Healthcare District opponents file lawsuit, want to block mobile voting in Hidalgo County
Opponents of the proposed Hidalgo County Healthcare District filed a lawsuit Tuesday, asking a judge to block mobile voting locations at local hospitals -- and everywhere else during early voting.
George Rice of McAllen and Cruz Quintana Jr. of San Juan filed the lawsuit against the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court on Wednesday afternoon.
The lawsuit claims mobile polling places approved by the Commissioners Court were selected to favor the Healthcare District. Rice and Quintana want a judge to sign a temporary restraining order, which would block mobile polling places during early voting.
"There is no rational reason that, if the County is to have mobile units, they should travel to hospitals and other Border Health PAC-related institutions rather than standard public buildings that abound in Hidalgo County. The Mobile List is not even geographically dispersed. The Mobile List, therefore, does not serve any legitimate governmental interest in providing access to the ballot box," according to the lawsuit. "It is an obvious attempt to manipulate the election results by taking the ballot boxes right to the institutions where Border Health PAC sponsors have influence over their employees.
Houston-based attorney Jerad Najvar -- who has won major political cases in Dallas, Austin and Weslaco -- represents Rice and Quintana.
"Basically: How stupid does the county think the voters are?" Najvar said. "It's clearly an attempt to manipulate the election by picking the voters, rather than letting the voters decide."
The proposed Healthcare District would collect a new property tax, which would cover medical costs for the poor and partially fund the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.
As proposed, the Healthcare District would initially collect 8 cents per $100 of taxable assessed valuation. That would add $80 to the annual bill for a property valued at $100,000.
Money collected by the Healthcare District could cover the cost of providing health care at existing hospitals and community clinics. Hidalgo County could partner with a specific health system or spread the money among existing medical centers.
How, exactly, the Healthcare District would work remains unclear.
Similar districts in Bexar County and El Paso County fund public hospitals affiliated with medical schools. The Bexar County Hospital District collects a 27.6 cent property tax. The El Paso County Hospital District collects a 22.1 cent property tax.
Hidalgo County, though, doesn’t have any plans for a public hospital.
Nueces County partners with the nonprofit Christus Spohn Health System, which operates several hospitals and community clinics. The Nueces County Hospital District collects a 12.68 cent property tax.
The Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and the four largest local governments -- McAllen, Mission, Edinburg and Pharr -- would appoint a 10-member board of directors to manage the Healthcare District.
Directors would set policy and make big-picture decisions about how Hidalgo County would provide health care to the poor. They would hire an administrator to handle day-to-day operations.
“The district has full responsibility for operating hospital facilities and providing medical and hospital care for the district's indigent residents,” according to the law.
Voters narrowly rejected a similar district -- called the Hidalgo County Hospital District -- in 2014.
Nearly 52 percent of voters didn't support the district, according to the Elections Department.
State lawmakers tweaked the law in 2015, attempting to address concerns about the tax rate. They also approved a new name: the Hidalgo County Healthcare District. (The Healthcare District is still legally a hospital district.)
The law also allowed any 50 registered voters to submit a petition to place the Healthcare District on the ballot -- allowing supporters to easily force another election.
Backed by a pro-Healthcare District group called the Healthy Hidalgo PAC, supporters submitted the petition in August.
During early voting, residents may cast ballots at permanent locations scattered across Hidalgo County and three mobile polling places.
The mobile polling places will stop at high schools, hospitals, government buildings, banks, churches and other locations.
Controversy over the mobile voting locations centers on what the county calls "Mobile #2."
- Doctors Hospital at Renaissance on Oct. 24 and Oct. 25
- Rio Grande Regional Hospital on Oct. 26
- McAllen Medical Center on Oct. 27.
- Edinburg Regional Medical Center on Oct. 28
- South Texas Behavioral Health on Oct. 31
- Cornerstone Regional Hospital on Oct. 31
- McAllen Heart Hospital on Nov. 1
- Women's Hospital at Renaissance on Nov. 2
- Knapp Medical Center on Nov. 3
- Mission Regional Medical Center on Nov. 4
Mobile polling places at hospitals aren't new.
Hidalgo County sent mobile polling places to hospitals during 2012 and November 2014, when voters narrowly defeated the proposed Hidalgo County Hospital District.
Proponents maintain the mobile voting locations were picked to maximize voter turnout. Hospitals rank among Hidalgo County's largest employers.
Opponents claim the mobile polling places will allow hospitals to manipulate the election by pushing employees to vote. Some believe mobile voting locations at South Texas College campuses helped the community college pass a bond proposal in November 2013.
Many hospitals donated to the Healthy Hidalgo County PAC, which supports the proposed Healthcare District.
- Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, which donated $173,750
- Mission Regional Medical Center, which donated $14,355
- South Texas Health System, which donated $50,000
- Rio Grande Regional Hospital, which donated $45,500
Early voting starts Oct. 24 and stops on Nov. 4.
Election Day is Nov. 8.