A major milestone for higher education in deep South Texas took place on Monday, May 1, 2019, when the House of Representatives approved House Bill 103, whose author is Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, that calls for the establishment of a public law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

HB 103, which also features Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, as a joint author.

The author is the legislator who files a bill and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author).

In the House of Representatives, the joint author is a member authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure and have his or her name shown following the primary author’s name on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.

HB 103 still must be approved by the Texas Senate and by Gov. Greg Abbott before the end of the current regular session of the Legislature, which winds up on Monday, May 27, 2019.

“The Rio Grande Valley has been neglected for decades when it comes to educational opportunities.” said Martínez. “It has only been through the hard work of our communities and elected officials that we have seen progress in this area. The creation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and its medical school, the emergence of other higher education institutions such as South Texas College, and the outstanding capabilities of our young students shows that the region has the resources to justify the creation of a law school in the Rio Grande Valley. House Bill 103 continues this progress and provides our region with another opportunity for our students to enjoy a world-class education.”

 

According to the Legislative Budget Board’s fiscal note on HB 103:

The University of Texas System estimates that the new law school building would cost $52,500,000. Bonds for the law school building are assumed to be issued on September 1, 2025, at a 6 percent interest rate with a 20-year level debt service amortization. Based on calculations prepared by The University of Texas System, the amount of debt service payments would be $4.6 million per year beginning in fiscal year 2026. The University of Texas System also indicates there would be costs associated with the library collection of approximately $0.9 million per year beginning in fiscal year 2026; and

• While General Revenue funding would be the only method of financing for fiscal year 2026, beginning in fiscal year 2027, statutory tuition (Fund 770) and institutional funds (including designated tuition and other fees) will be used to support the operation of the law school. In 2027, it is estimated 100 students would enroll in the first class of the law school. These students would generate approximately $192,000 in statutory tuition and $2.4 million in institutional funds. The revenue from statutory tuition and institutional funds would increase as an additional 50 students are added per year.

A fiscal note is an estimate prepared by the Legislative Budget Board of the probable costs or savings or the probable revenue gains or losses that will be incurred as an effect of a bill or joint resolution.

The Legislative Budget Board is a permanent joint committee of the Texas Legislature that develops recommendations for legislative appropriations for all agencies of state government. The Legislative Budget Board is composed of two joint chairs (the lieutenant governor and house speaker), three automatic members (the chairs of the House Appropriations Committee, House Ways and Means Committee, and Senate Finance Committee), and five appointed members (three senators appointed by the lieutenant governor and two representatives appointed by the speaker).

According to the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives, HB 103 would allow the governing board of a university system to establish and operate a school of law in Cameron County or Hidalgo County.

 

The governing board could:

• Prescribe courses leading to customary degrees offered at other leading American law schools and award those degrees;

• Assign responsibility for the management of the law school to a general academic teaching institution in the university system; and

• Accept and administer gifts and grants from any public or private or entity for the use and benefit of the law school.

There are a number of reasons to justify the creation of a law school in the Rio Grande Valley, including a need for attorneys along the border, a lack of professional degree opportunities in the area, and the long distances to the nearest law schools, Martínez said.

“There is a disturbingly low attorney to population ratio along the border. According to the State Bar of Texas Department of Research & Analysis, the state ratio is 1 attorney for every 311 residents (1:311). In the Brownsville-Harlingen Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), that ratio is 1:736. For the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission MSA it is 1:805,” he noted.

In addition to the attorney-population ratios, there is a glaring lack of professional degree opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, he continued.

UTRGV offers four active doctoral programs and two cooperative doctoral programs. By comparison, UT-Austin offers 78 doctoral programs and Texas A&M offers 97 doctoral programs. Furthermore, the Rio Grande Valley is geographically isolated from other law schools. For a student from the Valley to attend law school, they would have to move 236 miles away to San Antonio, 305 miles away to Austin, or 341 miles away to Houston.

