Plan to drug-test welfare recipients presses on despite potential legal roadblocks

Monday, April 9, 2012 at 8:56am
By Steven Hale

Despite two unfavorable opinions from the state’s attorney general — and litigation surrounding similar measures in other states — a Republican initiative to require drug testing for welfare applicants is continuing to gestate in the state legislature.

A bill that would have required drug testing for those seeking unemployment benefits was withdrawn last week.

The idea to test welfare applicants cropped up last year as well, with the support of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, but eventually failed. This year it’s being pushed by Rep. Julia Hurley (R-Lenoir City) in the House and Sen. Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) in the Senate.

Last week, Hurley begrudgingly agreed to delay a vote on the bill in the House Health Committee at the request of members who had lingering concerns about the details of the legislation. It also gave them time to further review a seven-page amendment, which made mostly technical changes.

Campfield’s version of the bill is awaiting action by the Senate’s finance committee.   

The bill would require Tennesseans over the age of 18 who are applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to submit to, and pay for, a drug test before receiving financial assistance. There is also a provision in the proposed amendment that would allow the Department of Human Services to drug test current recipients “if the department has reason to believe” that individual “has used illegal drugs.” 

If recipients test positive for a drug for which they don’t have a valid prescription, they would not be able to reapply for benefits for a year. If they test positive again at that point, they would be ineligible for three years. However, applicants who complete a drug treatment program after a negative test would be able to reapply after six months. 

There is an exemption for individuals who successfully passed a drug test for an employer within the previous 45 days, and any positive test must be verified by a confirmation test, paid for by the applicant. In the event that a parent tests positive, the bill allows for them to appoint a blood relative or legal guardian to receive benefits on behalf of their children.

The DHS estimates that 3,577 individuals (around 6 percent of the 58,000 adults they expect to test) would test positive and be sanctioned for a full year. Given that the average monthly amount of benefits for an adult receiving TANF funds is $40, they estimate a decrease in recurring state expenditures resulting from withheld benefits would be total more than $1.7 million.

Hurley touted that number to the House subcommittee, but was rebuffed by members who noted that, according to a fiscal review of the bill, the DHS has reached the cap for allowable administrative costs and that “any cost avoidance resulting from this bill would be used to serve TANF eligible clients, resulting in an equal increase in state expenditures, for a net impact of zero on TANF funds.” The updated fiscal note also estimates an average annual increase in state expenditures of $402,716.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most estimates find that 5 to 10 percent of welfare recipients have some sort of substance abuse problem.

Some committee members also called into question the estimated number of positive tests, arguing that they seemed rather high compared to the results of similar drug-testing programs in other states.

Indeed, a similar program in Florida resulted in only 2 percent of welfare applicants testing positive, far lower than what the state had predicted, according to The Tampa Tribune. That law required the state to reimburse those individuals for the cost of the test — about $30 a piece — and the state just managed to break even on the program.

As it’s currently written, Hurley and Campfield’s bill has no such reimbursement provision, meaning that drug-free applicants would be left paying a cost nearly equal to the amount of monthly benefits they’re seeking.

During the subcommittee debate, Hurley said her bill was most like one passed last year in Missouri, however that law, like one in Arizona, only requires testing for anyone the state “reasonably” suspects of drug use. At the time it was passed, the state estimated that law would cost Missouri close to $2 million in its first year. Estimates on how much the bill would save the state were not available.

Putting the uncertain financial impact aside, the bill’s biggest hurdle will likely be a legal one. The DHS itself predicts, in a fiscal note, that “passage of the bill would result in legal action against the state,” with costs exceeding $100,000. Opponents of the bill have scoffed at that number, saying the state’s legal troubles are sure to cost much more if the governor signs it.

The reason for their certainty on that point is based in the two opinions issued by Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper and the legal entanglement that has played out in states like Florida and Michigan.

In 2000, a pilot program in Michigan was declared unconstitutional by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that suspicionless drug testing of TANF applicants and recipients constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Hurley downplayed this ruling to the committee, calling the Michigan program “obviously unconstitutional” because it required testing only in three of the state’s poorest counties. But in his opinion, Cooper says the fact that the program was a pilot program was not relevant to the court’s decision.

In Florida, a federal judge last year issued a temporary injunction, halting that state’s drug-testing program on the same grounds. The program’s legality is currently being contested in court, and the outcome will likely serve as a strong legal precedent going forward.

