Local rep says drug testing for welfare constitutional
by Mark Andrews
Apr 21, 2012 | 2665 views | 0 0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A common drug test utilizes a urine sample and a five-panel instant dip card that detects the five most widespread drugs, according to Cartersville’s Livingood Lab Services. 
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
A common drug test utilizes a urine sample and a five-panel instant dip card that detects the five most widespread drugs, according to Cartersville’s Livingood Lab Services. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday signed into law a bill that will require citizens seeking welfare to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. While similar laws have been struck down in other states and the Southern Center for Human Rights has said the organization is prepared to file a lawsuit over the issue, State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, said he believes the bill is constitutional and will not be struck down in court.

"The difference is the Georgia bill only addresses those areas where Georgia is the entity paying the benefit for those recipients," Coomer said. "Florida's law was broader and applied to programs that Florida did not administer and so Florida's law effectively impeded federal law, which you can't do constitutionally. Georgia's law does not do that."

Coomer said the bill specifically applies to the Georgia program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

"By its nature, TANF is a temporary program. I would expect when people apply for the benefit the first time, or when they apply for new benefits in the future, that's when they would be screened," Coomer said. "I do not expect the screening would take place for people who are already receiving benefits and have already qualified for that benefit at this time."

Gerry Weber of SCHR opposes the bill and is quoted by the Associated Press saying, "We are disappointed that the governor has signed this and we believe that the state should await the outcome of Florida litigation involving the exact same drug testing scheme. It's going to take a while for them to implement this. That would all have to happen before any lawsuit can be filed."

Florida's bill was blocked by a federal judge in October and at least two dozen states have proposed measures this year that would require drug tests for benefits.

A supporter of the Georgia bill, Coomer said he believes the bill is not an attack on those receiving benefits and should not affect those using TANF funds for the intended reasons.

According to http://dfcs.dhr.georgia.gov, "TANF, commonly known as welfare, is the monthly cash assistance program for poor families with children under age 18. Cooperation with Office of Child Support Services is a requirement of receiving TANF benefits."

He further explained his position on the constitutionality of the bill.

"My experience from a law standpoint, both as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney, is the government cannot go out and randomly choose passers by and insist they take a drug screen, but that is different from requiring a drug screen as a condition and precedent to receiving a public benefit or receiving a government contract, for example," Coomer said. "Certainly government employees can be required to submit to drug screen as can, in some instances, government contractors."

While one intention of bills similar to Georgia's is to save money by not having welfare recipients spend taxpayer dollars on drugs, The Miami Herald reported this may not be the result.

They reported Friday the costs procured as a result of the Florida bill outweighed savings to the state, saying the financial reimbursement for drug test applicants cost more than weeding out drug users in the system because only 108 of the 4,086 people who took a drug test failed.

The paper also reports taxpayers spent $118,140 in reimbursement costs with a net loss to the state of $45,780. Under Georgia's bill, those able to prove they are receiving Medicaid would pay a maximum of $17 for the test and those without Medicaid would be responsible for the full cost of the test. Applicants who take the drug test at their own expense would be eligible for reimbursement if they test negative.

State Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said lawmakers worked to make sure the bill would pass muster with the courts and that Georgia's law addresses concerns about privacy and illegal search and seizure raised in other states. Albers said Monday he is not worried about a legal challenge.

"Drug testing is so commonplace ... We worked very closely with folks in other states and attorneys' general offices to address all of the concerns," said Albers, the bill's sponsor in the Senate.

The state Department of Human Services is being directed to create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by welfare applicants. Department spokeswoman Lisa Marie Shekell said in a statement Monday that the agency is aware of the bill signing and that "policy and program experts are currently reviewing the legislation to understand the full impact of the law" on the agency.

Under the bill, those able to prove they are receiving Medicaid would pay a maximum of $17, and those without Medicaid would be responsible for the full cost of the drug test. Applicants who take the drug test at their own expense would be eligible for reimbursement if they test negative.

Applicants who test positive for drug use would be ineligible to receive benefits for a month. A second positive result would result in a three-month ineligibility period, and a third violation would prevent someone from applying for benefits for a year.

Applicants who fail a drug test must pass another one before reapplying.

The state agency would be required to provide individuals who test positive with a list of substance-abuse treatment providers in their area, but the agency would not be required to provide or pay for treatment. Applicants who have been denied benefits for a year may reapply after six months if they can prove successful completion of a department-approved, substance-abuse treatment program.

Children younger than 18, physically or mentally handicapped individuals or those living in nursing or personal care homes are exempt from the drug-testing requirement to receive benefits.

Test results couldn't be used to prosecute people, and test records must be destroyed in five years.

About a quarter of the 19,200 eligible people who file new welfare applications annually could be tested in Georgia, according to state budget officials. The state expects about 17 percent a year to fail drug tests, a rate based on a 2007 federal study that examined drug use by people ages 18 to 25.

Albers said he expects the drug-testing mandate could generate at least $103,000 a year for the state, as drug users will either be unwilling to be tested, or be kicked off the welfare rolls after failing a drug test.

"I am absolutely in favor of helping people in need," Coomer said. "That being said, there has to be some level of accountability and responsibility when you're talking about handing out government dollars to people who are asking for that money. I'm not opposed to helping people, but I am opposed to giving money away without any kind of accountability or responsibility."

--The Associated Press contributed to this article.