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With Revised Welfare Drug-Testing Bill, Nelson Thinks of the Children

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At a brisk hearing this morning on the controversial Senate Bill 11 that would subject welfare applicants to drug screening, bill author Jane Nelson of Flower Mound seemed to understand that barring kids from benefits for life if their parent fails three drug tests is totally messed up.

“My intent is absolutely not to hurt the children,” Nelson said, which turned out to be policy everyone could get behind. Nelson was responding to testimony offered by Scott McCown of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, who praised the committee substitute Nelson offered today and said that, with a couple of tweaks, the left-leaning CPPP would even support it.

The new version of SB 11 focuses exclusively on drug-testing welfare applicants who have been identified as potential drug users by some fuzzy, as-yet-undesigned-but-definitely-constitutional screening process. (In a hearing on a similar bill, SB 21, which applies drug-testing to applicants for unemployment benefits, bill author and Grumpy Cat doppelganger Tommy Williams speculated that the screening would be a questionnaire that asked, for example, if the applicant was regularly late for stuff and/or used recreational drugs.)

The revised SB 11 would bar only adults from receiving benefits in the event of a failed drug screen—children would still be eligible for benefits. But it does retain the lifetime ban on entire families in the event of three failed drug screens, which is the main problem McCown still had with it. He proposed a “protective payee” program, by which benefits would be given to a non-drug-taking relative, like a grandmother, on the child’s behalf. McCown also asked if language could be included that would let benefits be restored to a child if that child leaves the drug-user’s custody, so that if the child were placed elsewhere and still eligible for benefits, the lifetime ban wouldn’t follow him or her. Nelson said, “I think we can do that.”

SB 11 is one of a spate of bills this session that have reintroduced the taxpayer-funded dope fiend to the roster of political scapegoats and distractions, where it joins the fraudulent voter and the job-stealing illegal immigrant. It’s a cynical bill, but this morning’s exchange was strikingly un-cynical.

McCown and Nelson compromised. McCown still has problems with the new bill, such as that it eliminates income for a troubled family without offering state-sponsored drug treatment, but he didn’t dig in his heels against it. Nelson’s original version of SB 11 proposed sweeping changes to work eligibility and benefit expiration that would have dropped thousands of families from the rolls, but she made drastic changes in response to public outcry.

When McCown suggested the protective payee program, Nelson graciously asked McCown to work with her on such language, saying, “We want to get it right.”

And McCown, when asked if he would actually support the bill if the protective payee component were included, laughed and then said warmly, “Sure.”

The Health and Human Services committee left SB 11 pending.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.