A piece of state legislation intended to get the Valencia County hospital project back on track has cleared its first major hurdle of the 2021 legislative session.

House Bill 240, which clarifies the definition of “contracting hospital” in the state Hospital Funding Act, passed the state House of Representatives on a 67-0 vote on Thursday, Feb. 25.

The bill will now go on to the Senate for consideration.

Sponsored by Reps. Kelly Fajardo (R-District 7), Alonzo Baldonado (R-District 8) and Gail Armstrong (R-District 49), and Sens. Greg Baca (R-District 29) and Joshua Sanchez (R-District 30), the bill clarifies language to allow the county to use the collected mill levy for a hospital and/or 24-hour emergency room, as well as support of a facility licensed as a remote facility of an existing acute care facility.

The question of exactly what kind 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 health care facility, however the facility the company was willing to construct didn’t meet the definition of a hospital as per the Hospital Funding Act.

Valencia County Commission Chairman Gerard Saiz said if the legislation clears the Senate and is signed by the governor, he feels confident it will create a pathway for providing enhanced and extended health care in the county.

“This will give us a better definition to potential offerors to move this project forward,” Saiz said. “This and previous commissions have worked diligently to overcome obstacles, but I think this really is the key issue that provides options and clear definition. I’m very grateful for our legislators working to move this forward.”

Baldonado said when redefining terms in a state statute, there’s the potential those changes will impact other communities in a negative way.

“If we just changed the definition for the state you could have a situation in a place like Socorro County and their hospital, where someone wants to set up a 24-hour facility and then they have to split the mill levy,” Baldonado said.

While legislators can’t craft bills for only one community or county, Baldonado said HB 240 contains careful language that addresses the Valencia County project while not creating problems for other counties.

The language change will apply to Class B counties with a population of more than 75,000 and less than 100,000 and a property tax valuation more than $1 billion but less than $5 billion.

“Right now, we’re the only Class B county over 75,000 but looking at Lea County, for example, they’re at 65,000 but due to the boom down there in the oil patch, that could change,” he said. “They’re valuation is around $8 billion and ours is about $1.7 billion. We didn’t want to impact other communities negatively.”

The bill had support from the local hospital and health care advocacy group, Medical Care Advocates of Valencia County, Baldonado said, as well as local municipalities.

“Now it goes on to the Senate. If this gets into law, it could free up some options,” Baldonado said. “I don’t know that Lovelace or Presbyterian were ever going to build a full-fledged hospital, but we have enough people, we have a need for something.”

Armstrong said her main reason for being a sponsor on the bill was to help find a solution to the decade-plus problem.

“That money is sitting there and we can’t access it. Whether it’s a hospital, an urgent care, whatever, Valencia County is in need,” Armstrong said. “We have to find a solution to move forward. I think this could be the year. We were ultimately all on the same page, trying to be helpful in finding solutions, what’s best and feasible.”

While legislators work on the language change, Valencia County commissioners have begun the process for a new feasibility study for the project as recommended by staff from The University of New Mexico Hospital last summer.

The most recent study was done in 2012 for city-owned property on Christopher Road in Belen. The study found the location would be feasible for a hospital but made several assumptions about financing, including the renewal of the mill levy by county voters.

The tax was collected from 2007 to 2014 and has amassed more than $26.5 million in an interest-bearing account at Bank of the West.

The county received $20,000 from the Legislature to fund the study, but the contractor the county is negotiating with — Kulik Strategic Advisors Inc., of Dawsonville, Ga. — put the cost of the study at $158,294.

County Manager Danny Monette said when the commission authorized the request for proposal for a new study, the county requested $100,000 from the Legislature to cover the cost difference as well as budgeted $80,000 in its own budget for the shortfall.

At the Feb. 17 commission meeting, county purchasing agent Rustin Porter said Kulik was willing to hold its offer firm until mid April to let the county explore funding avenues.

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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.