Tennessee congressman seeks answers on welfare surplus

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House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee member Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. gestures as he speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 16, 2013, during the committee’s markup to consider legislation on the Keystone XL pipeline project and other measures. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee is demanding answers from Republican Gov. Bill Lee surrounding a large funding surplus from a federal welfare program for families with children.

In a letter sent this week, the Memphis Democrat said he wants to know the state’s plan for addressing its $732 million in welfare reserves. He also demanded that the state justify why Tennessee has some of the lowest cash-assistance benefit levels in the country.

“When 15.3 percent of Tennesseans are living in poverty, it is inexcusable for the state to withhold millions of federal dollars allocated to help this exact population. At best, this has resulted in Tennessee’s gross mismanagement of federal dollars; at worst, Tennessee has deliberately chosen not to assist needy families,” Cohen wrote. He indicated that he expects a response from the governor’s office within five business days to his list of questions.

The large surplus of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds has come under scrutiny after first being flagged last month in a report by the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative think tank.

Lee’s spokeswoman, Laine Arnold, declined to comment on Cohen’s letter.

Lee originally defended the high reserve amount when the report was first released and argued that the surplus would provide a cushion for any potential future economic downturn.

However, as criticism has intensified, Lee changed course earlier this week by telling reporters he was open to using the surplus on a variety of options to continue helping Tennessee’s poor. Lee coupled his change of heart with news that the state was planning on spending up to $70 million of the surplus on grant awards to nonprofits throughout the state starting in January.

But Tennessee’s large welfare surplus was significantly built up before Lee took over the top elected seat in January.

In the letter, Cohen said he specifically wanted to know why the welfare reserves spiked between 2016 and 2019.

When asked by The Associated Press earlier this week, former GOP Gov. Bill Haslam said he didn’t remember the TANF reserves becoming an issue during his last tenure in office.

Haslam added that he hoped the state would focus on “how do we use this to serve people who could really need help.”

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