Lawmakers Advance New Welfare Drug Testing Rules

By John Celock

The Republican-controlled Missouri House of Representatives advanced legislation Monday that would eliminate automatic hearings for welfare recipients testing positive for drugs, while also expanding where food stamps can be used.

The legislation advanced by the House would continue drug testing but also expand the criteria to include any reason a welfare case worker determined to test instead of a recipient acknowledging the use of drugs. In addition, a recipient testing positive for drugs would have to request a hearing rather than having it automatically granted. The bill would also allow for the use of food stamps at farmer’s markets but ban them at strip clubs and on certain products.

“Due process does not require an automatic hearing. It allows them to request a hearing,” a legislator from Cole County said in the floor debate. “What we have now is they get a hearing and 90 percent of them don’t show up. This would be like treating it like a DWI.”

The Cole County lawmaker clarified the need for expanding the testing requirement to if belief exists of drug use to say that recipients might not be forthcoming in answering that they are using drugs. He said a number of reasons could be used to determine if a welfare recipient is using drugs, including the posting on Facebook of photos of drug paraphernalia and behavior.

“If there eyes are jittery and they are bouncing off the walls they might say they are not using drugs,” he said.

Missouri first enacted drug testing for welfare benefits last year and in December reported finding 20 recipients testing positive out of 636 tested, the Kansas City Star reported at the time. Drug testing for welfare benefits has been a top cause of many conservative lawmakers around the country.

The legislation, which passed the House 118-35, now goes the Republican-controlled state Senate for final action.

The bulk of the debate focused on the new food stamp purchasing rules. Under the terms of the legislation, food stamps will be eligible for use at farmer’s markets, which lawmakers said would expand healthier food options. In addition, food stamps would be allowed at convienance stores and liquor stores, with restrictions. The restrictions would prohibit use of the food stamps on alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets.

“If someone is needing assist and trying to support their families you don’t want them to purchase alcohol, tobacco and lottery tickets,” state Rep. Wanda Brown (R-Lincoln), the bill’s sponsor, told her colleagues.

Brown said that she does not know if food stamp recipients were trying to purchase alcohol or tobacco. She noted that she does not “hang out in liquor stores.” Brown did say that the bill had originally blocked liquor stores from being places to use food stamps but was changed in order to address areas where they are the only grocery source.

The bill would prevent the use of EBT cards in stores that sell adult products. Sponsors said this would not prohibit convenience stores that sell adult products but would limit food stamp use only to food and not adult products.

Rep. Genise Montecillo (D-St. Louis) questioned Brown about sections of the bill, which would cancel food stamps if an EBT card is not used in the state in a 90-day period. She said that there could be a number of issues that prevent a person from using it and also not being able to reach a state social services employee to explain it and retain their benefits.

Montecillo said that she routinely gets calls from constituents saying that they are unable to reach social workers for several weeks and noted that this could cause benefits to be canceled. Brown said that someone could contact a state legislator to intervene with social services personnel on their behalf.

Montecillo said that not every resident would think of calling a state legislator. She cited victims of domestic violence as an example.

“If I’ve been put in protective services under emergency services and had to pack up my children and leave I might not have the wherewithal to call my state rep,” Montecillo said.