Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Just over six months since taking office, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her administration is working to rebuild New Mexico state agencies battered in recent years by budget cuts and high vacancy rates.
Surrounded by her Cabinet members at a news conference in the Roundhouse, the first-term Democratic governor also said during a “progress report” that departments are working to settle several long-running lawsuits that have cost the state millions of dollars.
That includes reaching settlement agreements with three nonprofit behavioral health providers affected by a 2013 Medicaid funding freeze.
The three providers – Valencia County Counseling Services, The Counseling Center and Hogares – were among 15 mental health nonprofits that had their Medicaid funding shut off by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, due to allegations of potential overbilling and fraud.
Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office eventually cleared all 15 of the providers of any wrongdoing following investigations, but many were driven out of the behavioral health business.
Under the terms of the recent settlement agreements, the state will pay the three providers a total of nearly $2.7 million, while the providers will pay the state roughly $191,000, according to copies of the agreements obtained by the Journal. At least one of the providers will also be able to apply to the state for a reinstatement of its Medicaid provider number.
While the settlements put an end to the three providers’ legal action against the state, several other behavioral health nonprofits still have active claims under a consolidated lawsuit pending in the Santa Fe-based First Judicial District.
“We are encouraged by the progress made to resolve these cases, and we believe that these settlements are in the best interest of New Mexico and our behavioral health network,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Tuesday.
Lujan Grisham said the disruption to New Mexico’s mental health system caused by the shake-up has had ripple effects on numerous families and businesses.
“Quite frankly, it’s created such deep holes in the other health care delivery systems in Medicaid … that in fact it’s raised the cost in the private market for health care,” the governor said.
Since taking office Jan. 1, Lujan Grisham has signed into law bills increasing New Mexico’s minimum wage, expanding background check requirements for gun sales and more than doubling the state’s annual spending cap on a popular film incentive program.
The governor said Tuesday her administration is working to restore the credibility of state government with New Mexicans, after Martinez, a Republican, downsized state government during her eight years in office.
The overall state government vacancy rate was 22 percent as of January, though some agencies had vacancy rates in excess of 40 percent. At least some departments have seen those rates go down in recent months after hiring sprees.
“What we inherited was a 5,000 complicated piece puzzle with most of the pieces missing,” Lujan Grisham said. “Instead of trying to navigate that, we are just getting a new puzzle. We are creating a brand new baseline and a brand new set of expectations.”
However, some Republican lawmakers have criticized the governor for pushing an agenda that they say is out of step with rural New Mexico.
House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, said he’s been disappointed that Lujan Grisham has not shown more of a willingness to work with minority Republicans, while also criticizing legislation dealing with new renewable energy standards.
“I think her first six months have missed the mark with the vast majority of New Mexicans,” Townsend told the Journal.
But Lujan Grisham rejected the criticism, suggesting it comes from lawmakers who hold fundamentally different views about the role of government.
She also said she will hold a series of town hall meetings with Cabinet members around the state in the coming months, adding, “We are bringing government back to the people.”
Boom in oil money
The Lujan Grisham administration has also benefited from an unprecedented state revenue increase due primarily to an oil drilling boom in southeast New Mexico.
A $7 billion budget bill signed into law by Lujan Grisham in April that took effect this month authorizes a state spending increase of $663 million – or roughly 11 percent – over last year’s levels.
While some lawmakers have expressed uneasiness about the rapid spending growth, the governor said her administration plans to diversify the state’s economy in order to reduce a longstanding reliance on the oil and natural gas industries, which are a historically volatile revenue source.
Among other initiatives, Lujan Grisham cited the potential economic benefits of hemp, which was legalized nationally in December and is now being regulated by the state.
Hemp, a relative of marijuana, can be used to make food, fabric and biofuels. It also contains cannabidiol – more commonly known as CBD – for medical, health and beauty products.
Already, there are 5,700 acres of licensed hemp production in New Mexico, which is only slightly less than the total statewide acreage of licensed chile production, Environment Secretary James Kenney said Tuesday.
With three-plus years still remaining on the four-year term she was elected to last year, Lujan Grisham said more work must be done to make New Mexico more economically competitive and to address chronically high poverty rates.
“We have a long way to go,” Lujan Grisham said. “Good government means you’re never done.”