical searches, technical rescues, canine searches, address medical needs, respond to hazmat incidents, provide logistical support and planning, and provide a sophisticated, interoperable communications platform.

Texas Task Force 1 is a 300-member force that is nationally recognized for its unique search and rescue capabilities. It was deployed to New York City following the terrorist attack on 9/11, to New Orleans following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, the full Task Force was deployed to assist in search and rescue operations in Maverick County as a result of the tragic tornado that struck that area April 24. Texas Task Force 1’s urban search and rescue and water rescue teams have expertise in responding to both man-made and natural disasters. Members include firefighters, medical specialists, canines and handlers, heavy equipment operators, structural engineers and other specialty emergency responders.

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Legislature approves constitutional amendment to provide $250 million for water/wastewater services

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Texas Legislature on Wednesday, May 16, provided final approval of Senate Joint Resolution 20 by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, that would allow the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to issue an additional $250 million in general obligation bonds for economically distressed areas to obtain water and wastewater services statewide if approved by Texas voters.

Lucio is the Chairman of the International Relations and Trade Committee (IRT),

“As Chairman of IRT, for the last four years, I’ve been working with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to address the water and wastewater needs of distressed areas of our state. SJR 20 will be part of the November 6, 2007, Constitutional Amendment Ballot, he said. “Between now and the November election, I will be meeting with different communities across this state to inform them of the importance of this Constitutional Amendment in order to bring essential water and wastewater services to the most economically distressed areas in Texas.”

“On behalf of the communities impacted by the IRT Committee, I want to thank Lt. Gov, Dewhurst for appointing me to the powerful Senate Finance Committee,” said Lucio. “This appointment enabled me to work with Finance Committee Chairman Steve Ogden and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Kip Averitt to address a number of issues outlined in our IRT Interim Report, including acquiring the necessary funding to finish out the original Economically Distressed Areas Program — EDAP I — and setting aside the necessary debt service revenue in the base state budget to support the newly expanded statewide EDAP II program, which would be funded by SJR 20.”

SJR 20 is the accompanying joint resolution of the bill Lucio amended last session with the help of Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, and Rep. Kevin Bailey, which took the Economically Distressed Areas Program statewide. SJR 20 provides for a constitutional amendment that if approved would give the TWDB up to $250 million in Bonding Authority to address the estimated $5.4 billion in water & wastewater needs for distressed areas of the state.

Lucio added, “Throughout the last four years, my committee, along with the Texas Water Development Board, identified communities statewide during the interim that are in dire need of water and wastewater services, and SJR 20 will afford them an opportunity to apply for critical EDAP funding.”

“I want to commend Rep. Norma Chavez (D-El Paso), Rep. Ryan Guillen (D-Rio Grande City), Rep. Tracy King (D-Eagle Pass), Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) and Rep. Eddie Lucio, III (D-San Benito) for their leadership and for working together with their House counterparts to ensure passage of SJR 20 in the Texas House of Representatives. Their understanding of the water/wastewater needs of Texas ensure that SJR 20 made it to the overnor’s desk,” added Lucio.

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Senate endorses bill by Sen. Lucio to require lap and shoulder seat belts in school all new school buses

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Senate on Thursday, May 17, unanimously approved a bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, that requires lap and shoulder seat belts in all new school buses. The bill applies to new buses purchased by a school district on or after Sept. 1, 2010, and all school chartered buses operated after Sept. 1, 2011.

“Today we purchase cars with no thought to the cost of seat belts. Eventually that will also hold true for the purchase of school buses in this state,” said Lucio. “It’s time we stop giving our children mixed messages by requiring them to buckle up in a car but not in a school bus. This law is just common sense.”

The legislation is partly in response to an accident occurring March 29 of last year in which a chartered bus carrying 23 soccer players from West Brook High School in Beaumont was involved in an accident en route to a playoff game. The bus overturned and two players — Ashley Brown and Alicia Bonura — were killed and others severely injured. Despite their grief, parents of the students actively campaigned for change. Their advocacy led to Beaumont I.S.D. becoming the first Texas school district to require all new buses to be equipped with seat belts and to passage of the legislation.

Brad Brown, Ashley’s father, said, “The families of the Brown’s and the Bonura’s are ecstatic over the passage of House Bill 223 sponsored by Lucio. We feel this is a wonderful legacy to the memory of our two girls, and a legacy of hope and safety for all Texas school children.”

“The West Brook bus crash families are thrilled and overwhelmed by the unanimous support of the Senate and their decision that this seat belt legislation is the right thing to do to protect our children in Texas,” said Mr. Steve Forman, Allison Forman’s father, who was critically injured in the wreck.

Under this new bill, each new bus transporting school children in the state must be equipped with three-point (lap and shoulder) seat belts for the driver and each passenger. The bill will take effect only if the Legislature appropriates the necessary funds to reimburse school districts that comply with the Act. However, individuals who want to donate the safety belts for individual buses can do so at the discretion of the school board. If approved, the board may acknowledge the donation by recognizing the donor with a small sign on the side or back of the bus.

To install lap-shoulder three-point restraint seat systems on a new bus, it costs from $7,000 to $10,000. “That’s less than 10 percent of the total cost of a new bus,” explained Lucio. “It’s about two to three cents per student rider per day. Compare this to the staggering cost of even one accident.”

Since 2002, new technology lap-shoulder belt restraint seating for school buses has been available from several manufacturers at a reasonable price. Although built safely, current technology of school buses is 30-years-old. They are designed for frontal impacts, and not for accidents involving side impact or rollover collisions. With nothing restraining students in their seats, they can be thrown around the inside of the bus, collide with hard surfaces, or ejected from the bus.

Lucio is deeply grateful to the families of the children involved in the West Brook bus accident, as well as to his co-authors, Sens. John Carona, R-Dallas; Robert Deuell, R-Mesquite; Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; Mario Gallegos, D-Houston; Eliott Shapleigh, D-El Paso;Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio; Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands; and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and the House author, Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville.

After the House concurs with the changes, the bill will be sent to the governor.

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Task force will work with educators, local law enforcement to examine school safety protocols

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and several state attorneys general on Wednesday, May 16, launched a coordinated effort to improve school safety. The Task Force on School Safety will examine how states can ensure their children have safe learning environments.

