Plans to establish a medical and emerging research university in the Rio Grande Valley moved forward on Monday when House Bill 1000 was filed calling for the creation of the new school and giving it access to the desired Permanent University Fund.
A filing of a similar bill in the Senate would follow during the afternoon session, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. said during a morning news conference in Austin.
“There’s nothing that’s more powerful than education to change or transform the nature of a region,” said University of Texas at Brownsville President Juliet V, Garcia, who was in Austin for the occasion.
In a show of legislative support, Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education, was present for the announcement.
Also a joint-author of the bill, Branch praised the moment as a “classic case of taking lemons and turning them into lemonade.”
“This bill anticipates a new day for higher education in the Valley,” Branch said during the news conference. “We have an historic opportunity to enhance education, research and the economy. It’s our vision that the Rio Grande Valley will one day rival Silicon Valley as an intersection of education and innovation.”
The bill does not give an official date for the creation, leaving that responsibility to the University of Texas System Board of Regents. It offers no description as to where the medical school, administrative offices or academic buildings will be constructed.
If passed by a two-thirds majority in each chamber, the bill would allow the new university — which would replace both UTB and UT-Pan American in Edinburg — access to the PUF.
Without two-thirds approval, access to the fund will not be granted.
“That’s a big problem because what we would want is to be part of the Permanent University Fund,” said Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville. “To lose this opportunity because we couldn’t reach this two-thirds vote would be a great tragedy.”
If the bill should pass by less than the amount needed, it would be “a hardship because it would mean every session we would have to be here asking for general dollars and would be competing with healthcare and public schools,” Oliveira said. “If you’re part of the PUF you have a continuing source of revenue.”
If the bills are signed into law, the general appropriations already granted to both schools would be consolidated, UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa said during the news conference.
“The Regional Academic Health Center right now gets about $10.1 million a year from general revenue appropriations from the Legislature,” Cigarroa said.
Additional funding would come from the UT Board of Regents, which in December allocated $100 million over 10 years toward the future school, he said. These funds are not from the PUF, he added.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said community leaders are working to match the $100 million commitment by the board to show they will do their part to make this happen.
In order to compromise, the medical school’s exact location is no longer tied to the RAHC in Harlingen, as was announced during the Board of Regents’ meeting in December, Oliveira said.
“We compromised with all of our Valley colleagues and touched base with all of our Valley leaders as well and did so, so we can be on a united front,” Oliveira said. “Hidalgo County wanted to make sure Hidalgo County would be a part of this.”
The question of where the campuses will be located is being left up to the regents and the corresponding communities, he said.
“This needs to be a business decision based on what each community can contribute, what land they can offer and what incentives different communities can offer,” he said.
Because Gov. Rick Perry endorsed the school during his State of the State address last week, Oliveira said he feels more optimistic the project will succeed.
“I’m much more optimistic in the last seven days to get the support of the governor, both education committee chairman looking at this as favorable is a hell of an accomplishment,” Oliveira said. “It’s going much better than I could have anticipated.”
The bill also refers to the partnership with Texas Southmost College, maintaining the agreed-upon partnership until Aug. 31, 2015, “to the extent necessary to ensure accreditation.”
Branch said this bill would be the first heard during the Committee of Higher Education’s first “substantive meeting.”
“This is something that will be great for the region and great for Texas,” he said.