MADAWASKA, Maine — The town is expected to stop pursuing a proposal to randomly drug test applicants for General Assistance.
Town Manager Ryan Pelletier said in a prepared statement Monday that he would recommend to selectmen later that evening that they not move forward with such a policy at this time because it would “be problematic, if not impossible to enforce and administer.”
Pelletier added, however, that he would encourage development of a policy to test applicants for welfare assistance who have been convicted of drug-related felonies.
Citing violations of constitutional rights, both Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine American Civil Liberties Union urged the community in July to reconsider the drug screening plan, which selectmen voted in June to pursue.
“While we appreciate that the town of Madawaska is revisiting its plan to randomly drug test all applicants for [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], the new proposal still raises constitutional concerns,” Jamesa Drake, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said in a prepared statement Monday.
“Under our system of justice, the courts determine the sentence. Once that sentence is served, the individual’s debt to society has been paid,” Drake said. “Not only would this proposal permanently punish someone who has already served her sentence, it would punish his or her children. It is patently unfair to deprive needy children of state assistance because of mistakes their parents made.”
Madawaska would have become the first town in Maine to require drug-testing for those who seek municipal assistance, which helps pay living expenses of qualifying residents.
Gov. Paul LePage previously expressed support for Madawaska’s efforts, according to The Associated Press.
“Ensuring our welfare programs are helping those who are truly needy and willing to work toward economic stability is important,” LePage said in July, calling the proposal “fiscally responsible.”
Expanding testing for welfare programs has been a long-term priority of LePage and other Republican governors, but courts have put up roadblocks to it in the absence of suspicion of drug use.
Maine passed a law in 2011 affecting the federal-state TANF program, allowing it to test some applicants who have been convicted of drug felonies and current recipients who are drug felons. The LePage administration implemented the law in 2015 after working with Attorney General Janet Mills to guard the state from potential lawsuits.
On Monday, Pelletier stressed that Madawaska “does not have a General Assistance problem.” The town manager said that the community’s annual budget for the program was about $16,000 and that 45 out of 85 applicants were deemed eligible for some level of assistance in 2015.
“Madawaska does, however, have a habitual drug problem coupled with an abundance of low-income rental properties that are a bad combination for any rural community without ample economic opportunity,” Pelletier said Monday.
He said he would recommend to selectmen that the town advocate for a policy similar to the state’s to test convicted felons as a requirement for receiving welfare benefits.
Pelletier said the policy could include provisions for applicants who fail the test to be able to enroll in a substance abuse program to avoid losing benefits.
“I feel strongly that this type of proactive approach that provides resources to someone who may have a drug addiction is a far better approach to tackle a broader community problem,” he said.
Pelletier said he would recommend that his new proposal be discussed by the charter commission so there would be broader public comment and such a policy could be included in the charter that will be developed over the next year.