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Drug Testing for welfare bill goes to governor

By Sascha Cordner


Tallahassee, FL – A bill that would require welfare recipients to pass a drug test is now heading to the Governor for approval. As Sascha Cordner reports, lawmakers in opposition of the measure say it's both illogical and maybe even illegal to single out that segment of the population.

Republican Senator Steve Oelrich of Gainesville says his bill requires those who want to benefit from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, better known as the TANF (tanif) program, be drug tested as a condition for receiving benefits.

"The bill requires a person who applies for TANF to pass a drug test and there are ramifications if you fail the test, in other words if it comes back positive. There are provisions for a family to receive the money in case the ordinary recipient fails the test, and it takes into consideration the needs of the children in the family. It also reimburses, with the amendment, reimburses the folks that take the test and it comes back negative."

Oelrich says there is also nothing in the bill that would prevent a person from receiving abuse treatment.

"DCF (Department of Children and Families) has substance abuse programs available and even if you fail a program, these programs are still available to you. DCF has a system in place for those who can't afford a substance abuse program."

Just the day before, both Republican and Democratic Senators talked about amending the bill to make it have what they call "a more rationale basis." If welfare recipients were going to get drug tested, why not open it up to people who are eligible for Bright Futures? Another would require drug testing of certain corporations who receive state tax dollars. But, Democratic Senator Gary Silpin of Orlando's amendments either failed or were withdrawn from consideration and did not make it to Thursday's final reading of the bill. And, some lawmakers, like Democratic Senator Chris Smith of West Palm Beach, were not happy about that.

"If the mindset is let's test those that are getting state dollars because we don't want them to use state dollars to go out and buy drugs or we want to find out so we can get them treatment. We should have adopted the amendment that tested everybody. And, so for that reason, because we only create a certain class of people to be drug tested, I think we should vote this bill down and maybe flush this issue a little more next year, so we can truly make it reasonable for everybody who receives state dollars and not just come up with one class of people that we have to drug test."

Republican Senator Mike Bennett of Bradenton says he too wished the amendments had passed, but he says at the same time, the bill is still a good one.

"I would have liked to see Senator Siplin's [amendments] on there because often times these are needy families. And, you can argue all kinds of reasons but one of the things that we've done: We've limited resources. I want to make sure those resources are available to the people who absolutely need them, who absolutely have to feed their children Support this bill, it's not onerous, I guarantee you that the people who are going to be subject to whatever tests are going to use would understand that what we want to make sure that there is enough money left at the end of the day to help those families who are truly needy."

But, Democratic Senator Arthenia Joyner of Tampa says lawmakers should not stop at welfare recipients if they truly believe in these drug tests.

"Senator Siplin talked about the bright future kids, they get tax dollars; why not test them? What's the difference between one recipient of tax dollars and another? But, we're subjecting them to a test because we've gotta make sure that everybody who gets one is pure, and if that's the case, we need to start out testing all of us because we're paid with tax dollars that's what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

Other lawmakers, including Joyner, pointed out House Bill 353 unfairly makes even those people who are not on drugs go through testing and make them feel like a secondary citizen, but the bill's sponsor Senator Oelrich says people like convicted felons may be trying to slip through the cracks and he reminded lawmakers that if an applicant does pass the drug test, they won't have to pay for it.

Some Democrats did give an example of a federal court ruling that said Michigan was violating the privacy rights of those applicants who had to go through a drug screening process to get benefits.

Oelrich cited an example of his own, equating drug testing to people who are checked for weapons before they board a plane.

"And, this whole idea, the history on this is that well, we only came up with 8-percent, 10-percent of the people were on drugs when we tested everybody. Well, when you get on the plane, I guess you can say the same thing, we only found some guns, some hidden bombs on 8-percent of the people who tried to get on the plane. That would be unacceptable to you!"

Oelrich says overall, the bill is about breaking the cycle of drug dependency and stopping the use of taxpayer dollars to buy illegal drugs. The measure passed in the Senate along party lines with Democrats in the minority. It now heads to Governor Rick Scott for approval.