A bill merging the Rio Grande Valley’s two universities and establishing a long-sought medical school received the stamp of approval from Texas Senate and House committees Wednesday.
After higher education committees in both chambers gave unanimous approval to the legislation, local lawmakers have begun working to get a floor vote in both chambers.
University of Texas-Pan American President Robert Nelsen said none of the project’s supporters expected such support to materialize so quickly.
“We knew it was a great idea but we thought we would have to spend a lot of time telling our story,” he said. “Legislators picked up quickly on what we were trying to do.”
The bill consolidates UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville into one regional institution that would host the new medical school. Critically for Nelsen and UTB President Juliet V. Garcia, the new university would also have access to money from the $13 billion Permanent University Fund.
Supporters are well on their way to getting two-thirds support needed from each chamber to open the PUF fund. By Wednesday, 20 senators and 133 House members had signed on as co-authors or co-sponsors of the legislation.
Gov. Rick Perry offered an endorsement of the PUF funds in his State of the State address in January.
Nelsen, joining Garcia and UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, made the same case for PUF funds before the Senate committee Wednesday that he offered to its House counterpart Feb. 20.
The university has turned away qualified applicants to its physician assistant program and other students are not taking core science classes because of a lack of classroom space, he said.
“We don’t have the space for them,” he said. “We need the labs. We need everything else.”
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, the two lead authors of the legislation, said they would work to hold separate floor votes as early as next week.
“There’s always an unpredictability to the Legislature, but right now I’m very confident and I believe we’ll be sending this bill to the Senate very soon,” Oliveira said.
Valley lawmakers are also pushing to add new funding for the Regional Academic Health Center through the appropriations process. Members of the delegation have submitted requests for $20.9 million during the next biennium — doubling the RAHC’s annual funding — to pay for the transition to a full medical school.
Hinojosa said he was optimistic that lawmakers would add the money during the budget conference process.
Cigarroa told members of the Senate committee Wednesday that local hospitals had committed to locating 150 residency slots necessary to train students after their initial medical education.
Sixty of those residency positions will be provided by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, in Edinburg. Israel Rocha, government affairs officer at the hospital, said Doctors Hospital has committed $60 million during a four-year span for the creation of new residency programs.
The area’s physician community peaked four years ago with 910 and only one in two physicians who retire are currently replaced, Rocha said.
“We have a doctor shortage and we really believe we’re investing in our future by investing in the residency program,” he said.