Mississippi House passes welfare drug testing bill by 74-46 vote

download (2)JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — The Mississippi House engaged in a contentious four-hour debate Wednesday before voting largely along party lines to pass a bill that would require drug testing for some people applying for welfare.

House Bill 49 passed the Republican-controlled chamber 74-46, with all Republicans who were present voting “yes” and most Democrats voting “no.” The measure will go to the Senate for more work later this session.

In the first big debate of the 2014 session, which started last week, Democrats peppered Republicans with dozens of questions about the privacy and constitutionality of drug testing for low-income residents seeking Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The bill proposes a two-step process: When someone applies for TANF, she would answer a questionnaire. If the answers indicate possible use of illegal drugs, she would have to undergo outpatient treatment for two months.

House Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Sam Mims, R-McComb, said the proposal is different from a Florida law that a federal judge recently declared unconstitutional because Florida made drug testing mandatory for all applicants without screening them with a questionnaire. Mims said TANF benefits in Mississippi would be paid during treatment but would be cut off for the recipient and her children if she tests positive for drug use at the end of treatment.

“It’s about helping these people become better moms, become better dads, become better community members,” Mims said.

Democrats offered several amendments that ultimately failed, including one that would have required drug testing for corporate executives, college students and others who receive state financial support.

Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood, asked if Mims has evidence to show TANF recipients are more likely than any other people to abuse illegal drugs.

“I don’t have any evidence,” Mims said.

Democratic Rep. Steve Holland called the bill “narrow-minded” and said it’s driven by conservative political interests.

“Get outside your Southern comfort zone, face reality and do not put further burdens on these amongst us who are looking to better themselves,” Holland implored the House. “Do not put impediments on this bridge over troubled water for our people.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant supports the drug-testing proposal, saying it could lead to treatment for welfare recipients who are using illegal substances.

“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 said in a statement after the House vote.

The Mississippi Department of Human Services annual report says that for the 2013 budget year, which ended June 30, the average monthly payment to a family receiving TANF was $140, while the average payment to an individual was $67. The report said that in June, 9,563 families received TANF payments.

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