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General Interest

OWLS oppose proposed commuter rail line

Under public forum during Tuesday’s Hidalgo County Commissioners Court meeting, OWLS (Objective Watchers of the Legal System) representative Frank Travers asked the county to withdraw its support from the proposed Hidalgo County Commuter Rail District. The HCCRD was to have a meeting on Wednesday, May 8, which included an agenda item “relating to creation of a regional transit authority, and granting the power of eminent domain, providing authority to impose a tax and issue bonds for the HCCRD.”

Travers said the research he continues to do show there are no effective rail districts operating in the United States. He further stated the Valley had no high-rise business district like those in New York and Chicago were many people take trains to work daily.

Read more: OWLS oppose proposed commuter rail line


State Capital Highlights

House passes voter assistance bill

AUSTIN — Legislation to amend the state elections law as to how much a person may assist others in voting was passed by the House on April 26
Committee Substitute House Bill 148, authored by Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Mesquite, received a final vote of 93-48, but not before lengthy and contentious debate on the House floor a day earlier.

Opponents of the bill, who were rebuffed in multiple attempts to amend the bill, warned that its passage likely would result in a federal court challenge under Section 5 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965, a part of the law that affects states showing a pattern of discriminatory behavior in election-related practices.

An official state analysis of CSHB 148, in short, asserts: "In certain localities, individuals receive compensation for harvesting mail-in ballots or for going door to door collecting eligible ballots and posting them on behalf of voters. Such individuals are compensated on a per-ballot basis. There currently is no limit on the number of times a person may act as a courier for mail-in ballots in a given election, and concerned parties contend that some mail-in ballot harvesters provide unlawful assistance or unlawful witness to voters and may even electioneer in the presence of an active ballot."

The bill would create misdemeanor offense for a person convicted of compensating an individual for assisting 10 or more voters in prohibited ways, and for engaging in other specific and prohibited voting-related actions.

Travis DA sentenced

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested for drunken driving on April 12 and is serving a 45-day sentence in the Travis County Jail.

Lehmberg's duties include heading the Public Integrity Unit, a statewide office that handles ethics complaints against elected officials.

On March 8, HB 3575 by Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Frisco, was filed, proposing to move the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County's offices and into the Office of the Attorney General. The bill is scheduled for a House committee hearing on May 1.

Texas joins EPA challenge

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and attorneys general from 11 other states have filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Obama Administration's enforcement of environmental regulations under the Clean Air Act.

Petitioners claim the U.S Environmental Protection Agency "ignored Congress' lawmaking role by rewriting federal laws through administrative rulemaking," Abbott's office stated in an April 22 news release.

Abbott said the EPA's greenhouse gas regulations "were unlawfully created out of whole cloth and are a massive burden on states and businesses."

Timothy Cole bill passes

HB 166 by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, was approved by the House on April 24.

The legislation would establish the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to review and investigate cases in which an innocent person was convicted and then exonerated or released on writ of habeas corpus.

The nine-member commission would review practices and procedures leading up to wrongful convictions and seek ways to minimize erroneous outcomes. The commission would not consider sentencing issues such as the death penalty and would not intervene in any pending cases, McClendon said.

The bill honors the memory of Timothy Cole, a Texan who in 1999 died in prison, having served 13 years of a 25-year rape sentence before the legal system was satisfied that another individual had committed the crime. Cole received a posthumous pardon from Gov. Perry in 2010.

Presidential center opens

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was formally opened and dedicated at its location on the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas on April 25.

The 207,000-square-foot complex will serve as the archive for more than 70 million pages of documents and 80 terabytes of electronic records, in addition to collections of photographs, memorabilia and educational materials.

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, served from 2001 to 2009, and served as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000.
West continues rebound
Relief assistance of all kinds poured into the city of West last week.
West has been in a state of disaster emergency since April 17, when a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant tore through the town, killing 14 people and injuring as many as 200 others.
A memorial service for those lost and injured in the explosion was held at Baylor University in Waco on April 25. President Barack Obama spoke, honoring those who rushed to assist and giving solemn regard to "the wounded, the heartbroken, the families who lost their homes and possessions in an instant."


