by Michael Peltier
The News Service of Florida
Recipients of temporary financial assistance from the government would have to test negative on drug tests, which they would have to pay for, before collecting their checks under a measure that passed two legislative committees on Wednesday.
Both measures (SB 556 and HB 353) would cost recipients from $10 to $70 per test when they apply for temporary assistance checks of up to $300 a month.
The House version, sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Smith (R-Inverness), was approved Wednesday by the Health and Human Services Committee on a party line vote following brief debate.
The Senate Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services approved that chamber’s version on a 5-2 vote.
Backers say the proposal would help ensure tax dollars are not being spent to sustain a drug or alcohol addiction while sending a “tough love” message to abusers to get help.
“At the end of the day, I want to help people who want to help themselves,” said Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah). It’s only fair to me and my family, who are investing in this state, to make sure this goes to people who really need it.”
Citing studies showing the degree of drug use among welfare recipients is not significantly higher than that of the general population, critics say the proposal sets unnecessary barriers to getting help for low-income families who can least afford it.
“We don’t support illicit behaviors,” said Michael Sheedy, associate director for health at the Florida Catholic Conference. “But to apply this policy without offering a safety net is not what we need to be doing at this time.”
Both bills would require recipients of benefits under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to undergo a drug test for controlled substances before being allowed to collect money.
Recipients who test positive for drugs would be ineligible for TANF payments for a year. A second failed test would result in a three-year suspension of benefits.
Recipients who complete drug treatment could receive assistance after a six-month period. Children would be allowed to continue receiving benefits, with assistance checks being sent to guardians who likewise test negative.
“To be giving these people $300 a month when they have a $25-a-day crack habit, the money is not going to get to the family,” said Rep. Paige Kreegel (R-Punta Gorda). “We’re doing nothing but pouring gasoline on an already existing fire.”
Opponents pointed to a study by Florida State University that found such testing programs weren’t cost effective, in part because so few people tested positive.
Further, the loss of temporary assistance to families already under stress will do little to help, said Rep. Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach).
“The unintended consequences are going to rip families apart,” said Pafford.