AUSTIN, Texas – McAllen Tea Party leader Jim Barnes says the heavy defeat of a McAllen school district bond issue on Saturday should give legislators food for thought as they consider legislation related to a Hidalgo County Healthcare District.

Jim Barnes
Jim Barnes

On Saturday, 70 percent of McAllen voters voted “no” to a $297 million bond issue proposed by McAllen ISD.

Barnes, president of the McAllen/Hidalgo County Tea Party and editor of the Valley Conservative Newsletter and Calendar, testified on Monday against state Rep. Bobby Guerra’s House Bill 1596 when the legislation was considered by the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. Barnes was the only person to give public testimony.

“Saturday, May 9, the voters of McAllen overwhelmingly defeated a tax increase filed by the McAllen ISD. Many of the same people are opposed to the healthcare or hospital district. They have been taxed enough,” Barnes testified.

“This bill (HB 1596) is intended to provide indigent healthcare. We already have a functioning system taking care of the indigent and their healthcare. Now they promise that they are going to have a reduction in taxes on the county budget. I want to ask a question. Every time the healthcare (district) wants an increase are we going to get a reduction in the rest of Hidalgo County budget? Sooner or later we are going to run out of money for bridges and roads. I don’t like that idea at all.”

State Rep. R.D. 'Bobby' Guerra
State Rep. R.D. ‘Bobby’ Guerra

Barnes said that in a referendum on the creation of a hospital district for Hidalgo County held last November, opponents spent less than $5,000 to defeat the hospital district proposal while proponents of the district spent $500,000. “It still failed,” he said.

Barnes encouraged legislators to “follow the money.” He said that with the exception of one, “every political campaign” in Hidalgo County that the McAllen/Hidalgo County Tea Party had looked into had received donations from “the hospital district PAC.” Barnes said this is not fair. “The private hospitals and their administrators must expect a large pay raise if this passes. This is not a local issue. If this passes it is a model for the Obamacare Plan on steroids.”

Asked by the Rio Grande Guardian later which political action committee he was referring to, Barnes said the Border Health PAC.

Rep. Guerra has pointed out many times that HB 1596 does not set up a healthcare or hospital district and that only the voters of Hidalgo County can do that. He has said HB 1596 was crafted in response to voters who want stronger safeguards put in place before moving forward with the creation of a healthcare district.

When Guerra’s bill was heard by the House Committee on County Affairs, the McAllen legislator pointed out that his legislation would cap the tax rate at 25 cents per $100 valuation. Previous legislation set the cap at 75 cents per $100 valuation. Guerra said his legislation would provide all residence homestead exemptions for the elderly and disabled residents, as well as a total exemption for 100 percent disabled veterans and their surviving spouse. He said a healthcare district’s budget and tax rate must be approved by the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, thus ensuring proper oversight. He said all rollback tax provisions apply.

“The Healthcare District is a solution for inadequate access to healthcare in Hidalgo County. It’s a fact that we have some of the highest rates of uninsured individuals and amongst the worst health care outcomes in the nation. HB 1596 would provide Hidalgo County with the proper sanctions it needs to improve on indigent care, as well as leverage and draw down additional federal funds to address health disparities,” Guerra said, when HB 1596 was passed out of the House.

Guerra added that investing in a healthcare district will bring millions of dollars into the local economy, create thousands of new jobs, produce an educated and healthy workforce, and a healthier Hidalgo County for all families and children.

The sponsor of Guerra’s bill in the Senate is state Sen. Juan Hinojosa. Laying out the bill at the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations hearing on Monday, Hinojosa said HB 1596 has a key new provision. He called it a “tax swap.” Hinojosa said county property taxes will be reduced if a healthcare district is approved by voters because Hidalgo County will no longer be responsible for indigent care. Responsibility for indigent care would rest with the healthcare district, he said.

This is the provision in HB 1596 that Hinojosa was referring to:

Sec. 1122.2525. REDUCTION IN AD VALOREM TAX RATE BY COUNTY.  The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court, in determining the county ad valorem tax rate for the first year in which the district imposes ad valorem taxes on property in the district, shall:
(1)  take into account the decrease in the amount the county will spend for health care purposes in that year because the district is providing health care services previously provided or paid for by the county; and
(2)  reduce the county’s ad valorem tax rate in accordance with the decreased amount of required spending described by Subdivision.

“If this bill is not passed it will guarantee an increase on our property taxpayers because we will not be able to access federal dollars because the cost of indigent care will be borne only by local taxpayers,” Hinojosa told the Senate committee.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio chairs the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. Lucio said the committee had received two witness cards from people who said they supported HB 1596 but who did not wish to testify. They were from John Hawkins and Donald Lee. He then read the names of 23 people who had signed witness cards saying they were opposed to HB 1596 but did not wish to testify. Of the 23, two were from the Montesdeoca family, three were from the Hanshaw family and six were from the McClaugherty family.

Sen. Hinojosa later questioned if those who signed witness cards in opposition to HB 1596 were actually present at the hearing. Sen. Lucio responded that the cards showed different handwriting and that he was therefore going to allow the witness cards to be part of the record.

Later, Barnes told the Rio Grande Guardian that those who signed witness cards opposed to HB 1596 had called the committee clerk to say they could not make the hearing because they were at work. Barnes said the clerk asked them to send in a letter via email to this effect and they could then be registered in opposition to the bill.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story is a file photo of Jim Barnes, president of the McAllen/Hidalgo County Tea Party.