Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signs a bill Monday to lower the state tax on groceries Monday, June 4, 2012 in front of the Smith Brothers grocery store in Whitwell, Tenn. The bill, which will become effective July 1, 2012, reduces the sales tax from 5.5
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A measure to require drug testing as a condition for receiving welfare and the reduction of the sales tax on groceries are among new laws taking effect Sunday in Tennessee.
The welfare legislation — which passed the Senate 24-9 and 73-17 in the House — requires new welfare applicants to undergo a special screening process. If suspicion is raised after the screening, then the applicant will be drug tested.
The proposal differs from an original version that would have required blanket testing.
An opinion from the state's attorney general said that approach would violate applicants' rights not to be drug tested unless there is suspicion they are using drugs.
Gov. Bill Haslam has said he's comfortable with the legislation because the Department of Human Services will develop the rules for the testing, and the state attorney general must make sure the process is constitutional.
State officials have said they plan to set up a pilot program next year, and hope to screen and drug test applicants statewide by 2014.
Welfare recipient Travonda Brown acknowledges the federal program shouldn't be misused, but she's concerned about the repercussions of people losing their benefits — such as increased crime.
"If somebody next door to you loses their check and food stamps, what do you think they're going to do?" asked Brown, who lives in a housing project with her four children. "They still got to eat, feed their kids. You're going to have a lot more crime."
As for the children, Sen. Stacey Campfield, who sponsored the legislation in his chamber, said a process will be in place to ensure that children of individuals who lose their benefits will continue to receive care.
The law will not affect welfare applicants who have valid drug prescriptions, and anyone who does test positive will be given an opportunity for treatment.
"Hopefully, this will get people who are on drugs to get the treatment they need to get off drugs," Campfield said.
In the case of the sales tax on groceries, the measure that's included in the governor's spending plan will reduce the tax from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent — with a goal to lower it to 5 percent in about two years.
However, Democrats have called for the state's roughly $225 million in excess revenues to be used to reduce the food tax sooner rather than later.
"With all this money in over collections, it is irresponsible not to use it to the benefit of working families," said Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley. "We have more than enough money to reduce the sales tax on food ... and still pump money into reserves. It's the people's money and we should use it for their advantage."
But state Finance Commissioner Mark Emkes cautioned the state is facing uncertain costs, particularly those associated with federal health care overhaul, the majority of which the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld. Haslam has said the changes could cost Tennessee more than $200 million.
"This extra revenue will give us that chance to give a very thoughtful approach as to how to spend that money going forward," Emkes said.
Ashraf Gendi manages a convenience store in an impoverished area of Nashville. Though slight, he believes the current food tax reduction will benefit his customers — many of whom are struggling to make ends meet.
"Reducing the tax on food will help a lot of families," he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.