Education
2:42 pm
Mon February 4, 2013

Lawmakers Take Steps Toward Medical School in Rio Grande Valley

In a move state rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, equated to taking lemons and making lemonade, some members of the Texas House, Senate and UT System Board of Regents are hoping to combine UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville into a single university that touches all major metropolitan areas of the Rio Grande Valley.

The newly-filed House Bill 1000 calls for a new South Texas university that would merge UT Pan American and UT Brownsville into a single school. This new university could receive money from the Permanent University Fund, a luxury UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American currently do not have. And the legislation is sweetening the deal with a cherry on top: A new medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

In December, the UT System Board of Regents approved an initiative for UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to work with the state legislature to make this new institution a possibility. The regents also pledged $100 million over a 10 year period to develop the medical school.

According to the UT System, combining the two schools would also save administrative costs. There is no immediate available timeline for the new university and no official name.

State Rep. Rene Oliveira,  D-Brownsville, filed House Bill 1000 on Monday. Along with Oliveira, the bill is also authored by Branch, the chairman on the House Committee of Higher Education, state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen, and others. State Senators filed Senate Bill 24 later in the day, which proposes the same merger.

At a Monday press conference in the speaker’s committee room, Oliveira called the bill the most important piece of legislation he’s worked on in his 29-year career in the Texas House.

“Right now the valley doesn’t have enough doctors to serve its citizens,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said 75 to 80 percent of medical students from the new school will remain in the valley after their education.

State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said a group of local business owners are working to raise enough money to match the Board of Regent's $100 million pledge.

At the same press conference on Monday, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini,  D-Laredo, stressed the legislation was the work of united forces. She urged her fellow house and senate representatives to remain united in the future.

“It hasn’t been since the 1990s, approximately twenty years ago, that we had the first paradigm shift in higher education in South Texas,” Zaffirini said. “This is another bold and innovative paradigm shift.”

“This is an old story of higher education in Texas in the sense that we have always had communities that wanted higher education to come to their communities,” Branch said. “Here is a rare opportunity to put together what I think will become a tier one university very soon.”

If the bill passes, the Board of Regents would be required to appoint an advisory board to take input from various parties of interest before advising the UT system on how to develop the medical school.

The legislation also requires the Board of Regents establish a Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, which will provide challenging, university-level coursework for gifted high school juniors and seniors.