EDINBURG, RGV – The Secretary of State’s Office has cleared up the confusion its attorneys caused with Hidalgo County Commissioners Court over a petition for a Hidalgo County Healthcare District.

Conflicting advice from different attorneys in the Secretary’s office led to confusion among county commissioners on how to proceed with a petition filed by taxpayers to place the healthcare district issue on the November ballot. Commissioners considered two petitions, one without a tax rate and one with a tax rate set at eight cents per $100 property valuation.

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa

Confusion over which petition to go with led some commissioners to blame language in legislation authored by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa and supported by the entire Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation that allows voters to set up a healthcare district, if they so wish. However, it was not the legislation that caused the confusion, it now transpires. It was conflicting advice from attorneys with the Secretary of State’s Office.

In an email to Jennifer Saenz, deputy chief of staff and general counsel to Sen. Hinojosa, Keith Ingram, director of the Elections Division within the Secretary of State’s office, said an attorney in his office, Andre Montgomery, was “incorrect in one respect” in an email Montgomery sent to Hidalgo County.

“He (Montgomery) states that Special Law 1122.021 is silent with regard to who sets the tax rate. In fact, it is not. In Special Law 1122.021(b) and (c) it states that the commissioner’s court will order the election including the proposition to be voted on. Texas Election Code says that a proposition imposing a tax must establish the tax rate. See Section 52.072(e)(2). Because the commissioner’s court writes the proposition and the proposition is one that requires the inclusion of the initial tax rate or the maximum rate of tax, the commissioner’s court is the entity responsible for establishing the tax rate.”

Ingram went on to say: “I am sorry for the confusion in this regard.”

In his email to Hidalgo County, Montgomery wrote: “As you mentioned, Section 1122.021 of the Special Districts Code allows for the creation of this healthcare district. However, the section does not specifically mention who would set the tax rate used on the ballot in the election (the commissioners court or the petitioners). The issue of who sets the tax rate used on the ballot is not covered in HB 3793 (83rd Legislative Session, 2013), which created section 1122.021 or HB 1596 (84th Legislative Session, 2015) which amended section 1122.021. And that issue would determine which petition controls in this case. It appears from the legislative history of the section that the district would be similar to a hospital district under Chapter 286 of the Health and Safety Code. In that type of district, the petition for creation would also have to state the tax rate to be adopted. However, Section 1122.021 does not specifically reference Chapter 286 of the Health and Safety Code, and again, it is completely silent on who sets the tax rate.”

Montgomery went on to say: “We recommend that you discuss this with your county attorney’s office to perhaps review the bill analysis covering Section 1122.021 or talk to the legislative authors’ (of HB 3793 and 1596) offices to determine whether the petitioners are responsible for setting the tax rate that goes on the ballot. If the petitioners are responsible, the first petition that you received appears to not have a tax rate attached to it and the second petition appears to have a tax rate associated with it. Furthermore, you may wish to contact the state comptroller’s office to determine whether the tax rate proposed by the second petition is a legally acceptable rate.”

Steve Crain, Hidalgo County’s legal adviser, based his advice to county commissioners on Montgomery’s email.

On Monday, Ingram sent a letter to Saenz, clarifying the situation. Ingram said Hidalgo County Commissioners Court acted in compliance with state law when it called for an election on the creation of a healthcare district, setting the initial tax rate at 8 cents per $100 valuation, during its August 9 meeting. Here is the letter:

Obviously, I was not present at the Commissioners’ Court meeting. However, based on your description of the process, it is within the range of what the law contemplates.
As we have previously discussed, the Special District Law 112 2.021 does not require that the petition have within it the initial tax rate. However, the presence of a proposed initial tax rate is not forbidden either. As we have also discussed, the Commissioners Court is the body that has the authority to set the initial tax rate and to include it within the ballot proposition.
It appears that this petition contained a tax rate even though it was not required. The Commissioner’s Court accepted the petition as valid and then separately approved the tax rate that was contained within the petition. Based on the language of Special District Law 112 2.021, this is an acceptable and legally correct procedure.
Please let me know if you need any additional information.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said the County’s role in the process was to accept the petition and set the election, after verifying through the Hidalgo County Elections Department, that the petition was signed by a minimum of 50 registered voters of Hidalgo County.

“Commissioners Court fulfilled its responsibility to call the election, as confirmed by the Secretary of State,” Garcia said. “Whether a Healthcare District is created will depend on the will of the people through the power of their votes in the upcoming General Election.”

County Commissioner Joseph Palacios had asked for an opinion from the Secretary of State. “It is our fiduciary duty to represent all taxpayers to assure a greater understanding of the effects of this law if passed or not,” Palacios said.

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Sen. Hinojosa said he knew his legislation to give voters the opportunity to create a healthcare district was well-written.

“There is no problem with the legislation. It is a well-written piece of legislation. Attorneys with the Legislative Council edited it and modified it many times to make sure it was very clear. It is very clear,” Hinojosa said. “The county has the authority to set the tax rate.”

Hinojosa said he is pleased the voters of Hidalgo County will get the chance to decide on the creation of a healthcare district.

“We already know all the benefits of the healthcare district. It will help fund the medical school. We are not talking about indigent healthcare here. We are talking about healthcare in general. We are talking about more specialties, more doctors and better access to healthcare. It will create thousands of new jobs. It will stabilize property taxes because the cost of healthcare will not go away. And, it is the only way we can draw federal funds so that the federal government can help us pay for our healthcare. It will draw down research dollars to help us focus on diseases like diabetes and obesity. It is a win-win situation.”

With regard to the tax rate, Hinojosa said there is a lot of misinformation being put out. He pointed out that currently, Hidalgo County allocates eight percent of its budget to indigent care. He said those duties will be transferred to the healthcare district. “It is a trade-off. The fact that it is two or three cents higher than what the county is paying, it will stabilize and lower property taxes. Otherwise, the costs will only be paid by local taxpayers. There will be no help from the federal government because we will not have a healthcare district to draw down matching funds,” Hinojosa added.

Editor’s Note: Both images accompanying this story were taken by reporter Ena Capucion. The main image shows Hidalgo County Commissioners Joseph Palacios and Joe Flores and Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia at last week’s Hidalgo County Commissioners Court meeting in Edinburg.