The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty responds to Trump’s proposed cuts to food assistance

ALBUQUERQUE, NM—The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty condemns President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal that slashes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, by $213 billion. The proposal would replace SNAP food dollars for households receiving over $90 a month in benefits with a shelf stable box of foods. With the proposed 30 percent cut to the program over the next ten years, New Mexico would also stand to lose $207.9 million to the state economy.

The following quote can be attributed to New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty Managing Attorney Sovereign Hager:

“In New Mexico and in our country, we have a shared commitment to make sure that no one in our community goes hungry. It is shocking that this administration would propose a shameful budget that would literally take food off the table for our children and families. The cuts would have an outsized impact on our state where one in four New Mexicans participate in SNAP, including 40 percent of our kids. The cuts to these food benefits would not only mean that more New Mexicans won’t have enough to eat, they would also increase poverty and inequality and make it harder to succeed in today’s economy.

“By any measure, the SNAP program has been a huge success. It’s long been our first line of defense against hunger and has other positive economic and health outcomes. Research shows SNAP contributes positively to children’s brain development, and children who participate in SNAP are healthier, do better in school, and have increased earnings over time. SNAP also greatly contributes to our local economy through an exemplary public-private partnership. SNAP dollars are spent in local food retailers across New Mexico contributing hundreds of millions in economic activity.

“What’s more, the proposed replacement of electronic benefit cards with government-issued canned food strips people of the basic dignity of being able to buy their own groceries just like everybody else. Rather than shaming people, the government should be shoring up the SNAP program to make sure that our neighbors and families all have enough to eat. What this administration seems to be doing instead is suggesting that children, the elderly, and disabled people should fund tax cuts for the wealthy. Our members of Congress should reject this indefensible proposal.”

For more information on SNAP in New Mexico, go to: http://nmpovertylaw.org/proposed-budget-will-increase-hunger-and-inequality-in-nm-february-2018/

Groups sue MVD for denying non-REAL ID licenses & ID cards to eligible New Mexicans

SANTA FE, NM – Today, civil rights groups and homeless advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department (TRD) and the Motor Vehicles Division (MVD) on behalf of New Mexicans who were illegally denied Driver’s Authorizations Cards (DACs) and non-REAL ID identification cards, charging that the state has failed to fully and correctly implement its two-tiered driver’s license law.

The requirement of unnecessary documentation for DAC’s and non-federally compliant ID cards has caused chaos at local MVDs and major confusion and frustration for applicants across New Mexico. The lawsuit challenges MVD’s onerous and illegal regulations governing the issuance of non-REAL ID licenses and identification cards, including the illegal practices of requiring proof of identification number and not providing adequate due process to applicants who are denied.

The lead plaintiff, Santa Fe’s former Mayor David Coss, was denied a DAC four times at his local MVD because he lost his social security card, which is not a requirement under the law.  Coss, whose long-held driver’s license has since expired, was also not provided an adequate process to appeal the denial.

“A driver’s license and ID card are not luxuries,” said Coss at Monday’s press conference. “I’m the primary childcare provider to my toddler grandchildren, and I drive them around town. I’m also the guardian of my 86-year-old father who suffered a stroke last year. I need my license to carry out my daily responsibilities. I followed the law and took my paperwork into MVD before my license expired but was turned away every time. I know I’m not the only New Mexican dealing with this nightmare.”

Individual plaintiffs denied licenses and ID cards are joined by organizational plaintiffs, New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness, and Somos Un Pueblo Unido (Somos) in the lawsuit. David Urias of Freedman Boyd Hollander Goldberg Urias & Ward, P.A. is the lead counsel on the legal team that includes attorneys from Somos, ACLU-NM, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The plaintiffs include senior citizen, immigrant, and homeless individuals who need a license or ID to go to work or school, obtain housing, medical care or other necessities, but were illegally denied an MVD credential without written notice detailing the reasons for the denial or information about how to appeal it.

