New Mexico officials, citing the state’s high unemployment rate, have asked the U.S. government to continue exempting able-bodied adults receiving food aid from having to get a job or volunteer at a nonprofit agency.

Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s Human Services Department originally fought the waiver it now is asking to keep in place. A federal judge last spring blocked Martinez’s administration from implementing work rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Sovereign Hager, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents people suing Human Services over its handling of welfare cases, said up to 20,000 New Mexicans would have been subject to the work rules. But, Hager said, the state eventually could elect to ignore the waiver and try to impose the work rules.

State officials indicated they may do just that. For them, the advantage of maintaining the waiver is that it gives them options on whether to impose the work rules.

Kyler Nerison, spokesman for the Human Services Department, downplayed the request to the federal government, made last week.

“This is simply a request to extend a waiver that has already been in place for months,” Nerison said. “We requested this wavier because of a court injunction that prevented the department from implementing the work requirements.”

U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Gonzales in March barred the state from using the stricter rules. His decision was part of the recent flurry of actions in a 28-year-old class-action lawsuit brought against Human Services by recipients of food stamps and Medicaid, the government health insurance program. Gonzales issued the injunction after saying the state was illegally denying people benefits.

State officials disclosed the application for a waiver in a filing last week as a part of the class-action lawsuit.

In the application, Human Services Deputy Secretary Sean Pearson wrote that the three-month unemployment rate for New Mexico was 6.8 percent, “making the state eligible for unemployment benefits” without having to run a work-training program.

Hager, of the Center on Law and Poverty, has fought the administration’s attempts to impose the work rules. She said she’s pleased that the state is seeking to continue the waiver, but concerned that the state can also choose to ignore it. In addition, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is considering a request by state officials to overturn Gonzales’ injunction, which expires at the end of the year.

The state’s current waiver exempting New Mexico from imposing the work rules expires in March. If the state loses its case on appeal, then federal law would require New Mexico to have a waiver with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to free it from imposing the work rules.

Nerison said in an email that the state “can implement these broad-based bipartisan work requirements any time next year.”

“And, just a reminder, President Bill Clinton signed these work requirements into law and they have existed for years in New Mexico,” Nerison said.

Rules that require able-bodied adults who receive more than three months of food assistance must work or take part in volunteer activities came out of a welfare-reform package approved by a Republican Congress and Democrat Clinton in the 1990s.

In the recent recession, Congress granted states waivers from imposing the rules. In addition to New Mexico, exceptions are still in place for seven states with high unemployment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sixteen states are without waivers and the other 26 are operating under partial waivers where the three-month rule doesn’t apply for certain counties with high unemployment.

New Mexico’s waiver application makes it unclear whether only certain counties would be exempt from the rule. If granted, the waiver would be in place for a year starting when the state’s current waiver expires in March.

As of Sept. 30, nearly 542,000 New Mexicans were receiving benefits under the food assistance program, according to the Human Services Department’s application for the waiver. That’s an 11 percent increase in a year.

Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or jhorwath@sfnewmexican.com.

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