SANTA FE – New Mexico Human Services Secretary Sidonie Squier apologized Friday to members of a key legislative committee, saying a recent email she sent that denied the existence of hunger in the state was poorly worded.
Squier, whose agency runs food assistance programs for low-income New Mexicans, was expected to face tough questions about the email during the budget hearing before the Legislative Finance Committee.
She began her remarks to the committee by addressing the outcry over her comments, describing it as the “800-pound gorilla” in the room.
“I do agree that there are hungry children in New Mexico,” Squier told legislators. “I have always thought that. My email was poorly worded, and I apologize for that.”
The secretary’s email was sent last week to state administrators reviewing a draft report of the New Mexico Hunger Task Force. Squier is a member of that group.
In the message, Squier wrote: “Since there has never been and is not now any significant evidence of hunger in N.M., I would offer that the focus of the report should be on getting proper nutrition to children (and adults).”
She said Friday that her intended meaning was that anti-hunger programs should be broadened to include malnutrition issues, including obesity.
“I did say the words. I’m not backing away from it, but they did not intend to say that (hunger is not an issue),” she told reporters.
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said during Friday’s hearing that she appreciated Squier’s apology.
Meanwhile, another committee member, Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, asked Squier what steps her agency was taking to address hunger-related issues.
He told the Journal after the hearing that although he appreciated Squier’s apology, her comments suggested a disconnect with the conditions facing many New Mexicans.
At least one nonprofit group has ranked New Mexico second-to-worst in the nation for both child hunger and general food insecurity.
It was a “pretty clear choice of words,” Morales told the Journal . “I believe when she said the words, she meant that.”
Squier said later Friday, after the hearing at the Capitol, that she has not been asked to resign by Gov. Susana Martinez but would do so if the Republican governor asks her to step down.
Squier, who previously worked for state health agencies in Florida and California, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, clashed earlier this year with Democratic lawmakers over the handling of an overhaul of the state’s behavioral health system.
In July, she abruptly walked out of a legislative hearing after more than three hours of questioning about her agency’s decision to halt payments to 15 providers – an action HSD claimed was required under federal guidelines – after an audit that it said showed mismanagement, overbilling and possible fraud.
Squier faced only a few questions Friday about the behavioral health issue.