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Tennessee lawmakers are considering changes to the state's welfare program, including a one-year cut to the lifetime limits for receiving welfare payments.

At least three welfare measures are making their way through the General Assembly, including a bill that would cut the lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families for the first time since a five-year cap was set in the mid-1990s. Other legislation would set new requirements for parents on welfare and formalize a system of "welfare avoidance grants" meant to divert people who apply for TANF.

The bills have drawn little attention generally, passing committees this year without any testimony from opponents. The Department of Human Services, which administers the state's welfare program, has not opposed the bills or endorsed them, though officials have worked behind the scenes to help craft the legislation.

The state Senate approved the first of the three bills Monday night, voting 22-5 to approve Senate Bill 1851. The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, is meant to push parents who collect welfare to play a more active role in their children's schooling.

The conservative senator began talking about the bill more than a year ago, originally proposing cuts to families' welfare payments if their children do badly in school. This spring he has reworked the idea to require parents to attend parenting classes, take part in at least two conferences with teachers annually and agree to any other programs welfare officials believe would be beneficial. Penalties would be left to welfare officials.

"This is good, compromise legislation that allows the department ... to break the cycle of poverty," the Knoxville Republican said.

Senate Bill 2039 could have a broader impact. It would reduce the lifetime eligibility limit to four years, except for the victims of domestic violence and people with intellectual disabilities, severe physical or learning disabilities, mental illness or substance abuse problems.

"It encourages work among Tennesseans and puts the "temporary" back in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families," said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, the Germantown Republican sponsoring the bill.

Like Campfield's bill, the measure has sailed through the legislature. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee talked about it for 10 minutes before sending it along. The full Senate could vote on that bill as soon as next week.

The third measure, Senate Bill 1837, would set up an alternative program of "welfare avoidance grants" that the Department of Human Services could issue to cover short-term needs. The bill is meant to help people "who encounter a rough patch" stay off welfare, said the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

That bill also has reached the Senate floor. A vote on it could take place April 9.

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