“Children are the future of our great state,” Abbott said. “Texas must ensure that its children attend safe, secure schools. The Office of the Attorney General is committed to working with educators, local law enforcement and school safety experts to ensure that our children are free from fear and violence.”

The task force will identify innovative programs, policies, and legislative initiatives that would improve school safety. The attorneys general will cultivate relationships and seek input from educators, law enforcement, and public and private educational advocacy groups across the nation.

“There are a number of critical areas this task force must address, including examining strategies for improving inter-agency communication and training to strengthen response by law enforcement to crisis situations that occur in the educational environment,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a co-chairman of the task force. “Attorneys general are well-equipped to assist local law enforcement authorities and make recommendations on where our jurisdictions stand in terms of crisis preparedness.”

Abbott has made protecting children a top priority of his administration. In 2003, he created the Cyber Crimes Unit, which protects children from online sexual exploitation. Cyber Crimes Unit investigators have traveled to schools and communities across the state to offer educational cyber safety programs. The Cyber Crimes Unit, a member of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force of Texas, and the Fugitive Unit, which locates sex offenders who have violated the terms of their parole and could be stalking children, have combined to arrest more than 500 sex offenders.

In addition to protecting children from sex predators, Abbott has overseen the collection of more than $7 billion in child support for Texas families. In 2006 alone, the Child Support Division handled nearly one million cases and collected $2 billion.

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Congressman Hinojosa votes to restore COPS law enforcement program originally created during Clinton Administration

By ELIZABETH ESFANANI

Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, on Tuesday, May 15, joined a bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives to pass H.R. 1700, the COPS Reauthorization Act.

COPS is a program created under the Bill Clinton Administration; it means Community Oriented. Policing Services.

This measure relaunches the COPS hiring grants program and will help local law enforcement agencies hire an additional 50,000 police officers over the next six years. In Texas alone, an additional 2,567 officers will likely be hired over the course of the next six years.

“This legislation will once again give our local law enforcement agencies the tools they need to bring crime rates back down,” said Hinojosa. “Independent studies have confirmed that the COPS hiring grants program played a substantial role in the drop in crime rates. We are making our nation safer by reviving this effective program.”

The COPS hiring grants program was created under the Clinton Administration in 1994. From 1995 to 2005, this program enabled local law enforcement agencies to hire 117,000 additional police officers, which helped to significantly reduce crime across the country. Over those 10 years, Texas received over $450 million in COPS hiring grants funding, which made it possible for the state to hire 6,000 police officers. According to nonpartisan GAO study, between 1998 and 2000, the grants were responsible for reducing crimes by about 200,000 to 225,000 crimes – one third of which were violent.

Under President Bush, funding for COPS hiring grants was sharply reduced – funding declined from more than $1 billion a year in the late 1990s to $198 million in 2003 and $10 million in 2005. In 2006, the Republican-led Congress completely eliminated the program.

At the same time, violent crime has spiked across the nation. Earlier this year, the Police Executive Research Forum, a prominent law enforcement association, released a report which found that violent crimes rose by double digit percentages over the last two years.

Among the cities surveyed, since 2005, 71 percent had an increase in homicides, 80 percent saw robberies rise and 67 percent reported an increase in aggravated assaults with guns.

This legislation has been endorsed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Association of Police Organizations, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National League of Cities.

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New law to provide greater access to state resources for film and television production companies

By NICK ALMANZA

The Texas Legislature recently passed legislation to ensure Texas retains more jobs and generates more in-state spending by enhancing access to state resources for film and television production companies. House Bill 374, sponsored by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and authored by Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, creates an essential framework to help film and production companies coordinate efficiently their use of Texas building and land resources.

Effective Sept. 1, the bill authorizes the Texas Music, Film, Television and Multimedia Office to administer cost-effective and accountable procedures for using state buildings and grounds in film productions. Currently there are no coordinated efforts or procedures in Texas that provide film and production companies with easy access to state resources, a standardized fee schedule for use of resources or a state supported entity to help schedule production efforts. HB 374 will provide this.

“Texas certainly has the potential as a successful marketplace for the film and television industry,” Zaffirini said. “This new law is a positive first step in creating much needed incentives and standard rate-guidelines for the use of state resources in films. I thank Rep. Pickett for his leadership in authoring this bill that greatly will help Texas’ film industry thrive and provide valuable jobs and revenue.”

“Texas now has one more incentive to attract film producers to Texas,” Pickett said. “We are opening our state properties and park sites to the movie business. We have diverse, historic and beautiful sites to offer the imagination of the film industry.”

According to the Texas Film Commission, Texas lost approximately $306 million of in-state spending and more than 4,100 jobs to states that provide basic incentives to film and television production companies.

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Sen. Zaffirini receives communication awards from Press Women of Texas for speech, newsletter

By NICK ALMANZA

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has received six awards in the 2006-07 Press Women of Texas Communications contest. She received two first-place awards for her motivational children’s book, If Judy Pappas Can Do It, Anybody Can! and for her 2006 University of Texas at Austin Law School commencement speech titled “Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Decides?”

Senator Judith Zaffirini Reports to the Families of District 21, an annual newsletter for constituents, won third place. News releases announcing her pre-filed legislation for the 2007 legislative session and her appointment as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Capital Funding for Higher Education won second and third places, respectively. A media advertisement wishing her constituents a happy holiday season won honorable mention.

The Press Women of Texas and the National Federation of Press Women hold an annual competition to recognize excellence in writing and communications. Award categories range from news reporting to books.

Sweepstakes and group awards are given to top winners from newspaper, university and individual or “other” participant classifications. Zaffirini placed fourth overall and first in the individual grouping.

“I am delighted and honored to receive these awards from the Press Women of Texas, of which I have been a member since 1973,” Zaffirini said. “I especially am pleased that If Judy Pappas Can and my senatorial district newsletter won these coveted awards.”

If Judy Pappas Can Do It, Anybody Can! was published by the Laredo National Bank/BBVA, for students at Zaffirini Elementary School. It highlights milestones from her first memory of learning to read at the age of three to her accomplishments as a state senator.

Last May, Zaffirini delivered the commencement address to the 2006 class of UT Law Students. Her speech impressed upon the new attorneys their responsibility for answering the critical questions of our day, particularly: Who lives? Who dies? Who decides? Her son, Carlos Zaffirini Jr., was among the graduates.

