Members of an area watchdog group are calling for Hidalgo County residents to defeat a proposition on the Nov. 8 election ballot that, if passed, would create a county health care taxing district. They’re also calling on voters to oust the lawmakers who brought the measure back two years after it was defeated in the last general election.
Members of Objective Watchers of the Legal System (OWLS) said they want residents to defeat Proposition 1 because it would put a burden on the county’s poor and its ripple effect would adversely impact everyone by increasing the area’s cost of living. At the top of the list of lawmakers the group wants removed are state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and state Rep. Bobby Guerra, both Democrats.
OWLS member Fern McClaugherty, 67, a concealed weapons course instructor from Edinburg, said 42.5 percent of Hidalgo County residents live in or close to poverty and they cannot afford to have another tax placed on top of taxes needed to fund a new county court house. She cited cost estimates for the courthouse of between $300- and $400-million.
“They are not listening to the people who voted them into office so that’s why I’m hoping for anyone who is running against them,” said McClaugherty.
OWLS member Richard Montesdeoca said the county doesn’t need a special health care taxing district because it already has a fund that allows hospitals to contribute a percentage of their patient revenue that can be matched for state and federal indigent health care. He said that amounted to $15 million in 2015.
Montesdeoca is a retired city planner and community development coordinator for the city of McAllen and former director of regional planning for the Lower Rio Grande Development Council, which includes Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties. He criticized Hinojosa for writing into the bill the elimination of the county’s current indigent health care program if Proposition 1 passes. He blames Guerra for writing the bill that passed both Texas legislative bodies and was forwarded to the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court , which put the measure on the ballot.
“All these guys have done since this thing was defeated is accept campaign contributions from the Border Health PAC and change the name from the hospital district to the health care district,” said Montesdeoca.
In his latest campaign finance report filed Oct. 11 with the Texas Ethics Commission, Hinojosa reported $679,045 as his contribution balance with $183,939 in expenditures. OWLS members say $675,000 of that amount came from the Border Health PAC since 2004.
Montesdeoca said Hidalgo county residents will experience a ripple effect if the proposition passes, adding on to already considerable property tax levels of 97cents on every $100 of assessed property value.
“And if the city and school taxes are added it becomes two dollars. And if the Healthcare district and courthouse are added it becomes $2.38. People in one of the poorest counties cannot afford that,” Montesdeoca said.
Hinojosa’s Republican opponent, Velma Arellana—a court reporter and former member of the Judicial Branch Certification Commission—opposes Prop 1 and has not accepted contributions from any health care PAC, she said.
“Our elected officials are not representing the little people, it’s about corporations, not with the people any more,” said Arellana. She claims Hinojosa supported legislation to bring the measure back because he was influenced by the Border Health PAC contributions.
“You would think he’d listen to his constituents. I mean, what part of ‘no,’ don’t you understand?” Arellana said.
Guerra’s Republican opponent, Hilda Deshazo, said her campaign battle cry has been “no to Proposition 1” because two years ago 60 percent of District 41 residents voted against the measure. District 41 comprises most of McAllen, southern parts of Edinburg, part of west Pharr and eastern Mission. Deshazo criticized Guerra for introducing new legislation for the taxing district two months after it was originally defeated.
Said Deshazo, “Hidalgo County is the highest taxed county in the state and yet he wants another tax? The issue is the taxpayers said, ‘no.’ And ‘no’ means ‘no.’ And Mr. Guerra did not listen to, believe, respect or care about his constituents.”
In an interview Wednesday, Guerra said he and Hinojosa did listen to constituents by introducing legislation on the current proposition that lowers the tax rate cap from 75 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 25 cents. In 2014 the 75 cent cap was similar to the cap in other counties with hospital taxing districts and is the limit set by the Texas state constitution.
Guerra said the new bill also includes safeguards that exempted, or rolled back, certain classes of citizens from the tax including disabled persons and people over the age of 65.
“The bottom line is we wanted to make sure if this came back to voters it had a taxpayer protection provisions in it. And at that time we listened to people like the OWLS and the Tea Party and we wanted to make sure we addressed their concerns and we did, but apparently it’s not good enough,” Guerra said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Guerra said Deshazo is being hypocritical in criticizing him for supporting the health care district when she supported a record high $297 million bond issue for the McAllen Independent School District in 2015 that was defeated at the polls.
“She voted to put that on the ballot and she was voted out of office because of that and she calls herself a fiscal conservative?” said Guerra. “I find that hypocritical given the fact we are not the ones, the legislature, that put this on the ballot. All we did was pass taxpayer protection provisions. It is the most fiscally conservative hospital legislation in the entire state.”
Deshazo responded saying all she did was allow the voters to decide the issue.
“And I could have waited until after my election to push the bond but I had the best intentions for the students,” she said.
Due to a death in his family Tuesday, Hinojosa was not available for comment but his communications director, Jennifer Saenz, said in a telephone interview the senator was not influenced by special health care interests.
“He has the best interests in mind for the people of the Valley and Hidalgo County, specifically,” she said. “That’s why he created the legislation to create the health care district. However, and he has said this many times, the decision is up to the voters. He did what he could to allow for the creation of the health care district to propel the county into a better state of affairs, to end so much money spent by the county on indigent care, to provide better quality of services to the indigent and the insured. And to have a stable, reliable source of funds stream into the medical school. It will create an economic boom, more jobs, more resources, all of the things the proponents have been saying about this.”
Guerra, who has received $50,000 in Border Health PAC contributions since 2012 said both he and Hinojosa have the best interests of their constituents at heart.
“I’m a very fiscally conservative individual,” Guerra said. “Look at my history you’ll see what I’m talking about. And we tried to do the right thing here.”