TRAVIS COUNTY -- Surrounded by industrial equipment in an East Travis County warehouse, the state's top two lawmakers made the case for newly-filed legislation adding drug test requirements to welfare benefits.
"This will help prevent tax dollars from going into the pockets of drug abusers or drug dealers and instead ensure this money goes to the people Who truly need it," Texas Gov. Rick Perry told media Tuesday.
Among the more than 200 pieces of legislation submitted on the first day of pre-filing for the 83rd Texas Legislature in 2013, SB 11 filed by State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) deals with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. A federal block grant program largely administered at each state's discretion, Texas currently handles about 40,000 cases, many of them families who receive cash benefits of around $200 a month.
The formula is based on family size and income, and in Texas is generally limited to a maximum benefit of 17 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Texas' maximum payout ranks among the lowest in the nation. At a $260 per month maximum benefit for a single-parent family of three, Texas provides more than Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
The new law would require applicants to pass a drug test if a new screening program determines they may be using illegal drugs. It would also require those with past drug convictions pass a mandatory drug test. Both rules would apply not only to those seeking benefits themselves, but to any non-recipient parents of children who receive benefits under TANF. Perry and business leaders hope to expand the legislation to those seeking unemployment benefits as well, alleging many who are unemployed can't be hired due to drug addiction.
"Unemployment benefits are an agreement between employers and employees," Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond said in a statement. "It is a safety net given to employees in case they lose their job through no fault of their own. In return employers expect them to look for work and be qualified and prepared to take a new job when it is offered."
"Effectively those who are abusing drugs are not available for almost 80 percent of the jobs that are out there today," Hammond told reporters Tuesday morning.
"The proposal to drug-test Texans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own adds insult to injury," countered Texas AFL-CIO President Becky Moeller in a statement Tuesday. "By definition, Texans are ineligible for Unemployment Insurance benefits if they have lost their jobs because of illegal drug use or any other bad behavior that causes termination. A factory worker who gave 30 years of service to a company only to see it go belly up or a school teacher who lost her job because of billions of dollars in state budget cuts should not have to pee in a cup to get help with the transition to their next jobs.”
Benefits under the TANF program are distributed via the Texas Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system, which also handles food stamp benefits as part of the Lone Star Card program. The bill would also restrict spending on "alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, lottery tickets, adult entertainment, firearms, ammunition, and bingo," items which are already ineligible for purchase using USDA food stamp benefits.
"It is a legitimate function of government to help people that have no one else to help them and that are not able to help themselves," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said. "Every dollar wasted on these items is a dollar taken away from vital, very helpful other programs."
"The framework of the bill raises some real concerns about the constitutionality of those drug tests," said Matt Simpson, policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. Simpson says compulsory drug testing could amount to a suspicionless search, and warns that any state agency tasked with creating a screening process to determine who should be tested is walking slippery constitutional ground.
Florida recently passed a related law requiring drug tests for welfare benefit applicants. A study conducted by the ACLU over the first four months of the program found 2.6 percent failed the drug tests and were ruled ineligible for benefits. The cost to conduct the tests amounted to $118,140, a total $45,780 more than the cost of the benefits that were saved. More troubling for Simpson is the section of law which applies to non-recipient parents of children who receive benefits.
"You would be penalizing the families of people that failed drug tests, which to me seems off target if your goal is to try to identify folks who are using drugs," said Simpson.
"Florida had their program and other states had their programs," Perry said Tuesday. "I will suggest to you Texas will have an efficient program."
"Senate Bill 11 strikes the right balance between civic generosity and personal responsibility," said Arlene Wohlgemuth of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in a statement Tuesday. "Texas taxpayers should not be asked to subsidize a welfare recipient’s poor lifestyle choices that sabotage his or her chances for a better life. One of the primary expectations for those persons receiving welfare benefits is to be available for work. But when job applicants are rejected for failing an employer-administered drug test, they have not made themselves available for work.”
It's another big decision Texas lawmakers could face, beginning just two months from now.