McALLEN — Less than a week after the first committee hearing on legislation creating a new South Texas university and medical school, at least 100 state House members have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill.
That support, should it hold up over the legislative session, would push the bill over the two-thirds threshold required to open the Permanent University Fund endowment to the University of Texas-Pan American and UT-Brownsville.
Twenty state senators have joined as co-authors or co-sponsors in that chamber, meaning only one more commitment is needed to reach the two-thirds threshold.
While those numbers can always change between now and a floor vote, members of the Rio Grande Valley delegation say they are encouraged by the commitments they have received so far.
“The Valley delegation has worked very hard in the House to acquire the 100 signatures," said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia said it was “extraordinary” that so many House members have already agreed to co-sponsor the legislation.
“That’s obviously the work of our representatives in the Valley,” she said.
Several lawmakers said the bill could be voted out of committee in the House within days. The House Higher Education Committee heard testimony on the legislation last week, fulfilling a promise made by Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, that it would be the first heard by his committee this session.
State Rep. Rene Oliveira, the Brownsville Democrat shepherding the bill through the House, said significant Republican support was needed to reach 100 members and he planned to find additional votes from the majority.
The Republican committee chairs in both chambers have expressed support for the legislation, as has Gov. Rick Perry, who called on lawmakers to open the PUF fund to the South Texas universities in his State of the State address.
The bill is based on a proposal from the UT System to merge UTPA and UTB into one regional university with a medical school. The project is the top priority of the delegation and local governments during the session.
Representatives from the Rio Grande Valley were to visit Austin today for RGV Day at the Capitol.
The Senate Higher Education Committee has yet to schedule a hearing on the bill, but Hinojosa said one would likely take place after the chamber approves an appropriations bill.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said the legislation won’t see a vote in either House until its backers are sure they have enough support.
“I think we’re in very good shape in both chambers," Lucio said. “We’re very excited about the possibility of us in a short period of time having a university that expands throughout the Valley."
Andrew Kreighbaum covers education for The Monitor. He can be reached at email@example.com, (956) 683-4472 and on Twitter, @akreighbaum.
The Brownsville Herald contributed to this report.