Zaffirini has won more than 560 awards for her professional and public service work, including more than 100 for communication projects. This year she received the 2007 Leadership Award from the Arc of Texas for outstanding support and advocacy for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities and received a gavel from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst for casting her 35,000th consecutive vote in the Senate.

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Congressman Cuellar announces $292,189 grant for Upward Bound program at South Texas College

By LAUREN SMITH

The U.S. Department of Education on Monday, May 14, awarded $292,189 to South Texas College under the Upward Bound Program. Upward Bound projects are designed to help young adults develop the skills and motivation necessary for success in education beyond secondary school. The grant awarded to South Texas College will support approximately 75 participants in Upward Bound programs.

“I congratulate (STC president Dr.) Shirley Reed and her colleagues at South Texas College on receiving this grant. With the work of dedicated people in our education system, we will see continued success and increased education opportunities for our young people,” said Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen.

Upward Bound provides fundamental support to participants in their preparation for college entrance. The program provides opportunities for participants to succeed in their pre-college performance and ultimately in their higher education pursuits. The goal of Upward Bound is to increase the rate at which participants complete secondary education and enroll in and graduate from colleges and universities.

The projects provided by Upward Bound serve high school students from low-income families, high school students from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree, and low-income, first-generation military veterans who are preparing for post-secondary education. These projects provide academic instruction in math, laboratory sciences, composition, literature and foreign languages. Tutoring, counseling, mentoring, cultural enrichment and work-study programs are also supported by Upward Bound.

“Ensuring that every person who wants to pursue a college education is able to is a top priority of mine. Programs like Upward Bound help to give students the tools, resources and motivation they need to be successful in reaching their academic goals,” said Cuellar.

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AG Abbott helps shut down alleged real estate scam in Austin that targeted Hispanic home buyers

An enforcement action brought by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Friday, May 18, shut down an Austin real estate scam that targeted Hispanic home buyers.

A permanent injunction issued by the 126th Judicial Court prohibits Roberto Flores and his Galindo Trust from selling homes to consumers without disclosing that the property is encumbered by pre-existing liens. The court also ordered the defendants to pay more than $1.4 million in civil penalties for violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Flores must provide restitution to consumers who were harmed by the defendants’ unlawful scheme.

“Home ownership lies at the heart of the American dream,” Attorney General Abbott said. “Texans will not tolerate those who exploit the dream of home ownership for their own unlawful gain. We must aggressively protect those who aspire to own a home.”

Flores sold homes to consumers without disclosing that the properties were encumbered by pre-existing liens. Shriners Hospital, the original owner of the properties, sold and financed the homes to Flores, who made mortgage payments through Galindo Trust. Flores re-sold the properties, but subsequently stopped making payments to Shriners Hospital, putting the homes at risk of foreclosure. When some consumers who financed their homes through Galindo Trust tried to sell their property, they were unable to do so because of Shriners’ pre-existing liens.

Shriners Hospital, which was unaware of the fraudulent arrangement, is working with the Office of the Attorney General and Volunteer Legal Services of Travis County to help consumers get proper titles to their properties.

Flores also misrepresented to consumers that property taxes and homeowners’ insurance payments were being made on their behalf. In fact, Flores stopped paying insurers and taxes, causing insurance policies to lapse and consumers to become delinquent on their property taxes.

Abbott offered consumers the following tips when buying a home:

• Be wary of high-pressure sales tactics and sellers who press for an immediate decision to buy a home or sign documents.

• Review all documents carefully before signing; take them to a trusted, independent person, such as a lawyer, to help review the terms if they are unclear.

• Involve a title search company in the transaction to determine who the owner of the property is and whether there are liens or outstanding debts for which the buyer could be held liable.

• Never make cash payments. Use checks or money orders. Avoid making large cash deposits upfront before closing.

• If monthly payments to the seller or financing institution include homeowners’ insurance and property taxes, check periodically with the county tax assessor and with the insurance company to ensure that accounts are current.

Consumers who believe they have been deceived in the purchase of real estate should report it to the Office of the Attorney General by calling 1-800-252-8011 or by filing a complaint online at http://www.oag.state.tx.us.

Senate approves measure by Sen. Lucio to build UT Health Science Center in Valley, including Edinburg

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John de la Viña of Edinburg, featured left, has worked his way up from serving in the Office of the House Sergeant-at-Arms, which works with lawmakers and their staffs, to a position on the legislative staff of Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg. De la Viña, son of Danny and Judith De la Viña of Edinburg, plans to attend St. Mary’s University Law School in San Antonio this fall.

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Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, greets Gene “Scooter” Long and his father Ralph at the Arc of Texas 2007 Leadership Award Ceremony where Zaffirini was honored for her outstanding support and advocacy of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Scooter’s Law is effective immediately. See story later in this posting.

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Texas A&M officials recently met with administrators from South Texas College to discuss the program and support opportunities for students. From left are Isai Morales, advisor for Valley Scholar’s and Honors Program for STC; Wanda Spratt, division dean of Nursing and Allied Health for STC; Paul Hernández, dean of Counseling and Advising for STC; Guadalupe Chávez, coordinator of Dual Enrollment Academies for STC; Dr. Ali Esmaeili; Dr. Juan Castro; Marie Olivarez, coordinator of Valley Scholar’s for STC; and Raymond Joyce, program coordinator for the Partnerships for Primary Care for the Texas A&M Health Science Center. See story later in this posting.

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Senate approves measure by Sen. Lucio to build UT Health Science Center in Valley, including Edinburg

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Senate on Friday, May 11, gave its approval to a bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, that allows the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System to establish a free-standing U.T. Health Science Center in South Texas that includes a medical school and other health-related degree programs.

“This lays the foundation for a full-fledged medical school by requiring that the first two years of a degree program for medical students be offered at the University of Texas at Brownsville,” said Lucio, who added an amendment with this provision to Senate Bill 420 as requested by Rep. Eddie Lucio, III.

The amendment adds Brooks, Jim Hogg, Kenedy and Zapata counties to the area to be served by the medical school. The original bill would have included only Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties in the school’s region.

“The opening of a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley would help recruit doctors to an underserved area and provide students in the region an opportunity to attend a professional school,” said Sen. Lucio. “Currently, only one professional school exists south of San Antonio: the Irma Rangel School of Pharmacy at Texas A&M University in Kingsville.”

