More than 16,600 New Mexico households depend on the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to make ends meet.
Not, it should be clear, to place a bet, have a beer or get a lap dance.
And so the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez has done in 2014 what Congress mandated in 2012, what the state House unanimously supported in 2013 and what the state Senate has refused to do: safeguard those benefits for their intended use by some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
The state rule published by the Human Services Department took effect May 31 and prohibits welfare recipients from using their electronic benefits cards at gambling establishments, liquor stores and strip clubs.
Opponents of the rule, including Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, have argued it puts an undue burden on the rural poor who have limited options for accessing their benefits. The measure never came up for a floor vote in the Senate, where Sanchez controls the agenda.
But it’s hard to imagine a casino, liquor store or nudie bar without a nearby gas station or convenience store that would provide suitable access to cardholders without the same temptation for misuse.
And it is difficult to imagine more than 16,600 New Mexico families continuing to receive the same level of benefits they depend on to pay rent, utilities and other expenses if the federal government were forced to impose $5.5 million in threatened penalties on the state for not complying with the 2012 federal law.
An analysis of TANF transactions in New Mexico by the Libertarian-leaning Rio Grande Foundation revealed a “significant number” as questionable, including “frequent” cash withdrawals and/or purchases at Albuquerque liquor stores, bars, a strip club, Hooters, and fraternal lodges in Alamogordo and Las Cruces – all areas with options for cashing TANF benefits.
In the end, the governor had two options: protect the benefits against abuse and keep them whole, or turn a blind eye to fraud and sacrifice millions of public assistance dollars.
And she made the right, and only, choice.
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.