Starting Sunday, provisions of 698 bills passed during the regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature will take effect, including drug testing for unemployment benefits.
One of the new laws, Senate Bill 21, will require people applying for unemployment to take a drug test before receiving any benefits.
“The message is strong,” Gov. Rick Perry is quoted as saying in a Texas Tribune article. “If you’ve got a drug problem, there are ways that we can help you get that licked, but we’re not going to entice individuals to not be responsible.”
The Texas Workforce Commission is required to develop the program, in line with federal guidelines, to test those seeking unemployment.
Deputy Director of Communications Mark Lavergne with TWC said in an email statement that not “every UI claimant will be impacted” and the organization expects “a few limited occupations such as in healthcare and transportation” to be affected immediately by the new law.
Lavergne added that while the new law takes effect today, the provisions only impact initial claims for unemployment benefits filed on or after Feb. 1, 2014.
Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) is in favor of the new law, saying people who test positive show they are not looking to enter the workforce, but to defraud taxpayers and employers in the state.
“I think it’s an important thing to do because if you are collecting unemployment, paid by the taxpayers and the employers in the state of Texas, and (if) you’re using drugs, it’s counterproductive because it means you’re never going to be in the work place,” Seliger said.
Willie Taylor, executive director of Permian Basin Workforce Solutions, agreed with Seliger’s sentiments.
“You have to be able and ready to work,” Taylor said. “I think the concept is a good concept — trying to get people you need (for employment) to be clean and be prepared to go to work.”
Another law passed during the regular session makes it easier for college students to get associates degrees.
Senate Bill 497, which was co-sponsored by Seliger, states a cap will be placed on the number of semester credit hours required for an associate degree to be no more than what is required by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
According to the SACS, the number of credits needed for an associate’s degree is 60 hours.
However, the law states a higher education institution may raise the number of hours if there is a “compelling academic reason for requiring completion of additional semester credit hours for the degree.”
“If you start school in the community college, when you reach the hours needed for an associate’s degree, the community college will go ahead and give you the degree even though you’re no longer enrolled,” Seliger said. “Let’s say you have to quit school after a year in community college and two at a university. You obviously have enough for an associate’s degree and you will have a degree. I think this ought to help students.”
Employees with the Texas Department of Transportation also are getting some help, after a new law states drivers must slow down or move over for the department’s vehicles.
According to the new law, drivers who are approaching a stopped TxDOT vehicle with activated blue and amber flashing lights must either change lanes and move out of the lane closest to the TxDOT vehicle, or reduce their speed to 20 miles an hour below the posted speed limit.
“In the past 75 years, we’ve had more than 100 TxDOT workers killed in work zones,” Public Information Officer Gene Powell of the Odessa District of TxDOT said. “Our guys and gals are out there with just a traffic cone between them and the public. Giving them an extra lane of room is a definite safety feature.”
Also starting Sunday, applicants for a concealed handgun license will be required to take four to six hours of classroom instruction before heading to the shooting range. Texas has about 3,000 licensed concealed handgun instructors, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Other changes taking effect Sunday will allow license holders to renew online and provide easier access to obtaining fingerprints for applications. Also, license holders will be certified to carry a revolver or semi-automatic pistol, regardless of what type of gun they used in class.
License holders also will be allowed to keep weapons in their car if they drive on a college campus, but campus buildings still remain among the places off-limits to concealed handguns.
Law enforcement officers will be allowed to sell some guns they seize to licensed firearms dealers as a means of recovering the cost of investigations. However, some police departments in large metro areas have said they don't plan to sell the weapons.
Under another law, passed in response to the fatal December shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, public and charter schools in Texas will be allowed to designate an employee as a school marshal who can carry a weapon on campus. The law allows one armed marshal on campus for every 400 students who must undergo 80 hours of training, though marshals’ identities are not subject to public records law.
Although many larger school districts employ their own police forces, many smaller districts cannot afford to do so. Several small, rural districts told lawmakers they need marshals to protect students because police response might be too slow in a shooting incident.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.