The new bill requires research and training facilities to be established within the existing infrastructure of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) at U.T. Brownsville, U.T. Pan American and at Harlingen, with an estimated cost of $28 million for startup. Currently, there are eight medical schools in Texas, with the southernmost in San Antonio.

SB 420 is also important because it would increase the availability of physicians who are culturally sensitive to the area’s population. Miscommunication problems are less frequent when health care providers understand and are educated to work with the cultural composition of the population. Additionally, studies show that medical students from underserved areas are more likely to practice in those areas.

Texas also has a below-average doctor-per-capita ratio (152 per 100,000) compared to the rest of the nation (220 per 100,000), which compounds the health care crisis: a rapidly growing population with an increasing susceptibility to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer. By 2020 or 2025, the deficit could be as great as 200,000 physicians, or 20 percent of the workforce. Recent studies indicate that the Rio Grande Valley counties have been designated as Medically Underserved Areas by the Department of State Health Services.

The Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2002 study on new medical schools stated that if additional schools were to be established, they should: (1) have a high population area served by significantly fewer than the state average number of physicians; (2) show the potential to address issues of geographic access, with physician workforce diversity; and (3) provide the state the ability to build on significant prior investments that it and other entities have made for medical education and services. The Rio Grande Valley and El Paso were listed as potential sites.

“We need to press ahead with a medical school in the South Texas region, or we will further shortchange the medical needs of the area and its people,” added Sen. Lucio. “It is time we get the process moving.”

The bill is now headed to the House for consideration.

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House passes border security bill to help fight border crime, improve homeland security coordination

By ALEXIS DeLEE

The Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 8, gave final approval to House Bill 13 by Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, to improve the coordination of homeland security operations along the Texas border and reduce criminal activity.

All Valley state representatives supported the measure. It was scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, May 14, before the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, are joint authors of the bill.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, is the Senate sponsor of HB 13.

“Mexican cartels take advantage of our porous border with Mexico to traffic drugs and other criminal activity throughout Texas and the rest of the United States,” Swinford said. “Portions of our border with Mexico are controlled by drug lords where murder and crime is skyrocketing. We must take control of our border, and this legislation will get us closer to that goal.”

Swinford’s legislation creates the Border Security Council whose members will be appointed by the governor and whose function will be to oversee the distribution of $103 million to border law enforcement agencies.

A legislative committee would be created to monitor this activity and report back to the legislature on the effectiveness of these programs. Concurrently, state funds could be leveraged with federal funds under legislation currently pending before Congress.
The bill also encourages cities and counties to cooperate with federal agencies in immigration matters, allowing for the withholding of homeland security funding in the event they actively disregard federal laws.

A legislative study will also be conducted to evaluate the expedited deportation of illegal immigrants held in state jails and prisons for criminal offenses.

“This is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we will pass this session as it affects the safety of every citizen of this state and country,” said Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland. “I want to thank Chairman Swinford for putting forth a bipartisan bill that will beef up the homeland security structure in Texas.”

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Congressman Cuellar addresses lack of outreach to border communities by federal government about plans for proposed border wall

By LAUREN SMITH

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, on Monday, May 7, facilitated a video conference between federal and local officials to continue dialogue regarding the proposed border fence and address the lack of outreach to local citizens and officials.

The meeting included top-ranking officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Chief David Aguilar of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and SBINet Executive Director Greg Giddens. Staff members of Cuellar, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, local leaders and elected officials also participated, including Webb County Judge Danny Valdéz, Dennis Nixon of International Bank of Commerce, and Laredo Mayor Raúl Salinas.

During the video conference, CBP and DHS officials agreed to engage local communities in an outreach campaign and said they will continue communicating with border leaders before any action on the proposed fence is taken. Officials also explained that the proposed fence location was drafted before SBINet measures were implemented and that DHS officials will monitor the results of a pilot program in Ariz. to determine if these security measures are good for the entire U.S.-Mexico Border.

Cuellar said he will also coordinate a visit to study the pilot program in Arizona, with the intention of determining the feasibility of a similar project along the Texas-Mexico Border.

“We will look to find the best options to increase border security, including the possibility of SBINet technology,” said Cuellar. “The SBINet technology– including air surveillance, cameras, ground sensors and ground radars– would help minimize the number of miles of fencing along our borders.”

Aguilar, an Edinburg native, welcomed town hall meetings along the border as a part of the CBP outreach initiative.

“I will work to bring SBINet Executive Director, Border Patrol Chiefs, border mayors, county judges and other officials who are stationed along the Texas-Mexico borderto Laredo for a border town hall meeting in the near future,” said Cuellar.

“Two people who will become major players in how we secure our borders will be Chief David Aguilar and Greg Giddens. In addition, we need to involve our Border Patrol Chiefs because they are the ones in the trenches and protecting our borders,” said Cuellar.

DHS representatives stated that their top priority along the international border in Texas is not building a fence, but cooperating with local citizens and representatives to improve border security and efficiency. Cuellar has long been an advocate for such communication as well as for clearing the banks of the Rio Grande.

“I applaud the Department of Homeland Security for recognizing the need to maintain an open line of communication with citizens in border communities, and I want to thank everyone for working to have such a positive meeting regarding border security,” said Cuellar. “I will continue to advocate for efficient and beneficial solutions at the border in Texas, utilizing the best combination of technology, infrastructure and construction to secure our border.”

“My goal is to facilitate communication and progress between local citizens and the federal government. By helping to address the local needs with federal solutions, we will truly be on track to bring about progress at the border,” said Cuellar.

Cuellar is a member of the House Homeland Security, Small Business, and Agriculture Committees in the 110th Congress; accessibility to constituents, education, health care, economic development and national security are his priorities. Congressman Cuellar is also a Majority Senior Whip.

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Edinburg’s retail economy in February up almost 18% over same month in 2006

By DAVID A. DÍAZ

Edinburg’s retail economy in February 2007, as measured by the amount of local and state sales taxes generated by a wide range of local businesses, was up 17.75 percent over the same month in 2006, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

The EEDC is the jobs-creation arm of the Edinburg City Council.

It’s five-member governing board, which is appointed by the Edinburg City Council, includes Mayor Joe Ochoa, former Mayor Richard García, who serves as board president, Fred Palacios, Mike Govind, and George Bennack.

