From the Roundhouse: Urban-Rural BrawlFebruary 12th, 2014 at 8:02 pm by Alex Goldsmith under N.M. Politics
“I guarantee you there’s going to be a floor fight on this,” a seething Sen. George Munoz, D-Gallup, told his fellow Democrats as he stormed out the door of Senate Public Affairs. “We’re going to drag Bernalillo County and Sandoval back into this if that’s how you want to do this.”
“I don’t respond to threats well Senator,” replied Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.
“That’s not a threat,” Munoz said. “It’s a fact.”
There’s a not-so-quiet, complicated fight that’s dividing the legislature on more than just partisan lines. The battle is also between urban communities and rural communities.
Like many issues, it’s a problem everyone agrees exists, but there’s a lot of contention on how to solve it.
What’s at stake in the fight is the solvency of hospitals across the state of New Mexico. The issue centers around how and who pays for the hospital care of the people who can’t afford to pay for that care themselves.
In the past, counties collected a tax and used that money to get a three to one federal match. Then all of those dollars come back to the county where those taxes were collected, funding paid out to the hospitals to pay for indigent care.
Under the changes that funding system doesn’t work to get that federal match. That means if the legislature does nothing, rural hospitals across the state will take a huge funding hit and many of them will likely have to lay off staff or close altogether.
The state has a solution. They want all counties, except for Bernalillo and Sandoval, to pitch in a 1/8th cent gross receipts tax into a state-managed pool, right around $36 million a year. The state would pay out $9 million from the general fund, and that money would get matched by the feds.
That money would then be distributed to county hospitals based on services provided.
But the key sticking point for counties is the money they pay in isn’t necessarily the money they’ll get out. In fact many counties are worried that the proposal on the table creates winners and losers because some counties get a lot of money back while others get less back than the federal match is for.
Los Alamos County, for example, is projected to get less than 60 cents on the dollar, while Guadalupe County could get more than 15 times what they paid in.
And because they don’t have qualifying hospitals under the program, Valencia, Torrance, Mora, Hidalgo, Harding, DeBaca and Catron counties don’t get a cent back even though they’d have to pay in to the pool. The state says many of those counties had to pay for their indigent populations before anyway and this is just shifting the bill.
As a result, the New Mexico Association of Counties polled its members and found the most support for the counties chipping in a 1/12th cent gross receipts tax, something they think fairly pays for the need.
The state and hospitals don’t like that because it dramatically cuts down on the amount of money that would be raised to pay for indigent care.
That 1/8th vs. 1/12th number is at the center of what made Sen. Munoz so angry. He represents McKinley County which could see its hospital get hit with a seven-figure cut if the 1/12th is passed instead of the 1/8th.
Senate Public Affairs, after a long multi-day battle, moved a bill forward on a party-line vote that would pay the 1/12th instead of the 1/8th. That’s why Sen. Munoz was yelling at his fellow Democrats Wednesday night.
“It’s conduct unbecoming of a senator,” Candelaria said after Munoz stormed out. “I think this committee deserves an apology.”
It’s unclear if they’ll get that apology.
What’s clear is there’s a lot unresolved in a very important, complicated fight, and less than eight days left to do it.
INTERESTING BILL OF THE DAY
HB 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The budget was the big talk of the day Thursday. It remains completely and utterly stuck in the House. Negotiations are continuing and a potential deal seemed to fall apart after some Democrats expressed concerns.
While talks continue, at least from a process perspective, the bill took a step backward in the process. Democrats voted to ship the bill back to HAFC over Republican concerns.
Meanwhile, the Senate has decided not to wait any longer. Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, announced he’s starting the committee process of looking at spending amendments and may even move to pass the budget back to the House.
“We’re dangerously close to running out of time,” Smith said.
The clock is ticking.