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Should Texas Drug Test for Unemployment Benefits?

Ben Philpott, KUT News

Texas Governor Rick Perry has given his support to a bill that would have recipients of unemployment benefits submit to drug tests. Those failing a test would be denied benefits for 12 months, or until they completed a drug treatment program.

Gov. Perry told reporters every dollar the state takes from its people and spends counts, which is why he’s pushing lawmakers to pass legislation creating the drug testing program.

"Every dollar that goes to someone who uses it inappropriately is a dollar that can’t go to a Texan who needs it for housing for childcare or for medicine," Perry said.

Bill Hammond head up the Texas Association of Business, a conservative business advocacy group. He says across the country 80 percent of employers use drug tests. He says that means those tested under the proposed program could have a leg up on other job hunters.

“If you have someone certified as being drug-free, which we hope will be a part of this project, then they go to the top of the list and they get hired," Hammond said.

There are seven states currently with some form of drug tests for benefits programs. But a 2003 ruling by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said testing everyone in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program – without reason to believe that drugs were being used – was unconstitutional. Scott McCown is with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a progressive state policy think-tank.

“What the courts have said – looking at both the unemployment insurance pool and the TANF pool – is that there’s no reason to think that these pools of people are any more likely to be using drugs then the general population," McCown said.

Texas may be trying to get around this ruling by proposing to only test only those who create suspicion of drug use during a screening questionnaire. But beyond any looming legal battles​, McCown says the states that have implemented similar programs have discovered it’s not very cost effective.

“You have to create a state bureaucracy to administer all this. You have to pay for these drug tests, which are expensive," McCown says.

Perry hopes the idea of a drug test gets people to stop using before they submit to a test. He thinks a low percentage of people testing positive would simply show the deterrent has worked.

We’re interested in getting these people off of drugs and getting them into a job that can take care of their family," Perry said.

Perry’s backing could help the bill work its way through the legislature. But McCown says if it passes and is implemented, the state could face the same kind of lawsuits that have dogged similar drug testing programs across the country.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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