General Assembly should be included in drug testing

Robert Houk • Jan 3, 2012 at 8:22 AM

Proposed legislation requiring Tennesseans who receive some form of state aid submit to drug testing is testing the lengths some Republicans are willing to go to prove they are the party of personal responsibility. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he likes the idea of forcing those collecting TennCare checks or drawing on workers’ compensation to provide a urine sample to the state.

Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, are more than a bit dubious of the proposal. Harwell said she is concerned with the cost of such a drug-testing program, which has been estimated to exceed $12 million, and would like to see the benefits of the program discussed in more detail. Likewise, the governor says he has a number of questions. Such as:

n Who would do the drug testing?

n Would such tests place Tennessee in jeopardy of losing federal dollars?

Haslam has good reason to be concerned about the latter. A similar law is being challenged in Florida, and most legal scholars say it will most likely meet the same fate as another such law that was struck down in Michigan almost a decade ago. That was when the courts ruled it was unconstitutional for the state to require random drug testing of welfare applicants.

Even so, Tennessee’s lieutenant governor believes it’s time to get tough on those collecting a government check (not to mention such rhetoric energizes the GOP base in an election year). Ramsey recently told the Nashville Chamber of Commerce (does he ever speak to any group other than a business-related concern?) it is time for lawmakers to protect tax dollars from those on the state dole.

“Folks, we don’t need to give any support to that lifestyle,” the Associated Press reported Ramsey as telling the chamber group.

Lifestyle? I would understand what he meant by “lifestyle” if he was talking about the lifestyle of power and privilege flaunted on Capitol Hill whenever lobbyists for big business line up outside the doors of legislative leaders and ask for special treatment from state government.

Nope, Ramsey is talking about a proud middle-aged man who is collecting workers’ comp after being injured on the job. He is talking about a single mom on TennCare trying desperately to hold her family together.

If Ramsey had his way, both these people would be forced to submit to what the courts have called an unconstitutional search, not to mention a humiliating invasion of their personal privacy.

But then again that’s the Ron Ramsey we’ve gotten to know as lieutenant governor. Let’s scapegoat the poor and unemployed. Remember, Ramsey is also the guy who said back in November that collecting unemployment benefits could become “a lifestyle” for some Tennesseans.

And so can collecting a fat state pension.

If Ramsey and others are so dead-set on passing this bill, I hope they will add an amendment requiring all current members of the General Assembly, as well as retired legislators who are currently collecting a pension check, to submit to regular drug tests. They shouldn’t mind, unless they have something to hide.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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