AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage wants welfare recipients to submit to random drug testing before they receive benefits, and he plans to submit legislation in January calling for that requirement.
Speaking at a Chamber breakfast in the Franklin County town of Jay on Friday, the governor said he doesn’t think it’s unreasonable to ask welfare recipients to do what all truck drivers must do.
The idea could have trouble getting off the ground.
A measure to require MaineCare recipients to take a drug test failed during the last legislative session and the constitutionality of drug testing for welfare recipients is under scrutiny in other states, including Florida.
Robyn Merrill with Maine Equal Justice Partners said she doesn’t think LePage’s proposal would make it through the Legislature, but if it does, she predicted a legal challenge here, too.
“It comes down to the fact that a drug test is a warrantless search,” she said. “There needs to be reasonable suspicion.”
Welfare reform has been one of LePage’s top priorities, dating back to when he was a gubernatorial candidate, but the drug testing requirement is his most controversial idea to date.
On Friday, the governor said Maine’s generosity encourages residents of other states to migrate here, according to media reports of the event. He even said he received an email from someone asking him if Maine could beat New Hampshire’s welfare benefits.
LePage said he told the person not to ask what “Maine can do for you, ask what you can do for the state of Maine. Have a nice life.”
The governor’s claim that people are coming to Maine because of the benefits is not supported by data, according to Merrill. She also said Maine’s benefits are not generous and are among the lowest in New England.
The governor did not release any details about his proposal or define what programs he would include for drug testing.
Welfare is a nebulous term. To some, welfare means the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program; to others, it’s general assistance, an emergency benefit offered through communities and to others, MaineCare should be included.
Some believe welfare encompasses all federally or state-subsidized benefits.
Phone calls to the governor’s spokeswoman and his chief legal counsel on Friday were not immediately returned.
House Democratic Leader Emily Cain of Orono panned the idea.
“This is just deja vu all over again,” she said. “The Legislature already rejected this idea for good reason — it is unconstitutional and it costs more than it saves. The governor continues to propose the wrong solutions for Maine, from cutting unemployment insurance, to loosening child labor laws, and now this.”
The constitutionality of drug testing has been questioned in the past and is at the middle of controversy in Florida at the moment.
Tarren Bragdon, former CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and one of Gov. LePage’s transition team co-chairmen, left Maine several months ago to launch the Foundation for Government Accountability in Naples, Fla.
When Bragdon was head of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, welfare reform was one of his biggest priorities, although some accused the organization of using anecdotes and twisting statistics to support the need for reform.
In the recent Florida ruling, a judge accused Bragdon of similar practices when his group distributed a pamphlet that analyzed the impact of the Florida law require drug testing.
Last month, a Florida district court judge suspended the new law and, in its written decision, dismissed a report by the Foundation for Government Accountability that had been cited by supporters of the law.
“Even a cursory review of certain assumptions in the pamphlet undermines its conclusions,” the judge wrote. “Just by way of example, the pamphlet suggests that the state will save millions in the first year; but it arrives at this number by extrapolating from the 9.6 percent of [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] applications that are denied for ‘drug-related’ reasons, including those who tested positive and those who declined to be tested. It extends these hypothetical savings for the full year that a TANF applicant who tested positive for drugs would be subject to losing benefits.”
In September, preliminary figures on that new Florida law showed that welfare recipients were actually less likely than other people to use drugs. Other media reports out of Florida have revealed that drug testing there has been cost prohibitive.