A bipartisan bill that would leverage federal assistance funding to help low-income Mainers obtain higher education and land better jobs drew widespread support during a public hearing Wednesday but was opposed by the LePage administration.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon of Freeport, would expand the Parents as Scholars program, which is funded through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant and provides child care and transportation assistance to those enrolled in college. It also would create a new employment and training program for individuals who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, often called food stamps.

Gideon said the bill is an extension of legislation she introduced last year, some elements of which were folded into the state budget, to help lift families out of poverty for good. She said that bill helped provide housing assistance and heating assistance for TANF recipients – but education is the key.

“We all know and we talk about this a lot: Low-wage working parents need education and training to access good-paying jobs and find a way out of poverty,” she said Wednesday while introducing the bill to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Gideon said she hoped her bill would have strong support because it provides a clear path to long-term employment for families who have struggled to find good-paying jobs that would eliminate their need for public assistance.

But the Department of Health and Human Services testified in opposition.

“The department and the bill’s sponsors absolutely share the same goal of supporting families in need by providing them a pathway to prosperity,” said Bethany Hamm, director of DHHS’ Office of Family Independence. “Our concern is that this bill, though well intentioned, doesn’t take into account the federal regulatory constraints associated with TANF and SNAP funding, and takes too much discretion away from the Department to adapt its programming as client needs and available resources change.”

SKILLS TO EARN A LIVING WAGE

Sen. Amy Volk, a Republican from Scarborough and one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the bill would have tremendous impact.

“For me, this addresses one of the neediest populations, those struggling to raise families, but who basically don’t have the skills to earn a living wage,” she said.

The bill’s estimated cost is $15 million for the 2018-19 fiscal year, but Gideon called that figure high. She said the bill’s fiscal note assumes that an additional 2,000 people would enroll in these programs, but her estimate is about 300.

Either way, funds would come from federal dollars. And because Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has taken steps to overhaul the state’s welfare system and reduce the number of people who receive TANF, Maine has significant TANF funds that are going unused.

In late 2016, lawmakers learned that the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state’s TANF block grant, had built a surplus of more than $150 million. That surplus was built over a period of several years following the establishment of a 60-month lifetime cap for TANF recipients.

The LePage administration defended the surplus, which is allowed under federal law, saying it puts the state on a better financial footing if the economy takes another downturn.

TANF is best known as a cash benefit awarded monthly to low-income families, but it has other components. Funds are used for job training, education, child care and other services. States have broad discretion under federal law to spend their share as they see fit – or to not spend it at all – and the LePage administration has prioritized giving out less as a cash benefit.

Although the state has reduced its TANF caseload dramatically – from 9,193 cases in December 2012 to 4,236 cases in December 2017 – it still gets the same level of block grant funding every year, about $78 million.

Program Underutilized

The state was criticized in 2016 for attempting to use TANF funds improperly. The state’s auditor, Pola Buckley, ruled that DHHS transferred $13.4 million in TANF funds over two years to another block grant, which is allowed, and used it to provide care for the elderly, which is not.

DHHS officials dismissed the state auditor’s report as politically motivated. In its report, the department said it went ahead with transferring the money because it didn’t have guidance from federal officials and always figured it could transfer the money back, which is ultimately what happened.

In her testimony on Wednesday, Hamm said DHHS has worked hard to allocate TANF funds :in a way that ensures the longevity and stability of the program.”

“This bill has the potential to jeopardize that goal,” she said.

But Gideon said the Parents as Scholars program has been woefully underutilized. Only about 50 people are currently enrolled.

Her bill would open up eligibility to those whose income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $37,000 for a family of three.

Moriah Geer, a mother of two who lives in Old Town, testified Wednesday that she benefited from the Parents as Scholars program eight years ago when she found herself homeless with two young children.

“I had to figure out what to do next,” she said before telling the committee how she enrolled at UMaine and the Parents as Scholars program covered her child care costs and transportation. It even helped pay for vehicle repairs when her car broke down. Without the assistance, she doesn’t know what she might have done, but now she’s a college graduate with a job that sustains her family.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

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