Overpayment policy approved by county

EDINBURG — A new policy to allow Hidalgo County employees who received overpayments as part of a longevity plan instituted by the county five years ago was approved Tuesday.

Under the new policy, employees will be able to pay back the money in one lump sum or make payments over a period of month until the money is refunded.

County Treasurer Norma Garcia said her previous estimate of as many as 200 employees being affected was high.

Read more: Overpayment policy approved by county


Thweatt presents ‘Guardian Plan’ in Valley

In light of increasing violence at schools across the country, a superintendent visited the Rio Grande Valley to discuss his Guardian Plan, which calls for school personnel to be the school’s first responders.

David Thweatt, superintendent of Harrold Independent School District, explained that the best way to ensure student safety would be by arming teachers and other personnel.

“We have stumbled on to something that is an undercurrent in our society,” said Thweatt. “We’re kind of taking back our own liberties.”

Read more: Thweatt presents ‘Guardian Plan’ in Valley


Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints receives steeple

20130426 MISSION Steeple placing AF  0036 featureMISSION —The construction site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on 2 Mile Line and Bryan roads received its steeple placement on April 26.

Read more: Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints receives steeple


County discusses animal vendors along highways

EDINBURG — A Hidalgo County official this week traveled to Austin in support of a bill that would prohibit vendors from selling livestock along the roadside.

A previous bill, which would have addressed the problem here, was vetoed by the governor because of other considerations in that bill.

On Tuesday, Raul Sessin, planning director for Hidalgo County, told county commissioners he was to travel to Austin on Thursday to address the problem.

Read more: County discusses animal vendors along highways


State Capital Highlights

Senate approves drug-testing bills

AUSTIN — Two Senate bills making the award of certain financial benefits for certain individuals contingent on drug testing were passed by the Senate last week and have now moved to the House for consideration.

SB 11 by Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would require applicants for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to submit to a screening for controlled substance use. If the screening assessment indicates good cause to suspect drug use, an applicant would be required to submit to a drug test. A person who fails a drug test would be allowed to retake the test after six months before they could receive benefits. Notably, the children of an applicant who fails a drug test would still be able to receive benefits through a “protective payee.”

SB 21 by Senate Finance Committee Chair Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would amend the Texas Unemployment Compensation Act so that the Texas Workforce Commission may drug test applicants for unemployment benefits who fail a pre-screen test and work in certain industries, such as transportation.

In other action, the Senate approved legislation proposing to increase the number of charter schools that could operate in Texas from 215 to 305 incrementally over the next six years. SB 2, by Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, R-Houston, also would give the state the authority to close charter schools after three years for poor performance.

Google plans big for Austin

Corporate officers of Silicon-valley based Google Inc., accompanied by Gov. Rick Perry and officials with the city of Austin, on April 9 announced a plan to install Google Fiber — an ultra high-speed fiber optics broadband network with Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit per second — in Austin in mid-2014.

Google launched a similar broadband infrastructure project in Kansas City, Kan., a few months ago.

One gigabit per second is about 100 megabytes of information transfer per second, or about 100 times faster than what is considered a fast Internet connection presently in the United States.

Sales tax revenues climb

State Comptroller Susan Combs on April 10 reported that state sales tax revenue in March was $1.98 billion, up 5.5 percent compared to March 2012. Combs said her office plans to send cities, counties, transit systems and special purpose taxing districts their April local sales tax allocations totaling $521.9 million, up 6.8 percent compared to April 2012.

Drought affects H2O rights

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on April 5 informed water rights holders that the agency may need to administer water rights on a priority basis, as long as drought conditions persist.

If restrictions become necessary, junior water rights, or those rights issued most recently, are suspended or adjusted before the senior water rights in the area, the agency said.

Texas remains under a drought-related emergency disaster proclamation originally issued by the governor on July 5, 2011.

Water release is welcomed

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, on April 5 reported an announcement by the International Boundary and Water Commission that Mexico will release water from an upstream reservoir to recharge Falcon and Amistad Reservoirs.

“This move,” he said, “marks the first time in quite some time Mexico has responded to Texans’ pleas to uphold the 1944 Treaty which allocates water that enters the Rio Grande River.”

