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Local leaders fight for med school

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Posted: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 4:00 pm

HARLINGEN — The question is whether 1,921 signatures can trump $100 million.

While a delegation from Harlingen is in Austin today to oppose an amendment to legislation to create a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, Hidalgo County officials are mobilizing to support the amendment.

Hidalgo County, the cities of Edinburg, McAllen and Pharr, and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance have combined to commit $100 million toward the medical school effort, according to a statement from officials there.

But Randy Whittington, president of the South Texas Medical Foundation and a former Harlingen mayor, doesn’t think the $100 million will make a difference.

“All they’re doing is catching up to what Harlingen and Cameron County has already done,” Whittington said from Austin, where he spent most of Tuesday meeting with “everyone who’s going to have anything to do” with state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa’s amendment.

He said he and other amendment opponents, who include Harlingen city and business leaders, have prepared a spreadsheet that documents “all the money that’s been spent over 12 years,” which is in excess of $50 million and includes land donations, land purchases, and residencies at Valley Baptist Medical Center.

He said the remaining $50 million pledged by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance actually comes from other sources, which he would not name.

“Valley Baptist has committed at least that much,” he said.

Whittington also noted that Hidalgo County’s and the cities’ pledges are in effect only until a hospital taxing district is created.

Hinojosa’s amendment would eliminate an advisory committee to make recommendations to the University of Texas System Board of Regents about the medical school location and curriculum. It also would require the first two years of medical school classes to be held in Hidalgo County and the third and fourth years in Cameron County.

Whittington was unsure who from Harlingen would testify today before the state Senate Higher Education Committee, but many from the city had met with legislators on Tuesday to make the case for the original legislation and to block the amendment.

The Harlingen delegation will be carrying a letter initiated by the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce to oppose Hinojosa’s amendment, and allow the legislation — Senate Bill 24 and House Bill 1000 — to become law as originally written.

Harlingen Chamber President Pam Priour on Monday said she originally hoped the letter would have 500 signatures. But, by the time she began the drive to Austin, the number of signers was more than 1,900.

Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos joined other amendment opponents, who have said the legislation should be allowed to proceed as passed, and decisions about the medical school should remain with the regents and the advisory committee.

Cascos said it would be difficult for Cameron County to compete with Hidalgo County, which has twice the population and has “a wider and broader property tax base.”

“What I’m proposing,” Cascos said Tuesday of a letter he has written to legislators, “is that we stick to the agreement, to the original bills, the way they were talked about, the way they were filed. Leave it the way it is, and let’s empower the UT regents to make the decisions.”

He added, as other local officials have said, that the university has experience with developing curriculum and campuses.

“This isn’t their first rodeo,” Cascos said.

The original legislation was the “true spirit of regionalism,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that now it starts to become parochial.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, issued a statement saying, “I look forward to tomorrow’s hearing on HB 1000. The committee substitute Sen. Hinojosa intends to offer tomorrow has unfortunately divided our Valley community, which came together in support of the bill as filed.

“For this reason, I expect the conversation tomorrow to be passionate as the individuals representing affected communities have an opportunity to voice their support for or concern over the proposed changes.

“Ultimately, what is most important is the future of higher education in the Rio Grande Valley; this goal is strengthened only by consensus.”

Former Harlingen Chamber of Commerce president Ruthie Ewers, who said she was driving to Austin with Priour, said she was delighted with the response to the chamber’s letter.

“I’ve never been so proud of Harlingen,” Ewers said. “For so long we’ve been the little sister that just sits there. All of sudden, we’ve woken up. Legislators need to know we’re not asleep.”

Ewers also said it was gratifying to see that the original legislation had the support of all Valley legislators.

“I thought we were on the road to a united region,” she said.

“The people who are working on this don’t want anything more than to improve the city of Harlingen,” she said. “In McAllen, the people who are getting involved are doing it because there’s something in it for them.”


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