Compromise refines bill to drug-test welfare applicants

Posted Thursday, Mar. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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At times, turning a piece of legislation from an acquired taste into something that's more broadly palatable is a process you'd almost rather not watch.

Not so with a Texas Senate bill that proposes to drug-screen applicants for welfare benefits -- formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

As originally filed, SB11 by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, was designed to prevent TANF funds, which are federal money channeled through the states, from enabling illegal drug use. But the measure included other provisions dealing with work requirements and rules governing retailers.

It's no surprise that Nelson received plenty of feedback, from supporters as well as critics who consider drug testing an ineffective tool for helping needy families, even when the adults have a substance-abuse problem.

At a Tuesday hearing, she introduced a pared-down version of the bill that focused only on the drug testing. New TANF applicants would be tested if a screener found "good cause" to suspect substance abuse or if an individual had a felony drug conviction or a previous positive test.

A first failed test would mean TANF disqualification for six months. A second positive test would cancel benefits for a year, though the person could reapply after six months with proof of completing or being enrolled in a drug rehab program. Failing a third test would mean a lifetime welfare ban.

But the penalties would apply only to the parent. Children in the family could continue to receive money, which can be crucial, especially in a low-income household led by an adult who's abusing substances.

Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, testified that he was "not in agreement with the drug testing" but he praised Nelson for trying to make sure children didn't go hungry and spiral into other problems of poverty.

He suggested that the bill include a provision to assign a "protective payee," typically another relative, who would be responsible for the child's benefits if a parent tested positive for drugs. That would ensure that children received the money they're eligible for and keep it from getting to drug-using parents.

Nelson embraced the idea if it would be workable, she said, and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee ultimately approved the bill 9-0.

That was some sausage-making worth watching.

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