Federal officials have fined Kansas' Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services nearly $1.5 million for mishandling its food-stamp program.
"Kansas' error rate in calculating eligibility last year was 11.7 percent; the national average is 8.26 percent," said Wendy Moraskie, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's regional office in Denver.
Kansas' error rate was the fourth highest in the nation -- tying with Connecticut, but trailing California, Michigan and New Hampshire.
More than three-fourths of the errors posted in Kansas involved overpayment -- people getting food stamps for which they were not eligible. The remainder involved recipients being turned down who, in fact, were eligible.
Combined, the errors totaled $13.2 million.
The USDA relies on state welfare departments to process food-stamp applications.
States with error rates that exceed the national average, Moraskie said, are "sanctioned" in ways designed to improve performance rather than punish.
Deb Wiley, an SRS administrator who oversees the state's participation in the food stamp program, attributed most of the shortcomings to state regulations that require applicants to file monthly income reports. Most states require income reports every six months or annually.
"Most of our errors appear to be applicants failing to report changes in income," Wiley said.
Also, she said, the errors reflected the consequences of budget pressures forcing SRS to lay off workers at a time when food-stamp applications were increasing.
"Our food-stamp caseload has been increasing by about 2,000 cases each month for the past two fiscal years -- that's a 10 percent increase each year for two years," Wiley said. "At the same time, we've got 6,000 positions on the books and only 5,000 of those positions are filled. The rest are vacant."
Currently, 172,000 Kansans receive food stamps. The average SRS worker's caseload includes 130 food-stamp cases, Wiley said.
Wiley said SRS was moving toward adopting six-month or annual income reporting.
"That should cut down on a lot of errors," said SRS spokeswoman Stacey Herman. "The way it is now, we have 12 opportunities to make a mistake when other states have one or two opportunities."
Herman said USDA has agreed to withhold $750,000 in its administrative payments -- half of the $1.5 million penalty -- to SRS. In turn, SRS has agreed to spend $750,000 on better training for its workers.
After two years, if SRS' reduces its error rate, USDA will release the $750,000 being withheld.
The sanction came as no surprise to Paul Johnson, spokesman for Public Assistance Coalition of Kansas, an advocacy group for the poor.
"It's all about staffing and priorities," Johnson said. "And what we're seeing at SRS is that child welfare, child abuse and foster-care issues are at the top of the list -- the two that come up short are child support collections and food-stamp eligibility."
He added, "Something had to give."
Historically, SRS' child support collections increase between 5 and 10 percent a year. In the past year, collections have leveled off.
Officials pinned much of the decline on SRS' having fewer workers to process claims.