By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey expects Tennessee will put in place a law that requires drug tests for people drawing government assistance or workers’ compensation. Other high-ranking Republicans aren’t so sure.
The House speaker and the governor have voiced concerns about the cost and whether federal rules that govern the programs, including food stamps and welfare, give the state enough flexibility to start drug-testing programs that can survive a legal challenge.
Ramsey, R-Blountville, recently told the Nashville Chamber of Commerce that a similar proposal last legislative session carried a $12 million price tag, but did not take into account the savings the state or employers will see from cutting off benefits to drug users.
“This is your money that we’re trying to protect here,” Ramsey told the business group. “Folks, we don’t need to give any support to that lifestyle.”
Ramsey said he’s confident that lawmakers will be able to make a strong case based on other states’ experience that the proposal would be revenue neutral.
House Speaker Beth Harwell said while she agreed with the aim of the drug-testing proposal, addressing the state’s financial picture is a bigger priority.
“With the budgetary constraints that we face in this state, we want to make sure that those who are receiving assistance from the state are qualified and are doing everything they personally can do to take care and provide for themselves,” said Harwell, a Nashville Republican. “I think there will be a thorough discussion, but I think it’s too early to predict whether it will pass.”
Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters recently that he hasn’t seen specifics of the proposal, but that there are still a series of questions that need to be addressed.
“We need to see what sort of federal leeway we have there, and I haven’t gotten that data back yet,” he said. “And No. 2, who would implement that and how would it be implemented?”
The governor said similar calculations came into play during the last legislative session over various proposals to curb illegal immigration in Tennessee, most of which did not become law.
Florida became the first state to enact drug testing for welfare applicants since Michigan tried and failed more than a decade ago. Michigan’s random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling it unconstitutional.
Florida’s law is also being challenged in the courts.
Less than 1 percent of welfare applicants in Florida tested positive in the first quarter after the law went into effect in July. Thirty-two applicants failed the test, 7,028 passed and 1,597 didn’t take it, according figures released by the state.
Proponents of the law have suggested applicants would be deterred because they knew they would test positive, meaning the law is preventing taxpayer funds from being spent on drugs. Critics say applicants may not have taken the test because they couldn’t afford the $25-$35 test fee or didn’t have easy access to a testing facility. People who decline to take the test aren’t required to explain why.