Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
BELEN – A long-deferred plan to build a new hospital in Valencia County got a shot in the arm Tuesday, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a bill earmarking $50 million in federal relief funds for hospital construction costs.
The Democrat said she pushed for the funding to be included in a $478 million plan that New Mexico lawmakers approved during a special session that ended last week, adding she would not have signed the legislation if it had been stripped out.
“I said we would get it done; we got it done,” Lujan Grisham said during a bill-signing ceremony Tuesday outside a Belen health care clinic.
Many rural New Mexico hospitals have struggled with staffing and financial issues, which have been exacerbated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A previous hospital in Valencia County closed its doors in the 1990s.
Given that backdrop, the governor said she would push lawmakers during the upcoming 30-day legislative session to create a new state fund to subsidize rural hospitals, especially in their initial years of operation. Such a fund, Lujan Grisham said, would likely require an appropriation of at least $100 million in order for it to be effective.
But financial issues are not the only issue facing hospitals.
Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, who was one of several legislators in attendance at Tuesday’s bill signing ceremony, said many local physicians are approaching retirement age or have already retired.
He also said selecting a site for the new Valencia County acute care hospital could prove a challenging task.
“It’s a game-changer if you can actually get it built,” Baldonado said in an interview.
While the bill approved by lawmakers during the special session that ended last week does not specify the location of the new hospital, Lujan Grisham said Valencia County was particularly well positioned since voters there approved a 2006 mill levy to fund hospital operations.
While the mill levy has expired, the county has about $27 million generated by it that’s in a bank account, Valencia County Commission Chairman Gerard Saiz said Tuesday.
“We need to put that money to beneficial use,” he told the Journal.
Saiz also said the exact location would be determined by whatever health care organization wins a public bidding process to build and run the hospital.
More federal funds
The money to pay for the construction of a new hospital will come from funding the state received under the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Other projects earmarked in the $478 million spending package include road repairs around New Mexico, broadband expansion, affordable housing and improvements to state parks.
Even with the governor signing the bill into law, roughly $724 million of the federal relief dollars remains unspent. Spending decisions about those funds will likely be made during the upcoming 30-day session.
While Lujan Grisham did not use her line-item veto authority to ax any of the proposed projects from the legislation, House Bill 2, she did strike out budget language requiring a local match be provided for funding aimed at providing housing for homeless individuals.
But the governor’s overall approval of the legislative spending plan stood in stark contrast to her April veto of a plan to earmark more than $1 billion of the federal relief funds.
That ultimately led to a legal dispute between the Governor’s Office and a bipartisan group of legislators.
The Supreme Court sided with the lawmakers last month, ruling Lujan Grisham could not spend the money without legislative approval. The Democratic governor then added spending of the funds to the agenda of the special session, which ended Dec. 17.
Going forward, Lujan Grisham cited housing issues, water projects and broadband as areas that could benefit from New Mexico’s unspent federal pandemic relief funds.
She also said she was open to other uses for the federal dollars, including a proposal to build a new college of public health at the University of New Mexico that was shelved during the recent special session.
Commitment to hospital
The governor’s signing of the spending package crafted by the Legislature comes after she vetoed a bill in April that would have authorized funds from the Valencia County mill levy to be redirected, saying in her veto message such a funding shift would be undemocratic.
But Lujan Grisham met in July with health care administrators and elected officials in Valencia County, which has a population of about 76,000 people, and said Tuesday she made a commitment to moving the hospital project forward.
She also cited cases where Valencia County patients have died while being transported to hospitals in Albuquerque.
Richard Madden, a family medicine doctor in Belen, said building a new hospital in the area won’t be easy but could bring big benefits to local residents.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Madden said. “But the patients need this.”