The governor’s veto pen caused some disappointment and ire in Valencia County last week, but that isn’t stopping the push forward for a local health care facility.

On Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vetoed House Bill 240, which would have changed language in the state’s Hospital Funding Act to allow a 24-hour emergency health care facility be licensed as a remote location of an acute care hospital.

In her executive message for the veto, Lujan Grisham wrote the funds described in HB 240 were part of a property tax previously approved by Valencia County voters with the understanding that the funds would be used for specific projects.

“To now use the mill levy funding for a purpose that was not presented during the election would abuse our democratic process and render the community’s decision as irrelevant,” the governor wrote. “The decision about how to use the mill levy funds will be used must be made by the voters.”

In 2006, county voters approved a 2.75 mill levy “to pay for the cost of operating, maintaining or providing for a hospital/24 hour emergency health care facility” in the county.

Valencia County Commission Chairman Gerard Saiz said he was very disappointed with the veto, especially since the legislation had the unanimous support of both chambers and received a unanimous “do pass” from both committees it went before.

“All the legislators across the state recognized the importance of this legislation, the impact it would have on health care in Valencia County and enable us to put the mill levy to beneficial use. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Saiz said.

He continued, saying the veto was not a deal breaker for the project. The commission unanimously approved a contract with Kulik Strategic Advisors Inc., of Dawsonville, Ga., for a new feasibility study on the project.

“It’s really important to show what is needed in terms of health care services in the county. I anticipate the commission will soon give direction to incorporate some changes into the anticipated (request for proposal),” Saiz said.

The chairman said it’s his understanding Kulik will be looking at what services are needed in Valencia County, what is lacking in both hospital services and in 24-hour emergency care.

“They will be coming up with a report that will address both possibilities,” he said. “We are trying to keep it very broad as far as what services need to be provided. We have also had a lot of input from Albuquerque (health care) providers on what they would like to see incorporated in the study.

“I think this will produce a document that is very useful, with the needed services as the focus.”

Saiz said Kulik won’t be looking at or making a recommendation on a location for a future facility, which will be left to the successful respondent to a future RFP.

“The location is totally off the table as far as the commission goes,” he said. “We shouldn’t be making decisions about where a company operates.”

The feasibility study should be completed in 90 days or sooner, and will most likely be incorporated into the RFP so offerors know exactly what services are needed, Saiz said.

“I think we are on the right path to moving forward and we will hopefully see something moving in three to four months,” he said. “I was really hoping the legislation would pass, but we don’t need it to move forward.”

The goal of changing the language in the act was to hopefully avoid future litigation, said county attorney Dave Pato.

“There’s been 12 years of litigation from two lawsuits, and this was to try to protect the county from any future lawsuits. To clarify the language so the can move forward and build,” Pato said.

While a “hospital” is defined in state statute, a 24-hour emergency health care facility is not.

The question of exactly which type of facility the mill levy money could be used for came to a head at the end of 2019. The county had contracted with Lovelace to build and operate a basic hospital that met the minimum standards as per state law, but ultimately, the facility the company was willing to build did not meet the criteria.

The county asked local legislators to carry a bill that would amend the definition and allow a 24-hour emergency health care facility be considered a remote facility of an existing hospital, a scenario local providers seemed willing to consider, and New Mexico Department of Health officials said it would review for possible licensure.

With the veto of the language change, the county commission can still decide to use the mill levy funds to maintain and operate either a hospital or 24-hour emergency health care facility, as per the 2006 ballot language.

Even though the legislation was ultimately shot down, Saiz thanked the local legislators for all their time and effort.

“They really worked hard to get the bill to the governor’s desk,” he said.

A written, joint statement from Sens. Greg Baca (R-29) and Joshua Sanchez (R-30) called the governor’s veto a “fit of partisanship.”

The bill was sponsored by a slate of Republican legislators — Baca and Sanchez, and Reps. Kelly Fajardo, Alonzo Baldonado and Gail Armstrong

The bill unanimously passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, 67-0 and 41-0, respectively.

“This was not just a piece of legislation — it was a lifeline for a community in need,” said Baca. “Our community has been working on this for almost 15 years, and we hoped this was the year the governor would look beyond the city and see the needs of her rural constituents.

“Instead, in vetoing this good faith bill, she has turned her back on Valencia County and certified her legacy as one of the most partisan and vindictive governors to ever ‘lead’ New Mexico. As for our local citizens, they will sadly spend another year wondering if their lives depend on how fast they can drive to Albuquerque.”

Sanchez described the bill as nonpolitical and something that would have “simply removed the final roadblock for rural, south central New Mexico to acquire a hospital. The legislation was so sensible that it transcended the hyper-partisan session and went to the governor’s desk with unanimous, bipartisan support.

“The governor, however, is so out of touch with New Mexico that she is willing to ignore the decades-long plea for quality health care in Valencia County. This is a sad day for our county and our state.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.