Missouri’s House votes to require drug testing of welfare recipients

By Christi Warren

State Capitol Bureau, Missouri Digital News

JEFFERSON CITY – House lawmakers gave first round approval to a bill that would mandate drug testing for Missouri welfare recipients Wednesday.

The bill moved on with a 121-37 vote. If passed, the law would require work-eligible recipients of the federal Temporary Assistant for Needy Families program to undergo drug testing, should they be deemed potential drug users by a social service agent with any amount of “reasonable suspicion.”

Those who fail the test would lose $58 from the amount given to them by the government, roughly 20 percent of the $292 that Rep. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, said is the amount an average three-person family can expect to receive. The remainder of the funds would continue to be received by the family, only they would be assigned to a third party who would appropriate them to the care of the child. This restriction would last for a full year, at which point the applicant would be given the opportunity to re-test.

Opposition to the bill came largely from Democrats, with only one Republican representative joining them.

Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa, said the it was the bill’s cost that swayed his vote.

“It had a $2 million fiscal note,” Elmer said. “And we, as Republicans, are going to sit there and vote for that kind of growth in government?”

Former director of a statewide anti-poverty group Rep. Jeanette Oxford, D-St. Louis City, also opposes the bill. She cited concerns about how it would not only affect the parents, but also the 70,000 children currently receiving benefits from TANF.

“Taking away that little bit of money is apt to lead to deeper problems: homelessness, utility disconnection, things that aren’t good for the kids,” Oxford said. “There is no parents’ portion truly … all that money is needed by that household to survive.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, argued that “taxpayers do not want to see their hard-earned dollars being spent for substance abuse products illegally.”

One out of every three Democrats supported the bill; Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia was one of them. While he voted in favor of the bill, he said he hopes that over time a better version will arise, specifically with regard to the definition of “reasonable suspicion.” According to Kelly, the bill would ideally call for testing of individuals “who are failing to comply with other requirements, like the work training requirement.”

Remarking on the inefficiency of the current state of the bill, Kelly said, “We’re testing everybody now, just to test a few.”

The bill will be subject to one more vote by the House before it moves to the Senate for final approval.