House OKs drug tests for Missouri welfare recipients

The Missouri House endorsed a bill Wednesday to conduct drug tests of welfare applicants if the state suspects that they are using illegal drugs.

Under the bill, people who fail the drug test would lose their benefits under the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for one year. The bill’s supporters said taxpayers do not want people to use welfare money to buy drugs.

“Clearly, this federal government had no intent of including drug users in these cash benefits,” said sponsoring Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston. She also said drug testing helps prepare welfare recipients for jobs since many employers require the tests.

About 43,700 families, totaling about 112,000 people, receive TANF benefits each month in Missouri, according to a fiscal estimate included with the bill.

The House gave first-round approval to the bill by a 121-37 vote. A second vote is needed to send the bill to the Senate, where similar bills have been filed.

The House bill would allow children of parents who fail drug tests to continue receiving their share of the benefits. The benefits would be given to a third party who would use the money to care for the child. Supporters said that would protect children from drug-addicted parents and would give parents an incentive to overcome their addictions.

Rep. Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City, said taking away parents’ welfare benefits would still hurt children because there would be less money available for general household expenses such as rent.

“Children will suffer even if only the parent’s benefits are eliminated,” she said.

The House bill was amended Wednesday to prevent the state’s Department of Social Services from discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity when it decides who is tested for drugs. Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, who sponsored the amendment, said he was more concerned about racial discrimination than discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation.

Under the bill, people who fail the drug test would not lose their benefits until after an administrative hearing. The fiscal estimate predicted that the attorney general’s office would have to hire at least one additional assistant attorney general and another legal secretary to handle the additional caseload.

A Senate committee considered three bills similar to the House measure in a hearing Tuesday. Those bills would take away benefits for as long as three years if a person fails a drug test.

Colleen Coble, the executive director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, told the committee that such bills would be ineffective if the state does not pay for treatment for people who test positive. She said people would stay addicted and use money to support their habit that they would normally use for child care.

“You’re going to have incredibly poor kids with an addicted parent, with even fewer dollars in the household,” she said.

The Senate committee will likely vote on its version of the bill next week.

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