By LIBBY CLUETT
AUSTIN – Prior to the 83rd Legislature, which convenes in January, Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made a rare joint appearance Tuesday, advocating for drug testing Texans seeking welfare and unemployment insurance benefits.
The main provision of Sen. Jane Nelson’s, R-Flower Mound, pre-filed Senate Bill 11 is to conduct controlled-substance screening for those applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and, possibly, Unemployment Insurance benefits. This would include adults and minor parents applying solely on behalf of a child.
Under the proposal, Dewhurst said anyone failing drug tests would be barred from participating in welfare programs for one year unless they enter a drug rehabilitation program paid for by Medicaid.
The bill also proposes that businesses become accountable for ensuring that state TANF benefits, paid for by using an electronic bank transfer card, aren’t used “to purchase … alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, lottery tickets, adult entertainment, firearms, ammunition and bingo.”
“This will prevent tax dollars going into the pockets of drug-users and drug dealers,” Perry told a news conference.
Before denying benefits, the state would confirm positive test results through a second drug test or another appropriate method.
However, if a person is denied eligibility three times – because of the results of a drug test conducted for this reason – that person and their family are permanently ineligible for those benefits.
If made into law as written, the statute would “use the most cost-effective controlled substance … screening assessment” that the commission and the Department of State Health Services can develop. Costs for the screenings and lab work would come from the TANF block grant funds.
According to Corey Stephen, owner of Accountable Drug and Alcohol Testing in Mineral Wells, a drug test could run from $30 to $50 per test, depending on what test is used, how it is administered and what lab is used.
Stephen said the state would likely use one of two urine analysis tests, both which have a detection time of seven to 14 days. A five-panel test determines the use of marijuana, opiates, amphetamines, methamphetamines and cocaine and costs $35, including a lab fee. A nine-panel screening tests for all the five-panel substances as well as for benzodiazepine and some prescription drugs, and costs $40 at Accountable, which includes the lab fee.
If the state used a third-party business like hers to collect the local samples, Stephen said the cost could be between $15-25 for the test and the lab would likely charge another $15.
“We’re looking at [this costing] from $30 to $50 per test,” she said, speculating on the state’s cost related to tests under SB 11.
In October, there were over 100,000 TANF Basic Program recipients – the largest pool of TANF beneficiaries receiving $7.3 million. At $30 per drug test, screening all October’s Basic Program recipients would cost $3 million.
Tests don’t detect K2 yet Stephen said, but she added there are new tests coming out to test for this banned substance.
In addition to the urine-analysis test, she said they can administer an oral-fluid test, five-panel only, and would send it straight to the lab. The cost is $55, but Stephen said this test cannot be adulterated as easily as a UA.
Stephen said that if someone is told they have to test in two hours, in that time they can dilute their urine enough to result in a negative test. But this isn’t the case with the oral fluid test.
Work for benefits
Another SB 11 provision would require individuals to work at least 30 hours per week or participate in a TANF employment program for 20 or more hours per week during any month in which they receive state aid. There are exceptions for those with an infant, under the age of one, and for those who are caring for and living with a person with disabilities.
Under SB 11, state beneficiaries would participate in an activity to enable them to become self sufficient by:
• Continuing the person’s education or becoming literate.
• Entering a job placement or employment skills training program.
• Serving as a volunteer in the person’s community.
• Serving in a community work program or other work program approved by the Texas Workforce Commission.
Additionally, adults and teen parents who are the head of a household receiving TANF benefits would also be required to sign a bill of responsibilities that encourages personal responsibility.
Perry noted that he believes drug-testing will mean less money paid out in benefits and ultimately save Texas money “because of the effect that the screening impact will have on those individuals who would be using drugs.”
“This isn’t all about punishing,” the governor said. “This is also an incentive to get people off these drugs.”
But some have voiced their disagreement with the purpose of the legislation.
Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, said he was disappointed that state leaders, including Perry and Dewhurst, would single out poor families by supporting a law that aims to drug test applicants of TANF. The state-aid program was created to help families in need, particularly children, and already includes a provision that requires applicants to, “train for a job or look for employment if capable” and to “not abuse drugs or alcohol.”
Deshotel said the mandate would violate personal privacy, ignore the presumption of innocence and continue the Legislature’s expansion of government into citizens’ personal lives.
“There is no evidence that poor people abuse drugs more frequently than any other socioeconomic group,” stated Deshotel. “Therefore I challenge Senator Nelson, Governor Perry and Lt. Governor Dewhurst to support adding a drug test requirement to the application to run for state office in Texas.”
“Many office holders in Texas draw larger incomes from the state than any welfare recipient and officials should adhere to the same standard we impose on our constituents,” he added. “This would help ensure our leaders ‘walk the walk’ and that taxpayer money isn’t ‘going into the pockets of drug abusers,’ as is the concern of our Governor.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas also condemned Perry and Dewhurst’s calls Tuesday.
“How sad that our state’s highest elected officials have embraced this mean-spirited measure that would punish innocent children for their parents’ conduct,” ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said in a statement. “This proposal is a costly, ineffective, inhumane and punitive effort by state government based on stereotypes about our state’s neediest Texans.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Pre-filed bill seeks state welfare reform through drug-testing TANF recipients
By LIBBY CLUETT
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