"Clock Runs Out on Bill Requiring Drug Testing for State Benefits" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Updated, May 22, 2013, 12:15 a.m.
In a surprising reversal, the Texas House allowed the clock to run out Tuesday night on Senate Bill 11, an initiative that would have created a drug testing regimen for some welfare benefits.
After a marathon debate and a night of procedural and delay tactics, just hours after it voted to require drug testing for unemployment applicants, the House failed to reach a vote on SB 11 before time ran out on a midnight deadline to approve the bill.
Senate Bill 11, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would have required adults receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to submit to a drug test if their responses to a screening questionnaire indicate possible drug use.
Under the bill, a person who tested positive for drugs would be ineligible for financial assistance for six months. A second positive drug test would trigger a 12-month penalty, and a third positive result would make the applicant permanently ineligible for TANF benefits.
The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Walter T. “Four” Price, R-Amarillo, said that TANF already required benefit recipients to be drug-free — and that the measure simply enforced that requirement. The bill passed easily out of the upper chamber last month, but it attracted fierce opposition in the House.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, said the bill was unconstitutional and invited future legal challenges.
“Are people using their food stamps to go buy drugs? I categorically deny that,” he said. “Let me just tell you, it’s hell to be poor. And it’s certainly hell to be poor in the state of Texas.”
After nearly two hours of debate, Price announced his intention to pull the bill, predicting the debate would drag on and ultimately kill other bills. The House faced a midnight deadline to give tentative approval to Senate bills. But supporters of SB 11 convinced Price to continue.
Democrats resumed their attack against the bill, and lawmakers adopted one amendment that would have required drug testing for legislators. After more delays and parliamentary maneuvers, the clock struck midnight before the House could vote.
Texans who apply for unemployment benefits could be subject to drug testing under a measure the House tentatively approved on Tuesday.
Senate Bill 21 by state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, would require applicants for unemployment benefits to take a drug test if their responses to a screening questionnaire raise red flags that indicate drug use.
The bill’s House sponsor, state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, emphasized the cost of workforce drug use in his introduction of the measure, which passed 98-44.
"The United States Department of Labor estimates that drug use costs employers between $75 and $100 billion in lost time every year," he said. "They further determined that employees with substance abuse problems cost their employers $7,500 a month."
State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, questioned the necessity of the bill.
"What problem are you trying to solve with this bill," he asked Creighton. "Losing a job is a very traumatic thing. Aren’t we adding insult to injury for what’s already a very traumatic situation?"
Under amendments passed in the Senate, the bill would allow applicants for unemployment benefits who fail a drug test to retest and appeal the results in case of a false-positive. The measure would also allow applicants who enroll in and attend a drug treatment program within seven days of a failing test result to continue receiving benefits.
The bill is one of several this session that create drug test regimens for certain populations. Senate Bill 11, by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, which requires drug testing for certain welfare applicants, is also due to receive a House vote Tuesday night. Senate Bill 612, by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, would have required state legislators to submit to drug tests, but it failed to meet Senate deadlines.
“SB 21 takes a small but effective step toward actually doing something good for the individual applicant and our society as a whole,” said Creighton.
He said the measure as approved by the House provides exceptions to first-time applicants, to applicants who can prove they have a prescription from a medical practitioner and those who can prove they are in a drug treatment program.
Some business groups whose members pay into the fund that provides unemployment benefits support the bill. Will Newton, the executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, applauded the bill in a statement.
"Small business owners do not pay into the Unemployment Benefits Trust Fund to enable recipients to abuse drugs," Newton said. "They expect their hard-earned dollars to provide benefits to assist individuals who have been displaced from their employment and are unable to find work."
One representative questioned the constitutionality of the measure and predicted it would be the subject of a court challenge.
State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, asked a series of questions during the floor debate to determine the rationale for state-required drug testing. His questions, he said, were intended to assess whether the drug testing requirement met the Fourth Amendment standard for unreasonable search.
"I'm putting on record the foundations of what will inevitably be the lawsuit," Wu said. "Based on a plain reading of the available Supreme Court cases, this bill is very much unconstitutional."
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