State slow to seek Recovery Act funds

Posted Sept. 09, 2009, at 9:37 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Poor Mainers have yet to benefit from the state’s $39 million share of a $5 billion fund in the Recovery Act aimed at helping needy families weather the recession.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Brenda Harvey said her department had requested just $3.4 million to pay for TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, because of an increased demand for services. She said without the federal money, they would not have the resources to make those payments.

The fund rules allow the states to use the emergency money to make up for increased TANF caseloads. But it also allows for the money to be used for new one-time programs to help the poor during the recession.

Maine has not applied for any of the funds for new efforts.

“Everybody knows the financial problems we are facing as a state,” said Harvey, adding her department lacked the needed funds to trigger matching Recovery Act money.

The TANF caseload is up to 13,432 in August, an increase of 938 since August 2008. She expects the caseload will continue to increase for several more months and additional funds will be requested from the fund to pay for the additional need.

“We figured on that in our request for the $3.4 million,” she said.

Harvey will face questioning by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee later this month on why the agency has yet to apply for funds using the various approaches of more than two dozen states that have already received some of the federal funds for short-term programs to help families as well as to pay for increased TANF cases.

“We have to see some thinking outside of the box like these other states have done,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. “The whole idea is to get this money to help people get through this recession.”

He pointed to efforts in Tennessee that used grant funds to put people to work in short-term jobs located in the county with the highest unemployment rate. New York drew down funds to provide $175 million in back-to-school supplies and clothes to its poor families after soliciting a grant from a philanthropist to meet the match requirement.

Unlike many federal programs, the state does not have to provide the 20 percent match in cash. It can be paid by counties or local governments, private donors or by nonprofits such as homeless shelters or food banks.

“This is something we definitely want to talk about,” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, the co-chair of the panel. She said the state has drawn national praise for its efforts to draw down recovery act funds in other areas like transportation and sewer overhaul projects.

“We need to apply that same level of enthusiasm to other areas of the stimulus funds,” she said.

Harvey said DHHS is exploring what other states have done to tap other resources to act as the match to draw down the available federal funds. She said none of the ideas has progressed far, but she believes there will be some that are developed into grant requests.

“Poor families are increasingly challenged to live within what is available to them through public benefits,” she said. “Any way that we can help, with an alternative program, even if it is short lived, if it helps stabilize their circumstances, improve their housing situation for example, we should try to do it.”

Harvey said it is “premature” to discuss the ideas being explored by her agency for grants under the program. She said DHHS is looking at what other states have done and plans to have some “vetted” proposals to propose to the Legislature when it reconvenes in January.

“We will have questions about how we can speed that up when we meet later in the month,” Diamond said. “People need help now.”

The fund was created by Congress to get cash help to the poor as soon as possible because they will spend the aid immediately and that will help stimulate the economy. It will end in September 2010.

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