Random screenings of people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits is one of the keystones of Gov. Phil Bryant's legislative agenda.
Photo by Trip Burns.
The biggest fight of the young legislative session ended last night with the approval of a bill that would require random screenings of people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.
It's one of the keystones of Gov. Phil Bryant's legislative agenda. The House debated the bill for four hours before it passed 74-46 just after 6 p.m. The House Public Health Committee had considered the bill earlier in the week. The chairman of that committee, Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb, sponsored the bill and characterized it as a way to help people get drug treatment.
The bill proposes a two-step process: When someone applies for TANF, the applicant would answer a questionnaire. If the answers indicate possible use of illegal drugs, the applicant would have to undergo outpatient treatment for two months.
A federal judge recently struck down a similar measure in Florida while Utah's law remains in place. Asked repeatedly about the scope of drug use among people on TANF in Mississippi, Mims said he did not have information about how big the problem is.
Mims told members that his proposal is different from the Florida law, which made drug-testing mandatory for all applicants without screening them with a questionnaire. Mims said TANF benefits in Mississippi would be paid during treatment but would be cut off for the family if the parent tests positive for drug use at the end of treatment.
"It's about helping these people become better moms, become better dads, become better community members," Mims added.
Most Democrats objected and proposed a number of amendments, including several to drug test recipients of other types of state benefits, such as college scholarships. Rep. Adrienne Wooten, D-Jackson, put forth an amendment to test members of the Legislature at legislators' expense.
"It's only fair; it's only right," Wooten said.
The Mississippi Department of Human Services annual report says that for the 2013 budget year, which ended June 30, the average monthly payment to a family receiving TANF was $140, while the average payment to an individual was $67. The report said that in June, 9,563 families received TANF payments.
Utah started a drug-testing program for welfare recipients in 2012. A state agency found that the state spent $30,000 the first year and found 12 people who tested positive for drug use. Bryant said he believes Mississippi would run a program for a similar amount of money.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, the former Public Health chairman, called it a "kick in the teeth" to a relatively small number of Mississippians working hard to better their lives.
"I challenge you to get outside your Southern comfort zone," and defeat the bill, Holland told his House colleagues.
Before it passed, David Myers, D-McComb, called it simply a waste of taxpayer money.
"Let's tackle some real issues," Myers said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.