“I am pleased to hear Mexico is finally taking first steps to resolve their water deficit with the United States. However, with a water deficit that stands over 400,000 acre-feet a onetime release from one reservoir will not solve the Valley’s water woes.”

TxDOT launches campaign

The Texas Department of Transportation on April 8 began its new “Talk-Text-Crash” campaign to coincide with National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

As part of the campaign to get Texans to stop using their portable communications devices for text messaging while they are driving, TxDOT said it is asking Texans “to do their part by making a simple commitment to focus on driving when they get behind the wheel.”

Although all the age groups are represented in the total number of traffic crashes caused by distracted driving, of the 90,378 traffic crashes in 2012 in Texas, the top two age groups are: 28,443 ages 16-24 and 23,784 over the age of 45, TxDOT reported.


State Capital Highlights

House OKs revised version of state budget

AUSTIN — On April 5, the Texas House of Representatives approved Committee Substitute Senate Bill 1, a proposed state budget of $194 billion for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

The Senate earlier approved a $195.5 billion budget, so the next step is for differences in the two budgets to be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee. Both budgets spend less than what it would take to keep in stride with inflation and the state's increasing population. The House version adds, above base spending, $2.8 billion back into the elementary and secondary education budget, far less than the $5.4 billion the Legislature cut from education in 2011 to cope with a projected state revenue deficit.

In a split vote to approve CSSB1, the House went along with a joint recommendation not to expand Medicaid spending made by Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, House Speaker Joe Straus and other leading Republicans on April 1.

"Medicaid is a broken, unsustainable federal program that could eventually bankrupt Texas and all states, and it's nuts to expand it," Dewhurst said. "I've spoken with our Texas senators about examining all the best ideas being considered nationwide on Medicaid, but I'm not willing to consider going forward unless we can agree on a solution that is right for Texas."

State Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, chair of the House Committee on Public Health, on April 1 said, "This debate will shape our nation's debt and financial future for generations. That's why I'm honored to play a part as we seek Texas solutions. When we reform the Medicaid system, Texas can lead the way to a brighter future here at home and across the country."

Casting nays on final passage of CSSB1 were state Reps. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas; Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth; Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; Joe Farias, D-San Antonio; Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint; Ana Hernandez-Luna, D-Houston; Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio; David Simpson, R-Longview; Chris Turner, D-Arlington; and Armando Walle, D-Houston.

Farias explained his vote saying, "We clearly had the means to restore the cuts from two years ago but budget writers chose not to restore the full $5.4 billion. The budget also fails to fund Medicaid expansion, an opportunity that chambers of commerce, faith leaders and Texas hospitals all agree is necessary for our future."

Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said, "There is no greater investment in our future than doing everything we can to help the nearly five million school children of Texas realize their full God-given potential by providing the very best public education for each and every one of them. This budget falls well short of that basic values test, which is why I voted no."

Senate OKs CPRIT bill

Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2007 establishing the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and authorizing the state to issue $3 billion in bonds to fund groundbreaking cancer research and prevention programs and services in Texas.

On April 3 the Texas Senate unanimously approved SB 149, legislation to tighten oversight of the agency under fire for awarding tens of millions of dollars in grants to researchers with ties to agency officials.

Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee said the legislation "establishes an ironclad system of checks and balances that will make it impossible for the agency to run without 100 percent transparency and accountability."

An example of what the bill does is it prohibits individuals or entities that make donations to CPRIT or the CPRIT Foundation from receiving grants. The bill has moved to the Texas House for consideration.

Listed as coauthors of SB 149 are Sens. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; Charles Schwertner, R-Bryan; and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.

Leases help school fund

Oil and gas exploration on state lands earned Texas schools more than $9.2 million on April 2 at the quarterly Permanent School Fund lease sale, the General Land Office reported last week.

Private oil companies competitively bid more than $11.5 million to explore for oil and gas on land owned by the state, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson reported.

Twelve leases were awarded for tracts of submerged state land in the Gulf of Mexico, showing renewed interest in an area that has seen diminishing activity since the Macondo well blowout three years ago, Patterson added.


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