JEFFERSON CITY — Some Missouri residents who receive welfare payments will be screened for illegal drug use and could lose their benefits under legislation that Gov. Jay Nixon signed Tuesday.
The state Department of Social Services is to develop a program for screening applicants and recipients of the welfare program, and then for testing those for whom there is reasonable cause to suspect illegal drug use.
People who refuse to be checked, and those who test positive and do not complete a substance abuse program, will be ineligible for benefits through the welfare program for three years. While participating in a substance abuse program, people could keep their benefits.
If state benefits are cut off, children in that household could keep receiving them, with the state selecting a third party to receive them on their behalf.
Backers of the testing requirement say that welfare benefits funded by taxpayers should not go to people who are using illegal drugs. Critics contend the legislation singles out one group of people for no reason.
In addition to the drug tests, the legislation also requires that photographs of welfare recipients be placed on their electronic benefit cards.
Missouri legislative staff reported that the exact costs for the measure were unknown but estimated that it could cost the state several hundred thousand dollars per year.
The drug-testing requirement applies to Missouri's welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. This past May, there were 42,038 families consisting of 108,180 people that received benefits through the program. A three-person family can receive up to $292 per month, and a six-person family can receive up to $431.
Drug-testing legislation was approved by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed into law without fanfare by Nixon, a Democrat.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which testified against the legislation during a House hearing, contends that it unfairly singles out one group of people for extra scrutiny when there is no reason to suspect greater drug use among those who receive benefits through the program.
"We just think it's targeting people with really no basis for the targeting," said John Chasnoff, the program director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
Lawmakers in more than two dozen states this year at least proposed drug-testing requirements for their welfare programs. In May, Florida's Republican governor signed legislation into law that requires people who apply for welfare benefits to pay for drug testing. Those who pass the drug test are reimbursed for the cost of the test, and those who fail do not get temporary government assistance.
Michigan also had a random drug-testing program for welfare recipients for five weeks in 1999 before it was stopped by a judge. A federal appeals court in 2003 struck down that law.
Nixon's office announced that several other bills also were signed into law on Tuesday.
Among them were changes to Missouri's domestic violence laws. That bill sets one definition for domestic violence in state law, gives judges more discretion about the conditions that can be included in protection orders and bars filing frees from being charged to people asking the courts to enforce protection orders. It also removes the expiration date for a program that gives an alternative mailing address to victims of sexual assault, rape, stalking and domestic violence.
The legislation includes recommendations from an attorney general's task force focused on domestic violence issues.
"Victims of domestic violence are among our state's most vulnerable, and we owe it to them to make sure that we are working as seamlessly as possible through all aspects of our law enforcement and legal systems to protect them," Attorney General Chris Koster said.
Another bill signed into law Tuesday focuses on human trafficking. It includes longer possible prison sentences for offenses such as trafficking for slavery, forced labor or sexual exploitation and abuse through forced labor. Those crimes currently carry maximum sentences of 15 years in prison. Under the bill, possible sentences would range from five to 20 years. The measure also allows fines of up to $250,000.