(The Texas Tribune) — Updated, Wednesday, 2:25 p.m.:
After little debate, the Texas Senate on Wednesday voted unanimously to pass a bill that requires applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to pass a drug test to receive benefits.
“This bill makes sure state resources are not used to support drug habits, while ensuring children continue receiving benefits in a safe environment,” said Sen. Jane Nelson, the author of Senate Bill 11, which now goes to the House.
The protective payee provision that was included in SB 11 drew praise among some members in the upper chamber. It provides for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to designate another person to receive TANF benefits on a child’s behalf if the child’s parent tests positive for drugs.
Nelson told her colleagues that the provision is the reason the bill passed unanimously out of committee, with bipartisan support.
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, expressed concern that the bill creates a “three strikes, you’re out” model. The first time a person tests positive for drugs, he or she is ineligible for financial assistance for six months; the second positive test triggers a 12-month penalty; the third positive result deems the applicant permanently ineligible for TANF benefits.
Nelson reassured Lucio and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, that applicants get “plenty of opportunities” to get help. SB 11 allows for applicants who test positive for drugs the second time to reapply for benefits after six months if they have enrolled in or completed a drug treatment program. She highlights that the base bill includes $300 million to increase the availability of such programs for low income Texans.
In the House, state Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, has filed House Bill 1583, which would applicants for unemployment benefits to submit to a drug test. It was set to be heard in committee Wednesday afternoon. Her staff confirms she has withdrawn that bill. A similar measure, HB 1281, filed by Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, was heard in committee Wednesday.
Lawmakers have filed nearly a dozen bills this session that would create new standards, including drug testing, for Texans applying for unemployment benefits and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
While lawmakers have filed similar measures in the past, this time around, the effort to require drug testing of those who receive state benefits seem to be gaining steam. Two of the measures will be heard in a House committee on Wednesday, while two measures in the Senate have already passed out of committee.
Senate Bill 11, by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would require adults receiving TANF benefits to submit to a drug screening questionnaire and, if necessary, a drug test. That bill has made the most progress so far and is expected to reach the Senate floor for debate soon.
The Nelson measure includes a protective payee provision that allows the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to designate someone else to receive benefits on a child’s behalf if their parent tests positive for drugs. The payee would also be subject to a drug test.
John Colyandro, executive director of the Texas Conservative Coalition, is among the proponents of Nelson's measure. He said he believes similar language will be added to the House versions.
House Bills 1281 and 1583, which would require applicants for unemployment benefits to submit to drug testing, will be heard Wednesday in the Economic and Small Business Development Committee.
State Sen. Tommy Williams' SB 21 — which would subject Texans' eligible for unemployment compensation benefits to a drug test — passed out of that chamber's Economic Development Committee, but it has not yet been placed on the Senate calendar.
In the last two legislative sessions, five bills related to drug testing for welfare applicants were filed. None made it out of committee.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/04/10/bills-drug-test-welfare-applicants-debate/ .