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Here We Go Again: Phil Jensen and Liz May Propose Random Drug Tests for TANF Applicants

The uncompassionate, unconstitutional conservatives of the South Dakota Legislature just keep trying to kick the poor in the teeth. A week after seeing the DiSanto-Olson welfare drug-testing bill killed in House Health and Human Services, two of that failure’s co-sponsors have launched Senate Bill 153, which would test folks applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for drugs. (Sponors Senator Phil Jensen and Rep. Elizabeth May must have been envious of all the Facebook hits Rep. Lynne DiSanto got.)

Senator Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) and Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Kyle), still beating the welfare-drug-testing drum.
Senator Phil Jensen (R-33/Rapid City) and Rep. Elizabeth May (R-27/Kyle), still beating the welfare-drug-testing drum.

Ah, but Senator Jensen and Rep. May aren’t going after all TANF applicants. SB 153 would randomly test two percent of all adult TANF applicants. And Senator Jensen and Rep. May further soften the hammer on the poor with a three-strikes policy. The randomly chosen subjects who test positive suffer no penalty and can still start receiving TANF, but within 45 days, they have to pee in the cup again. If they pee hot the second time, the Department of Social Services “shall provide the applicant with information on available drug treatment programs, and the applicant shall be tested again within forty-five days.” Only if the applicant fails the third drug test does the applicant lose benefits for one year.

Applicants only pay for the drug tests themselves if they test positive; that money comes out of their benefit checks—but watch the books, DSS: the money for the first and second positive tests can come out of subsequent checks, but you’ll have to withhold money from a check prior to the third test, then refund the TANF recipient if she pees clean. So technically, SB 153 will withhold benefits for which a citizen is eligible without proof that the citizen is guilty of a violation.

SB 153 sounds kinder and gentler, but we’ll still have the same arguments in committee that we had about the DiSanto-Olson bill, HB 1076. Suspicionless drug testing is still unconstitutional. Drug-testing welfare applicants is still scientifically and medically unsound and fiscally irresponsible. And welfare recipients still test positive for drugs at a lower rate than the general population:

According to state data gathered by ThinkProgress, the seven states with existing programs — Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah — are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ferret out very few drug users. The statistics show that applicants actually test positive at a lower rate than the drug use of the general population. The national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. In these states, however, the rate of positive drug tests to total welfare applicants ranges from 0.002 percent to 8.3 percent, but all except one have a rate below 1 percent. Meanwhile, they’ve collectively spent nearly $1 million on the effort, and millions more may have to be spent in coming years [Bryce Covert and Josh Israel, “What 7 States Discovered After Spending More Than $1 Million Drug Testing Welfare Recipients,” ThinkProgress, 2015.02.26].

Last year, South Dakota averaged about 5,900 TANF recipients a month. Only about 640 of those recipients are adults. If we test 2% of those recipients for drugs, and if the going positive rate for TANF recipients is 1%, we will catch 1.5 TANF dopers per year. To actually kick them off TANF, we’ll do three tests, tripling the cost to get even less of the cash benefit these welfare-loathing legislators bleat about when they say they’re stopping druggies from taking our hard-earned tax dollars.

While we’re at it, remember that little more than a quarter of TANF money goes to cash assistance; TANF spends more on programs meant to tackle child poverty, like childcare, refundable tax credits, subsidized jobs, and early childhood education. TANF isn’t just cash handed to the poor to go buy drugs: it’s mostly investments in healthy social policy. Interestingly, South Dakota spends more than 60% of its TANF dollars on basic assistance, leading the nation in that ratio.

But let’s get wild with the numbers here. The most recent numbers available from the feds show South Dakota spending $15.5 million a year on basic assistance. Multiply that amount by 11% (the percentage of adult recipients in South Dakota TANF), then by 2% (the number randomly tested), then by 1% (the percentage we’d expect from other states’ experience to test positive), and you get $336 in savings… and that assumes that every meathead who tests positive the first time lacks the brains or will to go clean before the second or third test.

$336? Rick Melmer made more than that consulting on GEAR UP for Mid-Central Educational Coop per day. Why don’t we have a bill making Melmer pee in a cup?

The Republican caucus will continue the myth-based bashing of low-income South Dakotans. We can keep arguing them down in committee, but the only long-term solution to end this crusade against false threats is to throw people like Phil Jensen, Elizabeth May, Lynne DiSanto, and Betty Olson out of the Legislature and elect replacements (read, Democrats) who dedicate themselves to real practical statecraft.


  1. jerry 2016-02-06 09:13

    RV’r Jensen, the sooner the better for term limits.

  2. Donald Pay 2016-02-06 09:28


    Exactly. Term limits are the answer. At least you can get the idiots out and maybe replace them with a saner idiot. Better than having these guys hang on forever.

  3. mike from iowa 2016-02-06 09:31

    It really isn’t Mother Nature that makes South Dakota, or Mars for that matter,inhospitable.

