Utah sought welfare waiver that riled conservatives
Politics » Hatch blasts Obama “power grab,” wants to know why rules are being loosened.

First Published Jul 17 2012 08:16 pm • Last Updated Jul 24 2012 10:16 pm

Utah’s senior Sen. Orrin Hatch and Gov. Gary Herbert — stalwarts of the state’s Republican party — appear to be at odds over welfare and waivers after Hatch expressed outrage at the Obama Administration for accommodating a state request.

On July 12, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a memo giving states more flexibility in how they help families find employment under the landmark 1996 welfare reform law passed by a GOP-dominated Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

That action brought swift criticism from Hatch, who called the Obama Administration’s quiet action a "power grab," according to Associated Press reports. Hatch joined House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., in demanding an explanation from HHS as to why work requirements — set in stone for 16 years — were now being loosened.

It turns out Utah is one of five states requesting waivers from burdensome federal reporting requirements that divert caseworkers from helping welfare recipients find gainful employment under the law’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Utah wants to spend (TANF) dollars "in the most efficient and effective manner supporting the kind of services and activities that promote initial employment, wage progression and employment retention," said Kristen Cox, head of Utah’s Department of Workforce, in an August 2011 letter to the federal agency.

On July 16, Herbert sent a letter to HHS, clarifying the state’s position.

"The central feature of the 1996 welfare reform bill was to give states flexibility to create robust welfare-to-work programs in exchange for a vigorous evaluation of the success of these programs," Herbert said in the letter. However, some measures of that success "are difficult and costly to verify," Herbert added, "while other participation requirements do not lead to meaningful employment outcomes and are overly prescriptive."

A day after Herbert’s letter, Hatch spokesman Matt Harakal fine-tuned the senator’s position.

"Hatch does not believe that HHS has the legal authority to waive TANF work rules," Harakal said in an email to The Tribune. "This is a completely different issue than giving states flexibility through a regular reauthorization of TANF."

Utah’s request for greater flexibility is reasonable, Harakal added. At issue, he said, is how HHS got there, "bypassing Congress in such a broad way that the intent of welfare reform could be seriously compromised."

Robert Rector, who helped draft the 1996 legislation and is part of the conservative Heritage Foundation, blasted the Obama administration last week for taking control of the TANF program through "foul play."

However, the July 12 HHS memo said waiver requests would not be approved for initiatives that reduce access to assistance or employment, and must be accompanied by performance measures.

"States have shown their ability to innovate in ways that help parents find jobs," the HHS letter said, crediting them with "enormous creativity in developing subsidized employment initiatives" in response to the urgent need for jobs.

Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, applauded the waivers for giving Utah more autonomy in dealing with the struggling economy.

"The Utah Department of Workforce Services has always really wanted to be out ahead of the curve and has really been interested in innovation," Cornia said. "This would be a great opportunity to help people get back into meaningful work."

cmckitrick@sltrib.com

twitter: @catmck

Tribune Reporters Matt Canham and Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.

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