Tommy Williams and Wendy Davis, a Republican senator from The Woodlands and a Democratic senator from Fort Worth respectively, have had plenty of arguments this session. One of the most heated occurred last month in the Economic Development Committee over SB-21, a bill by Williams that would require select applicants for unemployment benefits to undergo drug tests.
So when the senate voted unanimously in favor of the bill this Thursday—but not before two key amendments were added—count it as a draw.
It was the second drug-testing-for-benefits bill the Senate has considered this session. The first was SB-11, authored by Jane Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound. That one would introduce drug testing for Texans who receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and it passed in the Senate Wednesday.
SB-21, similarly, would require people who apply for unemployment benefits to be screened (by a questionnaire) about their risk factors for drug use; those who are deemed at risk, by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC), would undergo regular drug testing. The intention of the bill, Williams has said, is to make sure that people are ready to re-enter the workforce after being unemployed.
Both bills were controversial before they were even filed. As Paul Burka put it late last year, the idea of drug-testing people before they can receive benefits they’re otherwise eligible for sounds like “a solution in search of a problem,” particularly because several states have already tried such programs, without much to show for it.
But both were modified during the course of committee hearings, and on the Senate floor Thursday, Democrats and Republicans appeared to have declared a truce. Williams accepted two amendments to the bill, one by Davis and one by Kirk Watson, a Democrat from Austin. Both amendments gave those applicants who test positive for drugs a chance to retain their benefits.
Davis’s set up a statutory appeals process for beneficiaries who receive a positive test result. It would allow them to either retake the test or to appeal the result, both within ten days of their receiving the positive result. The TWC, which would administer the testing, would also be required to provide information to the application about “common potential causes of a false positive result.”
“Thank you, Senator Davis, for bringing this amendment,” said Williams after the amendment was read. “It’s acceptable.”
Watson’s amendment added a third option for a person who receives a positive drug test result but wishes to continue receiving benefits: enroll in a drug-testing program within seven days of receiving notice of the failed drug test.
Williams was equally enthusiastic about that one. “The amendment’s acceptable,” he said.
“I think he understood that without these amendments, the bill was probably not palatable,” Davis said after the vote.
She explained: “What the amendments did is it made sure that if a person tests positive [for drugs], they have an avenue for drug treatment that will keep them in the unemployment compensation program. That is very important. We can’t punish people who are willing to seek help if they truly do have a drug and alcohol problem.”
SB 11, too, had passed only after the addition of amendments designed to mitigate punitive consequences. In that case, welfare recipients who tested positive for drugs would also be encouraged to enter treatment, and provision was made for those who have children—the TANF funds could be directed to grandparents or other guardians.
Although both bills passed unanimously, neither had much fanfare. Some Democrats seemed slightly uneasy on Thursday. Eddie Lucio, a Democrat from Brownsville, had joined in the conversation on the floor to say that he intended to vote for the bill but argued that state senators should “build trust” with the people of Texas by submitting themselves to drug tests. (He has filed a bill to that effect, SB-612, which was last heard in the committee on State Affairs on February 25.)
Under both bills, the funding for drug treatment would, in theory, come from a $300 million pool in the Health and Human Services budget. Davis said that while neither SB-21 nor her amendment are entirely clear on the funding, she is “meeting with Senator Nelson on how to make sure that we specify that the pool is used for that purpose.”