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General Interest General Interest

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.”


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.


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.

Agents seize more than 6 tons of marijuana over weekend

EDINBURG—U.S. Border Patrol agents from the Rio Grande Valley Sector seized more than 6 tons of marijuana, with a value of more than $9.8 million, over March 8-10.

The largest seizure occurred at the Falfurrias Checkpoint on March 8 when a Border Patrol K-9 detected the presence of marijuana in a tractor-trailer during an immigration inspection. Upon further inspection, agents found more than 6,700 pounds of marijuana hidden inside the trailer.


County Auditor: No money for unpaid indigent medical bills

Hidalgo County auditor Ray Eufracio told county commissioners this week funds to pay indigent care medical bills for 2011 was no longer available in the accounts where they had been located. He explained that at the end of each year funding that is left in different budget categories is rolled over into the general budget for the next year instead of being left in the categories where they were previously designated.

The auditor’s opinion came during a discussion where Eddie Olivarez, Director of the Hidalgo County Health Department, and attorney Jim Darling, representing Doctor’s Hospital and Renaissance, spoke about funds for indigent care owed by the county to the hospitals, pharmacies and doctors of the area for services rendered in 2011. The amount Hidalgo County was required to set aside for 2011 was $8.5 million. The county only paid $6.1 million because the state was waiting for instructions from the federal government on the money and would not accept the money until instructions were given.


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