Legislation that seeks to address this priority is now moving forward to the Texas House floor after receiving unanimous approval from the Committee on County Affairs.
House Bill (HB) 492 by Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) works as enabling legislation for a law passed last session; the new bill creates a board that governs a new hospital facility jointly controlled by the Ector and Midland County Hospital Districts.
The new “Permian Basin Behavioral Center” will be located between Midland and Odessa, providing health care services to both communities and the region.
Last session, lawmakers passed legislation that appropriated $40 million in state funds for the construction of the hospital. There is also a philanthropic effort to raise the remaining amount needed for the construction, estimated to top out at $120 million.
Among those working on the project is the Permian Strategic Partnership (PSP), a non-profit founded by leading oil and gas companies to improve quality of life issues for the energy communities of the Permian Basin.
In an interview with The Texan last year, PSP CEO Tracy Bentley said that a study commissioned by the group determined the region suffered from a lack of mental health resources and that PSP was very excited about Craddick’s legislation, describing it as a priority.
How Craddick’s Legislation Works
HB 492 allows for both local hospital districts to create or disband the joint hospital district. It will be governed by a six-member volunteer board serving staggered two-year terms, with three members each appointed by the elected boards of Midland and Ector counties.
The joint board will select one member from among their own ranks to act as the presiding chair and cast a double vote in the case of ties.
The duties of the board are to simply manage the mental health hospital once the Texas Facilities Commission (TFC) is finished constructing it.
Disagreement Over the Need for Craddick’s Bill
Publically, both hospitals, as well as the state representatives for their districts, have been ardent supporters of the project. But behind the scenes at the Capitol, concerns have surfaced that jeopardized support for Craddick’s enabling legislation.
Rep. Brooks Landgraf (R-Odessa), whose district includes Ector County, has reportedly been concerned that Craddick’s bill is unnecessary, a sentiment his office confirmed in a statement to The Texan.
“Chairman Landgraf knows that the Permian Basin is in desperate need of mental health services, which is why he successfully fought as state representative in 2021 to secure $40 million to construct a Permian Basin Behavioral Health Center to serve the region,” the statement from Landgraf’s office says.
The statement then turns toward Craddick’s bill, taking a direct poke at the legislation.
“Chairman Landgraf also knows that mental health is addressed by adding providers and clinical space, not by adding bureaucracy,” the statement reads. “According to the Texas Facilities Commission, HB 492 is not necessary for the Permian Basin Behavioral Health Center project to move forward.”
On Wednesday, when the committee received public testimony on the bill, three members of the Ector County Hospital District, known as Medical Center Hospital (MCH), came to Austin to review and testify on the bill, including CEO Russell Tippin and elected board members Wallace Dunn and Don Hallmark.
After a meeting with Landgraf, Dunn said the trio consented to allow Landgraf to change their testimony positions to “opposed.” One of the primary concerns was that the creation of the new district would constitute unneeded bureaucracy, as Landgraf described in his statement.
After leaving Landgraf’s office, the MCH officials went to the committee hearing, where after Craddick laid the bill out, the three declined to testify, rising to state they “yield their time,” and declined to state a position. Meanwhile, according to records obtained by The Texan, Landgraf’s office was in contact with the committee staff, making multiple attempts to change his constituents’ positions in the record to show them as against the bill. However, by failing to announce their intent to change their positions, the committee records reflected how they originally registered on the bill prior to meeting with Landgraf, with Dunn and Hallmark being shown “for” and Tippin being shown “on.”
When the committee called upon Steven Foster, the general counsel for the TFC, to testify on the bill, Rep. Lynn Stucky (R-Denton) asked point blank whether the new district is necessary for the TFC to transfer the building over to its new owners.
Foster avoided giving a direct answer. “Mr. Vice Chair, we are going to build it, whatever the will of the Legislature is from our position in the executive branch we will do what is asked. So, we have no opinion on that.”
In his closing remarks, Craddick zeroed in on this question, pointing to both the Texas Constitution and the existing statute that appropriated the funds last session as the reasons the bill is needed.
“[T]he answer is, we do need this,” Craddick said, adding, “If we don’t pass this bill, then we have no way to transfer the dollars that were state-given to a state facility. And so without this bill, I guess the facility commission is going to own a hospital.”
The original legislation that appropriated the funds last session, Senate Bill (SB) 8, requires the TFC to transfer ownership of the completed building to an entity that is jointly controlled by both county hospital districts.
The Texan contacted the TFC to ask, if Craddick’s bill fails to pass, whether there is an existing entity under the current laws that would qualify to receive the building once complete.
In response, a spokesperson for the TFC pointed to Foster’s testimony in the House committee, reiterating they have “no opinion,” and ended by saying they will continue to work on delivering the construction project and adhere to SB 8.
While Landgraf’s office claims the TFC has determined Craddick’s bill is not necessary for the project to move forward, TFC officials have now twice, both in sworn testimony before the House and in their statement to The Texan, maintained they have no opinion.
Support From Both Hospital Districts is to Be Determined
Midland Memorial Hospital CEO Russell Myers testified in support of the bill last week, saying, “We are very honored to have the opportunity to build this facility along with our colleagues in Ector County, with a portion of the funding coming from the state that made this whole thing possible. It is important to get this thing done so that we can complete the circle.”
The MCH board, however, presently has mixed opinions on the matter and has opted to discuss the issue and consider passing a resolution regarding their position during this Friday’s board meeting.
MCH Board Member Wallace Dunn told The Texan, “There is no doubt we absolutely need to build this new mental health facility. There is an overwhelming need for both inpatient and outpatient mental health services within the Permian Basin region.”
Dunn elaborated on the initial concern about the bill and how he now supports the joint venture, saying, “My concern on this bill was that if it was not absolutely necessary, then why create a new layer of government? I fully support the building of the new facility and look forward to working with our partners at MMH on this joint venture.”
While the claims regarding the necessity of Craddick’s bill remain unsubstantiated, Landgraf’s office has acknowledged the hospital is desperately needed for the region, noting his position on the bill will align with his constituent hospital’s position.
“Chairman Landgraf will continue to work with the leadership at the Ector County Hospital District, and his work on HB 492 will continue to reflect the position of the Ector County Hospital District,” Landgraf’s office wrote in a statement.
With the final witness records showing that neither hospital opposed it, the bill cleared the House committee with unanimous support on Thursday and now heads to the House floor for consideration.
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Matt Stringer is a reporter for The Texan who writes about all things government, politics, and public policy. He graduated from Odessa College with an Associate Degree in Paralegal Studies and a Bachelor’s Degree in Management and Leadership. In his free time, you will find him in the great outdoors, usually in the Davis Mountains and Big Bend region of Southwest Texas.