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Legislators Recall Dispute Over South Texas University

Two legislators from Hidalgo County and two from Cameron County recall what it took to come up with a compromise on the bill to create a new university in South Texas, which Gov. Rick Perry recently signed into law.

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Legislation authored by Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa — and signed by Gov. Rick Perry — will ultimately combine the University of Texas System’s existing assets in the Rio Grande Valley to create a newer, larger university that includes a medical school.

Senate Bill 24's passage played a significant role in securing Hinojosa’s spot in Texas Monthly’s list of the session's 10 best legislators. But there were many cooks in the kitchen.

The Texas Tribune spoke with four of them about how the compromise was finally reached: Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Rep. Armando "Mando" Martinez, D-Weslaco, from Hidalgo County; and Reps. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, and Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen, from neighboring Cameron County.

Below are edited portions of those separate conversations, arranged to provide a narrative account of the proceedings.

But first, some background: The merger has been eagerly anticipated since December, when UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa announced the plan to combine the University of Texas at Brownsville, University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center, which is headquartered in Harlingen. But late in the regular session, it looked like it might not come to pass.

There were two bills filed to create the new university. One was SB 24 and the other was Oliveira's House Bill 1000. After passing their respective chambers, the bills sat in wait for months. The medical school was the sticking point — more specifically, who would get to decide where parts of the medical school were located.

Original versions of both bills left the decision up to an advisory committee assembled by the UT System. But lawmakers  from Hidalgo County grew increasingly uncomfortable with that arrangement, and maneuvered to add language to the Senate bill requiring the first two years of medical education to be in their county.

That difference created significant tension in the final weeks of session, and prompted local leaders from the two counties to drive to Austin to argue for their preferred proposals. As the clock ticked, the dispute appeared to endanger what had at the outset seemed like a slam dunk.

Here, in the lawmakers' own words, is how they got it done:

Hinojosa:  From the beginning, I needed to push that I would be the lead author [of SB 24]. That was key, because I needed to control the legislation and manage the process in such a way that I kept everyone in the loop, but also understood where to push and where to pull in order to line up support. 

Martinez: Very early in the session, when we had our first meeting with the Valley delegation on the House side, Rep. Oliveira wanted to discuss the medical school bill. He said, “We all have to come together. We need to show our strength and stick together.”

I said, very early on, “I agree we need to be together. But one thing I will not agree on is the [University of Texas System] making the decisions on the location and direction of the medical school.” We as legislators needed to direct them. We couldn’t just give them carte blanche.

Oliveira: There was a time where I thought — everybody overuses the word “stakeholders,” so I’m going to use the word “parties” — that the parties were so far apart in their approach that it could break down completely. I was not going to back down on my word that this had to be vetted by the UT System.

But there was some unfortunate brinksmanship that was going on. At one point, I was very concerned.

Hinojosa: Each bill passed their respective chambers. SB 24 was on the House side. And I held HB 1000 here for quite a while.

Initially, we drafted language so everybody could get on board and sign on the bill, while we tried to work out the issues with the medical school. But the first agreement we made when we filed the bill was not a final agreement, though it was interpreted as such by some members and public officials from the Harlingen area.

There was not an agreement at all.

Oliveira: I think I was waiting for the Senate to act and they were waiting for the House to act, and when we heard about these proposals, that kind of stymied things.

Hinojosa: I decided, as I looked at the whole process, to offer an amendment to HB 1000, which was here on the Senate side.

We were requesting that years one and two of medical education be primarily in Hidalgo, and years three and four be in Cameron, because it was already set up for that purpose. Throughout the process, I couldn’t get UT or the Cameron County delegation to agree to that. We had a lot of pushback.

I spoke with two parliamentarians who had knowledge of the process, so I wouldn’t misjudge the timing. Then I made my move on this side.

I was trying to get to a point where we would, quite frankly, narrow the options for the House. I had a strategy to sort of corner them. At the end of the session, either you’re going to take my amendment or the bill dies.

That’s pretty hardcore politics.

Oliveira: The UT System has to be able to marshal the assets they already have and come up with a plan. For us to go around arbitrarily deciding things without the system’s input was not only uncommon, it wasn’t a good business plan. If you tried to go to a bank and get that financed, it wouldn’t fly.

I even joked, “Are we going to pick the school colors next? And the mascot?”

Lucio III: There was a discussion that someone from Hidalgo County was going to offer an amendment that would move significant operations of the medical school to Hidalgo County and be site specific.

Of course, stakeholders from Cameron and those who had been working really closely on the legislative process, when they initially saw that language, weren’t interested. They didn’t have buy-in in drafting that language.

Martinez:  It was very simple. You already have years three and four [of medical education] in Cameron County. The tax base, population and donations are all in Hidalgo County. If this is a true regional medical school, then let it be so.

I was asked if I was going to carry the same amendment in the House, and I said, yes, I am.

I was very honest with them. I said I was going to do a committee substitute and add it in committee, but if we didn’t have the votes, I would offer it in front of the full House. We didn’t have the votes, so I began preparing myself for a floor debate.

