AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made a rare joint appearance on Tuesday to advocate drug tests for Texas residents seeking welfare or unemployment benefits.
A bill filed before the Texas Legislature reconvenes in January would mandate drug-testing for "high-risk" welfare applicants while banning them from using public funds to buy alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets. But Perry and Dewhurst, who controls the flow of legislation through the state Senate, said a top priority should be expanding such rules to include Texans applying for unemployment assistance too.
"This will prevent tax dollars going into the pockets of drug-users and drug dealers," Perry told a news conference at Austin Glass and Mirror, a small business that says it successfully drug-tests its employees.
Dewhurst said that under the current proposal, anyone failing drug tests would be barred from participating in welfare programs for one year — unless they enter a drug rehabilitation program paid for by Medicaid, the government health care program for the poor.
"A lot of recipients are, we think, Medicaid-eligible," Dewhurst said when asked about who could get such treatment.
Perry added that he believes drug-testing will mean less money paid out in benefits and ultimately save Texas money "because of the effect that the screening impact will have on those individuals who would be using drugs."
"This isn't all about punishing," the governor said. "This is also an incentive to get people off these drugs."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas condemned Perry and Dewhurst's calls Tuesday.
"How sad that our state's highest elected officials have embraced this mean-spirited measure that would punish innocent children for their parents' conduct," ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke said in a statement. "This proposal is a costly, ineffective, inhumane and punitive effort by state government based on stereotypes about our state's neediest Texans."
In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott championed a law that required welfare applicants to pay for and pass a drug test from July through October last year, when a federal judge temporarily halted it. Roughly 4,000 adults did not have drugs in their system and 108 tested positive — about 2.5 percent — though nearly 2,500 people refused to take the drug test for reasons that weren't always clear.
Though Perry and Dewhurst didn't suggest welfare- and unemployment-benefit applicants in Texas should pay for their own testing, they were asked if Florida's example means drug-testing is an efficient way to spend state funds.
"Florida had their program and other states had their programs," Perry responded. "I will suggest to you Texas will have an efficient program."
Bill Hammond, head of the influential Texas Association of Business, noted that state employers pay 100 percent of the costs of unemployment benefits but that only about 80 percent of businesses require drug-testing as a prerequisite for employment.
Perry said "it is simply not the role of employers who fund these benefits to carry workers who keep themselves in an unemployable condition." He added that failing to test the unemployed for drugs helps ensure they'll never get a job.
"Extending taxpayer funded benefits while ignoring a behavior that would make it virtually impossible for someone to enter the workforce or finish school sends them down the road to a much bleaker future," he said.
Dewhurst said scores of Texas companies who are looking to hire qualified workers have told him they've been unable to because applicants often fail drug tests. He also seized on proposed rules that would bar retailers from accepting welfare benefits when selling alcohol and tobacco.
"Every dollar wasted on these items is a dollar taken away from vital, very helpful other programs and our public education system," he said.