Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said Friday that federal law prohibits the state from drug testing people on food stamps, as it is scheduled to do starting July 1.
His opinion creates significant doubt that the state will implement that provision, which was part of a measure passed by the General Assembly in March. A similar provision for drug testing some welfare recipients is not covered by Olens’ opinion and will presumably move forward.
Olens’ letter to Gov. Nathan Deal came in response to a formal warning letter delivered Tuesday by federal officials. They told Georgia that implementing the requirement for food stamp recipients would violate federal rules. Olens said he was compelled to agree.
“The state must comply with the terms and conditions of the federal program, or risk potential loss of the federal funding for the program (over $3 billion annually),” Olens wrote.
The author of the bill, Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, could not be reached for comment Friday. Another lawmaker who supported the measure said she recognized from the outset that the measure faced significant legal hurdles.
“I’m not surprised,” said Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, noting that courts have struck down other states’ efforts to mandate drug testing for federal aid. Still, she does not believe the issue will go away. “It’s still the will of the General Assembly.”
A prominent Democrat said he knew all along that the measure had no future. He said it was nothing more than election-year grandstanding by Republican lawmakers.
“It was election-year politics, beating up on people of limited means,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “The attorney general knows it’s useless to mount a challenge.”
The governor’s office, which solicited the AG’s opinion, said it would review Olens’ letter.
The bill, passed on the last day of the legislative session, would have required food stamp and welfare applicants and recipients to take a drug test if a state worker had a “reasonable suspicion” that they were using illegal drugs. The cost of the test would have been borne by the individuals, whether they passed or failed.
A number of states, including Georgia, had already sought to drug test recipients of welfare, formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But only Georgia has passed a law covering both food stamps and TANF.
Tuesday, the regional administrator of the federal Food and Nutrition Service wrote Deal that Georgia would be outside the law if it implemented the requirement for food stamp recipients. Rules governing the program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, prohibit states from imposing their own conditions on who may or may not receive aid.
TANF operates under different rules, allowing states more leeway in the matter of setting eligibility standards.
One goal of Republicans in Congress, should they take control of the Senate as well in the House in November, is to give states more say-so over who is eligible for food stamps. The House already passed such a bill, but it went nowhere in the Senate.
Unterman said the bill imposed no special burden on the needy. “If you go to work, you take a drug test. Why shouldn’t people who receive public assistance be tested?” she said.
At the same time, Unterman said it would be unwise for Georgia to challenge the federal government on the issue. For one thing, she noted, the state only recently escaped federal penalties over how it administers the food stamp program.
“Why give them another cause for concern?” she said.
Although Olens affirmed the federal position on the matter at hand, the Republican was at pains to soothe any anger his stance might arouse among Georgia voters.
“As you know,” he wrote Deal, “I have not hesitated to challenge the federal government. I have challenged federal healthcare reform, the Dodd-Frank Act, and sweeping EPA regulations because I believe them to be violations of the Constitution and the laws of this land. But I have brought those challenges to uphold the rule of law – to enforce the principle that no one, not even the President, is above the law.”
In this case, he concluded, “Challenging this federal provision would not uphold the rule of law; it would undermine it.”