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Proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law, supported in 2019 by likely Speaker of the House Phelan, reintroduced by Rep. Armando Martínez for action during 2021, says attorney Omar Ochoa - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured: Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, prepares to discuss one of his legislative measures before the Texas House of Representatives during Spring 2019. 

Photograph By HOUSE PHOTOGRAPHY

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Proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law, supported in 2019 by likely Speaker of the House Phelan, reintroduced by Rep. Armando Martínez for action during 2021, says attorney Omar Ochoa

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

A proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law, which was supported in 2019 by likely Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, has been reintroduced by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, for action in 2021, attorney Omar Ochoa has announced.

Martínez on Thursday, December 2, 2020,  pre-filed his proposal – House Bill 695 –  that calls on the Texas Legislature to begin the process that would lead to the establishment of a public law school in Hidalgo County or Cameron County, with state funding authorized to begin September 1, 2027, for the operation and maintenance of that law school.

Prefiling means the introduction of bills and other proposed legislation before the convening of a legislative session, which for the upcoming, 140-day long regular session of 87th Texas Legislature, starts on Tuesday, January 12, 2021.

Convening means the gathering or calling to order the members of a legislative body. 

Legislation means a proposed or enacted law or group of laws.

The wording of House Bill 695 is almost identical to the language contained in House Bill 103, also by Martínez, which was overwhelmingly approved by the Texas House of Representatives in 2019.

“House Bill 103 was passed by a supermajority (107 Yeas, 36 Nays, 2 Present Not Voting) of the 150-member House of Representatives on Monday, May 1, 2019,” recalled Ochoa, himself a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. 

“Unfortunately, House Bill 103 was not scheduled for debate and vote by the Texas Senate because time ran out for that and many other worthy bills when the 86th Texas Legislature finished its five-month regular session less than 30 days later,” Ochoa continued. “But it was a remarkable and landmark achievement by our Valley state lawmakers because such a proposal had never before been approved by the House or the Senate.”

In 2019, Martínez, serving as the primary author, enjoyed strong support for his House Bill 103 from his fellow Valley state representatives, including Rep. Ryan Guillén, D-Rio Grande City, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Mission, and Rep. Rafael M. Anchia, D-Dallas, who served as joint authors of House Bill 103.

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.

Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, Rep. Óscar Longoria, D-La Joya, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, and Rep. Alex Domínguez, D-Brownsville, rounded out the Valley state representative delegation who also voted for House Bill 103 in 2019.

As with his House Bill 103, Martinez’ House Bill 695 for the upcoming 87th Texas Legislature would allow “the governing board of (any) university system” in the state to operate and maintain” the proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law in Hidalgo County or Cameron County.

There are five public university institutions in Texas with a law school:

• The University of Texas System (The University of Texas Law School at Austin);
• The University of Houston System (The University of Houston Law Center in Houston);
• Texas A&M University System (Texas A&M University School of Law in Ft. Worth);
• Texas Tech University System; (Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock); and
• Texas Southern University (Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston).

There are four private university institutions in Texas which operate and maintain a law school:

• Baylor University (Baylor Law School in Waco);
• Southern Methodist University (SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas);
• St. Mary’s University (St. Mary’s School of Law in San Antonio); and
• South Texas College of Law in Houston.

“The successful vote in support in 2019 of House Bill 103 by the House of Representatives to create the Rio Grande Valley School of Law also significantly showed that Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), who is expected to be elected the Speaker of the House in a few weeks, publicly supported and voted on the record for that legislation,” Ochoa noted. “Not only does the Speaker of the House have considerable influence in deciding the fate of all legislation in the House of Representatives, but also when working with our Valley state senators to give them additional bargaining power in the Senate on behalf of all major legislation, such as the law school proposal.” 

https://house.texas.gov/members/speaker/#powers

LANGUAGE OF HOUSE BILL 695 FOR ACTION IN 2021

The process and timetable for the proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law provided by House Bill 695 for the upcoming 87th Texas Legislature in 2021 follows:

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A BILL TO BE ENTITLED
AN ACT

relating to the establishment of a public law school in the Rio Grande Valley.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF TEXAS:

SECTION 1.  Subchapter C, Chapter 61, Education Code, is amended by adding Section 61.0905 to read as follows:

Sec. 61.0905.  RIO GRANDE VALLEY SCHOOL OF LAW.  (a)  The governing board of a university system may establish and operate, as a professional school of the system, a school of law in Cameron County or Hidalgo County as the governing board considers appropriate.

(b)  In administering the law school, the governing board may prescribe courses leading to customary degrees offered at other leading American schools of law and may award those degrees.

(c)  The governing board may assign responsibility for the management of the law school to a general academic teaching institution in the university system.