“HB 103 is a measured approach which will provide educational equity and address the need for professional degree opportunities in a region which has long been neglected,” Martínez said.

 

The House Research Organization further explained:

The establishment of the law school would be subject to the availability of funding either through appropriation or from another source.

The governing board of a system that intended to establish the law school would be required to notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). If more than one governing board notified THECB of their intent to establish a law school, THECB would determine which of the governing boards could establish the law school based on:

 

• The need for a law school in a geographic area;

• Potential student demand;

• Available system resources;

• The feasibility of each proposal; and

• Other criteria considered appropriate by the board.

 

The governing board would have to request THECB prepare a feasibility study to determine the actions the system would have to take to obtain accreditation of the law school. THECB would have to deliver a copy of the study to the governing board and to the chair of each legislative standing committee with jurisdiction over higher education.

In a separate bill analysis of the measure, called a fiscal note and produced by the Legislative Budget Board:

Under provisions of the bill, the governing board of a university system that intends to establish a school of law shall notify the Higher Education Coordinating Board (Board). If the Board receives notification from more than one governing board, the Board shall determine which of those governing boards may establish a law school based on certain criteria. The bill requires the Board to prepare a feasibility study to determine actions the university system must take to obtain accreditation of the law school. Under provisions of the bill, no funds for a state fiscal biennium ending on or before August 31, 2025, may be appropriated for the law school.

For purposes of this fiscal note, it is assumed that The University of Texas System would establish the law school in fiscal year 2026, when state funding becomes available. Although the bill does not specify how construction of the law school will be funded, for purposes of this fiscal note it is assumed tuition revenue bonds would be used. The fiscal impact of the bill will be broken down between faculty and costs associated with the construction of the law school.

The University of Texas System indicates that in fiscal year 2026 they will need to hire a dean and three support staff to start the law school. Total costs for these four FTEs is $795,857. This amount includes salaries in the amount of $589,000 and employee retirement and insurance in the amount of $206,857. There would also be approximately $245,000 for operating expenses, including one time costs associated with obtaining accreditation from the American Bar Association.

In fiscal year 2027, The University of Texas System indicates they would need to hire 11 additional FTEs which includes six faculty and five additional administrative staff in preparation for the first entering class. The total cost for these FTEs is $1,538,654 for salaries and $540,375 for employee benefits. There would also be other operating costs including $55,000 for operating expenses. There would be increases in faculty and administrative staff in the future years reaching 31 FTEs in fiscal year 2029 as the school grows in enrollment.

The University of Texas System estimates that the new law school building would cost $52,500,000. Bonds for the law school building are assumed to be issued on September 1, 2025, at a 6 percent interest rate with a 20-year level debt service amortization. Based on calculations prepared by The University of Texas System, the amount of debt service payments would be $4.6 million per year beginning in fiscal year 2026. The University of Texas System also indicates there would be costs associated with the library collection of approximately $0.9 million per year beginning in fiscal year 2026.

While General Revenue funding would be the only method of financing for fiscal year 2026, beginning in fiscal year 2027, statutory tuition (Fund 770) and institutional funds (including designated tuition and other fees) will be used to support the operation of the law school. In 2027, it is estimated 100 students would enroll in the first class of the law school. These students would generate approximately $192,000 in statutory tuition and $2.4 million in institutional funds. The revenue from statutory tuition and institutional funds would increase as an additional 50 students are added per year. This revenue would be used to support the operation of the law school, which is represented as a cost to these funds above.

Beginning in fiscal year 2029, the law school would be eligible for formula funding. The University of Texas system indicates that the law school would generate $1,278,055 in formula general revenue in fiscal year 2029. The formula funding has been included in the costs associated with the bill.

The Higher Education Coordinating Board indicates that outside consultants, who are experienced with the full procedures of both ABA and SACS accreditation, would be needed for the feasibility studies. These costs would be absorbed within current resources.

 

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Francisco “Paco” Sánchez contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com)