NASHVILLE — The sponsor of a proposal to dock the welfare payments of parents whose children fail school refused to listen to a little girl opposing the measure Thursday, saying she was being used as a prop.
The 8-year-old was among several protesters who greeted Sen. Stacey Campfield as he emerged from an office at the legislative office complex. The girl, Aamira Fetuga, handed Campfield a petition of names against the measure, which the sponsor later withdrew on the Senate floor to be studied over the summer.
The Knoxville Republican did bend down and shake the little girl's hand, but walked away before she could begin reading a prepared statement.
"I love it when people use children as props," Campfield said as he walked briskly down the office complex hallway, followed by several angry protesters, including the little girl's mother. "Thank you for using a child as a prop. Have a nice day."
Rasheedat Fetuga yelled behind Campfield: "You are so weak to not listen to a child! She's not a prop! Shame on you!"
Little Aamira also took offense.
"It made me mad that he didn't want to listen to me," she said. "He thinks taking benefits is right, but it's not."
A group, including Democratic lawmakers and clergy, stood outside the Senate chambers before the start of the session with signs characterizing the bill as "shameful" and singing verses of "Jesus loves the little children."
The measure sought to cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefits by 30 percent if a child fails to advance to the next grade.
The cuts could be prevented, or earned back, if a parent attends two conferences with teachers, takes parenting classes or enrolls the child in tutoring programs or summer school.
After about a 40-minute debate on the Senate floor, Campfield decided to allow a summer study committee to review the legislation and include the input of representatives from the governor's office and children's advocates.
"I think it's a great first step," Campfield told reporters after the session. "We have to do something to get parents involved. Is this the perfect vehicle? Maybe not."
Senate Republicans and Democrats expressed several concerns, such as that children could face repercussions from abusive parents upset by the benefit reductions, and that the bill could be unconstitutional.
"This is the sort of legislation that gets challenged in a court of law," said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville. "This is a very troublesome piece of legislation the way it's drafted."
Democratic Sen. Lowe Finney of Jackson agreed, adding that the proposal could jeopardize a child's welfare.
"You're making the child responsible for the parent's actions," he said. "It's not good policy."
Earlier this week, the House Government Operations Committee voted 8-4 to give a positive recommendation to the companion bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Vance Dennis of Savannah even after hearing from a representative from Gov. Bill Haslam's office that the Republican governor has serious concerns about the legislation.
About 52,800 families currently receive TANF benefits, according to the state Department of Human Services. The agency does not keep track of how many of those families include children who would be affected by the bill.
Critics of the legislation said it was unfair to parents who are trying to properly educate their children.
"You could have one child performing at a good rate ... and the parent did everything right in that case," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. "And another child could be failing because of learning disabilities, or whatever. It's mean-spirited. We oughta start taking 30 percent of the legislators' salary for putting such bills forward."
Rasheedat Fetuga, who is also the founder and president of Gideon's Army, a grassroots advocacy group for children, said the bill targeted a small percentage of people, "mainly poor and black families," and she believes a better approach would be to address systemic problems that may exist.
"If McDonald's sees a drop in sales or a drop in employee production, they don't fire their employees or punish their customers, they do a system-improvement process," she said. "They figure out what is going wrong in that system and they fix that."