Lucio III: We had really two choices at that time. One was to have a full-blown fight on the House floor, where some of us who didn’t want that language would be up there asking members to choose between us and other members from the Rio Grande Valley. I didn’t like that, I don’t think members would have liked that, having to choose between their friends on a big local fight. Those fights typically don’t go well.

I picked up the phone and called Sen. Hinojosa’s office, asked if I could go over. I went and visited with him. I said, “If you call and get your stakeholders from Hidalgo, I’ll call and get my stakeholders from Cameron. We can get everybody here on Wednesday and let’s see if we can work something out.”

That’s what he did, and that’s what I did.

It was somewhat of a venting process initially, about one and a half hours of folks expressing their frustrations and talking about the history of their work on the medical school and the merger of UTB and UT-Pan American.

Hinojosa: Quite frankly, some of the comments that were made by people from Harlingen were very inappropriate and threatened the whole process. “They want to steal the medical school,” and things like that didn’t help.

But it was a very good meeting. People vented and aired out their differences. We kept the UT System out of the room, because they were part of the problem.

Remember, the [Regional Academic Health Center] was created 16 years ago, and that was a fight. Then it became a very slow process, and UT never made us a priority. They would show us lists of priorities and we were never there. 

The reality is that, not until [Texas A&M University System Chancellor] John Sharp came in and said, “I will build a medical school in Hidalgo,” then UT said, “Wait a minute! We still want you, we still love you, and we’re here.”

Lucio III: There was an initial thought to take the medical school completely out of the merger bill, because what everybody could agree on was that the merger of UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan Am was essential. We could deal with the medical school, if not later in the session, then the following session.

Martinez: The UT System announced that they were allocating $45 million for a new building for years one and two [of medical education] in San Antonio. That is what actually became the big concern and why we needed an amendment to make sure we had years one and two in the Valley. Who’s to say the system wouldn’t come back and say, “We have a $45 million building and our blue ribbon panel recommends we keep years one and two there”?

[According to the UT System, the plan for the new building in San Antonio was always to provide support only until the new medical school was independently accredited and operational.]

A lot of people worked very, very hard on our side talking to members, convincing members of the importance of the amendment. In talking to each member individually and saying, this is not a Cameron-versus-Hidalgo issue. It’s us against the UT System. They already have years three and four in Cameron County. Why don’t they want Hidalgo County to be a part of it?

Oliveira: Remember, I’ve gone through the UTB-TSC split down here. I’ve seen UT be willing to pick up and leave. 

[The University of Texas at Brownsville recently split from Texas Southmost College, a two-year institution that it had operated with as a single entity for 20 years. This largely prompted the plan for the new university, which will have access to funds the existing institutions don't to help grow, among other things, a new Brownsville campus.] 

Fortunately, they were so committed to the project that it didn’t happen. A different board of regents and a different chancellor might have said, “If you guys can’t work this out among yourselves and be reasonable about letting us be involved in this, we can pick up our ball and go home.”

Lucio III: Once we went through the discussion process, which really needed to take place, we brought in the UT System and asked them to come up with a few options and see if we can work from there.

They did that on 24 hours notice. They shared them with us and Sen. Hinojosa’s office. That morning we started the negotiation process.

What I basically did was act as a mediator between the two sides and was going back and forth seeing if I can build consensus on that basis.

Hinojosa: We looked at the options, made some changes and it was good to go. Everybody signed off on it.

And what it does is put years one and two primarily in Hidalgo and years three and four in Cameron. It also puts the administration for years one and two in Hidalgo and years three and four in Cameron. And we will maximize the use of existing facilities.

It’s the same, basically.

Oliveira: We could have continued to play poker, but the stakes were too high as far as I was concerned. I had the potential to stop it all myself, but I wasn’t going to do that if there was still a chance to find a reasonable compromise.

I think everybody’s actions brought us to the conference table. At that point, almost all the right people were at the table. I felt comfortable proceeding with the amendment because it was vetted by the UT System. If it was acceptable to them, it was going to be acceptable to me, and my Cameron County leaders also agreed with it.

Lucio III: What came out and what was really important for everybody to buy off on was the process of a stakeholder agreement and buy in and input and negotiation. The delicate part, and I think the UT System did a wonderful job, was trying to provide enough assurances to stakeholders in Hidalgo County but keeping enough flexibility so we could have the best possible medical school.

Who knows what would have happened if we had brought that fight to the floor, whether or not that bill would have ultimately passed if there were winners and losers, and what one side would have tried to do. Since we avoided that and started off on the right foot, I think the future of the medical school and the merger is much better.

Hinojosa: Sometimes people make comments like, “Well, it’s the Valley. It’s a ‘Friday Night Football’ mentality.” That’s not correct. It’s just a cliché. In many respects, it’s a lazy analysis, not looking at the economics of the situation. The Hidalgo delegation was extremely helpful, because they held under pressure and followed my lead to the end.

Oliveira: It came out that everybody could declare victory and it was still done right. When we all gathered at the front mic [in the House], that was unexpected. It was not orchestrated, and it was very nice. I was so glad we got unified, because we are a very strong delegation when we’re unified. One of the strongest I’ve ever had the pleasure of serving with, in fact.

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