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Legislation to raise millions of dollars, without a tax increase, for construction or renovation of Hidalgo County Courthouse passed by Senate, awaiting action by House of Representatives

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Featured, from left: Hidalgo County 332nd District Court Judge Mario E. Ramírez, Jr. and Robert “Bobby” Villarreal, Economic Development Director for Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García, on Tuesday, March 3, addressing the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court at their meeting at Edinburg City Hall.

Photograph By JACLYN TREVIÑO

Legislation that could raise between $1 million and $2 million a year for the next 30 years to help pay for a new courthouse or renovations of the existing, 64-year-old facility in downtown Edinburg – without increasing property taxes – has been approved by the Senate and is awaiting final action by the House of Representatives. Senate Bill 1964, by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was approved by the Senate on Wednesday, April 29, and will be carried (sponsored) by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, in the House. As of the end of Wednesday, May 6, SB 1964 or the identical measure, House Bill 2868, authored by Martínez/Canales, had not yet been set for a vote by the full House of Representatives. On Wednesday, May 6, Canales signed on as a joint author of Martínez’ HB 2868, publicly throwing his support for the effort which could result in the construction of a $100+ million courthouse in the heart of his House District 40 legislative district. “The Hidalgo County Courthouse complex is one of the major economic engines, along with the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley and its School of Medicine, that is part of a tremendous revitalization that is going on in deep South Texas,” Canales said. “Just as important, South Texans need a courthouse that provides a safe and secure environment for the administration of justice for individuals and businesses.” Both measures carry the same language, which would allow Hidalgo County to assess a user fee through certain court cases and recording fees to help fund a new courthouse. The new revenue would be generated by adding a $20 fee to the filing of each civil case in Hidalgo County, and be adding a $10 charge to the fee required by the county government for recording the title, mortgages and other liens against property. “SB 1964 allows Hidalgo County to collect a civil courts filing fee similar to the one currently collected in Bexar, Hays, Dallas, Rockwall, and Travis Counties and other courts to assist with the costs of renovating, improving, or constructing new courthouse facilities,” said Hinojosa. On Tuesday, March 3, the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court unanimously approved endorsing the legislation, with Hidalgo County 332nd District Court Judge Mario E. Ramírez, Jr. expressing the support of the Hidalgo County judiciary. During that public session, Hidalgo County Judge Ramón García explained the importance of securing the support for the Hinojosa measure from the judges who lead the county’s system of district, county, and probate courts. “We want to make sure the community is aware that the judiciary is totally in support of our efforts in trying to do what we can to build a new courthouse here in the county, and one of those efforts involves our legislators, specifically Sen. Hinojosa, that will allow the assessing of user fees, or an additional filing fee, to help come up with with somewhere between $1 million to $2 million (a year) that will be set aside and used for a payment of a new courthouse facility,” said García. Ramírez, the senior judge for Hidalgo County, and the longest-serving, currently presiding judge in the 5th Region of Texas, agreed for the need for the legislation. “Speaking for the judiciary, it is really, really obvious that we need a new courthouse. We try cases over there, Judge (García), with multi-parties, and courtrooms are too small. There is no place to put the jurors, the jurors are uncomfortable, and we are unable to try the large, big cases that we have with multi-parties in the space that we have at the present time.” Ramírez added, “It is unsafe at the courthouse, it is not secure, there are many, many problems, and certainly, the judiciary stands united in supporting this resolution.”

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Measure to stop judges from rewarding campaign contributors, authored by Sen. Zaffirini, approved by Texas Senate

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Featured: Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, addressing colleagues in the Chamber of the Texas Senate.

Photograph By SENATE MEDIA SERVICES

The Texas Senate on Tuesday, April 21, passed legislation by Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, that would shed light on the compensation paid to attorneys and guardians who are appointed by courts to represent a person, such as a minor, an elderly person or a person with disabilities, who is deemed unable of representing himself or herself. “Two decades ago a Supreme Court task force found evidence that some state judges abused their discretionary authority by using appointment income to reward campaign supporters. Since then, there has been little reform, and the media has continued to report on problems,” said Zaffirini. “When even the appearance of abuse undermines the public’s confidence in the entire judicial system, it is critical that we do more to promote transparency in the ad litem system.” SB 1369 would require courts appointing attorneys, guardians and mediators to submit to the Office of Court Administration data including the name of each person appointed by the court, the rate and total amount of compensation paid to each attorney in that year and the number of hours each attorney served ad litem for the appointed case. The information would be posted on websites accessible to the public and physically at the courthouse. “It appears that more than $25 million in taxpayer money has been spent on these appointments through 2014,” Zaffirini said. “The true cost is likely much higher, however, especially because many courts have not reported the information. SB 1369 will help us gain a clearer picture of the costs and discourage potential abuses.” If a court fails to report the data, it would be made ineligible for state grant funding for a two-year period. Zaffirini, who previously served as Chair of the Senate Government Organization Committee and Co-Chair of the Joint Oversight Committee on Higher Education Governance, Excellence and Transparency, long has promoted legislation that would increase transparency in state government. This session she has filed legislation enhancing the transparency of university system Boards of Regents’ meetings, improving oversight of state contracting, promoting “Truth in Taxation” and centralizing state grant information in a searchable database. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, are co-authors of Zaffirini’s SB 1369.

