AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to prevent anyone with a felony drug conviction from collecting cash welfare benefits advanced Monday in Augusta with a bill that would extend a program launched earlier this year.
In January, LePage and his administration began administering drug tests on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families applicants who have had felony drug convictions within the past 20 years. That came after the concept received strong legislative support in 2011 and after the law was adjusted at the advice of the attorney general’s office to avoid lawsuits.
Now, LePage is proposing LD 1407, which would require any applicant to the TANF program — regardless of whether they have any kind of criminal record related to drugs — to undergo a written, 93-question screening test and then, depending on the results, a urine test.
The test is designed to uncover if the person is or has the potential to be a drug addict. A certain score on the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory — which is supposed to be nearly fail-proof — would trigger a mandate for a urinalysis drug test. A positive result on the urinalysis would force the applicant to either enroll in a drug abuse treatment program or be denied state benefits.
LD 1407 also would allow the state to deny TANF or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (food stamps) benefits to anyone who has been convicted of a drug-related felony, for life. TANF is a straight cash benefit for families that fall below certain income levels; SNAP is a food supplement program for low-income people.
Holly Lusk, LePage’s health policy adviser, said the new law would serve as a powerful deterrent and a sure path to saving taxpayer dollars.
“The department believes that adoption of this bill will serve the purpose of sending a message of condemnation of drug felonies, the importance of treatment to overcome addiction and will provide assurance to the taxpayers of the state of Maine that their hard-earned money will not reward reprehensible personal behavior,” said Lusk.
However, some members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, as well as lobbyists who testified to the committee on Monday, said addiction is an illness and that banning someone from public assistance for life is too harsh a consequence. They said such measures could harm entire families, including children of drug convicts — even if the conviction was decades ago.
“We believe that the use of illegal substances is a root cause of poverty, but we also believe that the best way to treat addiction is not with a game of ‘gotcha,’” said Susan Lamb, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. “People with addiction are often parents of children, and those children, living below the poverty level, are entitled to food on the table and a roof over their heads, no matter what their parents’ addiction issues are.”
Several people lauded a provision in the bill that allows a person to avoid being kicked off welfare because of a positive drug test if they enter a drug treatment program, but said there are far too few substance abuse treatment programs in Maine and that their cost is a barrier — especially for people who are already at the point of asking for public help.
“Regardless of the fact they’ve paid their debt to society, we’re still going to deny people assistance even though they’ve done everything we asked them to do,” said Jack Comart of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which opposes the bill. “If we talk about hurting children, that’s the one thing we can do to hurt children.”
Rep. Frances Head, R-Bethel, said feedback from her constituents on this issue has been one-sided.
“Many people in my district are really adamant about getting something done, and this bill gets it going,” she said. “Some of this is adult choice. … The taxpayers are tired of it, being that we have to pay for their bad choices.”
LD 1407 was one of two of LePage’s welfare reform bills presented to the Health and Human Services Committee on Monday. The other, LD 1402, is designed to create a tiered welfare system in which people on public assistance lose their benefits incrementally as their income increases. The bill is similar in concept but different in details to a bill previously presented by Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook.
Several lawmakers and organizations said they supported the concepts in LePage’s bill — including one that would help people with job-related transportation costs — though some said the first step off welfare would be too steep in the governor’s proposal.