JEFFERSON CITY — A bill to require drug screening for welfare applicants is getting fast-track treatment in Missouri's legislature.
The bill would require screening of all applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and testing those who are reasonably suspected of drug use by the Missouri Social Services Department.
An applicant who tested positive would be ineligible for benefits for a year. Children and other members of the household would still be eligible for assistance, and money would have to go through a third party.
The bill was among the first to be heard this session, and a modified version was voted out of committee Wednesday.
Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, sponsor of the bill, said taxpayers don't want to subsidize drug use.
"Why are you focusing on poor people?" asked former Sen. Patrick Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, on behalf of Catholic Charities, which opposed the originally filed bill.
If the goal is to prevent taxpayers from subsidizing drug use, everyone — or at least a larger segment of the population — should be screened, he said.
With this session's budget constraints, Rep. Casey Guernsey, R-Bethany, said it's not possible to expand the screening to a larger population or provide treatment to all who may be referred.
"Dealing with reality, I think it would just be better to kick them off," Guernsey said.
There were about 38,000 adult recipients of assistance in Missouri as of September, Brandom said.
"All you're doing is punitive," said Rep. James Morris, D-St. Louis City. "It will do nothing in the long run to help families or our state."
"Some people need an incentive to give something up," Brandom said. "(The status quo) is enabling to some extent."
The chair of the committee and a co-sponsor of the bill, Rep. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, who is running for a state Senate seat, said he didn't think the bill was moved too quickly despite opponents claiming it was rushed.