TANF drug testing law delayed for public hearing

Published: Jun. 26, 2014 at 8:29 PM CDT
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - A bill originally scheduled to go into effect July 1 that would require those applying for TANF benefits to be subject to drug testing will be delayed for a public hearing.

House Bill 49, a law that would force TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) applicants to complete a questionnaire and face the possibility of a drug test, will be delayed until at least the end of a public hearing period scheduled for July 22.

The delay comes after a request made by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi (ACLU of MS) and the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) June 20 to postpone the implementation. The groups cited the Administrative Procedure Law which states an agency is not permitted to adopt the law "until the period for making written submissions and oral presentations has expired."

The concerns ACLU, ACLU of MS and MCJ had with the bill were vagueness in reference to who will be paying for the drug screening costs and treatment, the effects households and children of those who fail to comply with the drug screening will feel, and privacy issues with the non-disclosure policy.

Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice Beth Orlansky said HB 49 is a clear example of putting actions before due diligence.

"The bill was rushed through to approval with little thought given to how it would affect the lives of those who fall under its authority," Orlansky said. "This puts some of the most vulnerable children in our state at even greater risk. The state simply is not ready for the realities of this bill."

Republican state senator Joey Fillingane said the drug screening is necessary to ensure those receiving assistance are not abusing a system that Mississippian taxpayers are funding.

"If Mississippians taxpayers are paying for this program, I think it's smart that we know if people are taking this money and then abusing the system by being on drugs, therefore not being able to find a job because they will test positive for drug usage," Fillingane said. "The whole point is to get people from a position of being unemployed to being employed so that they are able to earn for their own families."

TANF, formerly known as welfare, was created in the 1996 welfare reform law and enacted in Mississippi October 1, 1996. Designed to help needy families with children and end their dependence on government benefits, families must meet both financial and non-financial requirements created in state law. In general, applicant families must have a child under 18 and be residents of Mississippi. Children under 7 must meet the TANF immunization requirements, and children 6 to 17 must be enrolled in school and have satisfactory attendance. Parents or caretakers must participate in school conferences. Children age 18 that are included in the Assistance Unit (AU) due to school enrollment must also have satisfactory school attendance. Families are eligible for assistance for 60 months, but states may extend assistance beyond 60 months to as much as 20 percent of their caseload provided.

Should the new law go into effect, applicants would be subject to a questionnaire who may ask the applicant to submit a drug test at DHS. Should the applicant refuse, cash benefits may be taken away and they may not reapply for 90 days. If the applicant refuses again, they may not reapply for one year. Should the applicant test positive for illegal drugs, they must receive treatment from an approved substance abuse disorder treatment for at least 60 days.

Orlansky said the possibility of drug testing seems to be targeting a certain demographic rather than the population as a whole, thus not fixing the problem.

"It seems to us that they are targeting a particular population that has no more likelihood of having a drug problem that the general population, and just adding a new barrier to people who are getting TANF benefits. It's not necessary."

The hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. at the Hinds County Extension Office July 22 in Jackson.