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Rio Grande Valley School of Law proposal by Rep. Martínez, which could be established in Fall 2027, is approved by Texas House of Representatives, and now goes to the Senate for their action - Titans of the Texas Legislature

FEATURED, FROM LEFT: Ronnie Larralde, Executive Director, Edinburg Chamber of  Commerce; former Hidalgo County 464th District Court Judge Ysmael Fonseca; and Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who also serves as Chair, House Committee on Transportation. The image was taken on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, during the grand opening ceremony of Canales’ District Office, which is located in the Edinburg Chamber Depot, 602 W. University Drive. Earlier this month, Fonseca testified in support of House Bill 695, which calls for the establishment of the Rio Grande Valley School of Law. Canales is a joint author of the bill, which was approved on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, by the Texas House of Representatives, and now goes to the Senate for their action.

Photograph By NAYELI ZENTEÑO

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Rio Grande Valley School of Law proposal by Rep. Martínez, which could be established in Fall 2027, is approved by Texas House of Representatives, and now goes to the Senate for their action

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
[email protected]

Legislation authored by Rep. Armando “Mando” Martínez, D-Weslaco, to establish a Rio Grande Valley School of Law beginning in the Fall of 2027, was approved on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, by the Texas House of Representatives and now goes to the Senate for their action.

The measure, House Bill 695, would allow any of the public university systems in Texas to create the law school, which – according to an estimate provided by the University of Texas System – would feature a $63.8 million facility, and would have at least 100 students enrolled in the first year.

As the author, Martínez is the legislator who filed House Bill 695 and guides it through the legislative process (also called the primary author). 

Filed is used to refer to a bill that has been introduced into the legislative process and given a number.

A bill is a type of legislative measure that requires passage by both chambers (House or Representatives and the Senate) of the Texas Legislature and action by the governor in order to become effective. A bill is the primary means used to create and change the laws of the state. “Bill” types include Senate and House bills, Senate and House joint resolutions, Senate and House concurrent resolutions, and Senate and House resolutions.

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

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., D-Mission, Rep. Eddie Lucio, III, D-Brownsville, and Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra, D-McAllen, are key supporters of House Bill 695, serving as joint authors of the measure. 

A 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 (Martínez) on official printings of the measure, on calendars, and in the journal. The primary author may authorize up to four joint authors.

In addition, Rep. Alex Domínguez, D-Brownsville, and Rep. Eddie Morales, Jr., D-Eagle Pass, added their influential backing, with both serving as coauthors of House Bill 695.

A coauthor is a legislator authorized by the primary author of a bill or resolution to join in the authorship of the measure.

https://tlc.texas.gov/docs/legref/Glossary.pdf

Although the UT System prepared the estimate for the construction, administration, funding, and enrollment of the proposed Rio Grande Valley School of Law, there are five public university systems in Texas, which currently have law schools, that could make a bid to be selected to lead and operate the Rio Grande Valley School of Law:

• 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);
• Texas Southern University (Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston); and
• The University of Texas System (The University of Texas at Austin School of Law).

If House Bill 695 is approved by the Senate and not vetoed (opposed) by Gov. Greg Abbott, that legislation calls for the following actions:

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.

How to Finance and Build the Rio Grande Valley School of Law

When legislation goes before a House committee or a Senate committee for a public hearing, it includes a fiscal note and bill analysis, which become available online to the public.

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 Speaker of the House), 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 of the House).

The fiscal note by the Legislative Budget Board for House Bill 695 follows:

Fiscal Analysis

The bill relates to the establishment of a public law school in the Rio Grande Valley. Under provisions of the bill, the governing board of a university system that intends to establish a school of law shall notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 

If the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board receives notification from more than one governing board of a university system, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board shall determine which of those governing boards of a university system may establish a law school based on certain criteria. 

The bill requires the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to prepare a feasibility study to determine actions the governing board of a 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, 2027, may be appropriated for the law school.

Methodology

For purposes of this fiscal note, it is assumed that The University of Texas System would establish the law school in the fiscal year 2028 when state funding becomes available. 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 2028 they will need to hire a dean and three support staff to start the law school. The total cost for these four FTEs (full-time employees) is $807,629. This amount includes salaries in the amount of $609,439 and employee retirement and insurance in the amount of $198,190. 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 2029, The University of Texas System indicates they would need to hire 11 additional FTEs (full-time employees) which includes six faculty and five additional administrative staff in preparation for the first entering class. The total cost for these FTEs (full-time employees) is $1,592,208 for salaries and $517,786 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 (full-time employees) in the fiscal year 2031 as the school grows in enrollment. 

