A bill moving through the Texas Legislature would make it a requirement for those receiving welfare, unemployment, and other government benefits to pass drug tests. The bill was authored by Republican State Sen. Jane Nelson. She is the chairwoman of the senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. It has already been approved in the Senate and now requires approval by the House of Representatives.
The Bill – SB11
Senate Bill 11 would require that certain recipients of government benefits prove their sobriety. Applicants for benefits who are considered to be at high risk for drug use would be tested. Failing the test would mean being disqualified for benefits for a year, although the bill allows for reapplication at six months if the applicant agrees to get substance abuse treatment. Anyone failing the test three times would be banned permanently from receiving benefits. SB11 specifically targets aid provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program. TANF helps low-income Texans get temporary financial aid for basic needs like food, housing and clothing. Texas is not going out on a limb with SB11. Seven other states have laws requiring drug testing for TANF recipients and 28 other states are proposing such legislation. The Texas law, if passed in the House, would include a protective payee clause. This allows for benefits to be given to a third party, such as children, in the event that an adult fails the drug test. Another bill recently introduced in the Senate calls for unemployed people to be drug tested in order to get unemployment benefits. It has not yet passed.
Most of the state’s lawmakers support the bill and agree that it strikes a balance between civic duty and helping protecting taxpayers from funding drug addicts. In addition to her fellow lawmakers, Nelson was supported by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Lieutenant Gov. David Dewhurst. Perry applauded the bill as a measure that will keep taxpayer money out of the pockets of drug users. Nelson, although she did not face much dissent in the Senate, did field questions about her bill when she introduced it on the floor. She explained that the goal of the bill was not just to protect taxpayers, but to help addicts. She was also careful to explain that the protective payee portion of the bill was important and included to make sure that children were not hurt by the law.
There are, however, critics of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Representatives of the Texas ACLU fear that the bill leaves too many unanswered questions. For example, they are not sure how the third-party payee would be selected in the instance that an adult fails the drug test. Other critics of the new Texas bill argue that there is no data that indicates people who need government assistance are more likely to use drugs than anyone else or that people on unemployment use drugs more than those who are employed. They also point to Florida as an example of a similar law that ended up costing the state money. Recipients in that state were required to pay for their drug tests, but were reimbursed when they passed. Fewer than 3 percent failed the drug test, while 6 percent of the general population in the state uses drugs. The state saved money on giving benefits to those few who failed the test, but in reimbursing those who passed, ended up losing more. Not only did Florida lose money on its drug testing bill, it also faces legal problems. A federal judge determined that the law was unconstitutional and blocked it. While lawmakers have good intentions when trying to pass bills that restrict welfare to drug abusers, not everyone agrees that the end result is helpful. Whether the bill will make it through the House remains to be seen, and whether it will help abusers in Texas come clean from drug use is anyone’s guess.