State's money-saving idea goes awry

Last modified: 7/22/2011 12:00:00 AM
Putting a state budget together is a messy process borne by lawmakers and government officials working long hours in painstaking detail. But every once in a while, something gets screwed up.

When Gov. John Lynch asked Terry Smith, the head of the state Division of Family Assistance, to find reductions within his division, one of the ideas Smith proposed was counting an individual's supplemental funding through the Social Security Administration toward his or her household income when calculating how much federal assistance a low-income, single-parent family receives.

The move was budgeted to save about $8.1 million annually - $3.8 million in state money and $4.3 million in federal dollars that can be used elsewhere, Smith said. But at the moment, those savings aren't being realized, because the budget didn't include a change to state law that would allow Supplemental Security Income - which is designed to help poor people who are elderly, blind or disabled - to be counted when determining the amount of money a family receives from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

'I'm not quite sure how the mistake was made. All I know is it didn't make it into the budget bill. I think a lot of people share blame,' Smith said. Now, 'we have a lot of money that we have to spend and no money to spend. Our finance people are scrambling.'

About 6,100 families receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, funded by a federal block grant that also requires cost-sharing by the state. If the Supplemental Security Income is counted for the recipients, Smith said his office estimated that 1,136 TANF cases would be closed and funding to 420 families would be reduced.

Rep. Neal Kurk, the Weare Republican who led the creation of the House human services budget, said the House was not informed by HHS officials until the day of the budget vote that a statutory change had not been included in the budget. By that point, it was too late to include the fix.

Kurk said HHS has to find the money to continue paying the additional TANF money 'until such time as the Legislature corrects this.' That correction will probably take place sometime in the early fall when the Legislature reconvenes for a veto override session, he said.

'This is unusual,' Kurk said earlier this month. 'I don't remember anything like this happening before.'

HHS Commissioner Nick Toumpas said his department has presented lawmakers with a copy of the necessary legislation to change the law and achieve the savings. Toumpas said the change was discussed, but 'for reasons that are unclear to me, the enabling legislation didn't make it in.'

Whenever the TANF cuts take place, they will affect recipients like Stacey Sweet. A 45-year-old single mother who lives on the Heights, Sweet receives $287.50 per month in Supplemental Security Income for her 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, who received a lung transplant as a baby. Sweet has a law degree from the former Franklin Pierce Law Center but hasn't worked since her daughter was born, because Rachel is frequently sick as a result of the immunosuppressants she takes.

If the SSI money is counted toward Sweet's monthly income - namely, about $600 in child support payments - she said her $464 in monthly TANF funding would likely go down by at least $100.

It's a hit that Sweet says will strain her budget even further.

'Right now, honestly, I'm living in the red every month anyway,' she said.

Though it was Smith's proposal to lower the amount of TANF money given to recipients of SSI, he said that does not mean he agrees with the cuts.

'We had targets to meet, and we were forced to come up with ideas on how to meet those,' he said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)




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