AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage announced Wednesday that his administration will begin requiring people convicted of drug felonies to take drug tests as a condition of applying for or receiving cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
The provision was passed into law in 2011 as part of a $6.1 billion biennial budget bill. Democrats blasted the governor for waiting until now to implement a 3-year-old law that resulted from a bipartisan negotiation.
The launch of mandated drug-testing comes after the Department of Health and Human Services bolstered its drug-testing process to ensure privacy and fairness, according to a news release from the administration.
Implementation of the drug-testing program is subject to a formal rulemaking process within the Department of Health and Human Services, which will publish a detailed proposal this month that will be subject to a public hearing.
The attorney general’s office will have to approve the final rule before it’s implemented to make sure it is legal and in line with the intent of the original legislation, according to DHHS spokesman John Martins.
“Maine people expect their tax dollars to be spent supporting the most vulnerable citizens — children, the elderly and the disabled,” said LePage in a written statement. “We must ensure that our tax dollars do not enable the continuation of a drug addiction. TANF is a short-term benefit that assists families and children with the basic necessities. If someone tests positive for drugs, they are clearly putting their addiction ahead of their family’s needs. Being drug-free is a critical aspect of moving away from poverty and toward self-sufficiency.”
Under the program, TANF applicants or recipients with prior drug-related felony convictions will be subject to a state-administered drug test, and those who test positive will have the option to be retested and can avoid termination of benefits by enrolling in a substance abuse program approved by DHHS. Those who fail to disclose they are convicted drug felons will face immediate termination of benefits.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine blasted the proposal as “unfair and harmful to our state.”
“The governor should be focused on policies that help Maine families, not yanking out the safety net and depriving them of food,” said Alison Beyea, the ACLU’s executive director, in a written statement. “If we truly want to combat drug addiction, we should fund more drug treatment programs rather than blocking access to much-needed assistance.”
House Speaker Mark Eves, a Democrat from North Berwick, who said he helped negotiate the 2011 budget language that includes the drug-testing provision, said Wednesday that the governor is trying to gain points with voters in an election year.
“This new law has been on the books for years, yet LePage hasn’t enforced it,” said Eves in a written statement. “We need leaders who are serious about solving problems and enforcing the law, not simply scoring political points in an election year at a time when Maine’s economy is lagging.”
Martins said DHHS has been watching developments in other states to make sure Maine’s law would hold up.
“While working through the development of our rules, we’ve been watching what has been happening with other states who have pursued implementation of various drug-testing laws,” said Martins in response to questions from the BDN. “We wanted to make sure that our rules aligned with federal law and were informed by some of these cases.”
Martins said no additional positions will be required and that the federal government allows states to use TANF block grant funding to “ensure program integrity.” He did not provide an estimate of what the program will cost.
The drug-testing program is one in a series of initiatives LePage has launched during his term in office that are centered on what he calls welfare reform. Some of the initiatives, such as a program to put identification photos on state-issued electronic benefit transfer cards and another program to bar undocumented immigrants from receiving General Assistance payments, were carried out in recent months. The latter is the subject of an ongoing legal challenge.
Republican political strategists believe LePage’s focus on toughening welfare rules in Maine could help win over independent voters, a major bloc that could determine the outcome of this year’s close governor’s race. LePage faces challengers in Democrat Mike Michaud, independent Eliot Cutler and independent Lee Schultheis, who is on the ballot mainly as a way to convey his belief that the political system must be reformed.
Highlighting the political context for the proposed drug testing, the Maine Republican Party followed up LePage’s announcement three hours later with a release that attacked Michaud for “refusing to take a position on welfare reform-related issues.”
Michaud spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said Wednesday that Michaud supports drug testing for drug felons who receive TANF benefits, particularly the provision that steers addicts toward treatment if they test positive.
The concept of drug-testing TANF recipients is not new in Maine. Democratic Rep. Paulette Beaudoin of Biddeford last proposed a bill that would allow random drug testing of all public assistance recipients, but that bill died in committee. LePage has been talking about launching such a program since he was elected, though his early proposals would have barred drug felons from receiving TANF altogether.
Drug testing for welfare recipients has been debated in a number of states in recent years. Florida began to require drug tests for all people seeking welfare benefits in 2011. The state implemented the drug-testing requirement for four months before a federal judge issued an injunction that put the law on hold, and the Florida law was later struck down.
Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said Maine’s drug-testing proposal aligns with federal law.
“Our rules are drafted according to the knowledge we have gained over the last several months,” said Mayhew in a written statement.