The figure translates into more than $1.4 million generated in local sales taxes in February, and sent back to the Edinburg city government on April 13 by the state comptroller of public accounts.

The local sales taxes are generated by the city’s 1 1/2 local sales tax and the 1/2 economic development sales tax that is administered by the EEDC.

Retail businesses are required to collect both the local and state sales taxes and send them to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, which soon after returns the local sales tax back to communities in the form of a rebate,

The local sales tax is used to help pay for dozens of major city services, ranging from new streets to city personnel.

In February, Edinburg’s economy generated $1,406,491.03 in local sales taxes, compared with $1,194,371.11 in local sales taxes in February 2006.

During the first two months of 2007, Edinburg’s retail economy has generated almost $5.8 million in local sales taxes, up more than seven percent over the first two months of last year.

Edinburg registered the second-best showing in Hidalgo County in February, with McAllen outpacing all major cities in the Valley.

McAllen’s economy generated more than $5.5 million in local sales taxes in February, compared with more than $5.2 million during the same month last year, an increase of almost five percent.

According to the comptroller’s office, Hidalgo County also showed continued prosperity. In February 2007, all cities in Hidalgo County generated more than $11.8 million in local sales taxes, up 10.12 percent over February 2006, which reached more than $10.7 million.

During the first two months of 2007, all cities in Hidalgo County generated more than $52.6 million in local sales taxes, up more than 11 percent over the $47.2 million mark set in January and February 2006.

Neighboring Cameron County also registered economic growth, according to the state figures.

In February, all cities in Cameron County generated almost $5.9 million in local sales taxes, compared with more than $5.5 million during the same month in 2006, an increase of almost six percent.

Other major cities in Hidalgo and Cameron counties reported the following sales tax figures:

•Brownsville’s retail economy generated more than $3 million in local sales taxes in February 2007 compared with almost $2.8 million in February 2006, an increase of almost six percent;

•Harlingen’s retail economy generated more than $1.8 million in local sales taxes in February 2007, compared with more than $1.7 million in February 2006, an increase of five percent;

•Mission’s retail economy generated almost $1.1 million in local sales taxes in February 2007, compared with slightly more than $1 million in February 2006, an increase of 6.4 percent;

•Pharr’s retail economy generated more than $1.1 million in local sales tax activities in February 2007, compared with almost $1.4 million during the same month in 2006, a drop of more than two percent; and

•Weslaco’s retail economy generated more than $904,000 in local sales tax activities in February 2007, compared with more than $770,000 in February 2006, an increase of almost 17.5 percent.

Statewide, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs said the state received $1.53 billion in sales tax revenue in March, up 11.9 percent compared to March 2006.

State sales tax revenue for March, and April payments made to local governments, represent sales that occurred in February.

“The national economy is showing signs of a slowdown, particularly in the housing sector, but we are still seeing healthy growth in the Texas economy and a corresponding growth in state sales tax revenue,” Combs said.

Local sales tax revenues also continue to grow. Combs sent $404 million in April sales tax allocations to cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts, a 9.7 percent increase compared to April 2006. So far this calendar year, sales tax allocations to local governments are up 6.4 percent.

Combs sent April sales tax allocations of $272.4 million to Texas cities, up 9.3 percent compared to April 2006. Calendar year-to-date, city sales tax allocations are running 7.1 percent higher than last year. Texas counties received sales tax payments of $24.8 million, up 11.1 percent compared to one year ago. Calendar year-to-date, county sales tax allocations are 8.4 percent higher than last year.

Another $12.5 million went to 115 special purpose taxing districts around the state, up 17.2 percent compared to last April. Ten local transit systems received $94.1 million in sales tax rebates, up 9.8 percent compared to a year ago.

For details of April sales tax payments to individual cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose districts, visit the Monthly Sales and Use Tax Allocation Comparison Summary Reports page on the Comptroller’s Web site at http://www.window.state.tx.us/taxinfo/allocsum/compsum.html.

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House Approves bill by Rep. Gonzáles to bring street lighting to colonias in rural areas

By RICARDO LÓPEZ-GUERRA

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, welcomed House support for passage of House Bill 573, relating to street lighting in unincorporated areas along the border. The bill made it out of the House on Friday, May 11, at a critical time nearing the end of session, where it is expected to receive a hearing and be voted on in the Senate, bringing street lighting one step closer to the colonias.

Gonzáles is the prime author of the measure; joint authors include Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City. Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito is a co-author of the bill.

“Last session I worked to secure funding for installation of street lights in the colonias,” said Gonzáles. “The colonia residents provided support and compelling testimony to the Legislature how street lighting could make a huge difference in their neighborhood. I am confident that HB 573 will finally make lighting a reality for these residents.” Cameron County and Hidalgo County commissioners’ courts stood behind Gonzáles’ legislative measures to secure that lighting is delivered to colonia streets and both commissioners’ courts presented resolutions supporting HB 573.

Gonzáles added, “Passage of this bill establishes a better standard of living for residents by reducing crime and increasing security in the community. No neighborhood should be left in the dark, and I am hopeful that this bill will light the way for safer colonias.”

In 2005, Gonzáles passed legislation with the support of colonia residents. “The community support has been tremendous,” she said. “The initial legislation established for federal grant money to fund the installation of street poles and HB 573 gives the border counties a means by which to pay for the electricity to ensure that the street lights are provided.

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Senate approves resolution by Sen. Lucio to extend visa laser card to Mexicans

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

The Texas Senate on Friday, May 10, gave its thumbs up to a Resolution by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. encouraging the U.S. Congress to enact the Secure Border Crossing Card Entry Act of 2007 to extend the laser visa length of stay from 30 days to six months granting Mexican visitors parity with their Canadian counterparts.

“Senate Concurrent Resolution 43 is a way for the Legislature to show support to our Texas Congressional delegation,” said Lucio.

The federal Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Corny, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo/McAllen, would extend the length of stay to Mexican visitors to support the economic needs of Texas with the goal of successfully balancing national security with the benefits of legitimate trade and travel.

Bill Summers, President and CEO of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, said, “According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, from Brownsville to El Paso, more then 120 million visitors cross a year from Mexico into Texas. According to surveys, they spend on average $152 per person per trip. For the state of Texas, that amounts to $3 billion in total expenditures; $417 million in taxes collected; and 63,314 jobs created.”

