by Steven Hale
After weeks of debate, and in the face of legal and fiscal questions, a House committee today passed legislation that would require drug testing for welfare recipients. As amended, though, testing would be limited to applicants suspected of drug use, based on a set of criteria included in the provision.
Grounds for a "suspicion-based" drug test in the legislation include a drug or alcohol related arrest or conviction, a previous positive test and involvement in an employment-related accident. Democratic Rep. Jeanne Richardson, who brought the amendment, said that list was subject to change and also suggested that yet another attorney general's opinion might be needed to determine the legality of testing based on an arrest and not just a conviction.
In Florida, a program for drug-testing all welfare applicants was halted by a federal judge on the grounds that it constituted an illegal search and seizure, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is currently being contested in court.
That program provided for individuals who tested drug-free to be reimbursed for the cost of the test. The proposal in Tennessee requires that the applicant pay for two tests — an initial test and a confirmation test — and does not include a reimbursement provision.
Other laws, in Arizona and Missouri, limit their testing to anyone the state "reasonably" suspects of drug use, and have yet to be overturned.
Bill Russell, General Counsel for the state Department of Human Services, warned the committee that, even as amended, such a law would likely end up in court. Paul Lefkowitz, family assistance policy director for DHS, also expressed the concern that the department would spend money implementing the program, only to see it overturned. In that case, he said, they would recoup their losses, not to mention the cost of litigation to the state.
The department representatives also confirmed that the legislation had been flagged by the Haslam administration, due to concerns about its constitutionality.
After bill sponsor Rep. Julia Hurley cited poll numbers to argue that most Tennesseeans support the idea, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who voted against the measure, called it a "reelection bill," saying legislators were supposed to put more thought into their actions than the average respondent in a man-on-the-street poll.
"People poll a lot of things," he said. "If somebody asks you about this, your gut instinct, stops you on the street — they'll tell you 'Oh yeah, I think we ought to do that.' But people don't have the facts like we [do]. We're supposed to make clear, level judgements, is this the best thing to do in the state."
Turner continued to press Hurley about the reason for the bill, asking her if it was because this group of people was poor or because "they're people of color."
Committee chair Rep. Glen Casada rebuked Turner, telling him "we just don't want to stereotype people who are poor."
Turner continued making his argument, saying, "We give subsidies to farmers, we're not drug-testing farmers in this state. We give subsidies to veterans, we don't drug-test veterans in this state. I'm just trying to get to the point, why we pick the poorest of the poor to drug test."
Speaking to reporters after the bill passed by a vote of 11-6, Hurley was characteristically enthusiastic about her legislation's chances, touting the fact that the bill has made it farther than similar proposals in most states.