AUGUSTA — Lawmakers split along party lines repeatedly Thursday as they debated and voted on a series of bills aimed at reforming the state’s welfare system.

Democrats on the Health and Human Services Committee expressed outrage over proposals by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services that would spend some of more than $110 million of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant surplus funds that have accumulated over the past four years.

The surplus funds are a result of previous changes, approved by lawmakers, that made more people ineligible for benefits under state law.

Among other things, DHHS is proposing to use about $19 million of those federal funds to pay for the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit program, which provides tax rebates to low-income families. The EITC program is already funded in the state’s current two-year budget, but Republicans and DHHS officials said use of the federal funds, as allowed under federal law, would free up an equal amount in the state’s General Fund budget for something else.

Another $34 million in federal TANF funds would be spent on child welfare programs and programs aimed at strengthening Maine’s foster care system. 

But it’s all money, Democrats said, that should have been spent to help Maine’s poorest families, and the savings being “bragged about” by DHHS officials have resulted in 24,000 more Maine children living in poverty than in 2011, a 50 percent increase in childhood poverty.

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“So what the department has done is we have been actively redeploying those funds to support a broad array of things that help low-income families in the state,” Sam Adolphsen, the chief operating officer for DHHS, told the committee. “So really, the shift from us has been from a model that focused primarily on cash benefits to one that is using money that has become available, through the reduction in case load, to assist low-income families across the state that fit the TANF goals.”

Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, the House chairman of the committee, said he was deeply concerned DHHS spending changes had not been processed through the Legislature’s committees of jurisdiction or through the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. 

Gattine said it was also unclear how much of the money had already been spent or how much was already obligated. He questioned Adolphsen about the department’s plan to spend the money and the lack of information that was being provided to the Legislature.

Adolphsen said the department had a plan to spend the money on a variety of programs, but a bill by Gattine that would use the money to expand the funds available through TANF for low-income housing was not among them. 

“Where does that plan exist?” Gattine asked. “If we’re legislators trying to make decisions about how money should be spent, other than reading press releases that came out a day before this work session, where would I go? I mean, where would I learn about all these things?”

Adolphsen said DHHS was trying to not spend all of the revenue that had accumulated in case there was a downturn in the economy and more people ended up needing help through the programs in the future.

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The committee voted 6-5 to support Gattine’s bill, which uses some of the funds to improve job-training and education programs for low-income families.

“It is very concerning to me that we have allowed this money to accumulate in the block grant, as the number of children in deep poverty in this state has increased,” Gattine said.  

He said he would be happy to learn more about the programs DHHS was proposing but that his bill was aimed at putting “kids on a much better trajectory toward a much brighter future.”

Gattine and Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, criticized DHHS for sitting on funds while childhood poverty was climbing in Maine. Hymanson said it was “disgraceful” that the department kept information about $110 million from the Legislature.

“Not only is it disgraceful, but the department issues press releases bragging about $89 million in savings, and it’s the factor that has led those kids to go into poverty that has led to that money sitting in that account,” Gattine said.

Republicans on the committee opposed Gattine’s bill and said they preferred the direction DHHS was going with the TANF block grant funding.

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“A lot of these things, when we talk about families in need, specifically, children were brought up, there is $34.8 million for child welfare and foster family stabilization programs,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, the Senate chairman of the committee. “The plan is not for the money to sit there — the plan is for these funds to be allocated, in a way, for programs that target specifically youth in need and families in need.”

Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, the ranking Republican on the committee, said Gattine was wrong about the administration at DHHS.

“They send a press release bragging that they now have money to reinforce other pieces of programming that are going to help — help lift some of the folks out of the very conditions that you want to study right here,” Sanderson said.

Rep. Peter Stuckey, D-Portland, said any savings DHHS was sitting on was a result of pushing thousands off the state’s TANF system.

“We moved 7,000 some families off from welfare in the last few years,” Stuckey said. “I wish I thought we came close to moving that number out of poverty. I really don’t think we’ve come anywhere near to realizing that objective.”  

In two other 6-5, party-line votes, the committee approved a bill offered by state Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, that would make it illegal for those receiving TANF benefits to use a state-issued electronic benefits card to make point-of-sale purchases of items such as alcohol and tobacco that welfare funds can’t be used to purchase. 

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Republicans on the committee, who supported the portion of the bill that prohibited the point-of-sale purchases, voted against the measure because they objected to what they considered weak penalties in the measure for those who were caught breaking the rules.  

Libby’s bill would suspend welfare benefits for up to six months for a person who intentionally violated the rules three times. Penalties in the measure also required those who intentionally violate the program rules to pay the state back for any illegal purchases. Libby’s bill also prohibits the use of TANF funds for lottery tickets, casinos, tattoos and adult entertainment.

Republicans, in the minority on the committee, also voted against an amendment to a bill offered by Rep. Scott Hamann, D-South Portland, that would create a commission to study childhood poverty in Maine and its root causes. 

Hamman’s amendment replaced the language in another bill offered by Republican Gov. Paul LePage and sponsored by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport. That bill would have eliminated state-allowed exceptions to federal work requirements for some who receive state and federal welfare benefits or who participate in educational programs, including the state’s Parents as Scholars program.

The bills by Hamman, Gattine and Libby will likely pass in the Democrat-controlled House but face a far more uncertain future in the Republican-controlled Senate.

LePage is likely to veto all three of the measures, should they reach his desk.

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