“It is quite common for people to lose their ID and other paperwork when they become homeless,” said Hank Hughes, executive director of New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “Getting a new ID is essential for them as they get back on their feet. You cannot rent an apartment or even a motel room without an ID. We are asking MVD to follow the law and make it possible for people to replace lost or stolen IDs quickly.”

In 2016, Republican and Democratic legislators came together and created a two-tiered driver’s license system that gives New Mexicans the choice to opt in or out of the federal REAL ID Act. According to the law, the state must provide a REAL ID-compliant license or ID card to eligible residents who want it and can meet the federal government’s onerous requirements. An alternative non-REAL ID license or ID card for otherwise eligible applicants who do not meet the federal requirements or simply do not want a REAL ID, must also be made available.

“REAL ID was always a bad idea,” said Peter Simonson, executive director of ACLU-NM.  “The spirit of the 2016 bipartisan fix is not being honored. The Legislature understood just how difficult getting a REAL ID license would be for many New Mexicans. That is why legislators worked hard to ensure people had an alternative, especially vulnerable New Mexicans like people experiencing homelessness, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants, senior citizens and people living in in rural communities.”

“After a protracted six-year battle on driver’s licenses, the New Mexico Legislature voted to create an alternative to the REAL ID Act for all New Mexicans, not just immigrants,” said Marcela Díaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. “For over a year, we worked with allied groups throughout the state to educate the public about its rights and advocate for a better process at MVD. Everyone has done their job except this administration. Our goal with this lawsuit is to help resolve these issues quickly for all New Mexicans.”

“An identification card is a basic necessity to function in everyday life, but the MVD is illegally requiring unnecessary and overly burdensome documentation that most folks simply cannot come up with. The harm caused by the illegal requirements is compounded by the MVD’s failure to provide a way for New Mexicans to challenge an erroneous denial of driver’s license or ID card.” said Sovereign Hager, supervising attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The MVD should follow the law rather than wrecking the lives of people who need an ID to drive, support their families, and find housing.”

The defendants in the lawsuit are the TRD, acting Cabinet Secretary John Monforte, MVD, and acting director Alicia Ortiz.

Click here to view a copy of the complaint: http://nmpovertylaw.org/coss-v-monforte-january-2018/

Click here to view plaintif profiles: http://nmpovertylaw.org/plaintiff-stories-coss-v-manforte-lawsuit/

Breaking down barriers to child care assistance

by Maria Griego & Sovereign Hager

One often insurmountable barrier to financial security for many New Mexican families is the high cost of child care, this is especially true for low-wage workers. The astronomical costs prevent thousands of families with children from accessing meaningful work and educational opportunities. Unfortunately, while the number of New Mexicans who qualify for state-provided child care assistance has increased, enrollment in the program has actually declined.

We dug into the problem and found that the Children, Youth and Families Department required families to go through a torturous child care assistance enrollment process. Families automatically eligible for child care assistance because they engage in work and educational activities through our state cash assistance program (TANF) were forced to visit multiple offices to turn in unnecessary paperwork. Many families lack reliable transportation, and the frequent office visits interfered with work and school schedules, making it impossible for them to complete the process.

We also found that CYFD sent confusing and threatening letters to participating families in an attempt to illegally recoup erroneous prior overpayments of child care benefits. The letters demanded clients return money within 15 days or have their balance sent to collections. Unpaid overpayments can bar families from the child care assistance program. Families eligible for assistance often live from paycheck to paycheck and unexpected bills can cause financial distress and bankruptcy.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty reached out to CYFD and informed them that the requests for back payment were illegal. We also offered to help streamline their administrative processes to improve access to the child care assistance program, especially for the lowest income families that are automatically eligible.

CYFD agreed to stop sending the letters and accepted our proposal to drastically simplify the application process. The state also issued regulations that established a clear time frame for processing applications so families do not have to wait indefinitely for benefits if they are eligible. Since these changes were implemented, nearly $24,000 has been returned to families who were illegally changed for prior over payments and there has been a 39 percent increase in enrollment of the families already enrolled in TANF.