The University of Texas System estimates that the new law school building would cost $63,875,000. Bonds for the law school building are assumed to be issued on September 1, 2027, at a 4 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 $4.7 million per year beginning in the fiscal year 2028. The University of Texas System also indicates there would be costs associated with the library collection of approximately $1.0 million per year beginning in the fiscal year 2028. 

The University of Texas System estimates that beginning in the fiscal year 2030, the law school would be eligible for formula funding based on an enrollment count of 100 students. The University of Texas System estimates that the law school would generate $476,860 in General Revenue funding in the fiscal year 2030 and fiscal year 2031. The formula funding has been included in the General Revenue costs associated with the bill beginning in fiscal year 2030. 

While General Revenue funding would be the only method of financing for the fiscal year 2028, beginning in the fiscal year 2029, 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 2029, 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 $2.6 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. 

The Texas 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.

Local Government Impact

No significant fiscal implication to units of local government is anticipated.

Law School Goals: Improving Education, Equity, and Opportunity

When legislation goes before a House committee or a Senate committee for a public hearing, or for debate and vote by the full 150-member House of Representatives or the full 31-member Senate, it also includes a bill analysis, which becomes available online to the public.

A bill analysis is a document prepared for all bills and joint resolutions reported out of committee. A bill analysis may include background information on the measure, a statement of purpose or intent, and an analysis of the content of the measure.

The House Research Organization, which is a nonpartisan independent department of the Texas House of Representatives, prepares bill analyses. It provides impartial information on legislation and issues before the Texas Legislature. The HRO is governed by a broadly representative steering committee of 15 House members elected by the House membership to set policy for the organization, approve its budget, and ensure that its reports are objective.

Highlights of the bill analysis for House Bill 695 prepared by the House Research Organization follows:

House Bill 695 would enable the governing board of a university system to establish and operate a school of law in either Cameron County or Hidalgo County, as the board considered appropriate.

The governing board could:

• In administering the law school, prescribe courses leading to customary degrees at leading American law schools and award those degrees;
• Assign responsibility for the law school’s management to a general academic teaching institution in the university system; and
• Accept and administer gifts and grants from any public or private entity for the use and benefit of the law school.

The governing board of a university system that intended to establish a law school under the bill’s provisions would be required to notify the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 

If multiple governing boards submitted notification to the coordinating board, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would have to determine which governing board of a university system could establish the law school. This determination would have to be based on:

• The need for a law school in a geographic area;
• Potential student demand;
• Available system resources;
• Feasibility of each system’s specific proposal; and
• Other criteria THECB considered appropriate.

Before a governing board of a university system could establish a law school under the bill, that governing board of a university system would have to request that the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board prepare a feasibility study to determine the actions the system would have to take to obtain accreditation for the law school. 

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would have to deliver a copy of the study to the governing board of a university system and to the chair of each legislative standing committee with jurisdiction over higher education.

The establishment of the law school would be subject to available funding, either through appropriation or from other sources. No state funds could be appropriated for the law school before August 31, 2027.
The bill would take immediate effect if finally passed by a two-thirds record vote of the membership of each house. Otherwise, it would take effect on September 1, 2021.

Supporters say:

House Bill 695 would allow the establishment of a law school that would enhance educational equity and opportunity in the Rio Grande Valley by providing much-needed professional degree opportunities. 

Prospective law students from the Valley currently face the heavy burden of traveling hundreds of miles away from home in order to attend the nearest existing law school, and the region has far fewer attorneys per resident than the statewide average. 

Advanced professional degree opportunities are generally lacking in the area, and allowing for a law school to be established in the region would help to address this lack. 

A law school also would include a legal clinic where law students could work on local cases under attorney supervision, which would benefit the wider community, especially lower-income residents.

The bill would not mandate (require) the establishment of a law school but would simply allow an existing university system to open a law school in the region if there was student demand and funding available to do so.

Critics say:

The establishment of a public law school as allowed by House Bill 695 would increase the scope and cost of government. Any market demand for a law school in the Rio Grande Valley could be better met by a private institution.

According to the Legislative Budget Board, the bill would have no fiscal impact through the biennium ending August 31, 2023, but there would be substantial costs related to the establishment of the law school beginning in the fiscal year 2028 when state funding would become available.

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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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