April 10, 2013

Texas Senate OKs drug testing for welfare applicants

Legislation to require drug testing for Texas welfare applicants unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday with provisions designed to encourage drug treatment and protect dependent children from an abrupt cutoff in benefits.

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AUSTIN -- Legislation to require drug testing for Texas welfare applicants unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday with provisions designed to encourage drug treatment and protect dependent children from an abrupt cutoff in benefits.

The bill drew support from Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst but provoked an outcry from civil liberty and social advocacy groups after it was introduced by Sen. Jane Nelson more than four months ago.

Nelson has since modified the measure to address concerns that it could hurt the families of welfare recipients who flunked a drug test. SB11 would enable benefits to continue to flow to dependents through a third party known as "a protective payee" if an adult applicant tested positive for drugs.

"We need to help those people get off drugs," Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told colleagues. "We don't want to hurt the children. That is not our goal."

Today, the Senate is expected to consider a bill by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would require certain unemployed workers to take drug tests to qualify for unemployment benefits. Williams, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said his bill is "very narrowly tailored" to apply only to people applying for jobs in which drug testing is a condition of unemployment.

Nelson's bill focuses on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides temporary financial assistance to low-income Texans for basic needs such as food, clothing and housing. Seven other states have passed laws requiring drug testing for TANF and 28 states proposed similar legislation in 2012, according to Nelson's office.

Under SB11, applicants considered high risks for drug use would be subject to drug testing. Those who failed would be disqualified for a year, but they could reapply for six months by entering a substance abuse treatment program. Those who tested positive for drugs three times would be permanently disqualified from TANF benefits.

Their families would nevertheless be able to receive benefits through the protective payee designated by the State Health and Human Services Department, even if a recipient were permanently barred from TANF benefits after flunking a drug test three times.

Nelson, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, pointed out that the modified version of the bill had support from two Austin think tanks on opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum - the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which advances free-enterprise, business-oriented positions, and the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans.

"Chairman Nelson worked with us on the bill and modified it extensively and the final bill is one we can support," said Scott McCown, executive director of the CPPP. With the protective payee feature, he said, "the children never lose their TANF benefits if the parent is abusing drugs."

John Davidson, healthcare policy analyst for the Public Policy Foundation, said the bill "strikes the right balance between civic generosity and personal responsibility."

"We support ensuring that children do not lose benefits through no fault of their own." he said, although he added that designating a protective payee could "present significant administrative challenges."

But Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said she remains opposed to the bill.

"It leaves employees of a state agency with a responsibility to resolve constitutional important questions," she said. "I have not seen the final bill and maybe there's something in there I'm missing, but it seems to me the final bill leaves a lot of questions."

She also expressed concern about the selection of the third-party protective payees. "How do you determine they're not a user?" she asked.

Similar bills are pending in the House, but Nelson urged the Senate to hold firm on the protective payee feature. Senators approved the measure 31-0.

The measure provoked no contentious debate although Nelson fielded questions from other senators. Two major goals, she said, are to protect taxpayer money and motivate drug users to escape from their addiction.

"We need to help these people," she said. "We're giving them three chances. We need to help them get better."

Proposed state budgets for the 2014-15 fiscal biennium include $300 million for substance abuse problems, she said. Texas also has 39 regional projects designed to increase the availability of treatment programs, Nelson added.

Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, praised Nelson for her efforts to deal with drug abuse. "I too want us to be able to live in a drug-free society," he said. "We cannot afford to have a generation that follows us to be involved with drugs in any way."

The bill gained national attention after Nelson introduced it in November on the first day of bill-filing for the legislative session. Perry embraced it as a measure that would "help prevent tax dollars from going into the pockets of drug abusers."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin Bureau chief. 512-739-4471

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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