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Editorial: N.M. Shouldn’t Gamble With Its Welfare Funds

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When the Legislature convenes in January, there are activists who will argue that not allowing recipients of public assistance to make purchases or get cash back on their benefits at nudie bars, liquor stores and casinos will disenfranchise the poor.

But how about not disenfranchising taxpayers from millions of their dollars intended to help society’s most vulnerable members pay for necessities?

Here’s betting lap dances, 40-ounce beers and slot action aren’t on most folks’ approved benefits list. That’s how Congress sees it. And how New Mexico should, too.

After the Los Angeles Times reported more than $1.8 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds were withdrawn at California casinos from October 2009 to May 2010 — and other states reported similar activity — Congress restricted the transactions from liquor stores and bars, casinos and other gaming establishments, and strip clubs.

If New Mexico doesn’t do the same by early 2014, its recipients stand to lose $5.5 million in federal benefits. Recently the conservative Rio Grande Foundation reviewed around 200,000 TANF electronic benefit transfer transactions from last November and December and found “frequent” cash withdrawals and/or purchases at Albuquerque liquor stores, withdrawals and/or purchases at New Mexico bars and withdrawals at the Alamogordo VFW, a Moose Lodge in Las Cruces, an Albuquerque strip club, Hooters in Albuquerque and Las Cruces, and smoke shops.

New Mexico doesn’t track where the thousands of the state’s daily EBT transactions occur. But it certainly can comply with the federal mandate and make it more difficult to misuse the funds. “This is a subject where Democrats and Republicans alike … have said we need to fight fraud, waste and abuse in our public assistance programs,” Human Services spokesman Matt Kennicott says.

New Mexico’s Legislature should show the same bipartisan support. Public assistance is a benefit, not a right, and there are rightly strings attached to help ensure it is used as intended. Putting it at risk by downplaying fraud does recipients a disservice, even if the nudie bar or liquor store or casino is more convenient.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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