Tennessee officials mull drug testing for taxpayer-funded benefits
By Tom Humphrey knoxnews.com
NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell said Wednesday they want some questions answered before joining some state senators in calling for drug testing of Tennesseans seeking taxpayer-funded benefits.
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, said he plans to push three bills calling for drug testing in the 2012 legislative session: one dealing with persons on welfare, one for those drawing unemployment compensation and one for those receiving workers' compensation benefits.
The senator said he has "no problem" with Haslam and Harwell's stance, which is somewhat more cautious than the ringing endorsement delivered a week earlier by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who is speaker of the Senate.
"I'm in favor of drug testing for people who are on any kind of benefits, whether it's unemployment compensation or worker's compensation, whatever it is, because I don't think we need to be supporting that lifestyle with government money," Ramsey said.
"I'm very much for that," said the Senate speaker, predicting that such legislation will be enacted by the Legislature in the coming session.
Campfield said he believes once Harwell and Haslam understand his proposals, they will back them.
Harwell was asked about reports that Florida's enactment of a law requiring drug tests for those drawing benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program resulted in very few drug abusers being found and high costs to the state. She said costs would be a concern.
"This (House Republican) Caucus is committed to not doing anything that would push us out of balance" in state budgeting, she said.
Haslam said he wants to "see what sort of federal leeway we have" to enact such a program and "who would implement it and how would we implement it."
A federal judge issued an injunction against the Florida law in October. A Miami Herald news story reports that, since the law took effect in July, about 7,000 persons passed the test, 32 failed and 1,600 refused to take it. One of the latter group was a plaintiff in the lawsuit leading to the injunction.
In Florida, the story reports, applicants for benefits pay $25 to $45 for a test, then are reimbursed by the state if they pass it.
Campfield said his proposed legislation will be designed to eliminate objections that arose in Florida, both as to the cost and the legality.
"I've looked at Florida and there were some things good and some things bad. We're going to do it differently and make a better scenario," he said.
First, Campfield proposes to have the legislation exclude persons already signed up for benefits and apply it only to new applicants. Also, the applicant would be required to cover the cost without state reimbursement. He estimated the costs could be kept to "only $4 or $5" by limiting the tests to "hardcore illegal drugs," such as cocaine, heroin and marijuana.
One objection to the Florida law, he said, is that the screen included prescription drugs in violation of medical privacy rights. Another legal objection in Florida was that those found to be using drugs could be prosecuted. His bills, Campfield said, will provide that a positive test be used only to block benefits, not for prosecution.
Campfield said that he believes, when calculations are complete, passage of the legislation will result in the state saving a substantial amount of money, not spending more.
He said the law will deter persons taking illegal drugs from applying for benefits, resulting in taxpayer savings, while having the applicant pay for the tests will eliminate state costs.
The welfare bill will also provide that, if a parent is found to be using drugs, his or her children can still receive benefits by designation of a third party to handle them, Campfield said. And a person losing benefits could re-apply and take another test after waiting a year and going through a rehabilitation program.
The senator sponsored a bill on drug testing for welfare recipients last legislative session with Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, but it was never pushed to a vote. Legislative staff estimated that bill (SB48), which did not include provisions Campfield plans for the 2012 session, would have cost the state $3.8 million in the first year of implementation and $2.4 million per year after that.