Some Texas applicants for welfare would be subjected to drug testing and would be permanently cut off if they fail three times under a bill passed Wednesday by the state Senate.
The bill covers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program applicants. The program, which provides poor people with money for food, clothing, housing and other basic needs, distributes about $90 million to more than 100,000 Texans annually. The amount of the payment depends on family size and income.
"Taxpayer money should not be used to subsidize someone's drug habit," bill sponsor Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said before the bill sailed through on a 31-0 vote that sent it to the House.
The program already requires adult TANF applicants to sign a pledge not to sell or use drugs. Nelson's bill would move Texas in line with seven other states that require testing. It would not cover other welfare programs such as food stamps or other state benefit programs.
Not all applicants would be tested, but all would be required to undergo a screening assessment, likely a questionnaire, to determine their risk of drug use. Anyone with a previous felony drug conviction or failed drug test or who is otherwise deemed a high risk for drug use would be tested.
Applicants who test positive would be barred from collecting benefits for 12 months. They could reapply in six months if they complete a substance abuse program. Three failed drug tests would result in a permanent ban.
The bill would still allow the applicants' children to receive benefits through a designated third party.
"My intent was never to harm the children," Nelson said.
She said many Texas employers require pre-employment drug testing and said her bill may help people find jobs and get off welfare.
"We're not only going to help them get off drugs," Nelson said. "We're going to help them get a job."
The Senate is also considering a separate bill that would require similar screening and drug testing for those who apply for unemployment benefits. Gov. Rick Perry has expressed support for both drug testing bills.
"Welfare should never subsidize the irresponsible choices of otherwise capable people who instead elect to stay at home, play video games, and get high with their friends," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said.