UTPA President Robert Nelsen told lawmakers Wednesday the university’s case for access to a $13 billion state endowment fund was evident in a handful of statistics.
The campus has less than half the space per student as the University of Texas at Austin. And in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties, the school’s physician assistant program will accept only about 6 percent of 800 applicants this year — part of the human and educational cost the school faces without money from the UT System’s Permanent University Fund, Nelsen said.
“Why didn’t I accept 100? Why didn’t I accept 200? Because I don’t have PUF and I don’t have the space,” Nelsen said in testimony before the House Higher Education Committee.
The Permanent University Fund is at the heart of legislation drafted by Rio Grande Valley lawmakers to merge UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville, and establish a medical school within the new institution. The medical school was authorized in the previous session but support of two-thirds of the House and Senate is necessary to open the endowment fund to the South Texas universities.
Although a vote will take place at a later date, the hearing by the House Higher Education Committee on Wednesday is part of the first hurdle the bill’s supporter will have to clear as part of that legislative process.
The committee chairman — Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas — devoted the committee’s first hearing to the bill, fulfilling a promise made when members of the Valley delegation filed it earlier this month.
State Rep. Rene Oliveira, the Brownsville Democrat shepherding the bill through the House, said passage should be smoothed by fiscal analysis that found no substantial costs for the state.
“There is no greater opportunity we will have to improve the lives of so many by doing little more than passing this legislation,” he said.
UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa also assured the Higher Education Committee that each UT campus president endorsed opening the endowment fund to UTPA and UTB. Because of the growth of the endowment — which generates principal from West Texas oil and gas leases — supporters say the schools will receive a piece of a growing pie.
The change will not mean funding is automatically awarded to either campus. Instead, both will be able to submit applications for funding based on pressing needs. Those endowment funds would allow the universities to create new academic programs and invest in the facilities required to recruit top faculty from outside the region, Nelsen said.
The effort has won bipartisan support from Branch, Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger and Gov. Rick Perry. In his State of the State address last month, Perry called on the Legislature to approve access to the PUF funds as an investment in the region.
But the process began by getting unanimous support from Valley lawmakers for the language of the legislation, the area’s top priority for the session. Six South Texas lawmakers from Cameron and Hidalgo counties offered supportive testimony Wednesday.
Oliveira told the committee Wednesday details such as the location of medical school facilities will be decided in part using recommendations from a panel of experts.
“We don’t want to referee those football matches,” state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo said.
Oliveira said there was no need for lawmakers to decide those details in the legislation.
“I didn’t want us to be fighting about it or deciding any of those things,” he said.
With 19 state senators signed on as authors or co-sponsors, the legislation only requires two additional votes to pass the chamber. The biggest challenge moving forward looks to be finding 100 votes in the House.
As of now, Oliveira told the committee he’s not considering a backup plan to finding all of those votes.
“I really feel we have strong bipartisan support,” he said.
State Rep. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, said it’s still early in the session to judge the bill’s support. But he said he did not see a lot of resistance. And the fiscal note and the support of other UT institutions should help avoid opposition.
“When (the chancellor) tells us all the presidents are on board with the program that’s huge,” he said.