Criticism of welfare bill evokes Fowler flashback

Former Sen. David Fowler (R-Signal Mountain), right, speaks to Rep. Darren Jernigan (D-Nashville) on March 7, 2018.

Democrats were horrified last week by a GOP lawmaker’s statements about Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill that increases fraud enforcement while boosting cash payments within the state’s welfare program.

“We’re talking about cash money that can be used to buy anything from cigarettes to liquor to prostitutes,” Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, said during a House floor debate last week.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) called Goins’ statement “one of the cruelest things I’ve heard on this floor.”

For some of the more seasoned denizens of state Capitol complex, Goins’ statement evoked memories of comments made on the Senate floor by then-Sen. David Fowler of Signal Mountain. Fowler, who is now the president of the state chapter of the Family Action Council, was an opponent of a proposal to give a $1,000 tuition supplement to the the lottery scholarship for families with an annual income of less than $36,000.

“Where does the $1,000 go?” Fowler asked at the time. “Are we just going to write a check for for $1,000 so they can snort it up their noses and buy kegs for fraternities?”

Fowler’s statements initially prompted groans in the chamber, but it later sparked outrage among members of the legislative Black Caucus, who deemed them racist. The famously long-winded Fowler made a 15-minute speech on the Senate floor in response.

“I am more than happy to suffer the slings and arrows of those who took my comment as a reference to African-American children. The reason I speak today is because in reference to my comments, aspersions were cast on this whole body,” the AP quoted Fowler as saying.

“I certainly don’t see anybody in this chamber as racist. I would trust that over time I have established myself as perhaps kind of a nerdy person who reads the bills and asks a lot of questions, but not someone who would hold something against another for the color of their skin,” he said.

The pending bill in the House seeks to make the first increases in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funding since its 1996 inception, upping the payments for a family of three from $185 to about $277 a month. At the same time, the bill would seek to crack down on fraud by:

  • Having Tennessee join a multi-state clearing house to detect “double dipping” on the food stamp payments
  • Granting the state new subpoena powers when officials suspect fraud
  • Requiring the state to warn enrollees that their electronic benefit cards will be monitored after third time they lose their card.


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