McALLEN — Staking claim to the proposed medical school’s first two years isn’t reminiscent of the Rio Grande Valley’s competitive “Friday Night Lights” mentality, Hidalgo County leaders said Thursday at a news conference.
In their eyes, it’s a math mentality.
With the University of Texas System and the state contributing about $30 million of the estimated $40 million to $60 million needed to fully operate a medical school, Valley taxpayers will be called upon to foot a big part of the bill through a new taxing district, Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said Wednesday, flanked by mayors and city managers from his county. Since Hidalgo County contains two-thirds of the Valley’s total tax base, Garcia said it would be “fair and equitable” if his county took the first two years while leaving the third and fourth years for Cameron County.
“We want (the medical school) to succeed,” said Garcia, reiterating his refusal to send Hidalgo County revenues to a medical school based entirely in Cameron County. “It’s not going to succeed without tax dollars from Hidalgo County.”
Hidalgo and Cameron county leaders have sparred this week over the location for the proposed South Texas medical school, a major component of a University of Texas System plan to merge the Valley’s two universities and finally establish a school of medicine here.
The Senate Higher Education committee unanimously cleared language Wednesday by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa that clearly defines Hidalgo County as the home for the school’s first two, pre-clinical years when students spend most of their time in the classroom studying basic sciences. The bill would leave Cameron County the third and fourth years, when students do clinical work through rotations at medical facilities and learn under the supervision of experienced physicians.
By stating the school’s first two years should be located “primarily” in Hidalgo County, the language reopened old wounds from the late 1990s formation of the medical school’s precursor, the Regional Academic Health Centers in Harlingen and Edinburg. The new legislation could also jeopardize the medical school’s immediate future with a standoff brewing between state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, the bill’s authors in their respective chambers and the most experienced legislators in their ends of the Valley.
Calling Hinojosa’s language a re-emergence of the Valley’s “football Friday mentality,” Oliveira said he was adamantly opposed to the new proposal and would not clear it in his chamber. Oliveira said it reneges on an original commitment — stripped out of the bill by Hinojosa — to leave decisions to a blue-ribbon panel of experts who recommend varying options for the school’s administration and operations.
“We agreed to strip that provision and let every community put their best foot forward and try to work with the UT System and this blue-ribbon panel on deciding where the different components of the medical school would go,” Oliveira said Wednesday. “The goal here was to let this blue-ribbon panel guide the UT System and us in creating the best medical school and super university that we could possibly create.”
But prior experience with a similar, university-led process that netted the RAHCs in Harlingen and Edinburg has left Hidalgo County communities reluctant to go that route again, said McAllen City Manager Mike Perez. In the late 1990s, Perez was part of McAllen’s efforts to land one of the RAHCs amid heavy competition from neighboring cities under requests for proposals requested by the UT System.
The process felt like a “bidding war” with cities pitted against each other, and it also resulted in “animosity” between neighboring cities, Perez said. At one point, Edinburg and Harlingen publicly endorsed each other for their respective medical research and medical education sites, leaving McAllen’s efforts to land its own facility to fall short.
“(Legislators) left it to the UT System to make that decision (through the request for proposals process) and when they did that, it created a competitive environment,” Perez said. “It really caused a lot of animosity between the cities.”
Hidalgo County’s announcement earlier this week that it had raised $50 million, or $120 million with matching federal funds, to support the school appeared to Cameron County officials like a bidding effort. But McAllen City Commissioner Jim Darling said using the legislative process — with each side allowed to state its case in Austin — to clearly define each community’s role is more transparent than the 1990s process.
“It was very nontransparent,” Darling said of that decision. “There was not a lot of give and take about ‘your proposal is this or that.’ All of a sudden, the decision was made to have it in Harlingen.”
Hinojosa’s move to change the legislation’s directions to the UT System from using the blue-ribbon panel to stating each county’s role in plain language is reflective of a lingering distrust in the process used to select the RAHCs. It’s also the result of feelers Hidalgo County officials put out with the UT System.
Thinking their $100 million pledge would sway the system to place the first two years in Hidalgo County, Ramon Garcia and mayors from Pharr, Edinburg and McAllen wrote a letter to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and flew to Austin for a private meeting. When they left that meeting unconvinced their financial commitment improved the county’s prospects, Hinojosa changed course in the legislative process.
But Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza said Hinojosa’s plan was “not taking anything away from Cameron County.”
“This is a regional proposal where the third and fourth years would be in Cameron County,” Garza said at the news conference. “This is how we feel it can work for everybody.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty.