Does Maine have $150 million of unspent federal cash sitting around?

House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, this week unveiled her wide-ranging Leveraging Investments in Families Today bill, which aims to expand and enhance social service programs with federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant money that she says has gone unspent.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that Gideon and the Democrats are wrong about the availability of the funds.

“She is just dead wrong,” he said.  

However, both the legislative and executive branches have said Gideon is correct about the funding, though as with most of these conflicts, it’s not purely black and white.

The Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, a team of numbers crunchers who among other things calculate how much potential new laws would cost the state, estimated at the end of fiscal year 2016 last summer that about $150 million in federal money had accrued.

That’s because there’s a gap between how much the Legislature has authorized state government to use for TANF and how much the state has actually spent since 2012. As reported by the Bangor Daily News in June 2016, that’s largely because of a lifetime TANF cap of five years that has cut more than 8,000 Maine families out of the program so far.

OFPR’s figures on this issue amount basically to an educated guess. As an arm of the Legislature, the office has no more access to the fine details of TANF spending in Maine than the Legislature does.

However, in March of this year, DHHS told lawmakers in a memo generated to inform budget deliberations that there will be an estimated carry-forward balance of more than $110 million in the TANF program by June of next year.

So, it’s clear that there is, in fact, a large stack of unspent TANF cash sitting around, but here’s the rub: DHHS says it plans to use the money for a range of new programs and services and that the year-end TANF balance in 2022 will be down to about $4.6 million.

The federal government gives states latitude on how TANF money is spent as long as they abide by a set of broad criteria that aim to “provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes, or in the homes of relatives.”

At the state level, DHHS can route the money as it wishes unless the Legislature directs the department to use it in specific ways. Gideon’s LIFT bill is the latest of several bills since LePage took office that have sought, unsuccessfully, to do just that.

DHHS detailed some of the new and existing spending in its memo: $5.5 million in funding for a range of programs for at-risk youth, such as the My Place Teen Center in Westbrook and the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program; $27.5 million for “family supports” through organizations such as the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence; and $20.4 for workforce education and training.

Lawmakers, especially Democrats, have been requesting information about how TANF money is being used. Despite the March 2017 memo, they claim they are largely stonewalled — particularly in regards to the department’s future plans.

A BDN analysis concluded that some of that money — at least $7.8 million — is being spent in ways that are inconsistent with federal TANF law, which intends the aid to be for struggling families with children. The department initially disputed that premise but later reversed the transfer of funds. Later, a report by State Auditor Pola Buckley, a Democrat, determined that DHHS had taken “an overly aggressive approach” and had misspent $13.4 million in federal public assistance money.

The wider issue around this fight over TANF funding is helping children in poverty. It’s an issue that creates another “he said, she said” situation between the Legislature and the executive branch.

Gideon claims that the number of Maine children in extreme poverty — families living at 50 percent of the federal poverty level of $10,000 a year for a family of three or lower — is increasing eight times faster than the national average. That number comes from an analysis of census data by the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy.

The department has touted data from the national Kids Count Data Center in attempts to refute that figure. That data show that the number of Maine children in extreme poverty hovered at around 20,000 from 2011 through 2015. But changing data collection methods and variation between conclusions based on yearly versus three-year averages makes it harder to discern a clear pattern — and easier to pick and choose data points to promote political agendas.

And so, the debate rages on. Gideon’s bill has already had a public hearing and will likely be the subject of extensive committee work sessions before it goes to consideration by the full Legislature. As one of the Democrats’ marquee pieces of legislation this year — and with four Republican sponsors on it — the fight will be intense and this bill could end up in a conversation about whether or not political stalemate will shut down state government come July 1. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • King says Comey’s firing ‘just doesn’t add up,’ but Collins says it was likely ‘inevitable.’ President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in the midst of an investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election roiled Washington yesterday and split Maine’s U.S. senators, who both serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told NPR that Trump’s justification for the firing — Comey’s July announcement that he wasn’t pursuing charges against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — “just doesn’t add up.” However, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, told PBS that it was likely an “inevitable conclusion” after Comey’s “well-intentioned” decision that she said nevertheless boxed him in politically. King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, used the episode to renew their calls for a special prosecutor to handle the FBI’s Russia investigation, while Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, a Republican from Maine’s 2nd District, said they remain confident that the bureau can do its work without Comey. — Michael Shepherd
  • The Senate killed a Republican bill on Tuesday that would have increased scrutiny on voting college students in Maine. Five Republicans helped Democrats kill a bill from House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, that would have made cities and towns verify the residence of voters registered at a college dormitory. Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap’s office had flagged the bill as unconstitutional for creating “a different set of requirements for different classes of voters.” There has been a history of friction with college voters in Maine, including a 2011 investigation by former Secretary of State Charlie Summers into students that found none committed voter fraud. — Michael Shepherd

Today in A-town

A visit from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price will dominate the State House headlines on Wednesday. He’s set for a 10:50 a.m. roundtable on opiate addiction with LePage, treatment and prevention specialists, police, survivors of addiction and affected family members. Price and LePage are expected to take questions afterward. We will do our best to avoid getting arrested after asking them like this reporter in West Virginia.

But there’s also a busy committee schedule as legislators look to conclude most committee work and get bills to the chamber floors as they approach T-minus one month until the end of this year’s legislative session.

  • Two of those committees will examine proposals to change referendum questions passed by Maine voters in 2016. The Taxation Committee will hold work sessions on proposals aimed mostly at rolling back the 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000, while the labor committee will work on bills to restore the tip credit to Maine’s minimum wage law. The surtax is a key wedge issue between the parties. Republicans have said they won’t pass a budget that doesn’t eliminate it.
  • Sen. Roger Katz’s bill to create an Office of New Mainers is up for a public hearing. The education committee will hear the Augusta Republican’s plan to create an executive branch office to develop a comprehensive plan for training and educating immigrants to perform jobs in Maine that employers need filled. Maine is the oldest state in the U.S. and experts have identified immigration as a key solution to the state’s workforce challenges. Modeled partially after Portland programs, Katz’s bill would appropriate nearly $1.6 million over the next two years to school districts, adult education programs, counties and municipalities.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee will also work on several bills aimed at Maine’s opiate crisis and mental health services. — Michael Shepherd

Reading list

What’s more interesting than Curt Schilling coming to Maine?

In 2004, I would have said “nothing.”

That was the year Schilling, who was then a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, made himself a sports icon by leading the team to a World Series victory and most-jawdropping-in-history playoff comeback against the New York Yankees. That was despite a tendon injury quick-fix that produced Schilling’s famous bloody sock which after a century gave new meaning to “Red Sox.”

My wife was 7 or 8 months pregnant with our first son and when it comes to the Red Sox or Patriots and close games, we are screamers. We have often discussed how that series with the Yankees affected the development of our offspring.

Since 2004, Schilling’s identity has expanded, including the addition of failed video game entrepreneur to his resume. He has also become a conservative radio host and as such will visit Maine for a fundraising reception for the Maine Republican Party on May 31 at the Senator Inn in Augusta.

According to the party, tickets cost between $100 and $175 for the masses, though you can attend the “private reception” for a donation of between $1,000 and $10,000. Hors d’oeuvres are free, but bring cash for the bar.

Aside from Schilling, the other featured guests are LePage, Fredette and Senate President Mike Thibodeau. Given the acrimonious history between those three, another bloody garment might not be out of the question. Here’s Curt’s soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins

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Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.