Lucio added, “We have been approached by several businesses and the banking community along the border to carry this bill.”

Summers compared the dollar value of U.S. commerce crossing the border during one month at Laredo, Texas from Nuevo Laredo equal to the sum value of U.S.-China trade for an entire year.

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Sen. Hinojosa passes bill to prevent dating violence in public schools

By MELISSA DEL BOSQUE

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, on Tuesday, May 8, passed House Bill 121 to help prevent dating violence in public schools.

Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito is a co-author of the measure.

“This bill takes a proactive approach by requiring schools to address teen dating violence and how to prevent it before a tragedy occurs,” Hinojosa said.

HB 151 requires school districts to include a plan to address dating violence prevention in schools. Schools already include procedures on how to address suicide prevention, conflict resolution and violence prevention.

Sheryl Cates, chief executive officer of the Texas Council on Family Violence, said the passage of the bill would provide an added safety net for youth attending school who may find themselves in an abusive relationship. The Texas Council of Family Violence found that 75 percent of young people in Texas ages 16 to 24 reported they had personally experienced dating violence or knew someone who had.

“With the passage of HB 121, requiring school districts to adopt policies addressing teen dating violence, we are providing enhanced safety for our youth who may be in abusive dating relationships,” Cates said. “This legislation will begin to help students in this situation to get help. Sen. Hinojosa has worked for the safety of victims and the prevention of family violence his entire public career, and this is another in a long line of his successful efforts to improve public policy in Texas.”

Hinojosa thanked Dukes for her leadership in the House and for being a longtime advocate in preventing dating violence. HB 121 will now be sent to the governor for his approval.

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Small contractors would have better access to state contracts under bill by Sen. Lucio

By DORIS SÁNCHEZ

Small contractors in Texas will gain an equal footing in competing for state projects through a bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, that would expand an existing capacity building program.

Senate Bill 704 would add bonding assistance and safety training to the Small Contractor Participation Assistance Program, originally established in 1993 under the Texas Building and Procurement Commission. This legislation would implement and expand the program to include in-depth technical assistance in insurance and bonding, as well as safety training.

It was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, May 2. It is scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, May 14 in the House Committee on Government Reform.

“It is more difficult for small contractors to secure insurance and bonding than to find work,” said Lucio. “Public works contracts tend to be huge multi-million dollar agreements, and few small contractors win these contracts because they lack adequate bonding coverage to handle these large projects. My bill attempts to level the playing field.”

“Sen. Lucio’s bill will give small and minority contractors an opportunity to bid for more public works projects,” said Frank Fuentes, Chairman of the US Hispanic Contractors Association. “In turn, the state will save money through a more competitive bid process.”

Contracts for public works projects of over $1 million would be eligible under the program, which would benefit the state by increasing the number of businesses eligible to submit pubic works bids and lowering the risk of small contractors. The program would also implement a centralized system of purchasing certain coverage and bonds, as well as provide a public outreach plan to encourage participation.

“I believe that a coordinator under this program can provide one-on-one assistance to small contractors and walk them through the procurement process, particularly within facility renovation and building construction projects,” explained Lucio. “Networking with existing public and private contractors would be another resource provided.”

“This is a good program that will improve the small contractor’s access to bonding, increase the number of bids submitted for public works and expand the likelihood that small contractors will be awarded contracts.”

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Measure to establish organ donation registry supported by Rep. Gonzáles goes to governor

By NICK ALMANZA

Texas legislators have unanimously renamed the Texas Donor, Education, Awareness and Registry program (DEAR) the Glenda Dawson Donate Life-Texas Registry to honor the late state representative who received a kidney from her sister.

Senate Bill 1500 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was approved by the Senate on Friday, May 4.

Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, is a joint author of House Bill 2145, which is the companion (identical) bill to SB 1500.

SB 1500 is a follow-up to SB 24 and HB 120 (2005) by Zaffirini, which created the state’s organ and tissue donor registry.

It will enable the state’s organ and tissue donor registry to affiliate with the National Donate Life America alliance and campaign, allowing it to educate and reach more potential donors by using Donate Life America’s established brand equity.

“The more Texas increases public awareness and education regarding the importance of organ and tissue donation, the more lives will be saved,” Zaffirini said. “The bill would raise organ donor awareness statewide and would provide a fitting tribute to its champion, former Rep. Glenda Dawson, by making her the namesake of the Texas donor registry.”

Dawson, a transplant recipient, died last September.

“The general public’s response to donating blood is successful because of public education campaigns. I am confident that our efforts will achieve similar public awareness and will also honor my former colleague, Rep. Dawson, who not only championed the organ donor registration, but was a recipient of a kidney donation,” said Gonzáles.

Nationally, more than half of states have renamed their state registries to reference “Donate Life” a nationally known non-profit. By renaming the registry to reference the national non-profit, the State’s program will improve its campaign awareness among the public and share visibility to registries nationwide.

Information about becoming an organ donor is available via the internet at http://www.shareyourlife.org or http://www.texasdear.org.

(Ricardo López-Guerra contributed to this article.)

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House Democrats prioritize teacher pay raise while preserving property tax cut, say legislative leaders

By KEVIN VICKERS

House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam, D-Waco, on Friday, May 11, led a bipartisan majority in passing an amendment prioritizing a $6,000 pay raise for teachers, librarians and school counselors.

Dunnam amended a bill that directed $2.5 billion to additional property tax cuts. Previously this year, the legislature passed a separate $14 billion property tax cut. The Dunnam amendment requires that teachers receive the $6,000—which will bring them up to the national average in teacher pay—prior to the additional property tax cut becoming effective.

“I voted for the big property tax cut, but additional property tax cuts cannot be our 1st, 2nd and 3rd highest priorities for the state. Today, a bipartisan Texas House majority stood up to (Speaker of the House) Tom Craddick (R-Midland) and said that improving our public schools is more important,” said Dunnam.

Dunnam explained that most of a record $14 billion state budget surplus has already been dedicated to reducing property tax rates by one-third. House Bill 2785 proposed an additional six percent rate reduction that would cost an additional $2.5 billion of state general revenue funds every two years. The Dunnam amendment made raising teacher pay to the national average a requirement for putting the additional rate cut into effect.