While this is great progress there are still far fewer people enrolled in the program than who are eligible. There’s much more work to be done. Families are still required to turn in in unnecessary paperwork and have difficulty in the application process because notices that families receive are not translated into Spanish.  Families are not informed about their right to appeal a denial of benefits.

Find out if you’re eligible for child care assistance and learn how to apply here. You can find information in Spanish here. Please spread the word!

Photo credit: freeABQimages.com

 

Federal Court Hearing on HSD Compliance with Orders to Remove Barriers to Food and Medical Assistance on Wednesday, November 29

LAS CRUCES, NM— On Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., in U.S. District Court in Las Cruces, Judge Kenneth Gonzales will hear an update on the New Mexico Human Services Department’s compliance with multiple court orders to timely and accurately provide food and medical assistance to eligible families.

Last year, Judge Gonzales held the HSD secretary in contempt for failing to remove barriers to assistance for eligible families and appointed a Special Master to monitor and make recommendations to the department. The Special Master recommended that HSD cease any program changes not required by federal law and that the department make changes in its management.

Despite the court orders and Special Master’s recommendations, HSD continues to improperly deny eligible New Mexicans food and medical assistance–in November of 2017, HSD had a backlog of over 17,000 unprocessed SNAP and Medicaid cases. The department has also failed to make any management changes and is proposing large-scale changes to the Medicaid program, including charging premiums and Medicaid co-pays, that are not required by federal law.

WHAT:
U.S District Court status conference on HSD compliance with court orders in Deborah Hatten Gonzales v. Brent Earnest, No. 88-385 KG/CG

WHEN:
Wednesday, November 29, 2017 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE:
United States Courthouse
4th Floor, North Tower, Mimbres Courtroom
100 N. Church Street
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88001

WHO:
New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorneys
HSD Secretary and Attorneys

URGENT! Tell Steve Pearce to Protect Federal Food Assistance!

This Thursday Congress is expected to vote on the FY 2018 House Budget Resolution, which contains harsh cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps and other poverty reduction programs. SNAP has been instrumental in helping struggling families put food on the table. But the plan envisions a total SNAP cut of $150 billion (more than 20 percent) over ten years.

If implemented, the resolution would pull the rug out beneath 464,102 New Mexicans who participate in the program, including 199,286 children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, while the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations would get huge tax cuts.

As New Mexico’s Most Important Anti-Hunger Program, SNAP:

  • Improves the Health of Young Children – Nearly half (46%) of New Mexican children under age four rely on SNAP benefits to eat.  SNAP is proven to increase health and learning outcomes in young children by supporting brain development through adequate nutrition.
  • Supports Working Families – SNAP supports working New Mexicans.  Half of New Mexico SNAP participants are in working families. SNAP is also a critical support as New Mexico continues to have an unemployment rate that is significantly higher than the national average.
  • Boosts New Mexico’s Economy – SNAP benefits pumped $693 million dollars in the New Mexico economy. Every dollar of federal SNAP benefits spent in New Mexico generates $1.70 in economic activity.

Please call Representative Steve Pearce TODAY and urge him to oppose the house budget reconciliation.

Representatives Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Lujan are working hard to protect funding for SNAP. However, we need to make sure Representative Steve Pearce takes action to protect this critical program.

Call Representative Steve Pearce at his Washington D.C. office: (202) 225-2365.

ACTION ALERT: Call Governor Now to Prevent Budget Cuts

Your action is needed urgently –   the House and Senate just sent a tax package today to Governor Martinez to help avert more deep budget cuts that would further slash funding for our schools, healthcare and public safety agencies. New Mexico is facing school closures and further reduction to classrooms and teachers, the elimination of certain Medicaid services for low-income families and people with disabilities, and a worsening public safety crisis from under-resourcing our courts and other key agencies.

House Bill 202 makes responsible and overdue changes to the tax code, including to level the playing field for small businesses by taxing out of state internet sellers, close up tax loopholes for certain industries, and update the gas tax so the funds can be invested into our roads.

Please call the Governor’s office at 505-476-2200. Ask her to sign HB202, and not to veto any part of it. Let her know that New Mexicans will not accept more budget cuts and that you support this tax package as a fair solution that does not hurt our families.  It will only take a minute to leave a message.

