EDITORIALS

Maine GOP can’t claim welfare drug test law as an achievement

A toxicology lab that screens urine samples for drug use.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy
A toxicology lab that screens urine samples for drug use.
Posted May 07, 2014, at 11:31 a.m.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage isn’t the only governor who is busy pursuing welfare “reform” policies that are ineffective in achieving their purported aims and are more effective in stigmatizing public assistance programs and the people they’re intended to help.

Last week, Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, signed a provision into law that will require applicants for food stamp benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to submit to drug tests if Georgia Department of Human Services caseworkers have “reasonable suspicion” that the applicants are using drugs. Those whose drug tests come back positive would temporarily lose assistance.

In Mississippi, a new law supported by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant takes effect July 1 that will require all applicants seeking TANF benefits to fill out a questionnaire about drug use. If those questionnaire responses indicate a likely drug problem, the applicant will have to submit to a drug test. Benefits would be cut off if the recipient doesn’t comply with the law’s substance abuse treatment requirements.

And Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, doggedly defended in court his three-year-old law requiring all TANF applicants to submit to drug tests at their own expense. The state was able to implement the law for just four months in 2011 before a federal judge issued an injunction that put it on hold. Last year, on New Year’s Eve, a federal judge struck down the law for good.

Laws requiring those in need of public assistance to submit to drug tests are decidedly inane. They’ve been passed under the specter of saving taxpayers’ money by ensuring public assistance funds aren’t spent on drugs or to support drug-dependent lifestyles. But the laws aren’t only legally questionable under the privacy rights dictated by the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. Drug test policies have not saved taxpayers money. They’ve done just the opposite.

Georgia’s Deal has pointed to mythical savings from Florida’s drug test policy to back up his actions, but those savings are demonstrably false. In the four months during which Florida carried out its drug test law, 2.6 percent of TANF applicants tested positive for drug use, according to state documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. The state had to reimburse the remaining 97.4 percent of applicants for the cost of their drug tests. The final bill for Florida: $118,140, which was $45,780 more than the state would have paid out in benefits to those who failed the drug test. So, Florida stopped 108 people from receiving benefits — who most commonly tested positive for using marijuana — at a cost of nearly $46,000.

In Minnesota, state and local officials are calling attention to the high cost and bureaucratic hassle of administering random drug tests for welfare recipients with past felony drug convictions. As it turns out, according to a state Department of Human Services analysis, recipients of welfare benefits in Minnesota are less likely than the general population to have a felony drug conviction in their past.

Despite the absurdity of welfare drug testing policies and the legal questions surrounding them, drug test laws for welfare recipients have become increasingly popular in recent years. Maine was not immune to this misguided thinking: The two-year state budget passed by a Republican Legislature in 2011 and signed by LePage allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to drug-test any TANF recipient convicted of a drug felony within the past 20 years. Benefits would be terminated for those who refuse to participate in a treatment program.

Fortunately, DHHS hasn’t implemented that provision, citing its likely prohibitive cost and legally questionable nature. But it’s still on the books and should be repealed.

At its convention last month, the Maine Republican Party listed the drug test law as a key achievement in its newly adopted party platform. The fact that the drug test law hasn’t even been implemented — nor the evidence showing it would be a waste of taxpayer money and potentially unsound constitutionally — clearly doesn’t matter to politicians who want to run on a tough-on-welfare platform.

 

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