Mississippi will begin drug testing TANF recipients


Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (right) (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly described TANF benefits as food stamps. The SNAP program and TANF are independent of each other.

Residents who apply for temporary financial aid benefits in Mississippi will have to submit to drug testing if the state deems they are likely to be substance abusers under a new measure headed to Gov. Phil Bryant’s (R) desk.

The bill passed the state Senate on Wednesday after passing the state House earlier this year. It would require new applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to submit to a questionnaire that would evaluate the likelihood of substance abuse.

Applicants deemed at risk of substance abuse would then be required to take a drug test. Testing positive once would require a TANF recipient to undergo treatment for substance abuse; testing positive a second time would get a recipient booted from the program for 90 days. A third positive test would exclude a recipient for up to a year.

In a statement, Bryant praised the law for making “a positive difference for families impacted by substance abuse.”

“The TANF program is a safety net for families in need, and adding this screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children,” Bryant said.

The state will use federal funds earmarked for the TANF program to administer the questionnaires and testing. The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Terry Burton (R), estimated the testing would cost about $36,000 a year.

Nine other states, all governed by Republicans — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah — have passed legislation requiring TANF applicants to be screened or tested for drug use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Florida’s version in 2013, which required testing for all TANF applicants.

Federal rules permit drug testing using funds from TANF block grants, and at least 24 states are considering bills that would require those tests during their 2014 legislative sessions. The first three states started requiring drug testing in 2011, and states that use a questionnaire to screen for possible drug abuse have seen their programs upheld in federal courts.

Democrats who opposed the Mississippi measure said it would inadvertently impact children whose parents tested positive for drug abuse. They offered amendments that would also conduct tests on college students who receive public scholarships and business executives who benefit from state or federal assistance, though those amendments were defeated, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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