But Hurley and Campfield are as yet undeterred. When confronted with the attorney general’s first opinion in a House subcommittee, Hurley said she didn’t consider it a “validated opinion.” She was no more convinced by the second, choosing instead to hang on to the assurance of the committee’s vice chair, Rep. Matthew Hill, who told her the bill was “98 percent there” legally.     

26 Comments on this post:

By: me55 on 4/9/12 at 7:40

Just do it! If they are not using drugs, then they have no worries. And if they are, then cut then.

By: jackie1999 on 4/9/12 at 8:09

Many drug users get clean urine from their children or buy it and still pass drug tests. You will have to moniter people, which is difficult, or do the hair test which runs $80 each.

By: pswindle on 4/9/12 at 8:28

If his is the best that the Legislative Branch can do, it is time for them to pack up and go home. I remember the GOP saying, "I don't want government in my live."
But , that is all that they have done since they took over in 2010. They have taken away or limited all of our rights that is given to us by the Constitution. TN is going to be worse than Mississippi and Alabama. The Tea Party is doing well in TN, and we will pay the price. Our Governor always says that he will sign the bills when they get to his desk. How on earth did we elect this guy and where did he come from?

By: frodo on 4/9/12 at 8:53

I have no constitutional concern about this bill. They toss us into jail if we drive under the influence. We get fired (or maybe one do-over and then fired) if we test positive on an employer drug test. Not sure what happens at school if you show up under the influence and/or carrying drugs, but I can imagine. And the list goes on. Public assistance should be the same. None of us deserve help. I'm not trying to play the "do they deserve it" game. But I'm saying if I must stay clean to get a paycheck that I work hard for, then let's drug test those who are paid out of my pocket to do nothing. jackie1999 does raise an issue about cost. I think we need to be smart about the drug tests and see if this system pays for itself. Other than that, let the testing begin!

By: Moonglow1 on 4/9/12 at 9:00

Moonglow1: Amen pswindle. I agree with all of your points.

Hurley and Campfield remind me of Butts and Beavers. Remember them? One refuted climate change because she conducted "experiments" in high school using Aqua Net hair spray. Now we have Hurley who is ignorant of the law. She has no respect for the attorney general. Hurley personifies the stupidity of the tea p. Dumb dumb and dumber. "If I can't get my way I gonna stomp my feet and make it happen. Rights? What are they? People have no rights. I'm in charge and I want what I want. So there". This is the mind of a tea p.

By: dargent7 on 4/9/12 at 9:16

So, the visionary,intelligent wants to, "cut them off!" Then what? How about they start 7/11 hold-ups, shoplifting, home invasions, car-jackings. Their kids will get $40.00 worth of crap from the foodbank a month. Marshmellows, white flour bread, canned pears and canned vegetables.
And charge the "applicant" $35.00 for a re-test? You know how much waste that will incurr?Half of all law makers are arrested for domestic violence, DUI, carry a gun, etc.
We all screw up.

By: wataboutbob on 4/9/12 at 9:27

Listen to all the libs! They just love our Foodstamp President!

By: tn.native on 4/9/12 at 9:31

These guys would really like to police you 24-7! What a waste of tax payer money! All I have is my vote and I will be sure to use it. Times get tough and lawmakers attack the most vulnerable in the community. These people have kids that have nutritional needs and they pose and pontificate while others are barely getting buy. It reflects more on the lack of compassion and empty souls of these well fed mean spirited people. If your life is about denying others the most basic of needs you deserve nothing yourself! I'd like to see your idea of government get the hell out of our lives.

By: Just Sayin on 4/9/12 at 9:33

Just Sayin, will it mean jobs. I think we need to drug test our state legislature, with the past legislation being past, I don't think many of them are right. I can't understand anyone being proud of who they have elected to our state.

By: Moonglow1 on 4/9/12 at 9:43

Moonglow1: Your "Food stamp President" was George Bush. He gave away the biggest handout to multinational corporations the world has ever seen. Because of his give aways, we are now trying to save pennies (like $40. 00 per month) on the backs of the down trodden while sacks of money were slung around Iraq and Afghanistan and tax break havens for multinationals proliferate.
Yeah listen to those liberals. Terrible aren't they. Not like us tea p's who vote against the 99 in favor of the 1. I'm so glad you tea p's are all so perfect, love multinationals and what they do for you.
How dumb are you to vote against your own interests: accept low wages so multi's can make even more profits, pay more taxes so multi's won't have to, die early from pollution because we subsidize the Saudi's. Yeah, you gotta love them tea p's. I know the multi's do. They are awash in $$$$

By: TRHJR on 4/9/12 at 9:57

pisswilley you & moonglow need to be the first tested ... both of you can`t stand to accept the fact your be-loved hussien is a total looser .... LONG LIVE THE TEA PARTY !!!!!!!

By: Moonglow1 on 4/9/12 at 10:12

Moonglow1: TRHJR sorry to disappoint you, but I have been in the workforce for 30 yrs plus.

I know what I am talking about. Mission Accomplished!! Yes it was. Bush sought to bankrupt the USA and he did. Now, TRHJR, unless you are worth around $10 mil plus, you are the 99 percent fighting to keep the 1 percent living in splendor while you toil for them working day and night 24\7. Yup, Saddam had no weapons. The war was a sham. So many private contractors made millions (your tax money). It's not the poor day to day govt worker taking your tax $$$, but it is the private contractors hauling away your cash in yes bags spreading it around to the Afghantistani's and Iraqi's like fertilizer and of course taking some for themselves. Whom do you think is fighting these wars? We have more private contractor's there than troops. Who pays for them. You pay!!! Sucker.

By: yucchhii on 4/9/12 at 10:32

yucchhii First off, Those who have never been to a drug screening...they give you a cup to pee in and before you go in the restroom or where ever they have you go, they have you take EVERYTHING out of your pockets and pat you down so you have NOTHING on you. Even if you do pass someone else's pee, they aren't that stupid, they have their ways of knowing if that is YOUR pee. Medical technology has been getting more and more detailed and too many people want to think they can get over that...THINK AGAIN...and then THINK... YET AGAIN AND AGAIN IF YOU CAN'T GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEADS!!! If you refuse to believe it, well...go ahead, do WILL find out real quick! Two, politicians don't pay taxes, so THEY don't have to worry about it. To do drug testing just means that much MORE $$$ they "WON'T" put in THEIR pockets. Go ahead, laugh. YOU WILL FIND OUT!!

By: brrrrk on 4/9/12 at 10:59

All this originates from the Calvinist idea that these people just MUST be doing something wrong or they simply wouldn't be poor.... they must be doing drugs!! Well Rick Scott tried this in Florida and what he found out was that only 2% of welfare recipients and applicants tested showed signs of drugs in their system; meanwhile in the general populace 8% tested positive for drug use. Unless we start testing everyone that receives any type of government money, these tests are punitive in nature; serving only to beat down those who are already beaten down. But then, that's the Christian right for you...........

By: 1kenthomas on 4/9/12 at 11:21

Looks like them 'pubs got nothing better to do in the middle of an economic crisis than to fight those culture wars.

Mr. Hatfield, here's your whip. Mr. McCoy, your spade. Have at it.

The rest of the country is, as often, fed up with the antics. Once the Republic Party were the adults in the room-- now they're the quarreling kids in the backroom.

Ever hear that adage "the government is best which governs least?"

This legislation is just stupid.

By: LizzyD on 4/9/12 at 11:33


Stacy Campfield believes that AIDS entered the world of human beings because a man did sex with a monkey, way back when, "in Africa." He also believes that if you "do it right" (you know, "the way its supposed to be") you cannot contract AIDS.

Just so y'all know. Stacy Campfield is a blithering idiot.

By: cityjvtao on 4/9/12 at 11:50

Hurley is a petulant mean-spirited woman child who had to have Campfield (the official fruit loop of the Senate) spoon food her answers in committee until he was asked to stop. She is being used for politic gain but is probably too stupid to know. After the ex-hooters girl carved her name in her tax payer provided desk during a long house session, it was pretty clear the lights were on but no one was home. Wow tea partiers – is this really the best you’ve got? This is nothing more than cheap political theater – not good public policy.

By: wataboutbob on 4/9/12 at 3:17

It's all Bush's fault!!!!

(gee, wonder if I can play that for another four years??)

By: Ask01 on 4/9/12 at 5:58

Testing has it's merits, I suppose.

I propose we expand the testing, made mandatory, of course, to include all elected officials and those appointed to high level positions in government. This should be made a condition of employment since these individuals are, just as surely as any welfare recipient, suckling at the public mammary, taking up tax dollars.

I also propose, since no one pays me any attention anyway, all politicians must pass a breathalyzer test before being allowed in the building to ensure they are at least sober, if not intelligent.

Further, since I'm on a roll, I propose we cut off all pay to politicians and in fact, begin fining them per day until they step on the proper toes to motivate businesses and, of course, the wealthy, to begin creating the jobs for which they claim to be responsible.

So test away. However, dargent7 has, I believe, a very valid point. The savings in welfare payments will probably be eaten up by expenses for arrest, detention, trial, and incarceration of those cut off.

Of course, if we start testing our public employees, perhaps they can all share the same cell block to save money.

By: Gary Lampman on 4/9/12 at 8:21

Our Legislators again sink deeper in the Crap hole going to China. Truth Be Known, It begins with the Legislators and Govenor that are Certifyable Drug Addicts.

As it goes the wealthy and the corporations must be tested for drugs to have greater tax deductions and the ability to screw all Tennesseans is severly amoral and ILLEGAL.

Prison is too good for them. Our Legislators should be hung by the neck until Dead because the harm they create is an example of the take over of state and Country.

By: dargent7 on 4/10/12 at 4:50

The only coherent, intelligent posts ARE from Liberals, ie., open-minded and educated.
Moonglow, brrrrk, Tree-7.
GW Bush ruined the country.....
These people on welfare ARE using weed to curb their pain. So, what? Itr's a cheap drug that makes you eat and giggle.
They all have children who will suffer.
If evicted because they cannot pay rent, they will become homeless and still be on government assistence in some form, some way or another.
If Republicans could just think a situation thru ("The war in Iraq will take just 4-6 months", Rummy), America wouldn't be underwater, upside down, and in Chapter 7.

By: ladybluz on 4/10/12 at 10:24

Let he without sin cast the first stone!!! Such as my former boss Judge Baumgardtner - Knoxville Drug Court Judge. Are we now going to allow the hypocrites to decide everyone's fate while they remain untouchable? I say we drug test anyone in a public office and if they all come up clean, then apply to the commoners.

By: NewYorker1 on 4/10/12 at 2:45

Not only should welfare recipients be drug tested while on government assistance, they should also be forced to take birth control. That goes for men and women. The pill and/or the shots. I'm tried of supporting these deadbeats that just lay up on their backs all day while I'm working to earn a living and the Federal government is raping me of my money that I could use to retire comfortably on.

When I travel internationally and someone ask me what it's like living in the United States, I tell them it feels like being raped by my own government.

By: thinking12 on 4/10/12 at 7:03

Keep giving them benefits so they don't start robbing 7/11?????
How about education on their responsibilities while living off the rest of us ?
This money-no matter how small or large- comes from taxpayers thru our elected representatives (whom somebody votes for :) (maybe the welfare recipients)).

As a taxpayer I cannot hold them responsible-so then who can? Maybe, the agency giving them the form to fill out to establish eligibility? With eligibility comes responsibility and accountability!

Why do we need to label them anything but eligible -we need to back up the trail and ask for responsibility and accountability from the people who come up with these programs and administer these programs!

Giving hand outs is denying every one of us the abilities and talents these folks have that will remain hidden by our own lack of asking for integrity in return for eligibility.

Benefits without responsibilities get every one no where. But cost all of us millions!

By: thinking12 on 4/10/12 at 7:12

"These people on welfare ARE using weed to curb their pain. So, what? Itr's a cheap drug that makes you eat and giggle.
They all have children who will suffer."

Maybe because their kids go hungry while they're eating all the food and giggling?
Then their kids go to school and eat "free" meals -on us also-because they have no one at home who is responsible for more than giggling and eating and smoking?

Their "pain" is a self induced excuse to be irresponsible!

Drug tests PROVE that you are responsible-we have them at work-I can prove I am transparently accountable for my own choices!

By: TharonChandler on 4/10/12 at 10:13

I think it is perfectly acceptabe to 'drug-test' for welfare-recipients; especially in every state where the 'medicinal marijuana card' is Allowed (where the ill can choose to legally use medical marijuana; {because that plant is much different than some other controlled substances}). I have Never failed a 'drug-test' and I certainly have been tested; tested for job placement and etc.