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Senate awaiting action by House of Representatives on $4.6 billion tax cut package endorsed by Sen. Hinojosa

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Featured, center, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, along with Roxanne De La Garza, who serves on Hinojosa’s legislative and McAllen district staffs, greet Alex Ríos, District Director for Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, on Tuesday, August 26, 2014 prior to the groundbreaking of The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley’s $54 million Medical Academic Building in Edinburg, the first new construction for the UT-RGV School of Medicine.

Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

The House of Representatives is considering a $4.6 billion tax relief package, approved by the Senate on Wednesday, March 25, which its supporters, including Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, say is designed to benefit homeowners and small businesses. Hinojosa is a joint author of Senate Bill 1, Senate Bill 7, and Senate Bill 8, which would give many Texas homeowners a bigger break on their school property taxes, and provide more small business owners with relief from the amount of franchise tax they must pay. “I am proud to joint-author these tax relief bills giving our hard-working families and small business owners much-needed tax cuts,” said Hinojosa. “These bills make good economic sense and will provide critical tax relief on a statewide level for our Texas families so they will be able to keep more of the dollars they earn.” The first measure, SB 1 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would decrease school property taxes for homeowners by increasing the homestead exemption, a move which lowers the value of a home for the purpose of paying those property taxes. The result would be reducing school property taxes on the primary residence by about $220 a year over the next two years, according to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Houston. During that period, school districts would be entitled to additional state aid to the extent current formulas do not fully reimburse them for the local tax revenue losses from SB 1. The state would use more than $2.1 billion from the state budget surplus over the next two years to make up for the revenue losses by local school districts. Property tax in Texas is a locally assessed and locally administered tax, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. Texas law allows a variety of partial or complete exemptions from local property taxes. A partial exemption removes a percentage or fixed dollar amount of the property’s value from taxation. An absolute or total exemption excludes the entire property from taxation. Currently, all school districts in Texas are required to offer a $15,000 exemption on residence homesteads. But under SB 1, as approved by the Senate, the homestead exemption for school district taxes would significantly improve from its current $15,000 level to 25 percent of Texas home median market value. The exemption amounts are estimated to be $33,625 in 2016 and $35,979 in 2017, according to Hinojosa. “SB 1 will specifically benefit homeowners with immediate and long-term economic relief by raising the homestead exemption and decreasing the property taxes homeowners will have to pay,” Hinojosa said. If SB 1, and a related measure, Senate Joint Resolution 1, also by Nelson, are approved by the Legislature and the governor, a statewide election would be held on Saturday, September 12, 2015, which would give Texas voters the final say on more than doubling the school property tax exemption for homeowners. SJR 1 is the constitutional amendment required to implement SB1, and like all proposed amendments would put the question of the new exemption before the voters in September, according to Texas Senate News, the public information arm of the Texas Senate. SJR 1 also contains language to exempt the state money necessary to cover the cost of the tax cut from the state spending cap. The state constitution forbids the state budget growing faster than the state economy, which Nelson has said in the past hinders the ability of lawmakers to cut taxes. In addition, SJR 1 would constitutionally prohibit the establishment of any tax on real estate sales, thus preventing future Legislatures – without another statewide election – from taxing the sales of homes in order to generate more money for the state government, Hinojosa added. Nelson, who serves as Chair of the Senate Finance Committee – on which Hinojosa serves as Vice-Chairman – also filed legislation to make all tax cuts and debt relief appropriations exempt from the spending cap, but SJR 1 is only a one-time exemption for the estimated $2.1 billion needed to cover the cost of SB 1. The two other tax-relief proposals being championed by Hinojosa are SB 8, which establishes a $4 million total revenue exemption from the state’s business franchise tax for small businesses, and SB 7, which reduces the franchise tax rate by 15 percent for those over the $4 million threshold. “SB7 and SB 8 will similarly give small business owners a tax reduction. Small businesses create jobs and drive our economy; they are the backbone of our Texas economy. For many small businesses struggling to survive, the franchise tax represents an unnecessary and burdensome tax that limits job growth and economic investment,” Hinojosa explained. “SB 8 will exempt more than 61,000 small businesses in Texas that would otherwise pay the franchise tax. These small businesses represent over 52 percent of all businesses in Texas required to remit payment under the current franchise tax structure.” The Texas franchise tax is a privilege tax imposed on each taxable entity formed or organized in Texas or doing business in Texas, with the exception of most sole proprietorships. The owners of businesses which pay the franchise tax receive key benefits, such as liability protections under the state law, where their personal assets can be shielded against potentially-devastating legal judgments against their businesses. A sole proprietorship, on the other hand is an unincorporated business with one owner who pays personal income tax on profits from the business, according to Investopedia.com. With little government regulation, they are the simplest business to set up or take apart, making them popular among individual self contractors or business owners.

