By Jake Grovum, Stateline Staff Writer

Having greater flexibility in dealing with state-federal programs is a popular concept for debate in state capitols these days. But a recent move to give states more latitude in meeting requirements for their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs has met with resistance from some of the same officials calling for more leeway in dealing with other programs.

Late last week, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department announced it would grant states waivers to give greater flexibility in their TANF (commonly known as welfare) programs that financially support poor Americans as they look for work. They could range from programmatic tweaks to changes in reporting requirements, all in the name of improving outcomes, helping more people and potentially saving money.

But the announcement has roiled some Republicans who say they fear it could be a backdoor for rolling back the Clinton administration’s welfare overhauls, including removing the requirement to seek employment. At the same time, some say the waivers may address long-held complaints that have crossed regional and party lines since the Clinton-era welfare changes were reauthorized in 2005.

The political fallout continues to unfold. Two high-profile congressional Republicans introduced legislation on Wednesday (July 18) to block the waivers, which prompted a response from HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defending the plan.

Meanwhile, how states might pursue the waivers is already being considered, as some see a promising opportunity. The new flexibility, these people say, could provide a useful testing ground.

“When you’re not certain what the next direction is, it allows you to test it,” LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says. “Before you go whole-scale, it allows you to test that.”

Many of the reforms put in place in the mid-90s started as state-based waiver programs. Time limits for aid and work requirements are two examples of state-based initiatives that made their way into TANF, Pavetti says. Now, she adds, with many states complaining about onerous reporting requirements and restrictions, there’s an opportunity to make more improvements.

Among the possible changes, Pavetti says, is extending a 12-week restriction on job searches, which some see as unduly short in today’s economy. Another would remove a cap on vocational training, or allow a more tailored approach to helping people find or prepare for work.

But where some see flexibility, others see a relaxing of the “workfare” principles pushed in the Clinton reforms. Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation who worked on welfare in the 1990s, says the HHS announcement “guts” those changes.

“The federal reform (of the 1990s) was not about throwing money at the states and letting a thousand flowers bloom,” Rector says. “The idea was to give flexibility, except for work. In the area of work, it was anti-flexibility.”

Utah and Nevada have emerged as early adopters, having written to HHS supporting waivers. California, Connecticut and Minnesota have also asked about waivers.

It wasn’t long ago that these waivers were a bipartisan affair. As The New York Times reported, 29 Republican governors, including Mitt Romney, wrote a letter to U.S. Senators requesting greater flexibility for their welfare programs. The George W. Bush White House also supported TANF waivers, as then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said in congressional testimony in 2003, and the administration explained in a 2002 policy brief.

But the new political backlash from the waiver announcement could sour those efforts.

Nevada officials declined to comment and refused to release a copy its letter to HHS supporting waivers. For Utah, much was made this week that its senior U.S. senator, Orrin Hatch, is been among the most vocal opponents of proposal and has sponsored legislation to block it.

Even the CBPP’s Pavetti and Heritage’s Rector agree that the political climate is less than conducive for meaningful reforms.

“They’ve absolutely poisoned the relationship between themselves and the Republicans,” Rector says, referring to the Obama administration.

“There’s a credible agreement from one state to the next about the kinds of things that are really set up as roadblocks,” Pavetti says. “What has changed is the political climate.”