The LePage administration has a history of doing questionable — and sometimes even unlawful — things with the federal money it receives to provide financial stability to low-income families.
In federal fiscal year 2015, the LePage administration transferred $7.8 million of grant funds it received from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF, and then used those funds in ways that ran afoul of federal law. (It later denied misusing these funds, then changed its spending to follow the law.)
Now we have a new instance of the LePage administration maneuvering TANF money quietly, without explaining its actions or motives to the public.
A recent BDN Maine Focus investigation found that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is using much of the money it has saved from cutting low-income families off of TANF to cover long-term state spending obligations — such as shelters for homeless young people and transportation for families involved in the child protective system.
Out of $102 million in TANF funds DHHS says it plans to spend in the upcoming fiscal year, the BDN calculated that $34.5 million, more than a third of the total, will represent spending on programs and services previously paid for using other state funds.
Most of these programs and services were already accounted for in the budget proposal Gov. Paul LePage released earlier this year. By using TANF to pay for them instead, DHHS is, essentially, creating its own cash pool and thereby avoiding legislative scrutiny.
Characteristically, the department has denied publicly that this is what it’s doing, and it has not answered questions about its plans for the state money it is supposedly saving or where it is going.
In May, when lawmakers asked questions about what the LePage administration intended to do with the unspent balance in Maine’s TANF account, DHHS officials said they were using it to expand programs that already exist to help low-income families with children or beef up new programs that hadn’t received state money before.
For the most part, however, the BDN investigation found this is not true, as much of the money is slated to cover — and not expand — programs that already exist.
Key questions remain unanswered. Namely, what will DHHS do with the money it no longer needs to spend on existing programs because it’s using TANF funds instead? Is this diverted spending in line with federal rules for TANF funds? And, if LePage administration officials had a good reason to put TANF money to programs normally covered by taxpayers and other federal grants, why aren’t they talking about it?
The LePage administration and DHHS owe taxpayers an explanation about what they are doing with tens millions of public dollars that are, so far, unaccounted for.