Bills in Texas Legislature would consolidate UT System schools in Rio Grande Valley

Joshua Fechter

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature on Monday would lead the UT System to consolidate its institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one entity.

The bills would bring UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, established by the Texas Constitution, allocates money to the UT and Texas A&M systems.

It is unclear how much the initiative will cost, but the regents approved spending $100 million over 10 years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university.
The bills would direct the UT System Board of Regents to establish a temporary advisory group that would design, develop and choose a location for the proposed medical school.
“We believe the students of South Texas deserve access to a first-class education and that this new, PUF-eligible university will have a magnificent impact on the educational and economic opportunities in the region,” Board Chairman Gene Powell said in a statement released Monday.

In January, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told the Senate Finance
Committee that the System will seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation and the establishment of the medical school. 

The UT System is not currently seeking state funds to pay for the UT-Austin
medical school, which will use revenue from the regents, the regional Seton Family of Hospitals and property tax revenue collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. At the Senate Finance Committee meeting, Cigarroa said the Rio Grande Valley does not have the tax base necessary to support such an arrangement.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who filed the bill, said the city may have to create a special taxing district that would help fund the medical school but that the school would have to seek revenue from additional sources such as philanthropic funds.

“We cannot raise the kind of money you could raise in Austin or El Paso or Houston or Dallas, so we are going to have to be creative about other kinds of funding packages,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said the bill filed by Rep. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, to establish a UT System law school in the Rio Grande Valley is not related to the consolidation bill but said the proposed law school could be part of the consolidation.

According to each bill, students already enrolled at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville before the bill takes effect would be allowed to enroll at the new university. The bills state that the new university will hire as many faculty and staff as possible from the abolished universities.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said it is too soon to tell how the proposed school’s administration would include administrators at UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center.

“There will be some consolidation but it is premature to discuss details, as a bill to create the university still has to be passed by a two-thirds vote of both chambers in the Legislature,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

The House bill is authored by nine representatives including Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. 

The Senate bill is authored by four senators: Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The initiative has support from outside of the legislative branch and the UT System. 

During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Rick Perry said he supported allowing the schools to have access to the Permanent University Fund.

“This area of the state is critical to our state’s future,” Perry said, “and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold.”

Printed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 as: Bill proposes merging Valley schools