Tennesseans applying for welfare would have to submit to, and pay for, drug testing before receiving financial assistance, under legislation slowly advancing in both chambers of the legislature.
After a lengthy debate Tuesday night, on various aspects of the bill, that left members on both sides of the issue visibly irritated, the House Health and Human Resources Subcommittee passed HB2725, sponsored by Rep. Julia Hurley, R-Lenoir City. The Senate version of the bill, SB2580, sponsored by Knoxville Republican Stacey Campfield, passed the Senate’s health committee last week and is currently awaiting action in the Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
In an opinion rendered March 20, state Attorney General Robert Cooper said “the Social Security Act, the TennCare waiver and the federal Food Stamp program do not permit a state to condition eligibility on substance abuse testing or consent to such testing.” He also concluded that such suspicionless drug testing constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
When asked by Chairman Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, how that affected her legislation, Hurley said it did not. The AG was comparing “apples to oranges,” she said, grouping in her bill with legislation from other states that she didn’t consider to be the same. As a result, she said she didn’t consider it to be a “validated opinion.”
Information on similar proposals around the country are summed up here, by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.
An amendment adopted in the Senate committee narrowed the measure so that only people convicted of a drug felony or arrested on drug charges in the previous five years would be tested. Hurley initially introduced the amendment to the House committee, but appeared displeased with the change.
When pressed by members for her feelings on the matter, she said only that she “accepted” the amendment. Eventually, Hill asked Hurley directly if she wanted the committee to consider the amendment. Hurley said no and the amendment was withdrawn.
The House committee did adopt an amendment stating that laid-off workers, who took a drug test for their former employer in the previous 45 days, would not have to be tested again and providing protections for children’s assistance, in the event that their parent(s) test positive. Parents can designate a relative or other individual to handle their children’s benefits.
Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, raised the issue of whether or not said designated individual should be tested, as well. When Hurley offered him the chance to propose such an amendment, Armstrong said that if he were making a proposal, it would be to table the bill until next year.
General Counsel for the Department of Human Services, Bill Russell, told the committee the department didn’t have a problem with the “general concept” of the legislation, but couldn’t ignore the AG’s opinion. He also expressed concerned with forcing applicants to pay for the drug test – which he said cost around $26 in Florida when that state passed similar legislation – and the potential cost of litigation, which he said should be expected if the bill becomes law.
Russell also said, if applicants test positive, there should be rehabilitation assistance available to them, to get them off drugs and back to work “since that’s the point of the program.” Hurley responded by claiming that the program would create $1 million in savings, which could be used to provide such rehab, if the department wanted to do so. When challenged on that claim by several members of the committee, Hurley repeatedly referred them to the bill’s fiscal note, inviting them to read it for themselves.
The note, provided by the Fiscal Review Committee which estimates a bill’s impact in dollars and cents, states that “the total decrease in recurring state expenditures” as a result of the new welfare eligibility requirement is estimated at $1,280,040. However, the DHS reports that the department has hit the cap for allowable administrative costs. As a result, the note says, “any cost avoidance resulting from this bill would be used to serve [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] eligible clients, resulting in an equal increase in state expenditures, for a net impact of zero on TANF funds.”
The estimated decrease in state expenditures comes from the 2,551 welfare applicants the DHS expects to sanction as a result of failed drug tests. Paul Lefkowitz, family assistance policy director for DHS, told the committee that the department based that estimate off of a CDC study into drug use amongst welfare recipients.
The fiscal note also estimates a cost of $100,000 for litigation resulting from the program, a dollar amount some committee members found dubious, as well.
Democratic House Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said he was concerned with the amount of “unanswered questions” about the bill. He also took issue with the message he said it sends to Tennesseans who are already down on their luck.
“We kind of indicate by doing this, that everyone on food stamps is possibly a drug addict. We put a stigma to it,” he said. “We’re kind of pointing a finger at them. It had to be embarrassing enough for a lot of people to do it. It would be embarrassing for me to go on food stamps if I had to, but I would to feed my family. That’s what concerns me about this bill.”
Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga, put the focus on legislators – recipients of public money, themselves – and addressed Hurley directly. She asked the sponsor if she thought the bill was compassionate. When Hurley said she thought the bill was “fair,” Favors responded with a lengthy statement.
“Listen,” she said. “As a mother, a female, as a relative, most of us have had some experience, with relatives and friends, who have been substance abusers. As a compassionate individual and a mother, I would think that most of us would be concerned about interventions and preventions first, rather than initiating and enacting a bill like this. Now there are some of us who exhibit some bizarre behavior as elected officials, but nobody has requested that we undergo drug screening or the same type of psychological exam that police officers undergo.”
She went on, “But I can assure you that some of the behavior that has been exhibited by some of the elected officials in this Tennessee General Assembly do merit having some psychological exam based on my medical background.”
Favors is accurate when it comes to drug testing state legislators and other state workers, for that matter. Despite the push for drug testing of welfare recipients, supported by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, and state programs rewarding business for testing workers, Tennessee state government is not a ‘drug-free workplace.’