Commentary

Buckley Wrongly Accuses DHHS in Politically-Motivated Report

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It was stunning to read headlines accusing the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) of misappropriation regarding the TANF block grant funds last week. As a member of the HHS committee, I know first-hand that DHHS has been exceedingly transparent in their efforts to ensure resources are dedicated to appropriate programs to help our most vulnerable citizens

During the last session, Commissioner Mary Mayhew’s staff presented a document to the Health and Human Services Committee (HHS) clearly outlining their intent to transfer TANF block grant funds to the Social Services Block Grant in order to maximize federal funding for elderly and disabled services. They informed us they were in the process of seeking clarification from the Federal Government to ensure this transfer was an allowable cost under the grant guidelines.

In a recent statement by DHHS, they indicated they “withdrew their spending plan well within timeframes when we couldn’t determine whether the spending plan would be approved.”

This is a responsible action taken by DHHS when clarity did not exist. This is not an uncommon practice when efforts to change payment structures within block grant funded programing is attempted.

What isn’t clear however, is why Pola Buckley, Maine State Auditor, would send an initial, official draft of their audit report to DHHS on September 27, 2016, then release a revised draft on October 19 with substantial changes after the Department responded.

The original draft submitted to DHHS stated under “Questioned Costs” – NONE, then in parenthesis for explanation added that “$13.4 million of TANF grand funds were transferred to SSBG and used for unallowable purposed. However, the entire $13.4 million was returned to the Federal Government by July 2016.” The final draft had removed the word “None” under “Questioned Costs”, and the explanation had now become the definition.

What also isn’t clear is why Ms. Buckley would issue the final document to the press at the same time it was issued to DHHS. Does that happen with all audit documents? Did it just happen with this one? Is it political? I hope not.

However, the timing seems suspect.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I question the impetus of this report and wonder if it may have potential political leanings.

Currently, DHHS is facing federal fines and penalties just short of $30 million because we greatly exceed the federal guidelines with our exemptions to work participation requirements under the TANF program. Commissioner Mayhew and her staff have repeatedly come before the HHS committee to ask the legislature to correct statutory language so we come into compliance with a known problem and cease racking up a larger bill. While my conservative colleagues have been on board with making the corrections, attempts to do so have been thwarted by liberals each time.

Where is our State Auditor on this issue? Perhaps it could stand to reason that her thoughts on work requirements under the TANF program echo her liberal counterparts in the legislature.

After all, one of the first duties of a newly seated legislature every two years is to elect by secret ballot our constitutional officers, with the position of state auditor included. With a Democrat majority, it also stands to reason they would win the votes to seat someone they are more ideologically aligned with on these issues.

With millions of dollars in fines due to the Federal Government, Ms. Buckley is silent on this issue, yet chooses to publicize an issue that DHHS self-corrected due to lack of direction and clarity from the federal government that incurred zero fines.

In Buckley’s “Effect and Recommendation” section of the recent finding against DHHS, it clearly stated:

“Effect:  The Department did not spend federal grant funds in Accordance with federal grant regulations. (emphasis mine)

Recommendation: As the Department pursues their efforts to maximize federal funds, we recommend that the Department thoroughly consider and document not only their intentions, but also, how they will achieve compliance with federal requirements.  We recommend that the Department refrain from using federal funds where compliance is uncertain until appropriate approvals have been secured. We also recommend that the Department consider legal and ethical restraints when using federal funds.”  (emphasis mine)

The hypocrisy of this report finding while, at the same time, completely ignoring very real violations of the very same TANF block grant which is accruing millions of dollars in fines by the year is astounding.

Regardless of party, our officials elected by the legislature have very clear tasks to accomplish, and I believe that by and large, they are done in accordance with following the law and serving our state. However, by releasing a report on this particular matter while ignoring a much more serious compliance problem can only be construed as a veiled attempt to blacken the administration’s eye.

Going forward, I would hope that Ms. Buckley would chose to release all reports to the press, not just certain ones.

After all, the citizens of this state have a right to know exactly what is going on in their state government.

About Deb Sanderson

Deborah Sanderson, a state representative from Chelsea, is the ranking House Republican on the Health and Human Services Committee.

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