Judge Holds NM Human Services Chief in Contempt

human-services-departmentOriginally published in the Albuquerque Journal September 28, 2016
https://www.abqjournal.com/854783/judge-finds-contempt-in-hsd-legal-case.html

SANTA FE – A federal judge held New Mexico’s top human services official in contempt Tuesday for failing to comply with court orders aimed at improving the administration of food aid and Medicaid health care benefits.

The contempt order against Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest by U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales upheld findings that the cabinet secretary did not diligently attempt to comply with court orders concerning the handling of Medicaid benefit renewals, eligibility for immigrants, training for agency employees and other administrative requirements.

The judge, in his Tuesday order, also said objections filed by the agency were without merit and that the overall direction of the case was troubling.

“It remains clear that HSD and its officials have failed to exercise the leadership, control and managerial oversight to effectively come into compliance with the court orders,” Gonzales wrote.

However, a spokesman for the Human Services Department, which runs the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, took issue with at least part of the judge’s order.

“We strongly disagree with the judge’s characterization of the department, which doesn’t take into account all of our efforts to resolve long-standing issues – some of which are three decades old and occurred under several administrations,” HSD spokesman Kyler Nerison said. “However, we are pleased that the court has agreed with us to bring in an outside monitor to help resolve those issues.”

“Regardless, we are going to continue providing services to New Mexicans who need it the most,” he added.

The contempt finding accompanies the judge’s earlier approval of plans for a court-appointed special master to help ensure federally funded benefits are administered properly amid internal investigations by state and federal agencies into allegations that food aid applications were falsified.

The civil contempt order carries no additional sanctions or penalties.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and advocate for aid beneficiaries in the litigation, said the order sends a strong message nonetheless.

“I think this is a message that if things don’t work out with a special master and the state doesn’t come into compliance, the court will look to harsher remedies,” she said.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and there were more than 536,000 New Mexicans receiving food assistance benefits under SNAP, which was formerly known as food stamps, as of July, according to HSD. That figure was up by more than 7 percent – or nearly 36,000 people – from a year earlier.

The judge’s contempt order is the latest twist in a 1988 lawsuit. Earlier this year, a series of hearings were conducted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza, who had been tasked with monitoring compliance with a consent decree in the lawsuit and previous court orders.

Those hearings showed potential problems with the SNAP program, including testimony that state intake workers had been ordered to falsify income for some applicants, effectively denying them emergency benefits.

The testimony prompted criticism of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration by top legislative Democrats and party officials, including a call from Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the chairman of the interim Health and Human Services Committee, for Earnest to resign.

Earnest took over as HSD secretary – after Martinez picked him for the job – in December 2014 after the agency’s former secretary stepped down.

Read the Order from Judge Gonzales here.

Editorial: Shortchanging the Poor

Republished from the Las Vegas Optic. See the original column here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 6:30 pm (Updated: July 19, 6:42 pm)

U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza has concluded that the New Mexico Human Services Department should have someone looking over its shoulder to help ensure that it complies with court orders and federal law in the administration of federally funded benefits.

According to The Associated Press, Garza is also recommending a contempt finding against the agency, which oversees the distribution of federal food aid and Medicaid health care benefits to the poor.

To be sure, those are merely proposals at this point; the department has 14 days to file its objections, and the department is already saying that it doesn’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision.

Still, it’s unfortunate — though not surprising — that such extreme measures are necessary to get the department to follow the law and to finally comply with court orders that have gone unfulfilled.

The harsh measures being recommended are not surprising because of the striking testimony presented during the court proceedings in the case.

“Caseworkers’ sworn testimony that they were instructed by managers to fraudulently alter applicant information has essentially not been refuted,” Garza said. According to The Associated Press, Garza also noted that managers overseeing supplemental nutrition benefits invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during the proceedings.

The Human Services Department’s office of inspector general and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating that part of the case.

We don’t doubt that the state Human Services Department has a difficult job with tight deadlines and large caseloads.

