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Welfare drug testing bill passed in House

Last week, the Mississippi House passed a bill that would require drug testing for some people applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

After a four-hour debate over the bill, which included questioning privacy and constitutionality of drug testing for TANF recipients, the bill was passed through the House and will move onto the Senate for discussion and a vote.

The bill proposes when someone applies for TANF, the person would answer a questionnaire. If the answers indicate possible use of illegal drugs, the applicant would have to undergo treatment for two months.

A similar bill in Florida was struck down last year after a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional. The bill would have required welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug testing.

House Public Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Sam Mims said the Mississippi bill is different because the testing would be based on the applicant’s answers on the questionnaire.

The bill states that an applicant “may continue to receive benefits if the person enters into and follows the requirements of substance use disorder treatment plan, including: receiving treatment from an approved substance use disorder treatment provider for 60 days, testing negative for the unlawful use of a drug, meeting the other TANF requirements for receiving cash assistance.”

Representative Mark Formby, who represents Pearl River County, co-authored the bill.

Formby said the state would pay for the applicant’s drug treatment if they agree to enter the program.

“This is not a bill that takes away your benefits if you test positive,” Formby said. “It gets you help while you’re in the program.”

Formby said he is “extremely conservative” with money, but that the TANF program is about helping the family and that by helping those applicants with drug problems, it is helping the family.

According to The Mississippi Department of Human Services’ annual report for the 2013 budget year, the average monthly payment to a family receiving TANF was $140.

The average monthly payment to an individual was $67. The report also said that in June 2013, 9,563 families received TANF payments.

Formby said he doesn’t know how much it is going to cost to provide drug treatment for applicants because it depends on the number of applicants who qualify for the treatment program.

Utah started a drug-testing program for welfare recipients in 2012. A Utah state agency said the state spent $30,000 the first year. Twelve people tested positive for drug use.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said he believes Mississippi would run a program for about the same amount of money.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)