Hospital District Vote Brings Heavy Momentum

Hospital district proponents refuse to count their chickens just yet

Nobody likes to predict openly the outcome of an election that hinges on a tax question, but by now it's safe to assume that the proposed Travis Co. Hospital District has a better than 50-50 chance of winning on May 15.

There are several factors weighing in the proposal's favor: Voter turnout will be its usual low self in the lull between the March primary and the general election in November, just about every major organization in town has gotten behind the effort, and the campaign is close to topping its $480,000 fundraising goal.

Nevertheless, Travis Co. Probate Judge Guy Herman, the plan's most enthusiastic proponent, is spending weekends and evenings pounding dozens of signs into the ground and telling everyone he knows to vote "Yes." His personal issue has always been the county's dearth of available psychiatric beds for mental health patients he sees in court – he frequently ends up diverting them to another public facility, miles from home. Moreover, because the county has virtually no emergency psychiatric facility, those in need often end up in jail.

A hospital district, Herman says, would be better able to direct funding toward the county's health care shortcomings. If voters approve the measure, a single taxing authority would be created to oversee planning and funding of the county's public health network, bringing the city's Brackenridge, Children's, and Women's hospitals, along with the city-county health clinics, under the purview of a district board. The district would establish a uniform tax system countywide, with county residents paying what city residents already pay now – 7.3 cents per $100 of property valuation – toward public health care services.

Opposition to the proposed district has organized as the modestly funded Save Our Taxpayers, largely composed of people who call themselves "Ron Paul Republicans," after the free-enterprising, anti-taxing Texas congressman. (And this week, the Travis Co. Republican Party and El Concilio were in rare agreement, with both groups coming out against the district.) The SOT literature reads like a page of Paul's own rhetoric: Why set the vote for a time when few will go to the polls? Why aren't existing funding mechanisms enough already? Why isn't the hospital district board accountable to voters? Why should voters prioritize this above their own needs? The doubts may appeal to the relatively few voters who are solely county residents, but even anti-tax city of Austin residents are likely to respond, "Why shouldn't those who share the benefits of local health care also share the costs?"

These are also the kinds of questions that Navigant Consulting, the outfit hired by the city to assess the proposed district, says needs to be addressed as a form of continuing education after the district gets under way, assuming voters approve. The Navigant study says that the general public is still relatively unaware of the local health care landscape, which the consultants project will include 210,526 uninsured residents and 111,480 people living at or below the poverty level by the time the district would begin operations in 2005. To keep the district running on more than its $77.7 million budget the first year, Navigant also recommends an ongoing campaign to raise additional dollars through fundraising events and public education.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

hospital district, Probate Judge Guy Herman, Children's, Brackenridge, Women's, Navigant Consulting, Save Our Taxpayers

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