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Facing Uncertain Floor Vote, Campfield Pulls TANF Bill

Knoxville senator will seek summer compromise on measure tying responsible parenting to welfare benefits

It’s back to the lab this summer for lightning-rod state Sen. Stacey Campfield and his contentious welfare-for-grades bill.

The Knoxville Republican faced hecklers with signs as well as singing children and clergy gathered outside the state Senate chamber Thursday, there to show opposition to Campfield’s Senate Bill 132.

The atmosphere inside the upper chamber was more subdued, but Campfield still received pushback from lawmakers, including several GOP senators, who said they could not get behind the bill in current form. Apparently recognizing that the measure could go down if brought to a vote, Campfield instead asked the chamber to send it back to committee for special study during the assembly’s summer recess.

The legislation, sponsored on the House side by Savannah Republican Vance Dennis, would withhold up to a third of a parent’s state cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if their child failed to meet grade-level requirements. Benefits would be reinstated if a parent took one of a handful of different actions including attending parenting classes, participating in two parent-teacher conferences in the year or enrolling their student in tutoring.

According to the Tennessee Department of Human Services, roughly 53,000 families receive TANF benefits, with a mother and two children getting an average of $185 per month.

Critics, including many Democrats in the state Legislature, argue that the bill unfairly targets poor families and places an undue burden on students. But during floor discussion on the bill, Campfield stressed that TANF benefits are already contingent upon recipients maintaining a “personal responsibility plan” that includes work or school attendance. Campfield said his plan would help encourage parental involvement but wouldn’t create any new, burdensome requirements.

“I think we can all agree that the top ticket to break the chair of poverty is education,” Campfield told fellow lawmakers. “Linking benefits to a parent doing some absolutely minimal things to help in their child’s performance in school is showing incredible results in over 40 countries. What my bill will do, as amended, is put some absolute minimum responsibilities on the parents to be involved in their child’s education.”

“The goal is to encourage parents to do what they should already be doing,” he continued. “These aren’t high bars.”

A handful of lawmakers rose to back the legislation including Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who said the plan wasn’t punishment for low-income parents. It is rather a form of “discipline,” said the former special education teacher, and it “may be painful for a small season but it yields a good fruit, and the fruit of discipline will be the personal responsibility of breaking that cycle of poverty and allowing those children to know that the parent is involved and does care.”

But a number of other Republicans were not convinced.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville told Campfield the legislation made him “queasy.”He added, “You can say withholding the money from the parents doesn’t harm the child but you’re fooling yourself.”

Todd Gardenhire was even more blunt, telling the chamber ““You can’t legislate parental responsibility, I don’t care what you do.” The Chattanooga Republican also raised concerns about unintended consequences of the bill that could directly impact children.

“That kid is going to come home and his parent or the boyfriend of the mother is gonna beat the dog doo doo out of him when he gets home for taking away their 20 bucks, and that’s just what’s gonna happen,” Gardenhire said, referring to the potential lost cash benefits.

Norris and Gardenhire were joined by Republicans Ken Yager of Harriman, Doug Overbey of Maryville, Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville, Mark Green of Clarksville and Steven Dickerson of Nashville, all of whom commended Campfield for attempting to take on an important issue, but who said they would vote no if the bill came to a vote.

Thanking his colleagues for their input, Campfield suggested that he would like to return with a resolution to refer the measure to the appropriate committees for further consideration.

While “summer study” can often imply that a bill is being sent out to pasture, never to be seen again, an ad hoc panel formed from members of the Senate’s Education and Health & Welfare committees has been specifically suggested as a discussion venue for hashing out a policy compromise before the measure is brought back up next year.

For his part, Campfield appeared confident, telling reporters after the floor session “I think it’s a first big step, a lot of positive feedback actually. I like to think there’s enough to hopefully move us forward in a good direction over the summer.”

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