EDINBURG, RGV – The voters of Hidalgo County will get the chance to create a hospital taxing district to help fund healthcare for the indigent poor and a four-year medical school in November, says state Sen. Juan Hinojosa.

The McAllen Democrat said key stakeholders have agreed that putting the issue on the general election ballot on Nov. 4 gives supporters of the project a great chance of success.

“We are working on doing it this November. There is a consensus. This just came about recently. There were a lot of discussions among stakeholders on the pros and cons,” Hinojosa told the Guardian, in an exclusive interview.

Hinojosa authored constitutional amendment legislation in 2013 that made the chances of creating a hospital district a lot more advantageous. With voter approval, the bill uncapped a previous constitutional amendment that prevented a hospital district in Hidalgo County from levying more than ten cents per $100 of property valuation.

“We went through the bill line by line. We have researched what other hospital districts have done in terms of the memorandums of understanding with the counties, the public officials. And we feel very confident. At the end of the day it is a give and take,” Hinojosa said.

Asked who will put the issue on the November general election ballot Hinojosa said there two possible scenarios. “Hidalgo County Commissioners Court could put it on the ballot or 50 people could petition to put it on the ballot. The deadline to do so is August 18.” Asked if there is sufficient time to educate the public on the merits of having a hospital district, Hinojosa said: “My take is this is a fresh issue in the public’s mind. They understand the benefits for the Valley, not only in terms of our healthcare infrastructure but also in terms of the economy and education for our young people. It is best to put it on the ballot for November because those issues are still fresh in the minds of the public.”

In an earlier Guardian story, Hinojosa pointed out that no tax rate has been set for the hospital district and no board of directors has been nominated. He said more information on how the hospital district would be structured would be released in the coming weeks.

“I can almost guarantee you that on the long term basis it will save taxpayers money and will save lives,” Hinojosa said. “What we are talking about is people’s lives, healthcare, and more jobs. There is a tremendous return on investment. And then there are all the matching funds from the federal government, three to one. Supporting a hospital district is a no-brainer.”

One of the biggest supporters of a hospital district for Hidalgo County is McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. He is also counsel to Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, which supports the creation of a hospital district. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Darling countered critics who say the tax rate will be too high for most taxpayers.

“The county has the responsibility for indigent care right now. County governments in Texas have that, with the exception of those that have a hospital district. If they have a hospital district, it carries that burden. In this case it is just a shift in that burden from the county to the hospital district,” Darling said.

“In terms of how much it will cost to operate the indigent care program – that does not change. It is the same. The creation of a new district does not change the need or the provision of services.”

Darling said that in addition to helping to pay for health care for the indigent, a Hidalgo County Hospital District would also help fund the UT-Rio Grande Valley Medical School.

“From what I understand from UT the medical school would cost add an additional two cents on the tax rolls. I do not want to infer that this is not an increase for people. I do not want to say that poor people do not have a tougher burden to meet those taxes. It is certainly true but at the same time, the opportunity of the medical school is so fantastic. I still say, you have got a kid in kindergarten that is going to go through the whole thing, go and become a doctor without ever leaving our county. What is the price we need to pay for that? If that is the price we have to pay for that, I believe that is worth it.”

Asked if a Hidalgo County Hospital District would raise its raise its tax rates to the highest allowed in the state, namely 75 cents per $100 property valuation, because it has a large indigent population, as some critics have suggested will happen, Darling said: “I sure would not want to happen. I would do everything I could to stop that from happening. I do not think anyone in the state has a 75 cents tax base. I think most of them are under 75 cents. By no stretch of the imagination do I think we would burden taxpayers anything close to that, or a fraction of that even.”

It was put to Darling that McAllen property taxpayers might pay 50-plus percent of the taxes to a hospital district in Hidalgo County. His response was: “It is probably nearer 40 percent. We are already paying 40 percent of the indigent care. McAllen is paying that right now because we pay county taxes. I am very aware we pay a good portion of the county taxes and hopefully we will have some say in how all this works.”