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Feds block Texas from testing aid recipients for drugs

By   /   March 22, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Texas Legislature photo

JUST SAY NO: State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, says Texas should not be supporting drug habits with test-free assistance programs.

 

Texans want to drug test applicants seeking billions in welfare and unemployment benefits in the state, but Uncle Sugar says no. At least for now.

Federal rules prohibit drug testing as a condition of eligibility for Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) — even as the state administers those programs.

Watchdog.org photo

GATEWAY: The state-issued Lone Star debit card is the ticket to welfare benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance may be drug tested. But federal courts have blocked other states from doing so, chilling Texas’ attempts to follow suit.

A federal district court and the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals shut down a Michigan testing program on Fourth Amendment grounds.

A Florida law required all TANF applicants to pay for a urine test for drugs. Anyone testing positive would be ineligible for TANF benefits for one year.

The 11th Circuit Court scuttled that program, also citing constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

In light of those reversals, Texas lawmakers have yet to pass drug-testing legislation on TANF.

In 2013, House Bills 249, 1244 and 1582, along with Senate Bill 11, were filed to drug-screen TANF applicants. None passed. SB 11 was heard in committee.

In 2015, two more drug-testing bills — SB 54 and HB 352 — were filed. Neither got a committee hearing.

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said taxpayer money should not support drug habits. Her SB 11 and SB 54 would have temporarily cut benefits to drug users, with a permanent ban after three failed drug tests. Money would still go to an applicant’s minor children through a third party.

Participation in TANF, which served an average of 70,095 Texans a month in 2015, has been declining since 2010, said Bryan Black, spokesman for the state Health and Human Services Commission.

Cash payments are modest — ranging up to $400 for a family of five — but the outlays add up. Texas disbursed about $90 million in TANF benefits last year.

RELATED: It pays $27,900 not to work in New Mexico

The Texas Legislature authorized drug testing of applicants for unemployment benefits — a much bigger program with far more recipients.

Three years on, the state screening program remains stalled.

The Texas Workforce Commission, tasked with implementing Senate Bill 21, still awaits guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor to designate which occupations are subject to testing.

In 2015, the federal Office of Management and Budget indicated that a “final rule” for the regulations related to Texas’ 2012 law was scheduled to be issued this month.

Juan Rodriguez, a Labor Department spokesman based in Dallas, told the Texas Tribune he could not speak to the department’s timeline. He confirmed the rule had not yet been issued, “but it is on track for later this year.”

Meanwhile, the state’s Workforce Commission reported that 145,395 unemployed Texans requested cash assistance during the past two weeks.

Over the past two months, the state paid $484,853,684 in jobless benefits. Total outlays for 2015 were $2,758,702,683, according to the commission.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, called the ongoing delay unfair for the employers who pay the cost of unemployment insurance.

“We have a lot of evidence that a lot of applicants cannot pass a drug test,” Hammond told the Tribune. “It’s likely that some of them are receiving unemployment benefits.”

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at kward@watchdog.org. @Kenricward

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Kenric Ward is a veteran journalist who has worked on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers. A California native, he received a BA from UCLA (Political Science/Phi Beta Kappa) and holds an MBA. He reported and edited at the San Jose Mercury News and the Las Vegas Sun before joining Watchdog.org in 2012 as Virginia Bureau Chief.