You might think Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, having recently endured ignominious defeats in runs for higher office, might want to lie low for a while instead of going headline-shopping. Yet, there they were last week grandstanding a pre-filed bill (Senate Bill 11) by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, that would mandate drug testing for "welfare" recipients (i.e., those who receive Texas' piddling Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), as well as a bill not yet filed by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, that would require drug testing of applicants for unemployment insurance.
I guess this is what Republicans mean by "job creation" – creating make-work jobs for drug testing companies that aren't already making enough money convincing bosses they need to drug test their employees. Indeed, Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business cheerfully endorsed this dismal proposition on the grounds that (according to Hammond) some 80% of employers already give drug tests to prospective employees – one bad turn deserves another. By "small-government conservatism," these guys mean giving government the power to invade your person, on demand.
Texas tries to maintain a monopoly on our unofficial state motto – "Bad Ideas Tried Here First and Proven Not to Work" – but in this instance, a few other states have already adopted this punitive approach, with predictably lousy results. In the most prominent case, Florida tried it and discovered that welfare applicants actually have a significantly lower incidence of illicit drug use than the general public (unsurprisingly, since drugs cost real money). Moreover, claims that the program would save the state money were also proved wrong, when the tests cost more than the benefits withheld. That was before the program had to be suspended pending lawsuits questioning its constitutionality – that pesky Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.
If only the government were looking for guns – maybe then the Republicans would recognize the constitutional problems.
Of course, laws like these really aren't about money – unless it's the money flowing from state contracts to private testing companies (a major issue in the Florida controversy). They're just examples of the latest efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded bill mill that generates reams of this stuff in advance of every legislative session, on this one using Nelson and Williams as its credulous conduits. Like voter ID bills – yet another hysterical solution to a nonexistent problem – they undermine a particular government function while reinforcing stereotypes of ordinary citizens – e.g., TANF recipients and unemployed workers.
For the record, as Lisa Falkenberg pointed out in the Houston Chronicle, TANF recipients number about 114,000 people, or all of 0.4% of Texas' 25.7 million population – and 85% of them are children. As for those eligible for unemployment insurance – those are workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and yet Perry, Dewhurst, Williams, Hammond, et al. would make them pee in a cup in order to receive benefits they have already earned. The cynicism of these political publicity stunts is transparent – yet they devastate real lives (of the most vulnerable Texas families) and promote a punitive public culture that of course never applies to the officials enforcing the sanctions.
In that light, perhaps we're considering this entire issue from the wrong end of the telescope. If we went after the truly undeserving beneficiaries of government largesse – the welfare kings for whom government money is like breathing – maybe we would have a shot at saving the taxpayers a lot more money, and get a great deal more public satisfaction in the bargain.
Name your own candidates for "welfare" drug testing. We could start with suburban developers, who can't make a nickel on their speculative projects without ample donations of public infrastructure like roads, water, sewer, schools, and all the services they expect as divine right for their "private entrepreneurship." Or maybe Perry's cronies who've lined up for cash under the Texas Enterprise Fund and who don't really care to pay taxes and so often seem to fall short of the "job creation" numbers they promise.
Or how about Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons of Waste Control Specialists, who has spent millions on politicians to promote his agenda, and in return was granted the much more valuable right to store radioactive waste in Andrews County, above the Ogallala Aquifer? Or Houston builder Bob Perry, who spends reams on legislators who dutifully enact "tort reform" – meaning Perry's companies will endure little threat of consumer lawsuits that might eat into his profits? Or maybe the owners of Apple, who truly want to "create jobs" in Austin but can't seem to manage it without extorting a property tax rebate from municipal government, not to mention local schoolchildren?
Or how about Bernie Ecclestone, notorious big shot of Formula One racing, due to receive $25 million from Texas annually for the next 10 years for the privilege of earning many times that amount from the "private" business he's established in Austin?
Shouldn't all these guys have to demonstrate they're of sound mind and body before we write them their welfare checks? Shouldn't they have to demonstrate they haven't been indulging in intoxicating substances without our permission? For that matter, shouldn't the politicians they have on "campaign finance" retainer – Perry, Dewhurst, Susan Combs, Jane Nelson, Tommy Williams, et al. – have to pee in a cup before they pick up their paychecks?
I know, I know. We only make working people pee on demand. Their bosses retain the right to piss on all of us and call it rain.
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