Gov. Phil Bryant signs welfare drug-testing bill

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a welfare drug-testing bill on Monday, requiring those who test positive to get treatment in order to get cash.

He said it will help people who are “trapped in a dependency lifestyle.”

House Bill 49 will become law July 1.

When it takes effect, anyone who applies for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will have to answer a questionnaire. If the answers show the possibility of substance abuse, the person will have to take a drug test. Anyone testing positive would have to receive treatment to receive cash assistance.

If the person tests positive for drugs after receiving treatment, the assistance would end.

“The TANF program is a safety net for families in need, and adding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children,” Bryant, a Republican, said in a news release. “This measure will help make a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.”

The bill passed the House 74-46 on Jan. 15, with all Republicans who were present voting “yes” and most Democrats voting “no.”

The vote came after a four-hour debate with opponents saying the bill was designed to punish, rather than help, poor people. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, called the bill “narrow-minded” and said it was driven by conservative political interests.

The bill’s chief sponsor, House Public Health and Human Service Chairman Sam Mims, R-McComb, during the debate: “It’s about helping these people become better moms, become better dads, become better community members.”

The Senate passed the bill March 12 on a 36-15 vote that also was divided largely along party lines with Republicans in support and Democrats in opposition.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services says 9,563 families received TANF payments last June, the final month of the 2013 state budget year. The average monthly payment to a family was $140, while the average payment to an individual was $67.

Mims said the Mississippi plan is different from a Florida law that a federal judge declared unconstitutional because Florida made drug testing mandatory for all applicants without screening them with a questionnaire.

Utah started a drug-testing program for welfare recipients in 2012. A state agency said the state spent $30,000 the first year and found 12 people who tested positive for drug use. Bryant told The Associated Press in December that he believes Mississippi could run a program for a similar amount of money.