published Friday, April 20th, 2012

Tennessee bill to drug test welfare applicants advances

Poll
Should unemployed workers collecting jobless benefits be drug tested?

NASHVILLE — The sponsor of a proposal to drug test people as a condition for receiving welfare says he believes an amended version of his legislation will withstand legal challenges.

The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield, of Knoxville, was approved 8-3 in the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday.

Campfield’s proposal differs from original legislation that the state’s attorney general opined was constitutionally suspect. That measure would have drug tested applicants who had been convicted of using drugs within five years.

The opinion said that approach would violate the constitutional rights of applicants who have a right not to be drug tested unless there is suspicion that they are taking illicit drugs.

Under the amended version, new applicants would undergo a special screening process. If suspicion is raised after the screening, then the applicant would be drug tested.

“Before there were some questions,” Campfield said. “Now ... it’s all suspicion based, which is what they’ve said is constitutional.”

The state Department of Human Services will be responsible for developing the screening tool. A person who tests positive for drug use after the screening will be given an opportunity for treatment. roughly 20,590

If the individual refuses treatment, then he or she will be ineligible for benefits for 6 months. Recipients who fail the drug test three times will lose their benefits for a year.

“This is pretty much what we wanted to do all along,” said Campfield, adding that his legislation could save the state around $1 million. “I believe we’re getting people off drugs, which is what we wanted to do. And those people who refuse to get off drugs are not going to get the benefits anymore.”

The governor’s office had opposed the original bill, but an administrative official told the committee on Thursday that the administration defers to the will of the Legislature on the new version.

State officials said they plan to set up a pilot program next year, and hope to screen and drug test applicants statewide by 2014.

It’s not clear exactly how much the process will cost the state, which drew concern from Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, of Memphis, who said there’s no guarantee the money will be provided in two years.

“There ... may be some hidden costs,” Kyle said.

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