AUGUSTA, Maine — House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, this week unveiled her wide-ranging Leveraging Investments in Families Today bill, which aims to expand and enhance social service programs with federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant money that she says has gone unspent.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that Gideon and the Democrats are wrong about the availability of the funds.

“She is just dead wrong,” he said during a radio interview.

However, the legislative and executive branches have said Gideon is correct about the funding, though as with most of these conflicts, it’s not purely black and white.

The Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, a team of number crunchers, who among other things calculate how much potential new laws would cost the state, estimated at the end of fiscal year 2016 last summer that about $150 million in federal money had accrued.

That’s because there’s a gap between how much the Legislature has authorized state government to use for TANF and how much the state has actually spent since 2012. As reported by the Bangor Daily News in June 2016, that’s largely because of a lifetime TANF cap of five years that has cut more than 8,000 Maine families out of the program so far.

OFPR’s figures on this issue amount basically to an educated guess. As an arm of the Legislature, the office has no more access to the fine details of TANF spending in Maine than the Legislature does.

However, in March of this year, DHHS told lawmakers in a memo generated to inform budget deliberations that there will be an estimated carry-forward balance of more than $110 million in the TANF program by June of next year.

It’s clear that there is, in fact, a large stack of unspent TANF cash sitting around, but here’s the rub: DHHS says it plans to use the money for a range of new programs and services and that the year-end TANF balance in 2022 will be down to about $4.6 million.

The federal government gives states latitude on how TANF money is spent as long as they abide by a set of broad criteria that aim to “provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes, or in the homes of relatives.”

At the state level, DHHS can route the money as it wishes unless the Legislature directs the department to use it in specific ways. Gideon’s LIFT bill is the latest of several bills since LePage took office that have sought, unsuccessfully, to do just that.

DHHS detailed some of the new and existing spending in its memo: $5.5 million in funding for a range of programs for at-risk youth, such as the My Place Teen Center in Westbrook and the Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program; $27.5 million for “family supports” through organizations such as the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence; and $20.4 for workforce education and training.

Lawmakers, especially Democrats, have been requesting information about how TANF money is being used. Despite the March 2017 memo, they claim they are largely stonewalled — particularly in regard to the department’s future plans.

A BDN analysis concluded that some of that money — at least $7.8 million — is being spent in ways that are inconsistent with federal TANF law, which intends the aid to be for struggling families with children. The department initially disputed that premise but later reversed the transfer of funds. Later, a report by State Auditor Pola Buckley, a Democrat, determined that DHHS had taken “an overly aggressive approach” and had misspent $13.4 million in federal public assistance money.

The wider issue around this fight over TANF funding is helping children in poverty. It’s an issue that creates another “he said, she said” situation between the Legislature and the executive branch.

Gideon claims the rate of Maine children falling into extreme poverty — families living at 50 percent of the federal poverty level of $10,000 per year for a family of three or lower — is increasing eight times faster than the national average. That number comes from an analysis of census data by the left-leaning Maine Center for Economic Policy.

The department has touted data from the national Kids Count Data Center in attempts to refute that figure. That data show that the number of Maine children in extreme poverty hovered at around 20,000 from 2011 through 2015. But changing data collection methods and variation between conclusions based on yearly versus three-year averages makes it harder to discern a clear pattern — and easier to pick and choose data points to promote political agendas.

And so, the debate rages on. Gideon’s bill has already had a public hearing and will likely be the subject of extensive committee work sessions before it goes to consideration by the full Legislature. As one of the Democrats’ marquee pieces of legislation this year — and with four Republican sponsors on it — the fight will be intense and this bill could end up in a conversation about whether or not political stalemate will shut down state government come July 1.

This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.