Drug test bills gain ground

Posted Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The warning for Texans seeking help from the government is clear: Stay off drugs.

Texas is in position to become the latest state joining a national movement seeking to ensure that public assistance applicants are drug-free, as a handful of bills designed to improve the programs make their way through the process in the closing month of the legislative session.

"Texas taxpayers will not subsidize or tolerate illegal drug abuse," Gov. Rick Perry said months ago. "Every dollar that goes to someone who uses it inappropriately is a dollar that can't go to a Texan who needs it for housing, child care or medicine."

But opponents such as the American Civil Liberties Union say this is the wrong move because it targets lower-income residents.

"These bills are introduced by legislators based on the wrong belief that people who receive public assistance use drugs at a higher rate," the ACLU said in a statement. "This kind of drug testing is unconstitutional, scientifically unsound, fiscally irresponsible and one more way the 'war on drugs' is an unfair war on America's most vulnerable populations."

At least seven states have passed legislation requiring drug testing or screening for those who seek public assistance -- although Florida's law has been held up in court because judges say the state hasn't shown a "substantial special need" for the drug testing -- and nearly 30 states have proposed similar legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Last week, bills addressing welfare and unemployment programs in Texas, including one by state Sen. Jane Nelson to require drug screening for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which is state-run but federally funded, got a boost in the Legislature.

"We need to ensure that individuals receiving these public benefits are on a true path to self-sufficiency and drug-free in keeping with the mission of the program," Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said of her bill, which the Senate approved. "Taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize a person's drug habit -- a destructive barrier to achieving independence."

In Texas, this has become a key issue as elected officials hope to "hold people accountable for state and federal money received," said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "A lot of Texans believe, rightly or wrongly, that our public assistance has been greatly abused over the years and this [drug testing] would be one measure to hold the recipients accountable.

"It is both an emotional and economic issue," he said. "If passed and [put] into practice, it may slow down many from applying for public assistance. Not that they are drug users necessarily, but just do not wish to go through the process of drug testing for whatever fears they may have."

'Reform and strengthen'

The temporary assistance program uses federal dollars to help low-income Texans with basic needs such as food, clothing and housing. It provides about $90 million to more than 100,000 Texans each year, state records show.

Those who now receive this aid sign a personal responsibility agreement, promising to remain drug-free while they work to become self-sufficient.

Nelson's Senate Bill 11, approved by the Senate last week and now on its way to the House, is a scaled-down version of the measure originally filed and essentially requires applicants to the program to undergo a drug screening to determine their risk of using drugs. Some applicants, particularly any who have been convicted of felonies or who have failed drug tests, would likely be tested for drug use.

Anyone who tests positive is barred from the program for a year -- but state workers may designate another adult, a "protective payee," to receive funding on a child's behalf, so that children don't financially suffer if their parents lose their benefits. Anyone who fails a test may reapply after six months if he or she completes or is enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program. But anyone who fails the drug test three times is permanently disqualified from receiving the benefits.

"Texas is the job-creation capital of the nation and, for those who are unemployed or getting back on their feet, we must ensure they are fully prepared to enter the workforce where drug screening is commonplace," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said recently. "Welfare should never subsidize the irresponsible choices of otherwise capable people who instead elect to stay at home, play video games and get high with their friends."

Nelson said she hopes her bill will help Texans.

"Drug use tears apart families, hurts children and prevents individuals from living healthy, productive lives," she said recently. "We have a responsibility to ensure that our policies discourage drug use, not enable it."

Not everyone agrees that this legislation is needed.

Heather Fazio of Texans for Accountable Government said it is just a bad idea.

"Struggling parents should not be treated like criminals for simply reaching out for help in desperate times," said Fazio, executive director of the Central Texas-based nonpartisan group formed to rein in the expanding reach of government. "The passage of this bill sets forth the precedent of innocent people being forced to prove they are not committing a crime. This violates the very foundation of justice: the presumption of innocence."

Tarrant County Libertarian Party Treasurer Ken Stanford was among those who formally registered opposition to Nelson's bill, saying he believes drugs should be legal in the first place.

But since they aren't, "the testing is redundant," said Stanford, of Bedford, who is a bookkeeper for an Irving certified public accountant. "Employers will test for drugs anyway."

Political observers say Nelson's bill stands a good chance of becoming law -- as does Senate Bill 21, by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, which requires some Texans seeking unemployment benefits to take drug tests.

Williams' bill, which was filed after federal law was changed last year to let states require drug testing for those seeking unemployment if they work in industries that already require drug tests, requires the drug tests only if "red flags" come up that indicate possible drug use.

"This would ensure that individuals who report to the [Texas Workforce Commission] are ready for work," Williams said.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, added an amendment to Williams' bill to create an appeal procedure to protect applicants against any false positive results. Basically, anyone notified that he or she tested positive would have 10 days to appeal the decision and retake the test.

Anyone who fails the drug test would be denied unemployment benefits.

"These bills are popular among the Republican base as they target what many conservatives view as an abuse of the welfare system, with taxpayers indirectly supporting the illegal drug habit of welfare recipients," said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. "While the actual impact of the bills is likely to be modest, it is a winning issue for Republicans as it targets the abuse of the welfare/unemployment system by drug users."

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., meanwhile, is encouraging state senators to support a measure he has filed that would require Texans seeking public office to undergo drug screening. That bill has been referred to the State Affairs Committee.

"We are acting like we know what is best for the citizens of Texas," Lucio, D-Brownsville, has said. "We can start by submitting ourselves to the same requirements."

'Discouraging drug abuse'

Other measures, primarily bills in the House, are similar to Nelson's bill with differences ranging from proposing random drug screenings for temporary assistance applicants to requiring that drug test results be reported to state child protective services for investigation. At least one version doesn't require drug tests for those who have been convicted of felony drug charges.

Nelson's bill and Williams' SB21 may easily make their way through the Legislature, Jones said.

Now that the two bills have been approved by the Senate, "it should be relatively smooth sailing in the House," he said. "Critics have legitimately questioned whether conducting the drug tests is the best use of limited government resources, but this is in general an issue on which Democrats are on relatively weak footing, since it is not an easy task to defend illegal drug users who are indirectly supporting their habit with the taxpayers' money."

Nelson, who filed her drug-testing bill before the session, touts it as strengthening work and job requirements.

"Drug abuse destroys families, harms children and prevents individuals from living healthy, independent lives," she said. "Because TANF is a direct cash assistance program, we have a responsibility to ensure that these funds are not being used to support a person's drug habit. More importantly, we should have policies that are discouraging drug abuse rather than enabling it."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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