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New settlement in food-stamp lawsuit

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

TAOS – A federal judge this week approved a settlement that could end 30 years of litigation against the state agency that helps needy New Mexicans buy groceries and obtain medical care.

But before the case is dismissed, the state Human Services Department will have to meet a variety of performance standards – much of them centered on how long it takes to handle applications for food and medical help.

Human Services Secretary Brent Earnest told state lawmakers this week that the litigation could be over as early as the end of this year.

“I’m not promising that,” Earnest said in an interview, “but I think there’s an opportunity for that.”

Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, representing the plaintiffs, said the settlement updates the standards for measuring the department’s work. But it doesn’t change the basic legal requirements the state has been unable to meet for decades, she said.

“I think there’s some foundational changes that need to be made before compliance is really going to be realistic,” Hager said in an interview.

About 223,000 families in New Mexico receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The 1988 class-action lawsuit accuses New Mexico of violating people’s rights by imposing inconsistent and excessive requirements on applicants seeking benefits, delaying eligibility decisions and failing to provide emergency food assistance in time.

Just four months ago, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales issued a rather blunt opinion outlining “a lack of accountability” in the state agency. He said he was “troubled by the woefully inadequate testimony” at a court hearing by a key manager in the department, and he noted that two other managers had, at one point, “instructed staff to fraudulently” change income information on food applications as a way to deny benefits.

A court-appointed special master, meanwhile, recommended the removal of five administrators in the Human Services Department.

Gonzales ultimately didn’t order anyone’s removal. But he did impose a series of deadlines aimed at ensuring the department improves its performance, including the hiring of experts to help in key areas, and he ordered the parties to work on a new settlement to guide the future of the litigation.

The 16-page agreement sets deadlines for the processing of applications and requires the collection of data to measure the department’s work. It replaces a 1998 consent decree the state had agreed to.

Earnest told lawmakers gathered for a legislative hearing in Taos that the new agreement sets clear expectations and requirements, which will help make the litigation easier to manage. The department, he said, is already meeting certain standards in the settlement and it’s “possible” the litigation could end this year.