  4. Donald Pay 2016-02-06 09:32

    Just to add to the above post, Mercer is talking about reducing the size of the Legislature. That should have been done long ago. Put legislative reduction alongside county and school district consolidation, and I bet it would pass a vote of the people. I’d like to see a unicameral with 35 seats.

  5. Madman 2016-02-06 09:36

    Glad to see Cory and I get our statistics from the same sources.

    Yes lets spend more times making sure the lowest income level stays there by making them even more of a target. This is the same thinking that all people who receive assistance have chosen to be in that situation. I once heard a graduation speaker at Mount Marty in Watertown describe that homeless people have chosen to be homeless because that was what they wanted. I had a hard time not walking out of that speech and if it hadn’t been a member of my family graduating I would have.

    These same Republican lawmakers have done little to actually help the lowest income. Instead programs are slashed and then put under scrutiny as to why they aren’t performing at the same levels. How much longer until we have a Flint Michigan situation here in South Dakota. Of course the same people who scream about pro-life have done very little for those families and children who are going to permanently affected by lead poisoning, just to save a few dollars.

    Sorry this is another example of wasteful spending that could be used to support programs that actually help people instead of trying to ferret out the “imaginary” drug kingpins who are collecting TANF.

  6. C Brechtelsbauer 2016-02-06 09:57

    A little more thinking about the numbers: The proposed testing is only for adults. The Dec.2015 DSS report shows only 681 adults receiving TANF in SD. I don’t know how many adults apply, but even if (wild estimating) twice that many apply, there would be 27 people tested (2% of the adult applicants). If, as experience in other states finds, only 1% turn out to test positive for drug use, then SD would catch about 1/4 of a person. It’s hard to figure the public benefit of that.

  7. gtr 2016-02-06 10:14

    I think it is time we really get to the problem and that is to pass a bill to start drug testing the legislators while they are in Pierre. Of course, the legislators would have to pay out of their own pocket for this and if they fail the drug test they lose their seat. The bill would have to be written that a special election would need to be held so the Governor couldn’t appoint someone, otherwise we’ll just get more of the same.

  8. 96Tears 2016-02-06 11:17

    What Don Pay said: Give these dolts only 35 seats to waste our time and money instead of 105. We don’t have representative government because of extreme gerrymandering, so why not cut it down to 35 seats in one chamber for stupid people. Keep it simple. Keep it cheap. Cut the legislative days while you’re at it to 30 for long sessions and 25 for short.

    What do you have to lose, even if you’re a Republican? All they do is blindly vote for the governor’s agenda and introduce unconstitutional and hateful legislation.

    I’ve listened this morning to the Sioux Falls legislative crackerbarrel. The Republican legislators from Sioux Falls are all mindless narcissists.

  9. Bill Dithmer 2016-02-06 11:37

    Gtr is on the right track. Pass that petition around and put those legislators under the microscope for a change. In one year those bad bills would stop.

    The Blindman

  10. Loren 2016-02-06 12:34

    I’d like to see a breathalyzer test for every legislator before ANY vote, just to make sure they are aware. Why? Because I would guess that too much of this “legislative effort” comes from a night at the bar! Or would I be wrong to assume that there is an uptick in liquor sales during legislative sessions?

  11. Owen 2016-02-06 14:07

    A$_holes. Excuse my French Cory

  12. Rich 2016-02-06 14:11

    Then we should have mandatory drug testing for Legislators, too. And all employees of the SD Department of Social Services.

  13. Shirley Moore 2016-02-06 14:24

    and a civics test legislative candidates/current legislators must pass to be part of the legislature.

  14. Porter Lansing 2016-02-06 14:43

    Amen, Ms. Moore. They pass and attempt to pass laws that are clearly unconstitutional and Jackley does nothing about it. It’s like a closed loop of discrimination, mostly against women’s rights.

  15. Donal 2016-02-07 08:28

    Ok! Lets get this thing done! Really need to start with legislators and family members to test first as we can not put up with elected junkies and/or their families. When you are ready to have your family and all South Dakota employees, including every business that contracts with or takes state money is required to be tested also. Wonder how many of these saintly legislators relatives will pass the drug tests. Oh! Lets get a law passed stating that any legislator (or family member of legislators) testing positive for illegal drugs must immediately resign. Do I Hear an AMEN???

  16. grudznick 2016-02-07 08:47

    You’d probably need to do one of those initiate measurements for that, Donal. Do it quick before they outlaw it

  17. MD 2016-02-08 10:03

    Time to switch to a biennial legislature. We are wasting our money on these broken records in the legislature. At least we can have a little more music in between skips by only drumming them up every two years.

  18. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-02-08 22:49

    Biennial? What would I blog about in off-year winters?

    Seriously, can we get by with meeting half as much, letting almost two years go by before we sit down again to adjust the budget and check on how programs are working?

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