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Hidalgo County seeks to strike hospital restriction

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Posted: Thursday, May 2, 2013 5:00 am

If Hidalgo County wants to form a hospital district, it will first have to ask all Texans for permission.

Hidalgo County lawmakers cleared resolutions Wednesday to ask state voters whether to repeal language inserted in the Texas Constitution that severely limits the county’s authority in creating the district. The House and Senate resolutions will put language on November’s ballot to strike provisions inserted into the state constitution in 1960 that capped the taxing authority of any hospital district formed in Hidalgo County to 10 cents per $100 in valuation.

While taxing authority for nearly all hospital districts in Texas was capped at 75 cents by a constitutional amendment in 1962, Hidalgo County operates under the separate provision passed earlier that limits taxing authority for a hospital district here. Although the actual rate varies by Texas county, most hospital districts levy taxes between 20 to 40 cents, making Hidalgo County’s constitutional cap a significant challenge in setting up a functional district.

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said repealing the constitutional cap provides Hidalgo County the flexibility that other counties are afforded.

“At that time (the amendment was passed in 1959), the Valley was very rural and agriculture-based, and it might have seemed the right thing to do,” said Hinojosa, who passed the Senate resolution calling for the 1959 provision to be struck. “As we’re seeing now, the Valley is one of the fastest growing areas in the state and country, and we have to provide flexibility to local voters for them to decide.”

But state voters will make the first decision on whether to allow that flexibility by amending the Texas Constitution, a process that requires ratification by two-thirds of the Legislature and then approval by the majority of Texas voters in a general election.

Under the legislation that passed the House and Senate on Wednesday with the requisite, Texans will be asked in November to repeal Section 7, Article IX of the Texas Constitution. That section, added to the Texas Constitution in November 1960 by the state’s voters, provided authority for Hidalgo County to create a hospital district but capped its taxing authority at 10 cents.

It wasn’t exactly clear Wednesday what motivated that language’s inclusion in 1960 or why Hidalgo County never used the newfound authority. Coverage in The Monitor makes only passing reference to the constitutional amendment or the legislation by then-state Rep. Kika de la Garza that propelled it.

But at the time, hospital districts that provide care to the poor were spreading across Texas. When Texas voters first authorized the creation of countywide hospital districts in 1954, they limited it to counties with populations in excess of 190,000 and Galveston County, but amendments later added for Hidalgo County and a handful of other rural counties capped the rate.

The Texas Constitution was finally changed in 1962 to provide all Texas counties the authority to create a hospital district if approved by the majority of their own voters. That 1962 amendment also created the 75-cent cap for hospital districts that most operate under.

By asking state voters to repeal the restrictive 1960 provision that capped the tax rate at 10 cents, Hidalgo County lawmakers are in effect seeking to fall under the 1962 amendment. If November’s constitutional amendment passed, local voters would still have the authority to create the hospital district and set its tax rate.

Removing the 10-cent restriction would “make sure that Hidalgo County has all the options available to it,” said state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-McAllen, the lead sponsor of the House resolution that called to repeal the older language. Guerra said repealing the restrictions in the Texas Constitution would allow Hidalgo County voters to use their own discretion in setting the rate.

“It just gives us the availability in the future if it’s decided that would be the best avenue,” Guerra said. “I don’t think that decision has been made yet, but we’re trying to plan for the future.”

Hidalgo County is the largest county in Texas without a hospital district, a taxing entity that funds hospital care for the indigent usually through the creation of a public hospital. With no district, the county lacks a publicly funded safety net hospital that instead pushes sick, uninsured patients into the emergency rooms of private hospitals.

But the development of a hospital district would also go hand-in-hand with ongoing efforts to build a medical school for the Valley. When Travis County voters approved a tax hike in November to support a new University of Texas medical school in Austin, the 5-cent property tax increased was funneled through Central Health, the county’s healthcare district.


Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at jjanes@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4424 or on Twitter, @moncounty.

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