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South Texas Delegation Files Bills for New University

The South Texas delegations of the Texas House and the Senate on Monday announced the filing of bills to create a Rio Grande Valley university that would include a medical school.

University of Texas at Brownsville President Juliet Garcia and University of Texas-Pan American President Robert Nelsen look on as University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and lawmakers discuss the creation of a new university in the Rio Grande Valley.

The South Texas delegations of the House and the Senate on Monday announced the filing of bills to create a Rio Grande Valley university that would include a medical school. The institution would comprise new facilities and what is now the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and a regional academic health center in Harlingen.

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, announced that he would dedicate the first substantive hearing of his committee to discussion of the bill, House Bill 1000. Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, also announced his support for the initiative, which is Senate Bill 24 in the upper chamber.

State Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, one of the House bill's co-authors, called it "the most important piece of legislation I've worked on." He also noted "incredible bipartisan support," including Gov. Rick Perry's endorsement of the plan in his State of the State address.

If the legislation passes with two-thirds support of the Legislature, the new university will have access to the Permanent University Fund, a major source of funding that the Texas Constitution only allows certain institutions to access. Lawmakers said that reaching that level of support will be the greatest challenge for the bill's supporters moving forward.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the former Senate Higher Education chairwoman, called the bill a "bold and innovative paradigm shift."

The bills, which are identical, do not dictate where any particular building of the regional university and medical school will be located, which has been a point of contention with in the delegation. Nor do they mandate a specific name for the institution or select a new mascot.

Rather, those decisions are left to the University of Texas System Board of Regents and local administrators, who are instructed in the bill to "equitably allocate" facilities across Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties.

"We're all certainly going to be aggressively working for our communities to try to get as much as we each can in our districts," Oliveira said. "No reason to be bashful about that."

"I think the experts, obviously, should look at the infrastructure that's available for them already in the Valley and the communities that are capable of undertaking additional responsibilities for the university and the medical school," said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. He indicated that he believes those communities are Brownsville, Harlingen, Edinburg and McAllen, though he said facilities could be located elsewhere.

"One of the things that I see in the future is connecting them all by a transportation system," he said.

But before they can start laying tracks for a high-speed rail system, the lawmakers need to pass the bill allowing the system to begin the process of creating the new institution. The bill does not provide a specific timeline for how that should unfold.

"This is the first step in the process," said Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen. "The Valley delegation is very united."

Hinojosa also indicated that local leaders in the Rio Grande Valley are attempting to come up with $100 million in an effort to match the UT System's financial commitment to the endeavor.

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