Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal Photo courtesy of the city of Marietta/via Flickr

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, facing the threatened loss of $76 million in federal funding, announced a plan Thursday to help the state’s troubled food stamp system by clearing a few thousand backlogged applications.

Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he instructed Department of Human Services Commissioner Keith Horton to seek a federal waiver that would speed the approval of 2,673 food stamp applications from some of the neediest Georgians.

He said the waiver would allow quick approval of the applicants, but the state would later verify each applicant’s eligibility and recoup the benefits if they’re found to be ineligible. It would apply to applicants with little or no income, Deal said.

In general, Deal’s plan represents a short-term fix on a much larger problem with the food stamp system. State officials will not only have to clear a backlog of overdue cases, but provide compelling evidence that they are moving to fix a system plagued by understaffing, antiquated technology and a call-in center that cannot handle all the calls that come in.

Last month, the federal Agriculture Department, which pays for these benefits but splits the management costs with the state, cracked down on the state’s poor handling of the food stamp system. Federal officials threatened to withdraw up to $76 million in administrative funding if Georgia’s program hasn’t shown significant improvement by May 1. The funding cut would affect only the money to run the system, not the benefits for people.

In particular, federal officials gave the state until May 1 to clear a stubborn backlog of thousands of cases. The waiver that Deal wants applies only to “expedited” applications, meaning they require the most urgent action. The state usually has seven days to determine expedited cases’ eligibility for food stamp benefits, but a backlog has extended that timeline. If the waiver goes through, it would clear the backlog of expedited applications.

Agriculture officials said Thursday they have yet to receive any request for a waiver from Georgia, but would consider one. At the same time, officials made clear that the threat to cut funding is real. Such threats rarely occur nationally.

“USDA has made its expectations to Georgia very clear and we will continue to do so,” the agency said in a statement.

Experts praised the waiver plan as a smart move for a desperate state, but cautioned that Georgia must still address many other problems. Applicants calling for help have been placed on hold for hours or their calls simply went unanswered. Many lost their benefits because they must reapply every six months but couldn’t get through.

Still, the waiver could help clear lingering applications while freeing up staff to better handle other requests for benefits, said David Super, a Georgetown professor familiar with Georgia’s food stamp system.

“I don’t see a downside,” he said. “This is what Georgia should do.”

He said similar waivers similar waivers are in place in more than a half dozen states, including Florida, California, Missouri and Pennsylvania, he said.

Deal said agency officials have worked through the backlogged cases from February and are now working “around the clock” to handle about 5,500 cases pending from March.

The plan was welcome news at a DeKalb County safe house for women who are victims of domestic abuse. Several have applications that are bottled up in the backlog. Many of these women have left their homes and their jobs, because they don’t feel safe there, said safe house director Barbara Gibson.

“They have no income and no residence,” Gibson said. “This would be a tremendous help.”

The state is crafting other long-term solutions for troubles in the food stamp system, which include millions of dollars a year in overpayments. The state wasted about $138 million in 2013 in overpayments to food stamp recipients, and continued problems could trigger federal fines.

Deal said the state’s food stamp administrators are planning an IT overhaul and a new automated phone system to more efficiently handle the calls, and they are now seeking contractors to implement it.

DHS Commissioner Horton will discuss the strategies to improve the food stamp system at a news conference Friday.

Deal said he was told that at least 200 people were working in call centers each day, sometimes double that figure.

But it hasn’t been enough.

Diana Ferrer of Gainesville said her food stamp case was canceled because she could not get through to the call-in center. The mother of three whose husband has a manufacturing job said she was placed on hold for as long as two hours, at times only to hear the line go dead.

“I still can’t get a hold of anybody,” she said.

It’s unclear whether she would fit into the waiver plan, but any improvement to the system gave her hope.

The governor faced criticism from both the left and the right for the food stamp response.

Former Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who hopes to ride tea party support to an upset of Deal in the GOP primary, compared the governor’s treatment of the issue with a national Democratic figure’s embrace of health care overhaul.

“Spend more tax dollars now; check the facts later,” Pennington said. “It sounds like Nancy Pelosi with Obamacare.”

Democrats were equally harsh. Michael Smith, a spokesman for Georgia Democrats, said the response fits a pattern: “Our governor has once again brought us to the cliff and now wants to save us from the fall.”

And the campaign of Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who is challenging Deal in this year’s gubernatorial race, said scores of Georgians are suffering because of the administration’s “incompetence.”

“Gov. Deal is only reacting now because the headlines threaten him politically,” said Meg Robinson, the campaign spokeswoman.

©2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)