Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said Tuesday that he’s throwing his support to proposals that would require applicants for unemployment benefits and food stamps to submit to a urine analysis drug screening.
“We have to remember a core mission that has been trusted to us by the people of the state: to wisely and prudently safeguard the taxpayer’s dollars and empower every Texan to reach their potential,” he said, adding that the program was part of his strategy to keep Texas “fiscally responsible.”
Perry specifically backed Senate Bill 11, proposed by Texas Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), which emulates a similar drug testing regime implemented by Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). Nelson’s proposal, however, focuses on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program only, meaning what Perry said Tuesday actually applies to an even broader policy that’s not yet been formally proposed.
But to get a picture of how it might play out in Texas, Florida’s program could serve as a valuable example. That state’s effort was plagued with numerous problems before a judge temporarily suspended it in October pending further hearings, in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“People don’t lose their Fourth Amendment rights or any rights just because they happen to be poor or were asking for extra assistance to make ends meet,” ACLU Florida spokesperson Baylor Johnson told Raw Story. “That’s not what the Constitution says. The Constitution is clear that the right to be protected against an unreasonable, suspicionless search by the government applies to everyone uniformly.”
In addition to the drug tests being a potentially illegal search, The New York Times noted in April that only about 2 percent of applicants in Florida were denied benefits due to failed drug tests, saving just $45,780 in total, even though the program itself cost $118,140. In a state like Texas, that such a program could actually be a lot more expensive: Florida has 6.6 million fewer people than Texas, and and only 16.5 percent of them live in poverty, whereas in Texas it’s 17.9 percent. To make matters worse, Texas had 2.7 million people receiving some kind of state aid in 2010, whereas Florida had 1.7 million.
In other words, Florida actually ended up “spending more money reimbursing people who passed the test than they did saving money based upon failed tests,” Johnson said.
More problematic, with Republicans running the state in Texas for so long, unemployment and food stamp benefits have been repeatedly cut back and retooled. As The Dallas Morning News noted, “almost all of Texas’ benefit programs are geared towards children, including food stamps. So does it do any good to deny benefits to kids for a year because the adult in their life used pot or other drugs?”
Lawsuits filed against Florida’s drug testing regime also noted that many counties do not have drug testing labs, forcing unemployed citizens into the financial hardship of traveling sometimes 100 miles or more, only to pay for their own test when they arrive. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida also found that some terminally ill people who sought financial assistance from the state were required to give urine samples via catheter or face having them denied.
“The state had to scramble to create an infrastructure to support this program,” Johnson said. “As a result, people’s private information was exposed, they had results sent to the wrong locations. In one case, a Department of Children and Families representative showed up at a mother’s home unannounced and asked for a urine sample in her home. All sorts of strange situations occurred as the state was trying to implement this law, which was rushed into place.”
It can also have the effect of unfairly punishing marijuana users, which accounted for most of Florida’s failed drug tests, encouraging recreational use of other drugs that leave the body faster. People who abuse harder substances like crack cocaine or hallucination-inducing drugs like LSD or ecstasy are often able to remain undetected on drug screens because the drug clears their system in hours or days, whereas traces of marijuana are detectable for weeks. Alcohol is also not tested for in Florida’s program, even though a 2010 study in the journal Epidemiology found that living poverty causes an 86 percent jump in the the likelihood people will begin binge drinking.
Nevertheless, Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) stood together on Tuesday and praised the proposal for a new drug testing regime. “This will help prevent tax dollars from going into the pockets of drug abusers or drug dealers, and instead ensure this money goes to someone who truly needs it,” Perry said. “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 child care or for medicine.”
“Drug tests are particularly invasive searches, and under our Constitution, the government cannot conduct such searches unless it has a good reason to believe a person is actually engaged in wrongdoing,” ACLU Texas Policy Director Rebecca Robertson said in an advisory. “This law authorizes government over-reach by allowing arbitrary searches without any suspicion that a crime is being committed.”
Sen. Nelson did not respond to a request for comment.
This video was published to YouTube on November 13, 2012.
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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