Lawmakers promise quick action on university vote at UTPA town hall - The Monitor: Local News

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Lawmakers promise quick action on university vote at UTPA town hall

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Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012 6:48 pm

EDINBURG — Standing with leaders from the University of Texas System and local universities Friday, area legislators said they would do whatever it took to win the two-thirds approval of state lawmakers for a new Rio Grande Valley university.

A plan approved by the UT board of regents this week would merge the University of Texas-Pan American, the University of Texas at Brownsville and regional academic health science centers into an institution that could equal the state’s emerging research universities.  

“I will work tirelessly to make sure the legislature supports these efforts,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, who begins his first legislative session in January. “I know that I speak for the rest of the Valley delegation when I say you can have faith that we will pursue this vigorously and tirelessly.”

Canales, D-Edinburg, was joined by fellow freshman state Rep. Oscar Longoria and state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. in welcoming the announcement of the new university and medical school.  

In a standing room only town hall event at the UT-Pan American Student Union Theater, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa received an extended standing ovation from a crowd of students, staff members and various elected officials.

Cigarroa said the new university’s eligibility for money from the Permanent University Fund, an endowment of nearly $13.5 billion, would grant it the tools necessary to compete with other emerging research institutions.

He said the new institution could also become a national leader in the study of U.S.-Latin American relations and a focal point for exchange between the regions.  

Academic leaders were met with resounding applause at a town hall meeting on the UTB campus Friday morning, as well, where UTB President Juliet V. Garcia spoke about the transformation ahead.

“Today, you’re going to hear about the visionary plan that, if executed well, has the opportunity and has the vision to transform one of the fastest-growing regions of the state of Texas into one of the most productive, most vibrant and most well-educated contributors to the well-being of the entire state,” Garcia told the audience.

The board of regents allocated $100 million over 10 years for the medical school and will seek an increase in state funding for the existing academic health facilities. With those existing facilities in place, the school will not require significant construction to launch the medical school.

“It’s nice to see one of my dreams come true,” Lucio said. “This is a wonderful Christmas gift.”

On Monday, UTB announced the possible terminations of 248 staff in April due to an expected drop in enrollment after the university’s separation from Texas Southmost College, which primarily offers associate degree programs.

The creation of a new institution in the Valley does not change that decision, Garcia said.

“Imagine one day that I had a business to run that had 13,000 students,” Garcia said, “and the next day it has 7,000, so what I had to do was, I identified those positions that were no longer going to be relevant to the new mission of the university.”

The next step for the new university, which remains nameless for now, is legislative approval. UT officials expect passage of the bill will be aided by the lack of any fiscal note, meaning state lawmakers would not be asked to approve new spending related to the school.

The location of a medical school and associated research and hospital facilities could be more contentious than that vote if a taxing entity is to be approved to support the school.

Lucio has said he will push for such a taxing district to support the school. But some Hidalgo County business and political leaders have expressed reservations about a taxing entity that would draw a majority of revenues from the area if a medical school goes to Cameron County.

Canales said those concerns were short-sighted but outgoing state Rep. Aaron Pena, R-Edinburg, said businesses would have legitimate questions about the details of a taxing entity.

“We don’t have the tax base that Austin does,” he said. “Businesses are concerned they’re going to bear the brunt of this.”

Easy passage of either item should not be taken for granted but the process would test the growth of the Valley as a community, Pena said.

“In the past five years there’s been one repeated refrain (from Valley leaders) and that is we need to think like a region,” he said.

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Melissa Montoya of The Brownsville Herald contributed to this report.

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Andrew Kreighbaum covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at andrew@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4472.  

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