DALLAS - The Lower Rio Grande Valley would get its first medical school under legislation awaiting Texas Gov. Rick Perry's signature.

SB 98 would allow the University of Texas to issue debt to expand the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into a medical branch in 2015.

Until then, the bill allows the health center to receive funding from UT's Available University Fund that is derived from the Permanent University Fund and operate under the direction of the UT Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, 230 miles to the north.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, and in the House by his son, Rep. Eddie Lucio 3rd, D-San Benito. The bill would establish the first full-fledged professional school in the geographically isolated Lower Rio Grande Valley, which is largely Hispanic and contains areas of extreme poverty.

The younger Lucio also introduced a bill to bring a law school to the University of Texas campus in Brownsville. That measure died in committee.

Sen. Lucio estimated that planning and building the new school would cost about $100 million.

The UT System issued $25 million of state tuition revenue bonds to build the first part of the RAHC in Harlingen in 2002 and used $20 million from the PUF to build another medical facility in the nearby town of Edinburg.

The RAHC uses Valley Baptist Medical Center as its teaching hospital.

The nearest professional school is the Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy in Kingsville. Since opening in 2006, the pharmacy school has turned away six of every seven applicants.

In a 2002 survey, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board found 57 doctors for every 100,000 residents in the valley, compared with 70 for every 100,000 residents statewide.

In a state whose population is 36% Hispanic, only 12% of doctors were Hispanic, according to the survey.

Doctors tended to set up their practices in areas where they perform their residencies, the study found, and many potential medical students in the valley could not afford to attend school in San Antonio, Galveston, Houston or Dallas.

The RAHC, which allows students with the University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio to complete up to two years of clinical training in the valley, was approved in 1997 by the legislature, which authorized $30 million for construction of the flagship facility in Harlingen.

The medical school in San Antonio was created 35 years ago and has grown into a major campus in the growing city.

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