A report by the Legislature's watchdog agency confirms that a dramatic reduction in cash assistance to low income families over the past seven years was linked to restrictions imposed by the Legislature.
The report also found that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has mostly used the savings in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in ways that are allowed under federal law, but still finds that the department should be more transparent.
The review by the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA, was prompted by a steep decline in enrollment in the TANF program. It also investigates questions raised about the department's stockpiling — and in some cases spending — of unused federal dollars that accumulated after the legislature passed a law that included a 60-month cap on benefits.
On both counts, the numbers OPEGA reported are significant: as of last year, there were about 23,000 fewer Mainers receiving benefits under the program than there were a decade ago. Over that same period, DHHS accumulated over $146 million in unused TANF funds.
For the most part, state lawmakers have generally known the basic statistics in the OPEGA report. But the causes and effects were unclear, leaving a void of information that was routinely filled by the super-charged partisan rhetoric over welfare.
That same rhetoric began to surface during Thursday's public hearing on the report, prompting Democratic Rep. Dale Denno, of Cumberland, to suggest that the verbal jousting could have been avoided if the Legislature had done a better job demanding the answers that the OPEGA report began to uncover.
"This feeling of failure on oversight has bothered me, that we are not doing our job," Denno said.
Denno is a member of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former director of the Office of Family Independence at DHHS. He told the Government Oversight Committee Thursday that lawmakers have not adequately scrutinized the range of decisions that DHHS has made with TANF and other welfare programs.
He said that some of the failure stems from the LePage administration's unwillingness to communicate with legislative oversight committees, including the HHS panel, but Denno also said that the committee had been too consumed with bills to act as an effective check on the Executive branch.
"I find it very interesting that you would say the Legislature has failed in its oversight mission. I couldn't agree more with you on that," he said.
Republican State Sen. Paul Davis said that it will take a fundamental change in the Legislature to shift the focus of its work from just passing bills to overseeing large state agencies like DHHS.
"Change is going to have to come when the new leadership comes in and the new legislature comes in. It's the only time it can. It's not going to happen now. There's no way, it's not going to happen," he said.
If Davis is right, OPEGA's recommendations for greater transparency at DHHS would also likely have to be taken up by a new legislature next year.
Originally published July 27, 2018 5:09 p.m.