TALLAHASSEE -- Thousands of the state's poorest Floridians will have to take a drug test if they want to qualify for welfare assistance, under a new law signed by Gov. Rick Scott Monday.
The idea, plugged by Scott and the GOP-dominated Legislature, is that drug tests will root out welfare recipients who are using public dollars to buy drugs. But Democrats and advocates for the poor say the requirement could violate individuals' constitutional rights to privacy, and the American Civil Liberties Union is likely to challenge the law in court.
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"While there are certainly legitimate needs for public assistance, it is unfair for Florida taxpayers to subsidize drug addiction," Scott said in a news release. "This new law will encourage personal accountability and will help to prevent the misuse of tax dollars."
According to legislative analysts,113,346 people are receiving temporary cash assistance. However, only people 18 and older will be tested, and officials from the Department of Children and Families estimate that will total about 4,400 adults who apply for aid each month.
Officials estimate the initial screenings would cost about $10 per person – refundable if the individual passes – and first-time failures will be disqualified for one year from receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. A second failure disqualifies the individual for three years.
TANF recipients are eligible for cash assistance for a lifetime cumulative total of 48 months, and their eligibility is checked every six months.
Advocates for the poor worry about the cost of the tests – which one DCF official said could go as high as $40 -- and also about the message the new rule sends to people already facing financial problems.
Karen Broussard, director of program development for Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando, called the testing "disrespectful … To do this simply by virtue of the applicants being vulnerable economically is so disappointing," she said.
Pastor Scott George, co-founder of the Community Food & Outreach Center in Orlando that helps needy families apply for aid and look for work, cautioned that the cost of the test could be a "real hurdle" for some of the state's poorest citizens.
"At times I feel like there are so many hurdles that they keep genuine people with real needs from getting help… Kids could end up paying the price for parents' irresponsibility," he said. "I wouldn't want that to happen. I wouldn't want them to pay the price for mistakes the parents are making."
However, the new law does allow DCF to designate a person to receive funds on behalf of children whose parent fails a drug test. This could include an immediate family member.
Florida's welfare caseload spiked as the economy tanked and the housing market folded. But it is slowly starting to decline as the state begins to recover. The 52,911 families receiving assistance in May was 6.1- percent below the total 12 months earlier, DCF said.
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No other state currently requires drug testing for welfare recipients, but a number of states are considering similar action.
The effectiveness of testing is unknown. A pilot program that tested some welfare recipients between 1999 to 2001 found that there was little difference in employment and earnings between those who tested positive for drug use and those who were clean, according to an evaluation by a Florida State University researcher.
The issue is ripe for a lawsuit though.
The American Civil Liberties Union has indicated that it may challenge the new law in addition to a number of other bills that the governor has already approved or is likely to sign in the coming weeks. The group is slated to announce action today related to a separate order by Scott that mandates drug-testing of all state employees.
In 1999, Michigan began drug-testing all welfare recipients, prompting the ACLU to sue. In 2003, a federal appeals court ruled that universal testing was unconstitutional, and the ACLU and the state reached an agreement that allowed drug tests of welfare recipients only if there was reasonable suspicion that the person was using drugs.
Howard Simon, the executive director of ACLU of Florida, released a statement saying that the governor was ignoring privacy law and treating people who have lost their jobs "like suspected criminals."
"Searching the bodily fluids of those in need of assistance is a scientifically, fiscally, and constitutionally unsound policy," he said. "Today, that unsound policy is Florida law."
Neither House sponsor Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, or Senate sponsor Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, responded to requests for comment.
In a separate action Tuesday, Scott also signed a measure that would make so-called "bath salts" a Schedule 1 controlled substance, lumping it in with drugs such as heroin. The bill, HB 1039, was a major priority for Attorney General Pam Bondi, who issued a temporary statewide ban on the sale of the hallucinogenic substances earlier this year.
"Bath salts," which could be legally purchased at some convenience stores and smoke shops, are usually snorted, although the crystals can be smoked or swallowed. They can cause increased heart rate, hallucinations, paranoia, seizures and kidney failure.
I feel very mixed on the issue. I don't like the idea of welfare money being spent on drugs, which this helps prevent, but I also don't like just assuming that poor people are going to take their money and spend it on drugs.