This week, Bruce Griffey, State Representative for the 75th District that includes Benton County, introduced a bill that will require drug testing for all welfare recipients. “Welfare reform was a key component of my campaign platform based upon both my and my wife’s personal experiences as prosecutors in the Tennessee criminal justice system. We routinely witnessed in the court room criminal defendants, who were charged with various different drug related offenses and were unemployed and living off taxpayer money in the form of SNAP (food stamps), TANF (cash funding), subsidized housing, utility vouchers (subsidized electricity), taxpayer funded cell phones and gas cards, etc.,” Griffey stated.
“Due to drug addictions, these individuals were incapable of being employed because they could not pass a drug screen or show up to work regularly and perform their job responsibilities. Additionally, they had no motivation to address their drug addiction with the government enabling them through various taxpayer funded benefits,” further explained Griffey.
While on the campaign trail last year, Griffey said that he had the opportunity to speak with numerous employers in his district, who routinely described the problem of finding reliable, drug-free employees to hire. “It is no doubt one issue that is impacting the ability of our district to successfully engage in industrial recruitment and economic development.
Businesses are looking for a workforce that is skilled and drug-free,” he explained.
As a co-sponsor of the Governor’s Initiative for Vocational Education Act (HB0949), Griffey believes the issue of developing a skilled work force will be addressed. However, he stated the issue of drug abuse still exists and he filed a welfare reform bill to address the issue of drug addiction in local communities and motivate those with substance abuse problems to seek help. “A message needs to be sent that if you have a drug addiction, taxpayers will no longer continue to enable that addiction by paying for your housing, food, utilities, phones and gas unless you seek help to overcome that addiction. Welfare was never intended to be a long-term hand out, but rather a short-term hand up,” stated Griffey.
According to the State Representative, under Tennessee law as it exists today, individuals applying for TANF benefits are required by the Department of Human Services to complete a very short questionnaire consisting of just a few questions essentially asking them whether they use illegal drugs, and, if they answer “yes” to the questions, then DHS has discretion to determine whether or not to require the applicant to undergo a five-panel urine based drug screen. “In my opinion, this is a very flawed system because it is dependent upon the applicant being honest about illegal drug use and grants discretion to DHS and relies upon the results of one of the most unreliable drug screens,” Griffey explained.
Based on all of the above, Griffey drafted and filed Tennessee House Bill 88 (HB0088), which would reform the welfare system by, expanding the drug testing program to SNAP (food stamp) applicants/recipients in addition to TANF, eliminating discretion from DHS as to whether to conduct a drug test, increasing the list of drug related questions posed to applicants/recipients from just a couple to 15 questions and making it a crime to answer falsely, requiring law enforcement agencies to report to DHS anyone charged with a drug or theft related crime and requiring DHS to drug test any applicant/recipient so charged, and finally using the more reliable seven-panel hair follicle test instead of the five-panel urine test to screen welfare applicants/recipients for drugs.
Under the bill, if a welfare applicant/recipient refuses to complete either the questionnaire and/or a drug test, then the person will be ineligible to receive any welfare benefits until completed. If an applicant/recipient tests positive for any illegal drugs, then the person will either have to enter a treatment program or not receive any welfare benefits. If a person submits to a drug treatment program, then they will be subject to future testing to ensure that the program was successful and that they remain drug-free. Additionally, to prevent this welfare reform measure from adversely impacting minor children, the bill provides that if a parent or a caretaker relative is deemed ineligible for welfare benefits as a result of the drug testing process, then the dependent child’s eligibility for benefits is not affected, and an appropriate protective payee will be designated to receive benefits on behalf of the child who is under 16-years-of-age. In the event a dependent child is 16-years-old or older, the child shall receive the benefits directly as the payee.
“I would prefer to mandate drug testing of all welfare applicants/recipients across the board, particularly inasmuch as state and federal employees who are paid by taxpayers are subject to random drug screens; however, federal appellate courts currently require a probable cause basis for drug testing of welfare recipients. I do not want to subject the State of Tennessee to the expense of constitutional challenges. I do feel the bill I proposed significantly improves the system and will result in more drug-addicted individuals getting help and recovering for the benefit of themselves, their families and their community, build a stronger, larger drug-free workforce so we are better positioned to attract industry and business to our area, and save the State of Tennessee and taxpaying citizens large sums of money.”
Griffey finished with, “It is fundamentally unfair for some of us to obey the laws and get up and go to work every day only to have a portion of the money that we work hard to earn go to pay for the housing, food, utilities, phones, gas and other benefits of others who sit at home all day unemployed and using drugs.”