But it’s also important to remember that the agency exists to serve as a safety net for our state’s most vulnerable residents.

The aid this agency provides helps our state’s poor put food on the table for their families and get medical care for them. Playing games with that aid is unconscionable and wrong.

If it takes a special master looking over the agency’s shoulder to force it to do the right thing, then so be it.

According to The Associated Press, the special master would have expertise in determining eligibility for Medicaid and food aid. That individual would also be knowledgeable with the organizational and computer systems used to manage the state’s caseload.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which brought forth the federal lawsuit on behalf of aid beneficiaries, was pleased with Garza’s decision, which was issued Monday.

“The things we have been asking for are very simple,” attorney Sovereign Hager told AP. “Train your workers on what the law requires, make sure the IT system does what it’s supposed to, make sure notices are intelligible and make sense.”

That seems reasonable to us.

NM Human Services Department Found in Contempt, Federal Magistrate Recommends Special Master

SNAP Logo

Las Cruces, NM – On Friday, July 15, 2016, Federal Magistrate Carmen Garza entered proposed findings that the NM Human Services Department (HSD) be held in contempt for failure to comply with multiple Court Orders and federal law concerning administration of food and medical assistance to eligible families. Judge Garza found that “it is apparent that HSD and its officials have not exhibited the leadership, oversight, or coordination necessary to implement the Court Orders.” Judge recommended the appointment of a Special Master with expertise in food and medical assistance be appointed to facilitate HSD’s compliance with federal law and Court Orders.

The Order comes after three days of evidentiary hearings about HSD’s failure to provide food and medical assistance to families as required by federal law. Judge Garza noted numerous violations of federal law and Court Orders by HSD, finding that worker trainings and notices to families applying for food and medical assistance are “replete with repeated mistakes” and that HSD had not brought state regulations and policies into compliance with federal law. Nor could HSD tell the Court when compliance would be achieved. The Court further noted that testimony by HSD employees that HSD staff have been altering application in order to deny eligible applicants emergency food benefits and improve HSD’s timeliness statistics “was essentially not refuted.”
In entering a finding that the Secretary Brent Earnest should be held in Contempt, Judge Garza noted the Department’s recent willingness to seek expert assistance, stating “While the Court appreciates this acknowledgement, the Court is troubled it took over thirty hours of status conferences, over five hundred pages of joint status reports submitted to the Court, three days of evidentiary hearings on its Order to Show Cause, and testimony by HSD employees alleging fraud on the part of HSD, to which high level officials responded by pleading the fifth, for Defendant to discuss making these types of changes. For the question before the Court, Defendant’s realization has come entirely too late.”

As a remedy for contempt, Judge Garza recommends that the Court appoint and supervise a Special Master to act as a full time advisor and consultant to HSD. The Special Master will have expertise in food and medical assistance programs and will report to the Court on the extent of the Department’s compliance.

Judge Garza stated “Defendant’s inability to fully bring his application processing practices into compliance with the Court Orders has profound effects on the citizens of New Mexico. Indeed, when an eligible SNAP or Medicaid applicant is denied or delayed in receiving benefits, that individual loses benefits he or she may rely on to eat, feed his or her children, or to receive essential medical coverage . . . It is essential for this Court to acknowledge the need for these services to be effectively, efficiently and properly rendered to those who are eligible in this state.”

Attorneys at the Center and Law and Poverty, along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Jane Yohalem, represent the class of plaintiff applicants for food and medical assistance in the case. Gail Evans, Legal Director at the NM Center on Law and Poverty stated, “We are pleased that the Court will appoint and supervise an expert to oversee HSD’s compliance with federal law in providing food and medical assistance. The Department needs expert assistance with important changes that will help the state provide benefits accurately and efficiently. This includes IT changes, the creation of a manual and effective training for state workers and comprehensible notices to families participating in the programs. We look forward to working with the special master to bring the Department into compliance with the law.”

For more information contact Gail Evans at (505) 255-2840/(505) 463-5299 or Sovereign Hager (505) 417-2084.

Read the full press release here.

Read Justice Garza’s recommendation here: Part 1 Part 2