by Bill Jordan
February 11, 2015
Our legislators have a lot of important decision to make, such as how to divvy up the money that pays for services like education, public health, and our court system. That is why they have expert staff members to advise them. For example, the Legislative Finance Committee, which is tasked with creating the annual budget as well as recommending changes to the tax system, has a full-time staff that works year-round. These staff members are available to do things like study emerging issues, analyze best practices, write reports, and make recommendations. Without these services the committee’s work would be much more difficult and the results would be less reliable. The Legislative Education Study Committee, which oversees our state’s educational systems from kindergarten to college, also has a full-time, year-round staff.
But the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee (LHHS), which has a very full plate of very big responsibilities, has very few staff members who work just part of the year. Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino has sponsored SB 41, which would provide the committee with full-time, year-round staff. This makes good sense for a number of reasons:
- The health and human services programs are the fastest growing parts of the state general fund budget. In fact, the fiscal impact report for SB 41 estimates that nearly one-third of the annual state operating budget goes to health, hospitals, and human services needs.
- The LHHS has one of the largest work plans of any interim committee. They are tasked with:
- Oversight of Medicaid and the Human Services Department, the NM Health Insurance Exchange, tribal health programs, state health care purchasing, prescription drug initiatives, SNAP, nutrition, obesity, and hunger programs, homelessness, and TANF;
- Oversight of the Children, Youth and Families Department, including child abuse and neglect, early childhood programs and juvenile justice programs (in tandem with the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee);
- Oversight of the Department of Health, public health, health care workforce issues, and health infrastructure issues;
- Oversight of the Department of Aging and Long Term Care;
- Oversight of services like maternal and infant mental health, behavioral health treatment for mental illness and substance abuse, including health care in the corrections system, services for sexually exploited minors, and grandparents as caregivers;
- The continuing work of the J. Paul Taylor Early Childhood Task Force; and
- The work of two subcommittees: Behavioral Health, and Disabilities Concerns.
Expanding the LHHS would mean the committee could meet for a few extra months in the spring, allowing it to do more of the important work it is tasked to do.
Expanding the LHHS would mean that the committee would have staff analysts to study and recommend evidence-based solutions for many of our social problems.
Health care reform has dominated the work of the LHHS for several years, crowding out other aspects of their work plan.
The Welfare Reform Oversight Committee has been disbanded and their work has been transferred to the LHHS.
Perhaps the most important reason, is that even though nearly every indicator of child well-being has New Mexico at or near the bottom, no single legislative committee is charged with studying and recommending initiatives to improve our ranking. The executive branch has not come forward with a plan, the Children’s Cabinet is currently either inactive or ineffective, and the Legislature as a whole failed to act on a proposed Children’s Council. The LHHS is the obvious body to do the work, but only if it has the resources to carry it out. SB 41 asks to reallocate existing funds and does not increase costs in any way.
If our elected leaders are serious about improving the outcomes for our children, addressing poverty and income inequality, and improving our quality of life in order to increase economic development, then they should empower the LHHS to do this important work.
Bill Jordan is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices for Children. Reach him at email@example.com.