Hours after a barrage of Democratic delaying tactics scuttled a drug-testing program for welfare recipients, Texas House Republicans grabbed a consolation prize Wednesday, approving a similar program for some Texans who apply for unemployment benefits.
Democrats fought both measures as unnecessary, costly and mean-spirited, but the end-of-session calendar favored them only in fighting the proposal to require welfare applicants to undergo drug screening and followup testing if there is “good cause to suspect” substance abuse.
The drama played out late Tuesday. By raising five points of order, filing amendments and drawing out debate, Democrats chewed up almost three hours of precious time on a night when all Senate-approved bills would die without an initial House vote before midnight.
After almost two hours of debate, and with a half-dozen amendments pending, state Rep. Walter Price, R-Amarillo, reluctantly moved to table the welfare bill at 10:55 p.m., saying too many pending bills would be killed by the protracted debate.
That brought shouts of “No!” from Republicans and a huddle around the speaker’s desk, after which Price pronounced the debate healthy and said he would continue with the bill.
Price began accepting amendments to speed the process, including one by state Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Kingsville, requiring legislators to undergo drug tests, but that strategy proved futile as Democrats stretched the discussion until midnight — killing not only Senate Bill 11, but about 50 Senate bills behind it.
The Democratic strategy, said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, was assembled on the fly, making use of time limits set in the closing days of the legislative session, which ends Monday.
“Any bill that comes up within a couple hours of a critical deadline is in danger if it has strong opposition,” he said. “It was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The bill on jobless benefits drug testing was spared a similar fate because it received an initial vote earlier Tuesday, allowing it to advance to a final vote Wednesday, when it was approved 104-42 with solid support by Republicans.
Relatively minor differences between the House and Senate versions will have to be reconciled before the bill can be sent to the governor.
Under the proposal, a drug screening will be given to first-time applicants for jobless benefits whose previous job required them to take a pre-employment drug test — workers in the aviation, trucking and hazardous materials industries, for example, said state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe.
If the screening, a questionnaire adopted by the Texas Workforce Commission, points to potential drug use, the applicant will have to pass a drug test to receive benefits, Creighton said. Applicants who fail a drug test could receive benefits if they enter a treatment program or pass a second test administered after four weeks.
“I think incentives provided in this bill will lead every applicant to find help or (receive) drug treatment,” Creighton said.
Republicans made similar arguments about the bill on welfare — known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — arguing that the measure would protect families by forcing drug users to seek treatment.
Under the bill drafted by state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, adults who tested positive for drug abuse would lose their welfare benefits for six months, after which they could reapply after passing another drug test.
A second positive test would cancel benefits for one year, though they could be reinstated after six months with proof of completion of or enrollment in a drug rehabilitation program. A third positive drug test would result in a lifetime ban from welfare benefits.
State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, said she feared bureaucrats on a power trip could force applicants to take drug tests without proper reason, particularly because the bill didn’t define what constitutes “good cause” to suspect drug use.
“There is an inordinate amount of power that is in the hands of individuals who will be determining who will take the tests for controlled substances,” Dukes said.
But her amendment, requiring periodic drug testing of state workers who can order drug tests, was voted down early in the debate Tuesday.
On Wednesday, senators whose bills died in the House began scrambling to find ways to revive their legislation.
“It’s just an unfortunate part of the political drama,” said state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who hadn’t given up hope of passing her proposals by other means.