TN misses out on some federal grants for family, child programs

8:48 PM, Jun 10, 2013   |    comments
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By Tony Gonzalez / The Tennessean

Tennessee's child and family programs receive huge shares of their funding from the federal government, but the state still misses out on some competitive grants, a recent study finds.

Whether short-staffed, pressed for time or unable to drum up matching state dollars, Tennessee's government grant writers encounter many hurdles to pulling in more federal funds that could help families, according to the report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

Still, the state spent $3.9 billion in federal dollars on kids and families last fiscal year, and more than $9 billion overall. The report did not attempt to quantify the lost opportunities.

"The departments are fairly aggressive about (grants) that meet their main mission, but because we are a fairly lean government, we don't have additional staffing and time to branch into other areas," said Linda O'Neal, commission executive director. "There are opportunities that they see from time to time that they think are good ideas but realize just aren't practical."

The commission wants to examine how best to fund programs and reduce waste, so the analysis captures spending on everything from education and health care to arts and reading programs.

"There's always this perception that there's this huge duplication of services in government," O'Neal said. "Through this process, we have not been able to identify substantial duplication."

The 48-page report describes Tennessee as "heavily reliant" on federal funds, with more than 90 percent of child spending built on federal dollars or state matching dollars required for federal grants.

"We're very reliant on federal funds. All states are," O'Neal said. "We may be more reliant than some."

Schedules clash

The Department of Education stands out in the report for "aggressively and successfully" seeking Race to the Top money to pay for reforms, and also for seeking other grants.

"(Application) questions are difficult. The timeline is short. But we've generally had success," said Erin O'Hara, Education Department assistant commissioner of data and research. "If we choose not to apply for a grant, it's because it does not fit with our overall strategic plan."

Yet half of grant writers across departments encounter difficulties, either because they lack expertise, face tight deadlines or realize that grants would not be able to be put to full use, they reported to the study's authors.

The most common struggle starts with the General Assembly, where lawmakers can be slow to approve applications and spending.

"Sometimes the availability of federal funds does not mesh well with state schedules," O'Neal said. "There are mechanisms for getting approval outside the annual appropriations process, but they're somewhat cumbersome."

The study recommends creating a faster approval process for lawmakers.

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