Shake Out Their Pockets: With demand for public benefits on the rise, is the state's public assistance system penny-wise and pound-foolish?

Last week, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Human Services Department filed a small batch of collections cases at the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe that concern alleged overpayments of benefits such as cash assistance, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The suits date back several years and all but one of the defendants are women; the average amount they were allegedly overpaid was $1,417. The smallest claim was filed against a woman in Albuquerque, who'd been on TANF, and claims that, in January 2007, she was overpaid $231 in benefits.

A search of the state court system's website turns up 18 such collections cases so far in 2009. According to HSD's website, the bureau "tracks as many as 120,000 active claims representing over 70,000 individual" accounts. As for the success the agency has in its collections, HSD Communications Director Betina Gonzales McCracken tells SFR via email the agency does not "maintain collection rate data at this time."

SFR also queried HSD on its process for determining, after the fact, benefit ineligibility. Those determinations, Gonzales McCracken writes, "are made by the HSD Income Support Division." Overpayments sometimes happen, she writes, as a result of a "processing error, incorrect information from a client, or as a result of a fraudulent application for public assistance benefits." Overpayments, when identified, are collected by the Restitution Services Bureau of the Office of the Inspector General in either small monthly payments, small reductions in "future public assistance benefits," or repayment from the client's federal or state income tax return, comparable to "procedures used by other state agencies to collect overpayments."

As to whether it's cost-efficient to try to collect pocket change from women who were on temporary public assistance two or three years ago, Gonzales McCracken writes: "Depending on the source of the public assistance monies, (federal or state) some programs require HSD to collect funds that have been overpaid by all available means…" such as those listed above.

Andrew Dice Clay's New Gig: As SFR reported on last week, most of the juicy bits in the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission's employee ethics surveys were blacked out "because they contained anonymous personal criticisms," according to PRC spokesman Gerald Garner Jr.

The general consensus from the surveys is the agency's problems come from the top. But some employees demonstrate, um, questionable judgment. In response to one question regarding whether it's ethical if "an employee of a regulated entity asks you out on a date," one responder answers, "If she is sexy and good looking."