Tennessee has let about $1 billion for needy families go unspent.
That’s according to The Tennessean and the Beacon Center, an organization that tracks government spending in the state. They estimate that more than 40,000 people could be helped by the money.
Natalie Allison, a state politics reporter for The Tennessean, has been covering how the state runs its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. She sat down with WPLN’s Rachel Iacovone to discuss why lawmakers disagree on the next steps forward.
Below are some excerpts from that conversation:
RI: So how did the state end up having so much money?
NA: They weren’t spending it. In 2012, the reserve amount was right around $20 million. And since then, it has shot up dramatically, really since 2016. So we’re at around $730 [to] $732 million in the last few years. The state just hasn’t been allocating very much of that TANF block grant.
RI: What can these funds be used for?
NA: It’s actually quite broad. Most people, when they think of TANF, if they’re even vaguely familiar with the program, they know it as cash assistance. And so there are some TANF recipients who apply for and receive cash assistance.
But the TANF program is created as a block grant to give states a lot of flexibility to do what they want with the program, so long as it falls into some pretty broad categories dealing with helping people get and keep jobs, keeping family units together, allowing parents to raise their children and the household. And so other states have used this money to fight the opioid crisis, to help people get treatment, to help with child care cost.
We really haven’t been using much money for that.
RI: So how are lawmakers reacting to this news?
NA: At first, it was basically, unsurprisingly, only the Democrats saying, “You know, this is not okay. We’re outraged over this.”
Initially, Rep. Brian Terry — he is a Republican — was sort of the lone Republican in the legislature who verbalized any kind of concern about the level of reserves. But since then, a few other Republicans have also come on board. We have the new House Speaker, Cameron Sexton, who has indicated that he’s interested in looking at ways we can spend this money.
Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally has been less enthusiastic about putting that money to use. He has actually said he thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to have this much money put away and that that’s a sound fiscal practice. But it doesn’t seem like he’s going to necessarily stop any efforts to find other ways to spend a ton of money.