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Support growing for welfare drug testing

By Tom Flanigan


Tallahassee, FL – The Florida Legislature appears well on the way to making those who apply for cash public assistance to pass a drug test first. Tom Flanigan has been following the bills as they work their way through the House and Senate.

Ask any random group of people if they think welfare recipients should pass a drug test before they get their benefits. You're likely to get at least one comment similar to this anonymous gentleman, who posted his thoughts on YouTube.

"We need to save the government some money. Drug test people on welfare. Millions and millions and millions of dollars back to the state that they wouldn't be paying out."

That's one reason why Lecanto Republican Representative Jimmie Smith says he filed his bill.

"To make sure that our families that are getting the tax money are actually properly taken care of and that we are not paying for someone to do something illicit. And the second is that we are here to represent our constituents and the constituents have spoken very loudly, this is what they want."

Smith's house bill has a Senate companion bill sponsored there by Gainesville Republican Steve Oelrich. Both would require anyone applying for Florida's Temporary Cash Assistance for Needy Families or "TANF" to pass a drug test. TANF is the successor program to the old "Aid to Families with Dependent Children" that went away when then-President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich ended "Welfare as we know it" back in 1996. TANF is a much smaller program than its predecessor was. In Florida, right now, there are about a hundred-thirteen-thousand families receiving cash assistance. In the current fiscal year, TANF was budgeted at just over 281-million dollars. But, as Representative Smith indicated in his remarks before the House Committee, there is considerable popular support for public benefit drug testing. There could be some sticky legal issues to overcome, however. A similar drug testing law in Michigan was overturned by a court there on constitutional grounds. And Florida opponents include Ronald Bilbao with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The ACLU opposes any type of drug testing for public benefits that are suspicion less; that are not based, as Representative Porth said, in former versions of the bill, on any sort of former drug conviction or suspicion or anything like that, but kind of a blanket drug testing for all people, we think that's wrong. We oppose that."

But the opinion holding sway on the issue, and shared by Governor Rick Scott, is that articulated by Republican Representative Dennis Baxley of Ocala.

"Folks, drug-free workplace works. Until we bring accountability into the process of how things flow in our society, there is no way we will ever get a handle on the huge impact that substance abuse has in our communities."

But there's still one big question looming over the whole issue of welfare drug testing: Who is going to pay for the drug tests? Both the Senate and House bills require those applying for the benefits to pick up the tab. Something that the ACLU's Ronald Bilbao worried was not only unfair but also unrealistic.

"These people who are already asking us - the state, rather - for benefits and they're the least capable of being able to pay and we're asking them to pay an additional amount for something that we legislate on."

Also, there's the matter of how much the tests would cost. Both chambers' bills pegged the price at just ten dollars. But there are estimates as high as seventy dollars per test. That also had people like Republican Representative Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg concerned

"I acknowledge that the testing costs may vary from county-to-county, city-to-city and provider-to-provider. But I believe it is important that if the state is going to go down the road from moving from a presumption of innocence standard to a suspicion less presumption of guilt, for only the poorest among us, that it should at least bear the cost."

That was also the feeling of Ormond Beach Republican Evelyn Lynn in the Senate. But her motion requiring the state to pay for the testing went down to defeat in that chamber's budget committee. There's still a possibility a less sweeping state reimbursement plan could emerge. This past Friday, Senate Budget Chief J.D. Alexander said he'd try to find state dollars to pay for the drug tests that welfare applicants pass. Failed tests would still be on the applicant's dime. Alexander said he'd bring up the idea during his upcoming budget talks with the House after the Easter/Passover break. Meanwhile the welfare drug testing bills are headed for floor votes in both the House and Senate.