“Nothing is more important to our children’s future and our state’s economic future than making sure every child has a qualified teacher in the classroom,” Dunnam said. “With Texas teacher pay lagging almost $6,000 below the national average, the House said today that Texas schools are an important priority and rejected the leadership’s plan to spend almost every last penny of a record state surplus on big tax shifts that primarily benefit wealthy political contributors.”

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, Chairman of the Texas Legislative Study Group, noted that the new business tax bill authored by the state Republican leadership in 2006 is falling billions of dollars short of paying for the property tax reductions already in place, and that additional tax rate cuts would drain off state funds needed to restore critical program cuts made in 2003 when there was a state budget shortfall.

“House Bill 2785 would have sent the few who benefit from the proposed tax cuts to the front of the line for state dollars and sent everyone else to the back,” Coleman said. “Today’s vote made it clear that our children’s teachers, full CHIP restoration, access to higher education, and other important priorities are just as important as property tax cuts.”

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, Chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, observed that the House leadership was prepared to dedicate $2.5 billion more to property tax cuts when, just yesterday, the leadership had insisted there was not sufficient revenue available to fund a $3 billion cancer research fund and delayed full funding for cancer research until 2010.

“The legislative leadership’s budget priorities are not only morally wrong, they also don’t make any sense financially,” Gallego said.

“A House majority said today that if money is available to set aside for tax relief tomorrow, there is also the money to use today to improve our schools, restore CHIP and fund cancer research,” Gallego concluded.

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Measure by Rep. García to help military families adopt children is approved by House

By ELIZABETH LIPPINCOTT

Legislation by Rep. Juan M. García III, D-Corpus Christi, which would prohibit discrimination against military families who want to adopt children, passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday, May 8, and now moves to the Senate for consideration.

García introduced the measure, House Bill 3537, after military families across Texas complained that their frequent deployment status and frequent moves were counting against them when they were assessed for suitability as adoptive parents.

“Texas has a waiting list of 35,000 children waiting to be adopted. Yes, in a military family one parent is frequently away. But I believe that is greatly outweighed by the benefits that come with the military lifestyle, including healthcare, housing, daycare, and youth sports ” García said. “It’s important for our adoption rules to embody that.”

HB 3537 provides a safeguard for military families involved in the adoption process. The legislation is designed to dissuade child placement agencies and courts from having a negative view of military life based on the fact that a parent might be deployed or that the family will move periodically.

“A parent who’s in the military may not be home for dinner every night at 6:00 p.m., but that’s because they’re doing hard work that benefits others, and that’s worth making some sacrifices,” García said. “What could be a better lesson for a child to learn?”

García emphasized that the military supports adoptive families with leave policies, health care benefits, educational resources and reimbursement for certain adoption costs.

García, a career military officer, has four children, and his father was also a career naval aviator.

García represents the 32nd District in the Texas House of Representatives. Elected in 2006, he is an attorney and second-generation naval aviator. He lives in Corpus Christi with his wife Denise and their four children.

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Attorney General Abbott takes action against EZ Pawn Shop chain for exposing customers’ records

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott on Tuesday, May 8, took legal action against Texas-based EZCORP Inc., and its subsidiary, EZPAWN, for systematically exposing its customers to identity theft at stores in Texas, including the Rio Grande Valley.

According to documents filed by the Attorney General, EZCORP violated the law by repeatedly failing to protect customer records that contain sensitive personal information.

Investigators with the Office of the Attorney General discovered that several San Antonio EZPAWN stores exposed customers’ personal identifying information by discarding business records in easily accessible trash cans behind the stores. According to investigators, the records included promissory notes and bank statements that contained names, addresses, Social Security and driver’s license numbers, and checking account information.

“Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States,” Abbott said. “Texans expect their personal information to remain confidential. The Office of the Attorney General will take all necessary steps to protect consumers from identity thieves.”

Investigators also found evidence of similar instances of improper document dumping at a dozen other EZPAWN locations around the state, including stores in Austin, Houston, Lubbock and the Rio Grande Valley.

The defendants are accused of violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (DTPA) and the 2005 Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act, which requires the safeguarding and proper destruction of clients’ sensitive personal information. Under the law, the Office of the Attorney General has the authority to seek penalties of up to $25,000 per violation of the DTPA and $50,000 per violation of the Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act.

The Attorney General also charged EZCORP and EZPAWN with violating Chapter 35 of the Business and Commerce Code, which requires businesses to develop retention and disposal procedures for their clients’ personal information. The law provides for civil penalties of up to $500 for each abandoned record.

The Office of the Attorney General is investigating whether any exposed data has been used illegally. Consumers who interacted with EZPAWN stores should carefully monitor bank, credit card and any similar statements for evidence of suspicious activity. Customers should also obtain free copies of their credit reports.

Consumers who wish to file a complaint may contact the Office of the Attorney General at (800) 252-8011 or do so online at http://www.oag.state.tx.us, where they can also obtain information on identity theft detection and prevention.

The May 8 legal action against EZCORP is the Office of the Attorney General’s fifth identity theft enforcement action in recent weeks. In April, Abbott took legal action against CVS/pharmacy and RadioShack Corporation for exposing hundreds of customers to identity theft by failing to properly dispose of records that contained sensitive information.

In March, the Attorney General filed an enforcement action against Jones Beauty College in Dallas for improperly discarding student financial aid forms with Social Security numbers and other personal information. Also in March, Abbott took legal action against On Track Modeling, a North Carolina-based talent agency that abruptly shut down its Grand Prairie office and abandoned more than 60 boxes containing hundreds of confidential client records.

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Senate passes bill by Sen. Zaffirini to establish tax-free purchase periods for college textbooks

By NICK ALMANZA

The Texas Senate on Tuesday, May 8, passed Senate Bill 49 by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, which would provide financial relief to college students by allowing them to purchase textbooks tax-free at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, is a co-author of the bill. Rep. Juan Escobar, D-Kingsville/Willacy County, is a co-sponsor the measure.

The bill would establish two 10-day periods per year during which a college student with a valid student identification card could purchase textbooks tax-free.

“The impassioned testimony before the Senate Finance Committee by students supporting SB 49 sends a clear message that college students are in need of financial relief from the escalating costs associated with higher education,” Zaffirini said. “I truly am delighted that this bill was passed by the Senate and thank Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and the student organizations who worked closely with me to pass SB 49.”

