McAllen Mayor Jim Darling speaks at a McAllen South Rotary Club event held at the McAllen Country Club on Friday, March 31, 2017. (Photo: RGG/Stephanie Jara)

McALLEN, RGV – If state legislators do not believe the Rio Grande Valley wants a four-year medical school because voters in Hidalgo County twice voted down a healthcare district, how can they be convinced otherwise?

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling thinks he has the answer. Go to Austin and show them the region is prepared to pump local money into the project.

At a mayoral debate on Friday, Darling said he is talking to leaders in Cameron County about ponying up funds for the UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

“From what we understand, what they are saying in Austin is that the Valley is not really interested in a medical school because voters defeated the health care district proposition. We have heard there was some money from upstate that went to defeat that measure. If that is true, don’t just say our voters defeated the measure,” Darling told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Also, Cameron County has never participated. Half the medical school is in Cameron County. They will reap the benefit from it. So, I have been talking to some of the leadership there, the county judge, the mayor, and some of the other civilian leadership, asking what can Cameron County do to help. I don’t think they will call a (healthcare district) election right now but they do have fund balances. So, I thought, hey, we will put up our million if you can put up your million and we can go to the legislature and say, look we are interested and here is our two million dollars.”

Darling said he wants to finalize his funding proposal next week because time is of the essence. The Texas Senate passed its state budget last week and the bill included only $25 million for UTRGV SOM. UTRGV was asking for $60 million. The House budget has yet to be finalized but is thought to include a lot more for UTRGV SOM than the Senate version.

“I hope to do it next week, while we are having a meeting about the dean of the new medical school. That would be a good way to talk about it,” Darling told the Rio Grande Guardian.

The mayoral debate was hosted by McAllen South Rotary Club and held at McAllen Country Club. Asked why UTRGV School of Medicine should matter to McAllen voters, Darling said: “It is a game changer. I am involved in some things where I have to go to the University of Texas at San Antonio. I stood outside the first research building in San Antonio. It has now generated into a $500 million a year asset for San Antonio.”

Darling pointed out that UTRGV SOM is developing a research center in McAllen. “There are people dying in this county every day because they lack healthcare. When you have a strong residency school and a strong medical school, it can provide for some of those needs.”

McAllen mayoral candidate Othal Brand, Jr., speaks at a McAllen South Rotary Club event.

Darling’s mayoral opponent, Othal Brand, Jr., agreed with Darling’s analysis. “No one can say no to that, Brand said, pointing out the Valley has a high percentage of residents with diabetes and obesity. “We have a lot of needs. I totally agree with Jim about that.”

Brand said where he disagrees with Darling is on the need for a healthcare district. “I don’t think that is where we are as a community. We all know that in the (UT) System right now, this university (UTRGV) is No. 2 in the state as far as the most funding. We have a lot of money coming in.”

Interviewed afterwards about going to the Legislature with a plan to pump more local money into UTRGV SOM, Darling said: “We are at the beginning of this new medical school and the time to really fund a new medical school is at the beginning. Once you get thought of as a ‘second tier’ school, it is very difficult to change that perception. It is a brand-new entity and now is our chance to dream. To meet those dreams, you need to have funding. It would be very disappointing if we do not do everything we can to make it the best it can be.”

Darling said that, in fact, he did not support the healthcare district proposition in the past election. However, he said he believes Hidalgo County can do more to improve access to healthcare for its residents.

“I have not been for a healthcare district but by the same token the County has a certain responsibility to provide leadership on healthcare and I do not think we have seen that. I would like to see that. I know how the indigent care works, I know how intergovernmental transfers work with the existing Medicaid and Medicare because they are not going to amend the Affordable Care Act. So, there is opportunity for the County to step up if they wanted to and support it more than they have been.”

Darling said he was aware the Texas House version of the new state budget has more money for UTRGV SOM than the Texas Senate version does.

“We will see what happens. When I first heard the numbers (on the Senate side) it was about $22 million out of a $55 million ask. Hopefully we will be alright. But, if there is any legislator sitting on the fence, we can say, here is McAllen’s and Cameron County’s money, let’s go ahead and fund it. If there is any legislator sitting on the fence, they would see that we are trying. We are down on sales taxes and our budget has been affected. But we are still supporting it.”