Human Services

Brent Earnest

Conversations with lawmakers were a little breezier, and less tension filled the room, when Gov. Susana Martinez’s new human services chief, Brent Earnest, appeared for the first time before the Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday in the seat previously occupied by political lightning rod Sidonie Squier.

But the differences ended there. Earnest vowed to stay the course with the most controversial policies Squier adopted during her tenure heading the Human Services Department.

Earnest said he plans to move ahead with an initiative to require some food benefit recipients to seek work and has no plans to retool the state’s behavioral health system, which some critics have said was thrown unnecessarily into upheaval over allegations of billing fraud by providers that, a year and a half later, are yet to be proven.

“There’s no big policy shift here,” Earnest told The New Mexican following his appearance Wednesday before the Legislative Finance Committee.

Last year, the Martinez administration suddenly stopped Medicaid funding to 15 behavioral health care providers in the state, citing an audit that the Human Services Department determined found credible evidence of billing fraud. A subsequent slow-moving investigation by the Attorney General’s Office has cleared two of the providers of fraud.

Meanwhile, the $24 million the Governor’s Office spent to bring in five replacement providers from Arizona drew more criticisms from legislators when they learned from a story first reported in The New Mexican that company executives billed up to $300 an hour for time spent waiting in airports, among other questionable expenses. At least one of the Arizona companies was paid for work it did preparing for the takeover before the audit of New Mexico providers had even begun. One of the replacement providers recently notified the department that it lost more than $1 million during the past year and is struggling to stay open.

While Earnest inherited this and other politically charged issues from Squier, he brought an ease to interactions with legislators that was absent from their relationship with his predecessor.

Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, warmly welcomed Earnest to his new post during the hearing on Wednesday. He’s a familiar face at New Mexico’s Capitol from more than five years spent on the Legislative Finance Committee staff before joining the Human Services Department as Squier’s deputy.

When Squier announced in early November that she was stepping down effective Dec. 1, Earnest’s name was the first publicly mentioned by lawmakers as her potential successor. Soon afterward, Martinez tapped him as Squier’s replacement.

Earnest’s familiarity with lawmakers could serve him well when he faces confirmation from the Democratically controlled Senate, which has resisted confirming the Republican governor’s education Cabinet secretary-designate, Hanna Skandera, throughout Martinez’s first full term and entertained a no-confidence resolution targeting Squier this year.

Squier would have faced reconfirmation in Martinez’s second term if she hadn’t stepped down. Her relationship with the Legislature was strained and boiled over during a hearing in the aftermath of last year’s behavioral health shake-up when she stormed out of a committee hearing after being grilled about the matter.

“There’s always a measure of tension between the Legislature and the [governor], we realize that,” Earnest said.

And as Martinez’s emissary for Human Services policy, Earnest expects he will be at odds with lawmakers at times.

In particular, Democrats have denounced the governor’s attempts to revive the work requirement for food benefits, and lawmakers from both parties have criticized the abrupt shake-up of behavioral health providers. But Earnest was firm about his intentions to carry on what Squier began on both fronts.

Days before Squier resigned in November, the Human Services Department put off its plans to implement a work requirement for food benefits that had been suspended for five years during the Great Recession. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Southwest Organizing Projects, which advocate for people living in poverty, filed a lawsuit accusing the department of failing to publicly disclose some details of the proposed rule change before adopting it.

The legal challenge prompted the Human Services Department to abandon its plans to implement the requirement and begin the rule-making process anew.

“We think it can be cleaner and we’re making it cleaner,” Earnest said.

But he does not plan to bow to objections that the work requirement is a bad fit for New Mexico, where unemployment and poverty are more rampant than in most states. He said the rule-making process will start again soon with an eye on implementing the work requirement in March or April.

The Human Services Department proposes to require able-bodied food benefit recipients between 16 and 59 years old to work up to 20 hours a week, receive an equal amount of job training or seek work in order to continue getting assistance. Before the rule was suspended in 2009, it applied only to those ages 18 to 50. The proposed rule would also apply to food benefit recipients with children age 6 or older, although they had been exempt from the requirement before it was suspended.

The change could affect the benefits of up to 80,000 people in a state where 1 in 5 residents qualifies for food assistance, the department estimates.

Earnest, echoing Squier’s stance, said he does not regard the requirement as onerous and sees it as a path to long-term employment for food benefit recipients.

Despite outcry from lawmakers representing every corner of the state over disrupted treatment for the mentally ill in the aftermath of last year’s behavioral health shake-up, Earnest said he is reluctant to review whether it should be undone. He said he is hopeful that Attorney General-elect Hector Balderas will make good on his promise to speed up the criminal investigation into the previous behavioral health providers, but the department will not be looking backward to determine whether it acted prudently when it removed them.

“There’s only one way to go,” Earnest said, “and that’s forward.”

Contact Patrick Malone at 986-3017 or pmalone@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @pmalonenm.