Since when does the Texas Conservative Coalition agree with the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities? When it comes to the drug testing of welfare recipients, apparently. Indeed, the Era of Good Feelings rolled along in the Legislature Wednesday with the unanimous passage of SB-11 by the Senate. You half expected Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst to start singing the Eagles's “Peaceful Easy Feeling” on the Senate dais.
SB-11, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, requires that applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits take a written drug-screening questionnaire. Those who are flagged by the questionnaire as likely drug users (as well as high risk individuals who have prior felony drug convictions or previous positive tests) must take a drug test. A positive test could mean the loss of benefits for six months to a year, and three positive tests bar a person from TANF for life.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that our policies discourage drug abuse, not enable it,” Nelson said on the floor Wednesday. “Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to subsidize a person’s drug habit.”
During the committee hearing on the bill on March 26, F. Scott McCown, outgoing executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, suggested Nelson should incorporate a “protective payee” provision into the legislation that will ensure children whose parents test positive will continue receiving their share of the family’s benefits. The inclusion of this measure led all three Democrats on the committee to vote in favor of it. Among them was Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who explained on the floor Wednesday that while “the bill as originally filed had some draconian provisions in it,” he approved of the changes.
Nelson cheered the bipartisan effort to tweak her bill. “It was so beautiful to watch this all come together where all of our shared goals were achieved,” she said.
“There must be something in the water this session, I don’t know what it is,” West replied.
Indeed, that West and other Democrats signed on to the bill could be considered a bit strange, as drug testing welfare recipients has been something of a Republican cause célèbre in other state legislatures in recent years. Federal appeals courts have ruled that laws in Michigan and Florida requiring blanket testing of all welfare recipients constitute an unreasonable search. Texas's measure, like similar legislation passed in Utah last year, skirts that legal issue by first requiring applicants to fill out the survey.
Nelson's bill allows benefits to be restored six months after a positive drug test if a person enrolls in a substance abuse treatment program, a measure that Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, found heartening. Davis had voiced spirited opposition in committee to SB-21, a bill by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that requires drug testing of some seeking unemployment benefits, but she said Wednesday that amendments that will be offered when that bill is up for debate in the Senate on Thursday have allayed her concerns.
“There are ways to make these palatable. There are ways to make sure that people who may be in these situations actually have an avenue to help that they probably would have never otherwise have had,” Davis said. “The changes that were made to this bill put in place the safety net—we’ll make sure that people who may be dealing with these issues are not villainized, do not lose their benefits, but instead are directed appropriately into drug and alcohol treatment programs.”
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst also cheered the legislation’s passage: “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,” he said in a statement. “This bill passed unanimously out of the Senate with good reason. It’s not only good for employers and potential employees, it’s good for Texas.”