This is Zaffirini’s third attempt to pass this legislation. She authored similar bills during the 2005 Regular and Special Legislative Sessions.

The bill must be passed by the House of Representatives before it can be sent to Gov. Rick Perry for final approval.

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New law allows students with disabilities to participate in graduation, receive attendance certificates

By NICK ALMANZA

Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday, May 8, signed into law Senate Bill 673, known as “Scooter’s Bill,” by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, is a co-author of the measure.

Effective immediately, it will allow students with disabilities who are in individualized education programs (IEP) and who have completed four years of high school to participate in graduation ceremonies and receive attendance certificates. They would receive their diplomas upon completing their IEP.

“I was proud to sponsor and pass Scooter’s Bill and am delighted that it is now Scooter’s Law,” Zaffirini said. “The new law will provide students in IEP programs with the opportunity to graduate with their peers and obtain a sense of closure as their classmates move on from high school. This is a fitting and pleasant end to Scooter Long’s story of hard work and advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities.”

SB 673 is named “Scooter’s Bill” in honor of Gene “Scooter” Long, a Dallas IEP student who was denied participation in his class’s graduation ceremonies by the Dallas Independent School District.

The new law calls for a consistent policy throughout Texas. What’s more, it will allow students to continue their IEP programs after participating in commencement ceremonies and would not preclude their receiving high school diplomas upon completing the program.

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Texas A&M recruits STC students for early admission to medical school

By HELEN ESCOBAR

“We see the Valley as an area of shortages in many medical fields, but in particular for doctors. Our goal is to recruit students from South Texas College who are eager to take on the challenges of medicine, and who are willing to come back home and help to address the local health care needs,” said Dr. Juan F. Castro, associate dean for Coastal Bend Affairs for the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. “We are recruiting students now as the turn cycle from medical student, to resident, to doctor takes seven or more years depending on the selected specialty.

We want to ensure that students attending South Texas College through its Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy and Valley Scholars Program are aware of the Partnership for Primary Care Program, our early admissions program. We see these students who can maintain high academic standards as prime candidates for our College of Medicine.”

Any student involved in STC’s Valley Scholars Program or Dual Enrollment Medical Science Academy (DEMSA) who is interested in becoming a doctor is eligible for the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine Early Admissions Program. To be considered, students must apply and be taking courses at South Texas College in a relevant field of study. They must fill out and submit an application for early admission to the program, have an excellent academic track record, an SAT score of 1200 or above and a successful interview with the Texas A&M College of Medicine officials.

Once accepted to the program, students are guaranteed acceptance into the Texas A&M College of Medicine. In order to maintain their placement, students must maintain their high academic standards, earn their associate’s degree from STC and then transfer to Texas A&M University at College Station to complete their bachelor’s degree. Upon earning their bachelor’s degree, students will be able to automatically take their place at the Texas A&M College of Medicine and continue their studies.

“I can not stress what an amazing opportunity this is for any student who is considering becoming a doctor,” said Dr. Ali Esmaeili, associate dean for Bachelor Programs and University Relations for STC. “Placement at medical schools across the country is extremely competitive and most students must struggle and worry for years about whether or not they will be able to get in. STC students have the unique opportunity to guarantee their admission at the start of their college career. They see the light at the end of the tunnel and know that they are working toward their goal. This program is a huge advantage for students in Hidalgo and Starr Counties and I hope that they will start taking advantage of it now.”

In addition to offering early admission opportunities, the Texas A&M Health Science Center – College of Medicine through its offices in South Texas is willing to provide other tools to keep students motivated throughout the course of their studies.

“We want to provide guest speakers, workshops and other programs that can keep these students focused,” added Raymond Joyce, Partnership for Primary Care recruiter. “At times I see students who are thrilled to be part of the program, but for whatever reason, they get discouraged and do not complete the requirements. STC is a great partner for us because the college has so many support systems in place to ensure student success and we want to do our part to buttress that system.”

Students attending STC in the college’s Valley Scholar’s and DEMSA programs have access to free tutoring, one-on-one guidance and counseling, free college tours, book-sharing systems, as well as a variety of other benefits.d

“We are also looking at ways to include other bright and talented STC students who are not in the DEMSA or Valley Scholar’s Program, but who have shown a zest for medical sciences and have superior GPAs and extracurricular activities,” said Paul Hernandez, dean of Counseling and Advising for STC. “This is such a wonderful opportunity and we believe we can find a way to open it up to everyone in the near future.”

“We know this is a model partnership between STC, Texas A&M University and Texas A&M Health Science Center-College of Medicine, and will benefit students and the community,” concluded Dr. Castro. “We hope that we can develop similar programs in other fields such as pharmacy and dentistry as there are shortages in these areas also.”

For more information about the program contact Dr. Ali Esmaeili, associate dean for Bachelor Programs and University Relations at 872-7270.

Key border leaders pull no punches in condemning planned wall in Texas

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Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, center, on Wednesday, May 2, emphasized opposition from border leaders to plans by the federal government to build a border wall that could disrupt commerce between Texas and Mexico without increasing homeland security. Salinas was joined at a State Capitol news conference by numerous political and business officials, including, from left: Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville; Salinas; Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-San Benito, and Rep. Tracy King, D-Eagle Pass.  Hinojosa, a U.S. Marine combat squad leader during the Vietnam War, called the proposed barrier “The Wall of Shame”.

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McAllen Mayor Richard Cortéz emphasizes the strong opposition to a planned border wall in deep South Texas that is being considered by the federal government as a way to curb illegal immigration. The wall would hurt the economies of the border region and Texas, Cortéz said during a May 2 press conference in Austin by the Texas Border Coalition. Featured with Cortéz are Rep. Verónica Gonzáles, D-McAllen, and Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, chairman of TBC. “No one wants border security more than we do. However, we support security that is smart, takes advantage of our natural geographic barrier – The Rio Grande River – and doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” Foster said. “Building a wall along the Rio Grande River accomplishes none of these goals.”

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Former Cameron County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa (center) proudly displays the Senate Resolution honoring him for his years in public service presented on Tuesday, May 1 in the Texas Senate Chamber by Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville (left). Joining Judge Hinojosa are Gina Hinojosa-Donisi (daughter) with her son Mateo, Xochitl Hinojosa (daughter) and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen (no relation to judge’s family).

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