Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The Republican-controlled Mississippi House voted Wednesday to conduct drug screens of new welfare recipients, but rejected proposals to conduct similar tests of others who receive state funds.
In addition, House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, ruled that an amendment that would require drug screens and drug tests of state legislators was outside the scope of the original bill and thus could not be considered.
The Mississippi House debated for about four hours before passing a proposal that would require drug screens and the possible loss of benefits for people who receive federal Temporary Aid for Need Families benefits.
The bill passed 74-46 with all the opposition coming from Democrats. Republicans beat back all 12 amendments offered by the Democratic minority, including proposals:
• To require a bid process before the state awards the contract to the company administering the screening and testing.
• To ensure that the results of the screening process are kept confidential.
• To allow the TANF funds for children to be directed to another caretaker if the parent tested positive for drugs and lost the benefits.
• To require TANF recipients who abuse alcohol to undergo the same treatment process and possibly lose benefits.
• To require students receiving state funds to attend college and corporate executives garnering state money for economic development projects to undergo the same screening and testing.
Public Health Chairman Sam Mims, R-McComb, said the effort of the legislation was not to punish welfare recipients.
“If we get them off drugs and help them raise their families, they will be better citizens,” Mims said.
Later he said, “…The spirit and the intent of the legislation is to help these people.”
Rep. Cecil Brown said he was trying to provide the same help to others who receive state funds – referring to college students who receive financial aid and corporate executives who receive grants for their businesses.
“We’re trying to be fair across the board,” Brown said, adding that there are many college students and corporate executives with drug problems that eventually lead to dire consequences.
“We’re trying to help those people, too,” he said.
The legislation would require people applying for Temporary Aid for Needy Families benefits to take a survey developed to try to determine if it was likely that the person was a drug user. A person suspected of being a drug user, based on the survey results, would be required to take a test.
If the person tested positive for drug use, the TANF recipient would be required to undergo a two-month outpatient drug treatment program. During the program, the person would continue to receive benefits. But if a drug test was failed after the program, the person would be ineligible to continue to receive the benefits.
Before the session began, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant voiced support for legislation requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug testing.
Democrats pointed out a drug screening program in Florida of welfare recipients has been found unconstitutional by the federal courts. But Mims said his bill was based on the Utah law, which has not been challenged by the courts.
Mims said he believes the costs will be minimal. He said only 485 of the more than 18,000 who applied for TANF aid last year in Mississippi were approved. And, he said, based on Utah’s experiences, only a few of the recipients will test positive for drugs.
TANF, a federal program administered by the states, is available to single parents living in poverty. A parent gets $146 for the first child, plus $24 for each additional child. A person is eligible for TANF for only five years and must be looking for a job or in an educational program to receive the federal benefit.
“We have targeted a class of citizens for no reason,” said Rep. Willie Perkins, D-Greenwood.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the proposal “was chasing a near non-existent problem. This bill is about responding to polling, fundraising, about a punitive agenda instead of a … redemptive agenda.”
Vote of Northeast Mississippi House members on bill to require drug screens for recipients of federal Temporary Aid for Needy Families benefits:
FOR – Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo; William Tracy Arnold, R-Booneville; Nick Bain, D-Corinth; Jim Beckett, R-Bruce; Donnie Bell, R-Fulton; Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie; Chris Brown, R-Aberdeen; Lester “Bubba” Carpenter, R-Burnsville Gary Chism, R-Columbus; Joey Hood, R-Ackerman; Mac Huddleston, R-Pontotoc; Bill Kindade, R-Byhalia; Steve Massengill, R-Hickory Flat; Brad Mayo, R-Oxford; Nolan Mettetal, R-Sardis; Margaret Ellis Rogers, R-New Albany; Jody Steverson, D-Ripley; Preston Sullivan, D-Okolona; Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.
AGAINST – Tyrone Ellis, D-Starkville; Karl Gibbs, D-West Point; Steve Holland, D-Plantersville; John Faulkner, D-West Point; Kevin Horan, D-Grenada; Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley.