It's the most wonderful time of the year: There's still some very stale, deeply discounted Halloween candy kicking around the aisles at CVS, Christmas music has suddenly overtaken your dentist's office, and Texas legislators have begun pre-filing bills for the upcoming legislative session.
The session doesn't kick off until January, of course, but your lawmakers started submitting their wish-lists yesterday, more than 200 pieces of proposed legislation in all. Many of these bills will die an unceremonious death in committee, but the pre-filed bills give some indication of where Texas politicians' priorities lie (beyond all things abortion-related, of course, which we'll get to later). For Republican State Senator Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, those priorities seem to include drug testing just about everyone who applies for TANF: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
TANF funds are handed out to to very low income families with children under age 18; they're meant to help with things like food, clothing, utilities, and housing. The payments in Texas are pretty modest. A single parent with one child in the house, for example, qualifies for a maximum of $113. A two-parent family of four could receive $334. Adults can receive TANF assistance for up to 36 months; if the payments are just to support children, there are no time limits.
These are mostly federal funds, disbursed to the states through grants. Unlike SNAP (food stamps), though, states also pay for a portion of TANF, meaning that lawmakers are typically much more eager to devise ways to keep people out of the program. TANF payments are already lower in Texas, and their requirements more strict, than in many other states. People with drug-related felony convictions are already disqualified from receiving TANF here. In addition, parents or relatives who get it sign a "Personal Responsibility Agreement" promising not to abuse alcohol or drugs, to look for work, not to voluntarily quit a job, and keep up with child support payments, among other things.
But Nelson wants to get a lot tougher. "[O]ne of my goals is to reform this program to ensure that we live up to our responsibility to put recipients on a path to self-sufficiency," she wrote in an editorial back in September. "As more Texans become eligible for public assistance, lawmakers need to scrutinize every dollar we spend in order to free up funds for those who truly need them. And we must ensure that recipients of public funds exercise personal responsibility." (Her bill would also prevent TANF funds from going towards "alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, lottery tickets, adult entertainment, firearms, ammunition" and, of course, bingo. There's no indication that tons of people are spending their TANF money on booze and guns as it is, but why not throw it in there, right?)
But Nelson's bill goes deeper than that: it would also require drug screening for adults who apply for benefits "solely on behalf of a child." A drug screening that "indicates good cause to suspect the person of controlled substance use" would lead to a drug test. "Good cause" isn't defined in any particular way. And three positive drug tests would mean that the individual and their children would be permanently barred from receiving TANF funds. There are no provisions in place for drug treatment, counseling or rehabilitation in the case of a failed drug test; the applicant would, however, be reported to the Department of Family and Protective Services.
If this sounds like one ultra-conservative legislator's goofy idea, it's not: It's also got the support of Governor Rick Perry and Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. In a press release today, the two called for drug screenings for both TANF benefits and unemployment insurance. They also name-checked Nelson, and made it clear they'd lobby hard for her bill.
"Texas taxpayers will not subsidize or tolerate illegal drug abuse. Every dollar that goes to someone who uses it inappropriately is a dollar that can't go to a Texan who needs it for housing, child care or medicine," Perry said. "Being on drugs makes it much harder to begin the journey to independence, which only assures individuals remain stuck in the terrible cycle of drug abuse and poverty."
Of course, there is exactly zero evidence that TANF families and people on unemployment are all drug-abusing layabouts. But drug testing welfare recipients isn't a new idea. Conservative lawmakers around the country have proposed or actually enacted similar measures for years. In Florida, for example, Governor Rick Scott signed a broad measure into law last June requiring testing for everyone who receives welfare in the state.
And how has that worked out in Florida, you ask? In April, the New York Times found that it cost the state an extra $45,000 or so and didn't lessen the TANF caseload. It also didn't turn up a whole lot of drug abusers. Only about two percent of TANF recipients failed the drug test, with the most common reason being marijuana (alcohol, cocaine, and even heroin clear the body faster, and prescription drug abuse is harder to detect).
It's not just libtards like the Times making a case against drug testing, though. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service released a report in September which looked at TANF, SNAP and housing assistance restrictions around the country. It found that 19 states have some kind of drug testing requirement for TANF recipients, but only two, Florida and Georgia, require drug tests for everybody.
The CRS pointed out that "suspicionless" drug testing has a history of being challenged in court. The ACLU has sued Florida, for example, arguing that the law there violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits "unreasonable search" by the government. They suggest that lawmakers who wish to avoid "running afoul" of the Fourth Amendment will need to have some reason for doing drug tests.
In other words, in order for this bill to not create legal and logistical headaches for Texas, Nelson, Perry et. al will need to define what "good cause" for a drug test actually means. And no, poverty doesn't count.
Update, 1:30 p.m.: ACLU of Texas has already responded to the proposed measure, calling it both unconstitutional and "mean-spirited." Quoth executive director Terri Burke, "How sad that our state's highest elected officials have embraced this mean-spirited measure that would punish innocent children for their parents' conduct. This proposal is a costly, ineffective, inhumane and punitive effort by state government based on stereotypes about our state's neediest Texans."
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.