AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Some Texas applicants for welfare would be subjected to drug testing and would be permanently cut off if they fail three times under a bill passed Wednesday by the state Senate.
The bill covers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program applicants. The program, which provides poor people with money for food, clothing, housing and other basic needs, distributes about $90 million to 100,000 Texans annually.
"Taxpayer money should not be used to subsidize someone's drug habit," bill sponsor Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, said before the bill sailed through on a 31-0 vote that sent it to the House.
The program already requires adult TANF applicants to sign a pledge not to sell or use drugs. Nelson's bill would move Texas in line with seven other states that require testing. It would not cover other welfare programs such as food stamps or other state benefit programs.
Not all applicants would be tested, but all would be required to undergo a screening assessment, likely a questionnaire, to determine their risk of drug use. Anyone with a previous felony drug conviction or failed drug test or who is otherwise deemed a high risk for drug use would be tested.
Applicants who test positive would be barred from collecting benefits for 12 months. They could reapply in six months if they complete a substance abuse program. Three failed drug tests would result in a permanent ban.
The bill would still allow the applicants' children to receive benefits through a designated third party.
"My intent was never to harm the children," Nelson said.
She said many Texas employers require pre-employment drug testing and said her bill may help people find jobs and get off welfare.
"We're not only going to help them get off drugs," Nelson said. "We're going to help them get a job."
The Senate is also considering a separate bill that would require similar screening and drug testing for those who apply for unemployment benefits. Gov. Rick Perry has expressed support for both drug testing bills.
CASINO SUPPORTERS CONTINUE PRESSING LAWMAKERS
Casino and racetrack supporters made their case for allowing Texans to vote on a constitutional amendment to expand gambling, promising billions in new revenues and thousands of jobs.
But the biennial push to allow casinos in Texas still faces an uphill battle with some conservatives insisting that Texas remain one of only 10 states that ban such facilities. The Republican Party of Texas platform also opposes any expansion of gambling and calls for the repeal of the Texas State Lottery.
Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said the constitutional amendment he introduced is designed to bring together casino operators, racetrack owners and American Indian tribes that have worked against each other in the past while addressing the concerns of those who oppose all gambling.
Carona said he thinks Texas voters should get a chance to vote on the measure, which would limit the locations of 21 casinos.
"I'm Southern Baptists and I don't gamble, but I like to go to Las Vegas for the shows," Carona said, emphasizing the tourism possibilities. "We put everything into the constitutional amendment so that the only way we can change it is if the people of Texas come back and Texans voted again on the issue."
The proposal would allow one casino each in Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio with three additional casinos along the coast. Three racetracks in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston could operate casinos, and nine small race tracks could apply for licenses to operate casinos or slot machines.
The three federally recognized American Indian tribes in Texas would also each have a casino license. The amendment would only allow two casinos per county and no more than three in a major metropolitan area.
BILL CRIMINALIZING AIRPORT PAT-DOWNS RETURNS
A key Texas House committee has discussed a contentious proposal to criminalize excessive touching by agents during airport security pat-downs.
The bill by Rep. David Simpson of Longview would make intentionally touching travelers' private parts by security officials illegal without probable cause.
The tea party Republican introduced a 2011 proposal making it illegal for anyone conducting searches to touch travelers' privates, even though clothing. It also would have prohibited searches considered offensive "to a reasonable person."
That bill died after federal officials threatened to close all Texas airports for security purposes if it were approved.
The new measure clarifies that security agents must be deliberately touching inappropriately, rather than doing so incidentally.
But members of the House State Affairs Committee worried it could still eventually lead to grounded flights.
SENATE PANEL BACKS AUDIT OF PERRY ENTERPRISE FUND
Gov. Rick Perry's deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund would receive a state audit for the first time under a bill unanimously passed by a Senate panel.
The Senate Economic Development Committee approved the measure that would require auditors to closely scrutinize the decade-old program. The Texas Enterprise Fund has awarded more than $485 million to private companies looking to expand or relocate in the state.
Critics have targeted the initiative, and Perry's similar Emerging Technology Fund, over accountability and impact.
The bill by Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis would require an audit report no later than January 2015.
Perry, coincidentally, walked in on the hearing before the bill came up for discussion. But he only briefly stopped to exchange pleasantries before continuing to pass through a mostly empty Senate chamber.
UNION SUPPORTERS MARCH ON TEXAS CAPITOL
About 200 labor unionists have marched on the Texas Capitol demanding pay raises for state workers and what they called a responsible state budget.
Carrying letters that spelled out "PAY RAISE" and other banners, the marchers made their way along rain-soaked Congress Avenue.
The rally was organized by the Texas State Employees Union and Texas Forward with the help of the Texas Organizing Project, the Texas AFL-CIO, and the Communications Workers of America.
Demonstrators also called on Texas lawmakers to pass a budget with adequate spending on education and health care. They also called for laws that protect worker rights. Texas is the only state that does not require worker's compensation insurance.
Texas is a right-to-work state, so unions cannot compel membership and have difficulty organizing.
SENATE CONFIRMS BOYD TO TEXAS SUPREME COURT
The Texas Senate has confirmed the appointment of Jeffrey Boyd, a former top aide to Gov. Rick Perry, as a justice on the state Supreme Court.
Boyd has already been serving on the court since Dec. 3 and his nomination faced no opposition in the Senate.
The Supreme Court, the state's highest civil court, is Boyd's first job as a judge. Before serving as Perry's chief of staff, Boyd was the governor's general counsel and previously worked in the state attorney general's office.
Boyd replaced former Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright, who resigned Sept. 30 to go into private law practice.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"I frankly get tired of Texas playing chicken with the federal government all the time." — Rep. Rene Oliveria, D-Brownsville, about another push by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, to criminalize excessive pat-downs by federal agents during passenger screenings at airports.