Welfare Drug Test Bill Passes House

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida Email
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida Email

Tallahassee, FL - People who test positive for illegal drugs would be prevented from collecting temporary financial assistance from the state under a measure approved Tuesday by the Florida House.

By a 78-38 vote, the House approved a measure (HB 353) that backers say would help ensure that tax dollars are spent to feed families and not the addictions of drug abusers receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a program administered by the state that provides up to $300 a month in federal money for up to 48 months to low income residents.

“This money is taxpayers’ money that is supposed to go to take care of our families,” said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, a freshman and sponsor of the bill.

The proposal prompted a series of questions from Democrats skeptical over the science behind the policy and whether such testing would violate Florida’s constitutional right to privacy.

“There is a real question here about the constitutionality of this since it allows - and in fact requires - suspicion-less drug testing as a condition of public assistance,” said Rep, Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

The bill passed on largely a party-line vote. A Senate version (SB 556) is awaiting action on the floor of that chamber. The measure is supported by Gov. Rick Scott.

The measure initially would have required all applicants to pay for the tests, which depending on who is doing the estimating cost from $10 to $70 per test. Recipients would be required to be tested when they first apply for benefits and then annually once benefits begin.

The bill was amended Tuesday to require the state to pick up the tab for recipients whose tests come out negative for illegal drugs.

Citing studies showing the degree of drug use among welfare recipients is not significantly higher than that of the general population, critics say the proposal sets unnecessary barriers to getting help for low income families who can least afford it.

“We know we have a significant number of Floridians who are having to come to the state and the federal government for assistance who have never come before,” said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville. “Why would you be willing to subject them to a drug test simply because they are in need of assistance?”

Recipients who test positive for drugs would be ineligible for financial assistance for a year. A second failed test would result in a three years suspension of benefits. In two-parent households, both parents would have to take separate tests.

Recipients who complete drug treatment could receive assistance after a six month period. Children would be allowed to continue receiving benefits, with assistance checks being sent to guardians who likewise test negative. Food stamp eligibility would not be affected by a positive test.

About 113,000 Floridians are receiving temporary cash payments under the program, which is administered by the Department of Children and Families and is expected to cost $211 million for the current fiscal year. The agency currently does not screen recipients for drugs.

Federal law allows states to deny benefits to recipients convicted of a felony drug offense, a provision Florida has chosen not to adopt. A pilot program conducted between 1999 and 2001 was discontinued after researchers determined it was not cost effective because relatively few recipients tested positive.

Backers say the inconvenience and potential cost of drug testing is small price to pay for financial assistance and may also act as an incentive for addicts to get treatment, though there is no provision to pay for such intervention.

“The people who are going to be tested are the people who have to make sure the money goes to the children,” Smith said. “That’s why they are being tested.”

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