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Nov 14, 2012 9:17 AM by JD Downing

Texas Governor supports drug testing for welfare, unemployment benefits

Texas' top two leaders on Tuesday endorsed a change in state law to require first-ever mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients and those receiving unemployment assistance.

Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said the move would keep welfare recipients from spending money on illegal drugs, instead of necessary living expenses for which it is intended, and would cut down on unemployment costs to businesses for unemployed Texans who cannot pass a drug test.

At least 23 other states including Florida have either implemented a similar change or are considering it, as welfare reform has become a key issue among conservatives and in cash-strapped states looking to tighten elegibility criteria and to curb abuses.

"Texas taxpayers will not subsidize or tolerate illegal drug abuse," Perry said at a morning press conference to announce his support of the change. "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. 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."

Dewhurst, noting he is the only "traditional business owner" among the state's ladership who has had experience with hiring difficulties in the private workplace, said there are cases where businesses offer jobs to job candidates, only to have them flunk drug tests. In other cases, he said, applicants turn down jobs or ask that their start date be delayed so they can continue collecting a state unemployment check for several additional weeks.

"People on drugs are less dependable and they put businesses and other employees at risk," Dewhurst said. "We owe it to all Texans to improve the structure on welfare and our unemployment benefits. This new approach to (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare-to-work program) and unemployment brings it back to its original purpose."

Drug users who flunked a mandatory test could be disqualified from receiving benefits for up to 12 months, the officials said. Dewhurst said they could qualify for treatment programs covered by the federal Medicaid program, if they were eligible.

Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, a powerful business lobby group, applauded the proposal - filed as a bill on Tuesday by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Senate Bill 11 has a low number because it is a high priority for passage, Dewhurst said.

Hammond said 80 percent of Texas employers are now requiring drug-testing of employees and prospective employees, as a condition of employment. If benefits are linked to passing a drug test, he said, more unemployed Texans will be more readily available for work when they apply.

Despite strong support from top state officials and lobby groups, other interest groups quickly questioned the idea - with some suggesting that it could lead to more unemployed, drug-addicted Texans ending up penniless, and perhaps in the criminal justice system that will cost taxpayers even more.

"How sad that our state's highest elected officials have embraced this mean-spirited measure that would punish innocent children for their parents' conduct," said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. "This proposal is a costly, ineffective, inhumane and punitive effort by state government based on stereotypes about our state's neediest Texans."

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