Rene Oliveira

Hard questions and emotional testimony at Texas House abortion hearing

Hundreds of advocates are packing a Thursday evening hearing on an omnibus Texas House bill that would place additional restrictions on obtaining an abortion if passed.

HB 60, authored by state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, require doctors performing abortions at hospitals within 30 miles of an abortion clinic to obtain permission to admit patients and add other language regulating how doctors administer medication and meet practice standards.

The bill is similar to a Senate bill that passed last week, SB 5, although the authors of the bill dropped the 20-week clause in the interests of ensuring a passing vote.

During prolonged questioning directed to Laubenberg, state Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, questioned the veracity of the bill’s claim that fetuses experienced pain at 20 weeks and thus were a compelling interest for increasing regulation.

Laubenberg said it was not her attempt to close abortion facilities in Texas by excessively adding regulation, to which Farrar responded by mentioning a recent tweet by Gov. David Dewhurst indicating such an outcome would be a victory for Texans.

State Rep. Rene Oliveira, D- Brownsville, complained there was no language in the bill exempting late abortions in the case of rape or incest.

“If my daughter gets raped, she will have to have that baby, under your big brother statutes?” Oliveira said.

Public testimony from students, doctors, religious leaders and civil rights activists is ongoing and expected to continue late through the night. As of press time, more than 500 persons had signed up to be called for testimony.

The Texas House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to establish a new UT System university in the Rio Grande Valley.

Lawmakers voted 149-0 to combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and allow that institution to access the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that funds the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center, which currently offers residency programs, would gain a medical school that offers medical degrees under the proposal.

Tearing up after the vote, UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen said the university would provide new educational opportunities to students in the Valley and allow them to attend what may become a tier-one research university.

“When you live in the Valley and you see the need and you see how education changes lives, you can’t help but be emotional,” Nelsen said. “Every child we educate takes one more family out of poverty.”

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only UT System institutions that do not currently have access to the Permanent University Fund.

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said the new “super university” would improve the Valley’s economy, allow students to stay in the region to attend college and help address the statewide doctor shortage.

“The passage of this bill isn’t just good for South Texas, it’s good for all of our state,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said there are 33 medical residency positions available in the region but an additional 115 slots are expected to be available by 2016 when the medical school is projected to open its doors.

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, said she wanted to emphasize that adding new slots in the Valley would not completely solve the statewide doctor shortage.

“My concern is that I don’t want anyone in this House chamber to think that because of this new medical school, we’re in any way going to solve the doctor or physician shortage that we have in this state,” Davis said.

Upon its establishment, the university would have about 28,000 students, research expenditures of more than $11 million and an endowment of $70.5 million, according to a report by the House Research Organization.

The institutions involved in the consolidation could save $6 million in administrative costs, according to the report.

The new university would automatically admit students who currently attend the institutions involved in the consolidation.

The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for the prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which approved a similar bill last week by a vote of 30-1. Each house must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote for it to take effect.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said legislation establishing the new university may be on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk within the next few weeks.

During his State of the State address in January, Perry said he supported allowing UT System schools in the Valley to access the Permanent University Fund.

Lucio said 70 to 75 percent of medical students will seek employment in South Texas if they complete their residencies there.

“Ultimately, that is our goal — for them to stay in the Valley,” Lucio said.

Published on March 20, 2013 as "Texas House votes for new UT school". 

Consolidating UT System institutions in the Rio Grande Valley would greatly benefit the economy of South Texas, UT System officials and Texas lawmakers said Wednesday.

The Texas Legislature is considering passing bills filed in both houses that would combine University of Texas at Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, currently assessed at $1.3 billion for the 2014-15 biennium, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only schools in the UT System that are not eligible for inclusion in the Permanent University Fund.

UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen told the House Higher Education Committee that his institution does not have the space to accommodate students that other universities in the System have. Nelson said UT-Pan American has 129 gross square feet per student as opposed to 203 at UT-El Paso and 355 at UT-Austin.

“Why do we have so little? Because we’ve never had access to [the Permanent University Fund],” Nelsen said.

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are not included in the fund because they were not originally established under the UT System.

To be included in the fund, the Legislature must establish a new university within the UT or A&M systems by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

The Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen is part of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, which means it is already eligible for money from the Permanent University Fund.

Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, filed the House version of the bill and said the consolidation of the universities will create 7,000 to 10,000 jobs with an average salary of $63,000.

“I can’t think of anything I’ve ever offered in my 29 years of the Legislature that will have as much impact as this,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said he believes it would take 18 to 24 months to abolish the existing universities and create the new institution if the bill passes.

The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated institution. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state funds to assist the consolidation. Those appropriations would be separate from the Permanent University Fund.

Oliveira said the Permanent University Fund is projected to grow over the course of the decade, which will provide more money to each university included in the fund and negate any impact the new institution would have on how much other universities receive.

“We’re not going to be crowding [other universities] out,” Oliveira said. “We’re going to be part of the family, which we should have been a long time ago.”

Printed on Thursday, February 21, 2013 as: Legislature considers Rio Grande Valley university consolidation bill