State Rep. Charles Curtiss says he has legislation planned for next year that will change the way Tennessee distributes unemployment benefits to encourage people to find work instead of sitting at home and collecting a paycheck.
That was just one of the topics discussed Friday morning during the annual Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast at the TSU Nursery Research Center.
Curtiss, along with state Rep. Judd Matheny and state Sen. Eric Stewart, talked about state budget cuts, the closing of Taft Youth Center in Pikeville, and preventing doctor shopping, a practice which has Tennessee ranked among the highest in the nation for prescription drug abuse.
Curtiss says he believes the disbursement of unemployment benefits needs to change.
“They way it is now, if you can make it the first two months, you can plan that money in your budget and you can make it the next two months,” said Curtiss. “I’d like to get it to where we front load the benefits and then wean them off. That makes it more of an incentive when the benefits start to drop.”
Stewart said the current system allows people to sit back and become content collecting benefits.
“Unemployment benefits are there to serve as a bridge,” said Stewart. “They are not there to serve as a lifestyle.”
Curtiss also addressed an out-of-control welfare system which he says needs to be tightened.
“There are five generations of people living on public assistance and they are professionals at it,” said Curtiss.
Stewart said when he was growing up, his father taught him how to work on the house and perform basic maintenance. He says some children today are taught by their parents on how to milk the system.
“For some folks, that’s what they’ve been taught, how to play the system,” said Stewart, who added in some situations government programs are really needed. “We’ve turned this into a political issue where everyone who is drawing public assistance is a bad person and that’s not the case.”
State lawmakers had been considering legislation to require mandatory drug testing for people getting public assistance, but the state attorney general issued an opinion last week saying such a measure would be unconstitutional, in his view.
“That ruling certainly weighs very heavy on us,” said Matheny. “We were also concerned about parents with drug issues and it adversely affecting the children. If you take away their benefits, it affects the whole family.”
Matheny stressed Tennessee doesn’t have much ability on the state level to implement widespread welfare reform because so much public assistance is tied to federal programs.
While he doesn’t think any education-related reform will be addressed during this legislative session, Matheny said he believes lawmakers “went too far” with measures passed last year and he believes the state will scale those back in the future.
Matheny also said he’s working hard to get new laws in place to prevent so much doctor shopping where patients can see several doctors in the same day to be prescribed powerful medication.
“We’re double the per capita consumption of some states and that’s given us a bad name,” said Matheny referring to prescription drug use. “We’re working on creating a database to put bad doctors and bad patients out of business.”
The database would help ensure the patient had not been prescribed the medication by another physician during the same period, Matheny said.
More state cuts are on the horizon, although the state remains in strong financial health, the legislators said.
“We’re the lowest in debt, per capita, than any state in the nation with less than $1,000 debt per person,” said Stewart. “We do that by paying for things and moving forward. Most of our debt is for education institutions and some of it is for bridges.”
With some states billions of dollars in debt, Stewart said Tennessee’s reserve fund has grown from $100 million last year to $380 million this year. That prosperity has not saved Taft Youth Center in Pikeville from the chopping block as its funding has been removed from the budget and it’s scheduled to close later this year.
“I think we’re going down the wrong track with closing Taft,” said Stewart. “We’re hurting the economy in a rural community by taking away jobs and we could be hurting other children by taking these kids and moving them to other facilities. The kids at Taft, most of them are three-time felons, or their crime has been so egregious they’ve been sent there to be in a very confined facility. Some of them are rough characters, many of them gang-related, and I’d hate to see them somewhere else.”
Even though funding has been removed, Stewart says he will continue to fight to keep Taft open.