(d)  The governing board may accept and administer gifts and grants from any public or private person or entity for the use and benefit of the law school. Notwithstanding any other provision of this section, the establishment of a law school under this section is subject to the availability of funding, either through appropriation or from another source.

(e)  The governing board of a university system that intends to establish a law school under this section shall notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. If the coordinating board receives notification under this subsection from more than one governing board, the coordinating board shall determine which of those governing boards may establish a law school under this section.  The coordinating board must base the determination on the need for a law school in a geographic area, potential student demand, available system resources, the feasibility of the specific proposal of each system, and other criteria the coordinating board considers appropriate.

(f)  Before the governing board establishes a law school under this section, the governing board shall request the coordinating board to prepare a feasibility study to determine the actions the system must take to obtain accreditation of the law school.  The coordinating board shall deliver a copy of the study to the governing board and to the chair of each legislative standing committee with jurisdiction over higher education.

SECTION 2.  For the purposes of Section 61.0905, Education Code, as added by this Act, no state funds may be appropriated for a state fiscal biennium ending on or before August 31, 2027.

SECTION 3.  This Act takes effect immediately if it receives a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, as provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution.  If this Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this Act takes effect September 1, 2021.

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HIGHLIGHTS OF HOUSE BILL 103 BY REP. MARTÍNEZ IN 2019

According to the House Research Organization, which is the nonpartisan research arm of the Texas House of Representatives, House Bill 103 in 2019 would have allowed 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 at the time.

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

In 2019, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley offered four active doctoral programs and two cooperative doctoral programs. By comparison, UT-Austin offered 78 doctoral programs and Texas A&M offered 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 provided the following further background information on House Bill 103.

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.

$52.5 MILLION PRICE TAG ESTIMATED FOR CONSTRUCTION OF LAW SCHOOL BUILDING

In a separate bill analysis of the House Bill 109, called a fiscal note and produced by the Legislative Budget Board:

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

(Tuition revenue bonds are bonds that have their debt serviced by the revenue of the project for which it was issued and pledge a revenue stream provided by income from tuition charges levied against students or institutions specified in the bond covenants. Bonds are issued by governments and corporations when they want to raise money. By buying a bond, an investor is giving the issuer a loan, and they agree to pay the investor back the face value of the loan on a specific date, and to pay the investor periodic interest payments along the way, usually twice a year.https://investor.vanguard.com/investing/investment/what-is-a-bond)

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 the fiscal year 2026 they will need to hire a dean and three support staff to start the law school. The total cost 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 the fiscal year 2026. 

• While General Revenue funding would be the only method of financing for the fiscal year 2026, beginning in the 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 the 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 the 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 have 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.

REP. ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ EARNS MASTER OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS FROM UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS RIO GRANDE VALLEY’S ACCELERATED ONLINE PROGRAM

One Texas state legislator is capping off the 2020 year with not only reelection but also with a master’s degree.

Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, graduates this month from the UTRGV Master of Public Affairs online accelerated program.

Martínez, who was first elected to state office in 2004, enrolled in the program to expand his knowledge of public service in a government setting. The flexibility of the accelerated online program made it the perfect fit, he said.

“I heard so much about this program, and being an elected official, I work with a lot of cities, counties, and agencies from within,” Martínez said. “There are processes that go into working with these distinct groups. And we are very culturally diverse area. So, I felt this program was a good fit for me.”

Martínez finished the coursework in the summer and said he will participate in the UTRGV Virtual Ceremony on Saturday, December 12, 2020.

“I am extremely excited and elated because of the fact that I was able to achieve this,” he said. “And to be part of such a strong program, and that I can say that I graduated from it, is just remarkable.”

He said one particularly critical hard skill he developed through the curriculum is research and data collection within public affairs.

“There is so much data out there,” he said. “It is just about going out there and grasping it. There are so many resources available for us.

“Being involved in legislation, this degree will allow me to do more research and really have a better understanding of obtaining more data when filing legislation or discussion legislation to agencies,” he said.

Dr. Aziza Zemrani, Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies, said Martínez is the first state representative to complete the program at UTRGV.

“It was a joy to have a student like Mr. Martínez in the program,” she said. “The multidisciplinary program is nationally ranked in affordability, flexibility, and quality, making it a good choice for working professionals like Martínez who want to expand their knowledge of public affairs, she said.

“The program really prepares students who have a passion for public service, and the best example of that is an elected official,” Zemrani said. “Getting this degree doesn’t just allow you to succeed in the professional field, but also gives you the opportunity to serve the community in a variety of ways.”

During the Fall 2020 semester, a record 67 students graduated from the MPA program, the largest cohort in university history.

ABOUT UTRGV

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the Fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the Summer of 2016.

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

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