AUGUSTA — A proposal to create a new oversight commission for Maine’s welfare program faltered in the Republican-controlled Senate Thursday on a party line vote.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, calls for gathering more data and setting benchmarks to ensure low-income Mainers are doing better. It would also add a citizens oversight panel to keep an eye on the Department of Health and Human Services.

“This bill would have guaranteed that success is defined not simply by how many people lose benefits, but by how many people are able to pull themselves out of poverty so that they no longer need assistance,” Libby said.

But on an 18-16 vote, the Senate rejected the measure.

“We already have a citizens oversight committee on Maine’s welfare programs,” said Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn. “It’s called the Health and Human Services Committee” of the Legislature, which he co-chairs.

“This bill is not necessary,” Brakey said.

But Sen. Benjamin Chipman, D-Portland, said the proposal to gather more information and improve the lives of beneficiaries ought to be enacted.

“I should think this is something we’d all want to do to make sure these programs are working well,” Chipman said.

The bill aims to ensure that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides cash assistance to low-income families with children, actually manages to help boost families out of poverty.

More than one in five Maine children live in poverty and the state’s poverty rate is higher than any of its New England counterparts.

“In Augusta, there are plenty of people looking to claim victory for cutting the number of families who receive assistance through TANF, but those cuts belie a simple, damning truth: So-called reforms have done nothing to stop disturbing trends such as increases in extreme child poverty and food insecurity,” Libby said.

The proposed Citizens Oversight Committee to monitor the department would have members from a range of interests, including representatives from the business sector, a parent or guardian and a charitable community foundation.

Bethany Hamm, director of the Office for Family Independence in the Health and Human Services Department, told lawmakers at an April hearing that much of the data sought by the proposal is already collected.

She also said there is a TANF Advisory Council, created by statute, that advises the commissioner on issues related to education, training, job opportunities and more. A citizens panel in addition would merely duplicate its work, Hamm said.

At the same hearing, Christine Hastedt of Maine Equal Justice Partners urged support for Libby’s proposal, calling it “one of the most important reforms needed in the TANF program.”

She said the program would be better off “aligning what we measure, and the benchmarks we strive to achieve, with the ultimate goal of the TANF program moving recipients out of poverty and into sustainable employment.”

Hastedt said the existing data counts the numbers who participate in programs and how many hours they log in them, but doesn’t provide a look at the ultimate outcome in terms of employment and earnings.

“Maine can and must take it upon itself to measure these outcomes if we are to really succeed in helping families find sustainable employment which is, after all the real measure of success that l believe families, policy makers and all Maine people want,” she said.

The House has yet to take up the bill.

Maine Sen. Nate Libby

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