How New Mexico educates its children will be in the hands of a state judge soon as a landmark trial against the state Public Education Department wraps up. Over eight weeks, the trial has featured dozens of witnesses and numerous citations to academic studies and policy reports. But in the end, the trial before First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton in Santa Fe boiled down to dueling worldviews. The plaintiffs — the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) — cited education outcomes for low-income, Native American and English language learners as evidence that New Mexico does not meet its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for all children. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is reprinted with permission.
LAS CRUCES—A year-old scandal involving alleged systemic fraud with the state’s management of federal food aid benefits was the elephant in the federal courtroom Thursday. Both Kenneth Gonzales, a federal district judge, and Lawrence Parker, a court-appointed “special master” who is tasked with guiding the New Mexico Human Service Department (HSD) in its federal compliance with Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, alluded to the scandal at the hearing. “What nobody wants to see, and you especially, is a culture that allows this to happen,” Gonzales told HSD Secretary Brent Earnest. Parker emphasized that “many of those same people” who were alleged in 2016 to have instructed HSD employees to falsify SNAP applications to meet federal quotas “are still in place” at the department.Parker raised the question of why the department’s management has largely remained the same since the shocking allegations of fraud came to light last year. More than once, Parker recommended a staff shakeup.
A coalition of healthcare advocacy and poverty rights organizations wants Congress to dump the Republican-backed replacement for the federal Affordable Care Act. On Wednesday, Parents Reaching Out held a press conference in Albuquerque encouraging people to call their representatives and senators to urge them to oppose the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which the federal House of Representatives may vote on as early as this Thursday. “We are concerned about upcoming Medicaid cuts and the potential devastation to our community,” said Lisa Rossignol, the healthcare liaison at Parents Reaching Out, which organized the Wednesday press conference. The bill, backed by President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, would end the Medicaid expansion under the ACA by 2020. It would also cut money to Medicaid, the federal healthcare program for the poor, by $370 billion over 10 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Gov. Susana Martinez said Saturday she will veto legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage. Lawmakers approved two bills during the 60-day legislative session to raise the wage of New Mexico’s lowest-paid workers, who make $7.50 an hour. One bill would have raised the minimum wage to $9 an hour, and the other called for an increase to $9.25. But soon after legislators adjourned Saturday, the Republican governor told reporters both increases are too high for small businesses to afford. “I was willing to compromise,” Martinez said, adding that an increase to between $8 and $9 an hour would have been acceptable.
Debbie Pace says she cries when she goes to the Smith’s grocery store because she “can’t afford anything.” Pace, 59, of Albuquerque, says she receives just over $730 a month in Supplemental Security Income from the federal program for the disabled and others with little income. She also receives $33 in monthly food stamps. The $33 in food stamps goes quick, she says. So, she goes to a local church for free food.
Five Democratic state senators banded together Tuesday to block a Republican bill aimed at prohibiting people on food stamps from buying soda pop, candy and other junk foods. The Democrats said they appreciated Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsoring the bill to encourage healthy eating habits in hopes of reducing New Mexico’s high rates of obesity and diabetes. But Democrats on the Senate Public Affairs Committee still found flaws in Pirtle’s proposal. “I’m bothered by this because it’s going after our lowest-income folks,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “I don’t support this at all because it focuses on one group of people and implies they’re wasting taxpayers’ money.”
Supporters of a proposed Albuquerque sick leave initiative asked a district court judge Wednesday to reconsider his decision to require the full text of the proposal on election ballots next year. The city election is still a year away, but the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed the motion asking Bernalillo County District Judge Alan Malott to reconsider a previous decision that required the full text of the proposal appear on the ballot and instead allow the sick leave initiative to appear as a summary on the ballot next October during the municipal elections. Lawyers with the Center on Law and Poverty said the full text would likely not fit on a one-page ballot and could cause inaccurate ballot counts, rejected ballots or a complete absence of the initiative on next year’s ballot. They also disputed Malott’s interpretation of the city charter. “The best way to mitigate these risks is an order that the Charter permits a summary to appear on the 2017 municipal election ballot, and that the full text may be provided to voters in a separate document,” wrote the Center’s lawyers in the motion.
A high profile ballot proposal that would require businesses to provide paid sick leave to employees will likely not be on the ballot this November. A district judge in Albuquerque ruled Monday county commissioners legally have the discretion to deny ballot access to city initiatives during general elections. Second Judicial District Judge Alan Malott told a courtroom packed with advocates both for and against the paid sick leave initiative that he would not order the Bernalillo County Commission to add the proposal to the November general election ballot. “The county cannot be forced to include the proposed ordinance,” Malott said. Malott also ruled the full text of the order must be on the ballot when it does go in front of voters, which is likely in 2017.
A federal judge proposed the appointment of a special master to oversee food and medical assistance programs in the state, the most clear indication of the severity of the problems in the programs’ administration by the state. The judges’ proposal is, in federal Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza’s words, “largely adopted from” the state Human Services Department’s remedy of a special master that will act as a monitor to bring the department into compliance with federal law. This is a breaking news story and has been update. It may be updated further. But the ruling makes clear that the special master will answer to the court and not HSD or the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
LAS CRUCES — The cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department testified Wednesday that he didn’t know of allegations of widespread fraud in the processing of food benefits applications within his department until they first became public in April. Nine employees previously testified in federal court in April and May about HSD’s practice of adding fake assets to emergency applications for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. “I would never tolerate that or direct that,” Earnest said. Related: After deadline, HSD report on alleged SNAP fraud still not finished
Earnest and his attorneys emphasized that HSD took immediate action end to put an end to the practice by sending a directive to employees reminding them to follow federal law and initiating an internal investigation of the matter. The remarks are Earnest’s first public comments about when he first found out about the alleged practices that have rocked his department for the past two months.