The idea of drug testing welfare recipients—a concept Republicans are championing in statehouses across the country with increasing frequency—traditionally has been anathema to Democrats. But not so on Tuesday: three Democrats—Carlos Uresti of San Antonio, Royce West of Dallas, and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo—voted with six Republicans to approve a measure would that require some to be tested as a condition of receiving public assistance.
The modified version of SB-11, sponsored by Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and ten other Republicans, requires those applying for cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program take a questionnaire that screens for possible drug use. Those flagged as potential drug users must then submit to drug testing or else forgo benefits.
The committee’s passage of SB-11 was the latest compromise in a session thus far marked by them. Some of the compromises may be a sign of life among Texas Democrats: in recent sessions, as the minority party, the most they could hope for was to blunt the impact of a bill they generally disagreed with, but this time around, they are taking a somewhat more assertive stance.
While testifying before the Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday, F. Scott McCown, executive director of the liberal leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, advocated altering the bill to include a “protective payee” provision. He noted this was a feature of HB-249, another welfare drug testing bill by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker. In the event that a parent tested positive for drugs, the Health and Human Services Commission would designate a “payee,” such as a grandmother, to accept a check for a child’s portion of the monthly TANF benefits. (How much money is on the line? It depends on the size of the household: TANF provides $271 a month to a single parent household with two children and $416 to one with five children. A check, minus the parent’s portion—$20 to $107, depending on family size—would then be cut to the designated payee.)
“Mr. McCown, if Senator Nelson were to accept your suggestion for protective payee would you move from ‘on’ the bill to ‘for’ the bill,” asked Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo.
“Oh my, you’re tough, Senator,” McCown replied, laughing. “If there was a protective payee—sure.” Zaffirini then indicated she would switch her vote to a “yes.”
Nelson, understandably, was cheered by this news. “My intent is absolutely not to hurt the children. … My intent is to get it right before we move on with it,” she said, adding that she hoped to make it a “palatable bill” for all concerned parties. Committee staff hammered out an amendment adding the payee provision during a recess.
An earlier version of the bill, which also included broader reforms to TANF, would have blocked an entire family from receiving assistance for a year after two positive drug tests. McCown noted that CPPP had been fighting against such a “full family sanction” for a decade, and lauded Nelson for addressing his concerns. (In the version the committee passed, three positive tests will result in permanent ineligibility for the adult—the children would still be covered through the payee.) “This bill is very sensitive to all the issues and it strikes a reasonable compromise,” McCown said in an interview outside the Senate chamber after the bill was unanimously voted out of committee.
John Colyandro, executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition, noted that by requiring a screening questionnaire instead of mandating blanket testing of all welfare applicants, “SB-11 attempts to avoid the legal challenges raised in other states.” (Similar laws in Michigan and Florida have been found unconstitutional by federal appellate courts.) “SB-11 seeks to chart a sensible path between mandatory drug testing for all applicants and complete non-enforcement of existing state and federal rules,” Colyandro said.
While everyone can agree that taking cash assistance dollars to buy drugs is unacceptable, it’s not exactly a rampant problem: studies have shown that the rate of drug use for those receiving TANF benefits is “somewhat higher than those in the general population not on assistance, though not greatly so.” (And in February, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit wrote that “[t]he evidence in this record does not suggest that the population of TANF recipients engages in illegal drug use or that they misappropriate government funds for drugs at the expense of their own and their children’s basic subsistence.” Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka declared these bills “a solution in search of a problem” when Gov. Rick Perry threw his support behind the issue in November.
So, if these laws aren’t necessary, are they efficient? According to calculations in the Legislative Budget Board’s fiscal note for SB-11, for every dollar spent on testing, only two would be saved. According to estimates, some 75,000 people would take the screening questionnaire each year and 9,000 would need to be tested for $35 a test, for a total of around $310,000. The projected savings from those blocked from receiving benefits would be $740,000. And Florida’s testing regime, in the four months it was in effect, actually didn’t save the state any money. As the New York Times reported last April, the law “resulted in no direct savings, snared few drug users and had no effect on the number of applications.” Of the 4,086 people who were tested, only 108 failed, and the testing program ended up costing the state $45,780.
But despite all this, enthusiasm for such proposals does not seem to be waning in the pink dome — this session, members have filed at least five other welfare drug testing bills (HB-161, HB-249, HB-1244, HB-1582, and HB-3171) and three bills on testing recipients of unemployment benefits (SB-21, HB-1281, and HB-1583).
The compromises involved in SB-11 suggest that Texas Republicans are, at least, learning from experiences in other states—and taking some input from the other side. There is also a possibility that some of this session’s debates over the safety net will yield interesting experiments. One of McCown’s other suggestions for SB-11, was that people who tested positive for drugs would retain their benefits if they enrolled in a substance abuse treatment. Tommy Williams, a Republican senator from The Woodlands, has a similar provision in his SB-21, which would introduce drug testing for some people seeking unemployment benefits—a measure that might sound punitive, but might yield treatment for people who would otherwise struggle to access it. But, on that note, McCown also added a word of caution: “We have to be realistic that we have an extreme shortage of treatment beds in Texas … if we don’t make treatment available then the hopes of [SB-11] are going to difficult to obtain,” he said.