After an amendment essentially rewrote it and further narrowed its scope, a proposal to require drug testing for welfare applicants might possibly be legal, according to testimony given to a Senate finance committee yesterday.
For weeks now, Sen. Stacey Campfield and Rep. Julia Hurley have been pushing the idea, in the face of unfavorable rulings from the state's attorney general and legal troubles with similar programs in other states. Their bill has undergone so many changes that it's been tricky to keep up. In short, at their most brazen, Campfield and Hurley were proposing a program that would have drug-tested every applicant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) along with anyone "reasonably suspected" of drug use. The rewritten bill presented yesterday limits testing to new applicants who raise suspicion of drug use after a screening. The bill would allow DHS to develop such a screening and a plan for implementation of the program before presenting their plans to legislators in January 2014. The program would go into effect in July of that year.
The new version of the bill still guarantees that a child's benefits would not be at risk in the event that their parent tests positive. If an applicant tests positive, they would be referred to a treatment program. If they refuse, they would be ineligible for TANF benefits for six months.
General counsel for DHS, Bill Russell, told the committee the bill was "in better shape" legally after the changes. The committee eventually passed the bill 8-3, setting it up for a likely Senate floor vote next week. Hurley's companion bill in the House is still sitting in committee.
A representative from the Haslam administration, which had expressed concern about the bill and was involved in the development of the new version, told the committee the administration has now "deferred to the will of legislature" on the matter. Imagine that.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey took to Twitter this morning, declaring, "State should not allow taxpayers to fund addiction. We must act — for the benefit of the taxpayer and the addict."
Fair enough. But although Ramsey has said he would support it, drug testing is not required for most state workers or for legislators (a group who would surely never abuse the public's funds or its trust).
Ramsey and others may truly believe in the principle quoted above, but that's not the sole impetus behind ideas like this. They spring from the faulty premise that a significant amount of people on welfare are using drugs. The reason people like Campfield and Hurley swing for the fences at first, proposing a drug testing requirement for all welfare applicants, is because, apparently in their minds, being on welfare is suspicion enough.
But according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most estimates find that 5 to 10 percent of of welfare recipients have a substance abuse problem, only slightly higher than estimates for the general population. In Florida, a program that required testing for all applicants - which was halted by a federal judge and is now being contested in court - resulted in only 2 percent of applicants testing positive, just slightly lower than the percentage of Tennessee state legislators arrested in the last year.