WESLACO, RGV – In Friday’s editions, the Rio Grande Guardian posted details of one of the Rio Grande Valley’s big agenda items for the 85th Legislative Session – Protect & Promote Us.

Under the proposal, the state of Texas would commit $25 million a year from its $800 million border security budget to promote and market the Valley. Click here for the story.

Now, the Valley’s five other agenda items for the legislative session have been unveiled. Steve Ahlenius, president of McAllen Chamber of Commerce, discussed all six items at a Regional Small Cities Coalition meeting, held last Thursday at the offices of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.

The items will be promoted during RGV Day in Austin, which takes place Jan. 7 at the state Capitol.

Here are the other five legislative agenda items, as explained in a brochure handed out at the meeting by Ahlenius.

School of Medicine Funding

School of Medicine Funding – $10 Million Request for the Biennium

UTRGV’s School of Medicine (SoM) welcomed its inaugural cohort of 55 students during Summer 2016. The SoM plans to admit first year cohorts of 50-55 each year for the next three years, accepting up to a total of 220 medical students by 2019. The charter “Class of 2020” will graduate in May 2020. Preliminary Accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) was granted October 2015.

This request for additional funding will enable continued implementation efforts as detailed in the submission for Preliminary Accreditation and will facilitate planning and implementation efforts towards Provisional Accreditation planned to start October 2017 and continuing into FY18.

While the UTRGV SOM curriculum is an integrated module-based curriculum that folds clinical experiences in with the basic sciences from Day 1, there will be a significant ramp up in clinical activities and rotations after the initial 18 months of medical education. In preparation for clinical rotations beginning in FY18, faculty hires in the clinical departments are planned and rotational sites are being identified, inclusive of our veteran service partners.

The requested $10 million would address the need for clinical educators and faculty researchers, as well as staffing and operating resources.

HRI Funding – In addition to Special Item funding, UTRGV’s SoM seeks Health Related Institution (HRI) formula funding to place it on equal footing with other existing medical programs throughout the state. HRI formula funding would provide a predictable and reliable funding model as the General Academic Institutional formula is based on semester credit hours (SCH) and HRI’s use full-time student equivalents.

Health Related Institution (HRI) Funding

UTRGV’s School of Medicine seeks HRI formula funding to place it on equal footing with other existing medical programs throughout the state. HRI formula funding would provide a predictable and reliable funding model as the General Academic Institutional formula is based on semester credit hours (SCH) and HRI’s use full-time student equivalents as opposed to the SCH.

Formula funding is a critical foundation for the institution’s operations and UTRGV is in full agreement with UT Austin and the UT System that the UTRGV School of Medicine should be funded in the health-related formulas. In March 2016, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved such a move to HRI funding for both the UTRGV SoM and UT Austin’s Dell Medical School.

Funding the new medical school in the HRI formula model places the program on equal footing with other existing medical programs. Remaining in the General Academic Institution (GAI) model of funding will place the SoM at a distinct disadvantage not experienced by other medical programs at public health-related institutions.

The GAI formula is based on semester credit hours and a three-year average of program costs – neither of which is available for the new school. Medical students do not capture data on courses, students are taught through a combination of clinical hand on work with some lecture time.

HRI’s use of full-time student equivalents as opposed to the SCH. Furthermore, GAI formulas are based on relative weights compared to liberal arts and distributed among the five program levels, making it challenging at the least to fit a medical program into a model that is driven by costs attributed to liberal arts programs.

The University considers the best option available to ensure the most predictable and stable appropriations funding methodology is to include it in the existing HRI formula funding model. The HRI formula best provides funding for medical students, related predicted square footage, research related to the School of Medicine and graduate medical education.

Healthy South Texas; Healthy Texas Funding

$19.6 Million Total Request for the Biennium – $10 million in new funding for the biennium and continuation of $9.6 million for existing item funded in 2016-17.

Healthy South Texas combines the clinical expertise and community-based dsease prevention and management programs of the Texas A&M University Health Science Center with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s unique education and outreach model to improve healthy behaviors and environments throughout 27 southern Texas counties with an initial focus on diabetes, asthma and infectious disease.

The request for continuation of funding will result in solutions that:

1) Empower participants with evidence-based education and monitoring in areas including prenatal care, weight management and nutrition.
2) Engage individuals and families through education and integration of services to prevent and reduce the consequences of asthma.
3) Educate communities to reduce the number of infectious disease cases in South Texas and their consequences, with an emphasis on prevention and vaccination.

Since it was launched in September 2015, nearly 300,000 individuals have been impacted by the initiative’s programming, adding up to a projected health care cost savings of $60 million in diabetes control, medication assistance and physical activity engagement. The tools, technologies and strategies developed in South Texas have the potential to tackle health challenges across the state, through additional Healthy Texas initiatives.

Additional funding would allow Healthy South Texas to be intensified across the 27-county region and expanded statewide to become Healthy Texas, a population health improvement platform targeting chronic disease prevention and management with a special emphasis on community-based health promotion across the lifespan. As a result, Texans will experience improved health for generations to come.


Workforce continues to be a top priority in the Rio Grande Valley. As globalization continues to expand because of advancements in digital technology and economic development worldwide, skills in prominent technical fields like science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are becoming increasingly important and coveted across the state. Institutions of higher education are under increasing pressure from business and industry to produce graduates with specific, high level workforce skills that are relevant and applicable.

