JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's elected officials and many people who receive cash welfare benefits would start undergoing drug screening under legislation given first-round House approval Thursday.
Lawmakers, judges and other state officeholders would receive drug tests before taking office and every two years after that. The officials would pay for the tests, and refusing one would be considered an admission that they used a controlled substance without permission.
Likewise, work-eligible adults who apply and receive cash welfare payments would be tested if the Department of Social Services has a "reasonable suspicion" that the person is using drugs. Those who refuse or test positive would not be eligible for the cash benefits for one year. Their children could keep receiving benefits, but the money would need to be handled by a third party outside the household.
House leaders said Thursday that the drug tests would give taxpayers assurance that their money is not going toward drug use. They said not requiring elected officials to be tested would be hypocritical.
"We're not going to subsidize drug use by welfare beneficiaries," said House Speaker Pro Tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs.
The drug-testing requirement would apply to applicants to the cash-aid program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. It is designed to help low-income parents learn job skills and care for their children. More than 43,000 families consisting of 112,000 people receive benefits through the assistance program.
A single parent with two children receives $292 per month through the program, but must work or take job training courses for at least 30 hours per week.
Lawmakers approved the drug-testing bill 113-40 on Thursday, and it needs another vote before moving to the Senate. Lawmakers debated the bill for three days, but most of that discussion focused on drug screening for elected officials and the possible penalties for officeholders who fail tests.
Initially, the House legislation would have allowed people who test positive for drugs to complete a treatment program and still keep their benefits. Lawmakers on Thursday removed that provision and lowered the threshold for the evidence needed to require drug tests.
Rep. Scott Dieckhaus said immediately cutting off benefits creates a strong incentive to not use drugs.
"We need to send them a stern message that they need to get off the drugs," said Dieckhaus, R-Washington.
Several Democrats expressed concerns about the process for determining who would be required to take drug tests. Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, called it "constitutionally repugnant" to only require suspicion before having welfare recipients submit to testing.
The legislation gives the Department of Social Services until July 2011 to develop its drug-testing policies. It requires the department to give lawmakers an annual report on the number of drug tests taken and the results of those tests.
Starting in October, Social Services Department employees who do not report suspected drug use or fraud by those seeking benefits would be fired.