The legislation that creates a new university in the Rio Grande Valley and establishes a medical school was approved unanimously in the House chamber Friday after a week of contentious discussions regarding the school’s whereabouts.
A compromise was reached by Rio Grande Valley legislators late Thursday night about where the medical school should go.
The vote came after state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen, added an amendment that addressed the issue of where the school belongs in the Valley that would spread out the medical school’s program across the region. The school’s location, a debated issue, has been at the forefront of the discussions with Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa amending the House version of the bill to include language that would divide the medical school between Cameron and Hidalgo counties.
The amended version that was passed on Friday details the compromise.
äAdministrative offices for undergraduate medical school education will be in Hidalgo County.
äAdministrative offices for graduate medical school education will be in Cameron County.
äFirst and second years of the medical school will be primarily based out of Hidalgo County.
äThird and fourth years of the medical school will be primarily based out of Cameron County.
äEducational programs for medical students will take full advantage of existing facilities at the University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, the University of Texas at Brownsville, and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen.
“Earlier this week this entire legislation was on somewhat shaky ground,” Rep. Lucio said during the floor discussion.
The disagreement between lawmakers created an obstacle for the previous overwhelmingly approved legislation that also paves a way for UTB and UTPA to access the $13 billion Permanent University Fund. They are the only two universities in the UT System that don’t have access to the fund.
“Ultimately this leaves enough flexibility for the UT System to be able to have a regional medical school,” Rep. Lucio added.
The original version of the bill gave the UT System the opportunity to establish a panel of experts to decide where the medical school should go.
Despite the specificity of the new language, J.J. Garza, chief of staff for state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, a co-author of the bill, said the UT System signed off on the changes.
“I would say it’s still very general — not as general as before, but it’s still very general,” Garza said. “When you start getting into the operations of a medical school, you could get a whole lot more detailed than we got.”
Rep. Lucio said communications between legislators had broken down at the start of the week.
“We all got in a room and we started to lay out our concerns with how the bill was drafted,” Rep. Lucio said. “We were then able to come to a consensus.”
The major turning point, Rep. Lucio said, was when the UT System was re-engaged.
“The amendment that I offered today was originally drafted by the UT System,” Rep. Lucio said.
After that, he said, “it just became a matter of everyone becoming comfortable.”
In a joint statement by UT System Chairman Gene Powell and Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, the two called the Valley “one of Texas’ most important regions.”
“This new university will transform the Rio Grande Valley, create jobs, enhance the economic vibrancy of South Texas and improve the health of Texans,” the statement said.
UTB President Juliet Garcia said, in a statement, that the historic legislation will set a new trajectory for Valley residents.
“It culminates decades of effort to get UTPA and UTB at the table as equal partners with their sister institutions,” Garcia said. “And as an added and powerful bonus, it launches the next evolutionary stage of the establishment of the RGV medical school.”
Oliveira, who was flanked by supporters on the House floor, said every party’s concerns were deliberated closely.
“Like any family we have squabbles and like any family we unite,” Oliveira said.
Once the bill is voted on for a third time in the House it will go to the Senate for a vote.
Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, called the bill the “one of the most meaningful pieces of legislation” he’s worked on.
“It’s comprised of language that was signed off on by all the stakeholders in the region’s areas,” Sen. Lucio said.
Despite the earlier disagreement, J.J. Garza said there was never a moment when legislators panicked.
“I think everyone realized the importance and they always did and I think that everyone knew that the clock was ticking,” Garza said. “Panic never set in, but there was concern about the deadlines.”
The legislative session ends May 27.