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Conflicts Emerge Over Location of Valley University, Med School

UPDATED: After months of waiting, there is finally movement on legislation to create a new university and medical school in South Texas. But now disagreements are emerging over who will decide where the medical school is located.

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Updated, 11:15 a.m.:

On Wednesday the Senate Higher Education Committee passed a controversial substitute to state Rep. Rene Oliveira’s House Bill 1000, which would create a new university that includes a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley.

The university would be composed of the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American, and the Regional Academic Health Center. It would be a part of the University of Texas System, and — if it gets two-thirds support in the Legislature — would have access to a special pot of money called the Permanent University Fund.

The bill had enjoyed unified support from the Valley delegation, but that appeared to change when state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, substituted language in the bill that would change who has final say over where the medical school facilities are located.

The original bill, passed unanimously in the House, left the decision up to an advisory panel of national experts assembled by the University of Texas System. So did a similar bill passed by the Senate in March. But Hinojosa’s change would do away with that panel and require that the first two years of students’ medical education be conducted in Hidalgo County, which he represents, and years three and four be provided in neighboring Cameron County.

During Wednesday’s hearing, community leaders from Cameron County opposed the change. Their counterparts from Hidalgo County supported it.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, noted that past efforts to get the UT System to invest in medical education had required some handwringing by lawmakers. “That kind of colors me when it comes to this legislation,” he said. “Oftentimes boards of agencies don’t act the way we think they should act, so we direct them.”

Barry McBee, UT System’s vice chancellor for governmental relations, told the committee that the system had “some preference” for the original language that included the advisory committee. More importantly, he said, they would like to see the bill advance.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said he was “bugged” and “bothered” that division appeared to be cropping up in the final weeks of session when so many people had supported the bill up to this point.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, expressed concern that with different versions of the bill moving in the Senate and the House, these issues could threaten the bill’s ability to get out of conference committee.

“What I want is for a bill to pass that will bring this [new university] to reality,” she said. “I don’t believe we’ll ever have this opportunity again.”

Just before the committee approved the bill, sending it to the full Senate for consideration, Hinojosa said it was important to keep the process moving.

“I think you’ll see us working together to massage the language,” he said.

Original Story, 6 a.m.:

The good news, for those eager to create a new medical school in South Texas, is that much-needed local funding was announced on Tuesday. The bad news is that the unity that early on marked the effort to pass the bill creating the new university that would contain that medical school appears to be crumbling in its final weeks amid disagreement over who should decide where the facilities reside.

Community leaders from the Rio Grande Valley seemed to be on starkly different pages on the eve of Wednesday's Senate Higher Education Committee hearing on a bill that would create the new institution from what is currently the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center based in Harlingen.

On Tuesday, a consortium from Hidalgo County, including the leaders of local governments and administrators at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, announced a commitment of more than $100 million to support the new medical school. At the same time that announcement was made, community leaders from neighboring Cameron County were en route to Austin to express concerns about proposed changes to the bill that would change how the location for the new medical school is decided.

When UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa in December announced the proposal to create a new university and medical school in South Texas, it garnered seemingly unanimous support among the famously fractured Valley delegation. The plan rolled into the session with significant momentum, but then it appeared to stall.

House Bill 1000, by state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, was approved in the Texas House and sent over to the Texas Senate in mid-March, but was only recently referred to the Senate committee. A similar bill, Senate Bill 24, by state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, passed in the Senate and has experienced a nearly identical delay in the House. 

After months of waiting, the bills are finally moving. But some of the cracks in the unified front are beginning to show. To a certain extent, they explain the delays and, more significantly, they may raise concerns about the bill’s future. The current point of contention is a change that Hinojosa intends to make to Oliveira’s bill in committee on Wednesday that would establish a different system for determining the medical school's location than was in either bill at the outset. Neither Hinojosa nor Oliveira responded to requests for comment.

"The committee substitute Senator Hinojosa intends to offer tomorrow has unfortunately divided our Valley community, which came together in support of the bill as filed," state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, said in a statement. "For this reason, I expect the conversation [in the Senate committee hearing] to be passionate, as the individuals representing affected communities have an opportunity to voice their support for or concern over the proposed changes."

Both of the original bills would leave decisions about location and design of the medical school up to an advisory group of nationally recognized experts assembled by the UT System Board of Regents. But Hinojosa intends to attach an amendment that would eliminate the advisory council and require that the first two years of medical education be conducted in Hidalgo County, which is in his district, followed by years three and four in Cameron County.

Supporters of Hinojosa’s proposed amendment claim that waiting for an advisory council would slow progress toward a long-awaited and much-debated medical school in the region, and that such a split residency track has worked elsewhere, including a current arrangement in which students complete their first two years in San Antonio and the second two at the RAHC in Cameron County.

Opponents of the change, in a petition against Hinojosa's proposed change, call it “a complete reversal of the agreement made earlier this session by all of the interested parties.” The petition signatories, more than 1,900 of them as of Tuesday afternoon, said the amendment would signal “a substantial departure from and potential waste of" years of investment in the RAHC, which has received significant funding from the UT System, the state and the Harlingen community over the years.

Randy Whittington, the former mayor of Harlingen and a driving force behind the petition, said that if an advisory committee ultimately recommended a split track along the lines of Hinojosa’s amendment, the Harlingen community could live with that.

“But to have that decision made at the spur of the moment by legislators for political reasons doesn’t make sense,” he said. “It’s not good public policy.”

Meanwhile, in Hidalgo County, the announcement of significant local funding underscores local leaders’ desire to have a significant portion of the future medical school in their backyard.

The city governments of Pharr, Edinburg and McAllen are committing $50 million, divided proportionally based on population, over the next 10 years. They intend to use matching funds from a federal waiver to effectively turn that into $120 million to help the medical school. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance put up $60 million over 10 years to add 50 residency slots. The group also announced its plan to secure 93 acres of land, worth an estimated $13 million, for medical and research programs. 

A press release announcing the pledge notes that it “is the largest amount of money yet committed by local stakeholders.”

“We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is,” Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia told the Tribune, noting that the majority of the Valley’s tax base is located in Hidalgo County. “If we’re going to spend our constituents’ dollars and everything ends up going to Cameron County, that’s going to be a difficult sell to my taxpayers.”

The current hang-up may not be all that surprising, though. Israel Rocha, a government affairs officer with Doctors Hospital, noted that, historically, "conversations always seem to stop short every time we get to the location."

He said that, in the years that plans for a new medical school have been kicked around in South Texas, other areas — El Paso, Round Rock and Austin — have secured medical schools, thanks to carefully considered plans and significant community funding.

With Tuesday's announcement, he said, "we wanted to show that, in South Texas, we are as serious and committed to getting a medical school here."

Both Garcia and Whittington said that despite the current disagreement over Hinojosa’s amendment, the entire region remained committed to that ultimate goal.

According to the UT System, the new university would create nearly 7,000 new jobs in the region. It would begin its existence with more than $11 million in research expenditures and a $70.5 million endowment. If the bill secures two-thirds support in the Legislature, the new university would have access to the Permanent University Fund, a significant source of money that only certain schools — no current Valley institutions among them — may tap.

With overwhelming support for granting the Valley access heading into session, it would be a significant opportunity to lose in the final weeks.

“I don’t think anybody in the Valley is interested in sacrificing the overall objective,” Whittington said.

Lucio, who intends to be at Wednesday's hearing — though he is not a committee member — signaled hope that the two counties can get back in sync.

"Ultimately, what is most important is the future of higher education in the Rio Grande Valley; this goal is strengthened only by consensus," he said.

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