Update at 6:20 p.m .: of note House Bill also includes money for the Dallas project.
AUSTIN – Republican Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound’s proposal to spend Texas’ share of President Joe Biden’s relief program in March would spend $ 237.8 million of federal money to complete the construction of a new state mental hospital in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Nelson on Friday introduced Senate Bill 8, his plan to spend $ 16.3 billion of federal funds destined for Texas in the American Rescue Plan Act. This is SB 8 of the third extraordinary session of the year, not to be confused with the embryonic heartbeat bill on abortion of the ordinary session.
If it does make it to the Dallas hospital, state lawmakers this year will have put forward $ 282.5 million, 84 percent of which is federal money, for the much-sought-after project.
The state Health and Human Services Commission, which oversees state mental hospitals, will oversee the hospital and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center will operate it.
“UT Southwestern greatly appreciates the recognition of the need to accelerate funding for this important project in partnership with HHSC,” said spokesperson Russell Rian in a written statement. “A Dallas State Mental Hospital is essential to improving our ability to provide care to those in need of mental health services in North Texas. “
Late Friday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Greg Bonnen R-Friendswood tabled a similar measure, House Bill 2. It would also give $ 237.8 million in federal funds to the Dallas project.
As expected, the two bills would spend $ 7.2 billion, or 44%, of federal stimulus money to replenish the state’s UI trust fund.
With unemployment skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fund’s balance has disappeared. Texas employers are worried about the arrival of an unprecedented increase in unemployment taxes. After the economic downturn of 2007-2009, Texas employer tax rates doubled. Throughout the year, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Speaker of the Senate, has pledged to use federal relief money to help prevent higher taxes on unemployment funds.
Nelson also offered to spend $ 3.7 billion of federal funds, on behalf of the pandemic response, to free up discretionary state dollars used for salaries and benefits for prison guards and soldiers. That would further close a state surplus of $ 6 billion for the current two-year budget cycle predicted by Comptroller Glenn Hegar.
Nelson would also use $ 3 billion for back-up medical staff in hospitals criticized by COVID-19 and to provide therapy to those infected with the virus; $ 500 million each on higher education construction projects and broadband expansion; $ 300 million for a “state operations center” to help the state respond to disasters; and $ 286 million to cover COVID-related health claims for retired teachers.
But the next biggest allocation in SB 8 would be the nearly $ 240 million for the completion of a state mental hospital in Dallas.
“COVID-19 has impacted Texas on many fronts, and this bill takes a holistic approach to address a wide range of needs that emerged during the pandemic,” Nelson said in a written statement.
Referring to the Dallas Psychiatric Hospital and a program that provides mental health treatment to young people, which is said to get $ 113 million from its bill, Nelson said the measure “expands access to mental health care.” .
For years, the Parkland Memorial Hospital, citing a severe shortage of psychiatric beds, advocated the construction of a new public psychiatric hospital.
“We are delighted that Senator Nelson has included funding in his bill for a state-funded mental hospital in Dallas,” said Katherine Yoder, vice president of government relations at Parkland Health & Hospital System. “This is a critical need in our region and it will truly benefit the lives of many Parkland patients. “
In a letter to Senate Budget writers Thursday, Dallas Regional Chamber President Dale Petroskey, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and Jon Roth, chief executive of the Dallas County Medical Society, noted that Dallas “remains the largest metropolitan service area in the state without a psychiatrist. health hospital.
The project enjoys broad local support and UT Southwestern has “one of the largest psychiatry residency programs in the country,” they noted.
In 2014, CannonDesign, an independent architectural and engineering design firm, discovered that Texas needed to fully replace five aging public hospitals and add 1,100 inpatient psychiatric beds over the next 10 years.
In 2017, the legislature launched a multi-year effort to renovate, replace and build new public psychiatric hospitals.
Since then, lawmakers have spent over $ 1 billion to build a new UTHealth Behavioral Science Center in Houston; new mental hospitals on existing campuses in San Antonio and Austin, replacing aging facilities; and improvements to existing public hospitals in Rusk and Kerrville.
Much to the irritation of some Dallas city leaders, however, the Dallas-Fort Worth area not only lacked an existing public hospital – the closest is in Terrell – but was rejected by legislative budget drafters, even for relatively small amounts of money requested for “pre-planning”.
The CannonDesign study had named “the Waco / Dallas / Arlington corridor” as one of the “three potentially underserved areas” in the state.
Business and civic leaders said they could not understand the failure of the North Texas legislative delegation to wrest part of the funds to build a mental hospital that would be located more centrally in the larger center. urban state.
Last May, lawmakers passed a two-year budget that included $ 44.7 million for the planning, design and purchase of land for the new Dallas State Hospital.
After the budget was signed, the Committee on Health and Human Services said advancing the Dallas hospital was a priority.
“There is a critical need for additional inpatient mental health services in the Dallas area and we are excited to be working with UT Southwestern on this project to design a state-of-the-art hospital that meets the mental health needs of the community. . HHS Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young said in a written statement. “A new hospital will have a major impact on our ability to provide care to the most vulnerable Texans living in the surrounding Metroplex.”
Nelson, who heads the finance committee responsible for drafting the budget and is retiring from the Senate after nearly 30 years of service, was also brimming with optimism.
“A new public hospital will be a game changer for our region,” said Nelson.