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Sen. Hinojosa files Hidalgo County Healthcare District measure; seeks state funding to attract and keep more doctors to border, rural areas

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Featured, from left: Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Mario E. Ramírez, M.D., of Rio Grande City, who was appointed in March 1991 by Gov. Bill Clements to serve a six-year term on the University of Texas System Board of Regents, share ideas and memories in Edinburg during the Tuesday, August 26 groundbreaking ceremony of the $54 million UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine Medical Education Building.

Photograph By MARK MONTEMAYOR

Legislation to create a Hidalgo County Healthcare District was filed on Wednesday, February 18, by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, to provide a source of local funding for The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, as well as to deliver health care to the region while lowering the tax burden on Hidalgo County residents. Senate Bill 626 legislation to create a Hidalgo County Healthcare District is s a top priority this legislative session, and Hinojosa and Lucio will work together with the Valley House delegation to ensure its passage. “The Hidalgo County Healthcare District is critical for our families in the Rio Grande Valley to provide resources to support a medical school, to cover our community’s healthcare needs for both the insured and uninsured, and to decrease the tax burden on our county taxpayers,” said Hinojosa. The McAllen-based lawmaker, whose District 20 covers most of Hidalgo County stretching northward to Nueces County, includes Edinburg, where major facilities of the UT-RGV School of Medicine are going to be built. Hinojosa said without the healthcare district, hospitals in deep South Texas, which are required by federal law to provide emergency medical care, wind up tapping into public funds in order to provide critical care to patients, regardless of their ability to pay. “Our healthcare providers provide millions of dollars in care to people who can’t afford it ever year, forcing them to pass the bill onto county taxpayers or to people with insurance through higher fees and premiums,” said Hinojosa. “The healthcare district will benefit taxpayers by bringing more federal dollars to the county and putting the uninsured into the system with a focus on prevention and early treatment.” Lucio, who represents a portion of Hidalgo County, echoed Hinojosa’s call for action. “I am pleased to joint author this bill which is critical to healthcare delivery in Hidalgo County. We have some of the highest rates of uninsured individuals and amongst the worst health care outcomes in the nation,” said Lucio, who represents Senate District 27. “Senate Bill 626 will allow Hidalgo County to improve our indigent care program as well as leverage and draw down additional federal funds to address health disparities,” the Brownsville lawmaker said. “The Hidalgo County Healthcare District will provide the ability to improve health outcomes in some of the most vulnerable communities, and the benefit to all cannot be underestimated.”

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Banning E-cigarette sales to minors, bringing DPS training facility to the Valley, and protecting small businesses promoted by Sen. Hinojosa

Hinojosa legislation

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, a former U.S. Marines combat squad leader in Vietnam, walks by a Texas honor guard which was standing at attention at the Texas Capitol as the South Texan senator prepared to participate in the Tuesday, January 20 Texas Inauguration, held on the South Steps of the historic building, to witness the Oath of Office Ceremony for Gov. Gregg Abbott.

Photograph By SENATE MEDIA

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who as of Wednesday, February 11, had filed 50 bills and resolutions, is promoting his legislative agenda from a position of strength, as he is the only state senator from south of San Antonio who is on the powerful Senate Finance Committee – of which he is Vice-Chair – allowing him to heavily influences the final state budget for Texas. “I am honored to serve as Vice-Chair of Senate Finance and that Lt. Governor (Dan) Patrick (R-Houston) has entrusted me with these important responsibilities. Through these appointments I am able to put South Texas at the forefront of the critical discussions that will be taking place during this session,” said Hinojosa. “There is no question that this session will be challenging as our communities face critical issues, our lawmakers face significant hurdles, and solutions are not always transparent.” Among some of his issues beginning to generate attention are Senate Bill 97, which would prohibit the sale, distribution, possession, and use of electronic cigarettes to minors; a soon-to-be released proposal to bring a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper training facility to the Valley; and Senate Bill 552, which would require state agencies to prepare an economic impact statement and regulatory flexibility analysis if a state agency is made aware that a proposed rule may have an adverse economic effect on small businesses.” Hinojosa represents the counties of Nueces, Jim Wells, Brooks, and Hidalgo (part), and serves as the Senate President Pro Tempore of the Texas Senate in the 84th Texas Legislature. The Senate District 20 lawmaker’s constituents include Edinburg and most of McAllen, stretching north and northeast to Corpus Christi.

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