SANTA FE — A retooled plan to spend a chunk of New Mexico’s remaining federal COVID-19 relief funds could pave the way for construction of a new hospital in Valencia County.
A key House panel voted unanimously Friday to endorse a $504.5 million spending plan that, after being amended, includes $50 million for construction of a new acute care hospital in New Mexico.
While the bill, House Bill 2, does not specify where the hospital would be located other than stipulating it would be in a county with fewer than 100,000 residents, several legislators acknowledged a long-running effort in Valencia County to build a new health care facility.
Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said he and other legislators have pushed for funding to build a new 24-hour hospital that could also serve nearby areas like Mountainair.
“This has been a long time in the making,” Baca told the Journal. “It’s really going to improve health care in the area.”
“After years of work, I am excited to have an opportunity to have our desperate need for a hospital in Valencia County filled. The lawsuit filed against the governor by Sen. Candelaria and myself to uphold our legislative power to appropriate the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds was exactly for this purpose,” Baca said in a statement Friday. “The legislators in this building know the issues of their community best because it is our lived reality. This line item is a win not just for Valencia County, but all the surrounding communities and I look forward to seeing this project through.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April vetoed a bill that would have authorized funds from a 2006 mill levy be redirected to be used for construction of a new hospital in Valencia County. She said in her veto message the funding shift would be undemocratic.
Previous attempts to build a new hospital in the county with about 76,000 residents have also been unsuccessful.
But the proposal to spend $504.5 million that New Mexico received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act could give new life to the project, while also appropriating funding for nine road construction projects around the state and broadband expansion efforts.
The state currently has roughly $1.1 billion in unspent federal relief funds, which were the subject of a legal dispute between a bipartisan group of legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office.
The Supreme Court ultimately sided with the lawmakers in the case, ruling Lujan Grisham could not spend the money without legislative approval. That prompted the Democratic governor to add spending of the funds to the agenda of the ongoing special session on redistricting.
The plan approved Friday by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee would leave spending decisions for about $698 million of the federal relief dollars until a 30-day regular session that starts in January.
That’s because about $133 million of the money included in the legislative plan comes from a separate federal fund that is intended specifically for capital projects.
Meanwhile, other changes made Friday to the bill include the addition of $2 million for a teacher preparation scholarship fund, which could help nearly 170 aspiring teachers at least partially pay for tuition and fee expenses.
More money is expected to be appropriated to the scholarship fund during the upcoming 30-day legislative session as New Mexico grapples with a statewide teacher shortage caused in party by a surge in recent retirements, a top legislative official said.
“This is a first strong step as we go into the holiday season,” said Rep. Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, who described the state’s teacher shortage as acute.