By Michael Peltier
The News Service of Florida
Florida will begin testing welfare recipients for illicit drug use following action Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott that will link the state’s temporary cash assistance program to tests critics say have already been ruled unconstitutional.
Following up on a campaign promise, Scott signed the measure during a Panama City visit that makes Florida the only state in the nation to test all applicants for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families before they can collect benefits, according a Washington-based public policy group that says other states have narrower testing requirements.
The new law (HB 353) requires recipients to pay for the tests and periodically be retested at their expense to continue receiving benefits. Recipients will be reimbursed if the tests, which cost from $10 to $70, depending on who is estimating, come back negative.
Backers say the law will help ensure that taxpayer money goes for helping the family and not used to fuel a drug habit.
“While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction,” Scott said in a statement. “This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars.”
Beginning July 1, recipients who test positive for drugs would be denied benefits for a year. A second failed test would result in a three-year ban. Recipients who complete a drug rehab program can re-apply in six months.
In two-parent households, both adults would be tested. Benefits to children could be awarded to a third party recipient, who must also pass a drug screen. The law will not affect the federal food stamp program.
Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Florida Legal Services, which say they will decide in the coming weeks if they plan to file suit challenging the law, a version of which was struck down in 2003 by a federal court in Michigan.
During debate, opponents pointed to a pilot testing program in Florida that was shut down in 2001 after it showed no significant difference in drug use between welfare recipients and the population at large.
“The wasteful program created by this law subjects Floridians who are impacted by the economic downturn, as well as their families, to a humiliating search of their urine and body fluids without cause or even suspicion of drug abuse,” Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU Florida, said in a statement Tuesday.
Federal law allows states to screen for drug use under the TANF program, which provides a maximum of $300 a month in cash assistance to needy families. The program, which replaced traditional welfare in the mid-1990s, has a 48-month lifetime cap on benefits.
Other states have studied the issue and decided that testing all recipients was not cost-effective, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Legal and Social Policy wrote in a study released in January.
Most states conduct drug assessments but do not require across-the-board urine or blood tests. Some require drug tests from recipients who have been convicted of felony drug crimes.