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Senator Open to Compromise on Drug Testing Bill

Targeting drugs tests for some welfare recipients
Jordan Smith, 10:28am, Tue. Mar. 26, 2013
Photo by John Anderson

A budding compromise promises, for now at least, to temper the scope and punitive nature of Senate Bill 11, Flower Mound Republican Sen. Jane Nelson's bid to ferret out and ban drug abusers from obtaining welfare benefits.

As initially filed, SB 11 would require all adult applicants to the cash-benefit welfare program Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to submit to drug testing to establish eligibility for the program. Anyone testing positive would be barred from the program for a year.

The scope of the bill was troubling to many, in part because it in essence presumed drug use as opposed to requiring drug testing of folks there was some reason to suspect of use, and in part because it would cut off an entire family – including children – from TANF on the basis of a single positive drug test. Similar measures, such as in Florida, have been met with legal challenge.

During testimony this morning, Nelson said she'd listened to the many concerns about her bill and had decided to temper the original bill with a committee substitute that would call for the administration of a substance abuse screening tool on adult applicants and would only test those for whom there is a reason to suspect drug use. The new bill would also provide for testing of individuals with previous felony drug convictions. If an adult tests positive, only the adult would be disqualified – and only for six months for the first positive test. "My intent is absolutely not to hurt the children," Nelson said. But the state's policies should "discourage drug use, not enable it," she said.

Scott McCown, a former Travis County district judge and now executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said he was encouraged by the modified scope of the bill – Nelson was being "sensitive" to the broader TANF questions, he said, prompting him to testify "on" and not "against" the bill – but he warned that the state should be taking "a public health approach and have a treatment first policy." If a TANF applicant fails a test denying TANF "straight off the bat is a deterrent to treatment," he said, pointing to a provision in another drug test bill, SB 21 by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would allow adults that fails a drug test to keep the government benefit if they go into treatment.

Moreover, he said Nelson and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee should consider a provision of House Bill 249, by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, which would create a "protective payee" for children. Under that provision, if adults test positive for drugs only the adults, and not the children, would be bumped from the program. Instead another adult would be designated to "manage the benefit for the children."

Nelson said that although she isn't entirely sure how a payee program would work, she liked the idea and is open to figuring something out. McCown said he would provide to Nelson's staff information on how other states use protective payees.

If that provision were included, would McCown move from being "on" the bill to being "for" it, Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, asked.

"Oh my, you're tough senator," McCown laughed. "If there was a protective payee, sure."

The bill was left pending in committee. "My intent is to get it right before we move on with it," she said.

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