It was 1988 when a woman named Debra Hatten-Gonzales sued the New Mexico Human Services Department for allegedly mishandling Medicaid and food stamp processing. In 1990 the state accepted a federal consent decree agreeing to reform itself.
A recent ruling by Federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza started a process which will install a special master to monitor HSD’s administration of food and medical assistance programs in the state.
The special master will report to the Judge, not, as the department had asked, to it, and if the special master can’t get the department to live up to its legal obligations by the end of next year, it will go into receivership and run be run directly by a Federal appointee.
The Department says its delighted to have the Special Master’s help, but Judge Garza noted that it was “troubling” that HSD agreed to this only after not just decades of non-performance, but years of legal squabbling, including by her count, “over  hours of status conferences, over  pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, [and] three days of evidentiary hearings” during which HSD employees said their bosses had ordered them to add non-existent assets to some applications to hide the state’s failure to deal with them in a timely manner. The net result of that cribbing, the employees testified, was to deny SNAP benefits, food stamps, to eligible applicants, leaving them, and often their children hungry.
Asked about this practice at another hearing, HSD managers invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 100 times, saying they couldn’t answer without risking criminal liability.
When HSD wasn’t being mean to some poor people, it was letting others enrich themselves through thousands of dollars of overpayments of benefits that, in the words of the Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board, “recipients [tried] to sell in retailers’ parking lots.”
As the Journal editorial put it most gently, “this multibillion-dollar program is not being operated as taxpayers intended.”
A Federal Agriculture Department executive was more blunt, telling Congress, ““New Mexico is probably the most fouled-up SNAP system in the United States right now and has been for years.”
New Mexico’s SNAP program provides $57 million in food stamps every month – to 469,355 recipients. Again quoting the Albuquerque Journal, “It is unclear how many of those dollars got to the right people.”
Joey Peters is a senior reporter at the NM Political Report.