Drug felon assistance ban advances in House

Feb 21, 2012

A bill that would deny convicted drug felons from receiving temporary cash assistance, unless they go through a drug rehabilitation program, is now heading for a House floor vote. But, as Sascha Cordner reports, while the bill passed out of a House panel Tuesday, it received staunch opposition from Democrats, who claim the bill is mean-spirited.

Republican Representative Jimmie Smith of Lecanto says it’s the perfect way for the state of Florida to show that its officials are willing to help those who help themselves.

“HB 813 puts Florida back in line with federal law and disqualifies those with drug felonies from receiving temporary cash assistance or food assistance unless they show completion of a drug abuse or substance abuse regimen. Money will be received by a protective payee in the case of a parent or a guardian not successfully completing a drug abuse or substance abuse regimen.”

But, though his bill received little objection from the public, lawmakers on the House Health and Human services committee became very vocal. Out of the 18-member panel, only five did not speak for or against the bill. The other 13 wanted their voices to be heard, including the opposition:

“I’m recognizing that we are continuing to put additional obstacles in the way of getting people back to work, getting families get back on track, and making sure that we as a community are in a stronger position. And, I think we can do that without creating obstacles.”

Democratic Representative Mia Jones is referring to legislation that Smith sponsored last year that requires all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF applicants to have a drug test before receiving any welfare dollars.  The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has since then challenged the law, and it’s currently under litigation in federal court.

In addition to Jones, Smith’s current bill, House Bill 813, received little support from other Democrats, like Representative Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach. He says he doesn’t like that the bill presumes that all poor people have a problem and will use dollars in an inappropriate way, especially those convicted of a drug crime:

“I think it’s a mean-spirited bill. I don’t think the sponsor is in anyway mean-spirited. I think he means well. But, I think the impact of this bill is going to be difficult for people trying to re-enter into the workforce, it’s going to be very difficult for people trying to get their families back on their feet, and for the individual himself or herself, trying to get them back on their feet.”

But, Republican Representative John Wood of Haines City says the bill is a no-brainer:

“We’re setting an example here of what we expect. We’re trying to aid needy families that we don’t want those parents on drugs. It’s just very, very simple. And, so, it’s not mean-spirited. It’s uplifting.”

Democratic Representative Janet Cruz says drug testing bills, like this one, are just an excuse to make drug testing companies wealthier, and is not in the best interest of Floridians.

“I feel like what we’ve created here is an avenue to make drug testing companies more successful.”

However, Republican Representative Ronald Renuart, says he’s sure all Floridians can see a need for the bill.

“Let’s go back to what this really is. This is taxpayer money, and if you went and you asked the taxpayers, ‘would you want your dollars spent in this fashion or not,’ I think they would agree with this bill.” 

The House Health and Human Services Committee passed the bill 12 to 6, along party lines. The bill now heads to the House floor. Its Senate companion, Senate Bill 1128, is expected to be heard Wednesday in its second committee.