Steve Ahlenius

According to a report by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond, by the year 2025 there will be a 3.5 Million advanced manufacturing jobs needed. Therefore, this project will offer multiple credential opportunities (Festo, Engineering, Engineering Tooling and precision Manufacturing, Production Technical, Logistics, Industrial Maintenance), and others with pathways to Associates and Bachelor Degress toward middle and high-skill occupation with an emphasis on Engineers.

The McAllen-Edinburg-Mission Metropolitan Statistical Area ranked 4th fastest growing in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000. In 2012, CNN Money reported a 39 percent population growth in McAllen, between 2000 and 2010. Brownsville, in Cameron County, is the largest city in the RGV and one of the fastest growing. The city’s population more than doubled from 1980 to 2010.

Concomitantly, the RGC has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation (33.5 percent, Hidalgo; 35.4 percent Starr; 34.8 percent Cameron; 38 percent Willacy). Accoriding to the US Census Bureau (2014), the total percentage by county with some college education or an associate degree is lower than state (44.2 percent) and nation (58.9 percent); Hidalgo (42.5 percent); Cameron (40.8 percent); Starr, (37.4 percent); Willacy, (24 percent).

Regional data for engineering indicate a projected 16 percent increase from 2015 to 2025. Texas Workforce Solutions data (2016) projects a 14 percent increase for Industrial Engineers from 2016 to 2026. There are various technical manufacturing occupations in this industry that may lead toward engineering. Particular occupations have higher projected growth rates, including Industrial Engineering Technicians (13 percent project change) and Machinists (16 percent).

Roughly 4,600 manufacturing occupations by 2026 in our region, an eight percent change from 2016, which exceeds the state rate of seven percent.

Legislative position:
•    Increase funding level from $48 million to $60 for the Texas Workforce Commission Skills Developments Fund (SDF) to support community colleges’ customized training and workforce development for business and industry employers.
•    Appropriate $10 million in SDF funding for capacity building for community colleges. The priority for the funding should be equipment and technology related to process automations and robotics. This will help address the major skills gap forecast in mid to high-level jobs in advanced manufacturing and engineering related occupations.
•    Support the appropriation of $2.5 million of SDF Funds specifically for LNG related industries.
•    Support the continuance of dual credit programs in order to exoland access to higer education and to support the expansion and further solidification of relevant occupational pathways.
•    Support increase in funding for the Comptroller’s Jobs and Education for Texans (JET) fund.

Transportation & Border Infrastructure

The Rio Grande Valley, at the southernmost tip of Texas, covers 1,881 square miles, has a population of approximately 1.5 million, and is comprised of 46 cities and towns and more than 100 communities. Additionally, the RGV enjoys close personal and professional relationships with the people in the Mexican states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. As a bi-national and bi-cultural area, tens of thousands of individuals from across the Rio Grande River share our roads every day, and trade with Mexico is growing at a brisk pace. The RGV is the entryway to Texas markets, and that brings with it a unique demand on the region’s roads, ports of entry and deepwater seaport.

The significant increases in international trade is the reason infrastructure and transportation remain one of the Valley’s key priorities for the 85th Legislative Session.

Texas remains the largest trading partner to Mexico and much of the economic and trade impact is centered in the Rio Grande Valley. The Pharr international Bridge, the 7th largest land port in the U.S. generated more than $30 billion in annual trade in 2014, while the Port of Brownsville saw $3 billion in economic activity in 2015. With the opening of the West Rail Bridge, the first new rail bridge to link the U.S. and Mexico in 105 years, the opening of southbound crossings at the Donna Rio Bravo Bridge and Anzalduas International Bridge in McAllen, and traffic at the Brownsville international bridges, the region has seen a robust increase in freight traffic on roadways across the Valley. Additionally, Foreign Trade Zone No. 62 at the Port of Brownsville recently ranked 2nd in the nation for the value of exports by the Foreign-Trade Zones Board.

Infrastructure connectivity is crucial to improving the economic condition of the Valley. Increased mobility is vital to improve trade, create jobs and lower the unemployment rate. But, without proper funding to build smarter the RGV’s growth could be limited.

To that end, the Rio Grande Valley is asking legislators to continue supporting our regional infrastructural needs which include the following transportation and maritime priorities.

•    Continue supporting completion of I-69 East, I-69 Central
•    I-69 Central Interchange Expansion – improve north/south mobility, provide alternate evacuation route, improve travel capacity for local and regional traffic
•    International Border Trade Corridor – Pharr International Bridge to I-2
•    State Highway 68 – Connection to International Border Trade Corridor
•    Deepwater port funding for all seaports through TxDOT
•    South Padre Island Second Access – to alleviate traffic congestion and improve safety and economic development
•    East Loop Corridor Project – an improved commercial vehicle facility form the Port of Brownsville to the Veterans Bridge at Los Tomates via a new four-lane facility and south port access road
•    FM 1925 (Monte Cristo Rd.) project that connects Hidalgo and Cameron running parallel to I-2
•    Expansion of regional public transportation to increase bus routes, expand rural coverage and enhance student access to colleges.
Each of the priorities identified above are crucial to the economic future of the Rio Grande Valley.