Why must Georgia break law?

Thanks to the Legislature and Gov. Nathan Deal, the state of Georgia has attempted to provoke yet another needless fight with the federal government, a fight that it knows it cannot win and that accomplishes nothing but provide a grandstand on which politicians can preen and posture to those who applaud such posturing.

Under House Bill 772, signed into law by Deal in April, applicants for food stamps in Georgia can be forced to undergo drug tests if state employees decide that they have a “reasonable” suspicion the person is using drugs. The applicant then has to pay the cost of the drug test himself, and is not compensated even if the test comes back negative. Again, this is a person or family already struggling to make ends meet.

That law raises a slew of issues, from fairness and practicality to legality and constitutionality.

First, there is absolutely no evidence that food-stamp recipients are more prone to drug abuse than any other group benefitting from government programs, from college kids getting HOPE scholarships to sports-team owners getting millions of taxpayer dollars for new stadiums. The sole difference is that food-stamp recipients are poor, and thus legitimate targets for scorn and abuse.

As a practical matter, Georgia’s system for administering food-stamp benefits is already so overwhelmed and undermanned that until recently, tens of thousands of Georgians needing that assistance were caught in an administrative backlog, unable to get benefits. Federal officials had to threaten to pull a $75 million grant from the state to force it to fix the problem, because state officials just didn’t seem to care.

Now, on top of that overwhelmed system, state employees are also supposed to act as some sort of super-snoop to detect drug users, a task for which they have been given no training or guidance.

Then there’s the whole question of legality and constitutionality. A drug test is a search, and in this country, government cannot search its citizens without a warrant and reasonable cause. The untrained, unprofessional judgment of food-stamp clerical workers that an applicant might be using drugs does not by any measure constitute reasonable cause to require a search of a person’s body.

Finally, federal law explicitly prohibits states from adding their own conditions for food-stamp eligibility. That makes sense — it is a federal program funded entirely by the federal government, so it’s hard to see the argument that states should be able to impose their own requirements.

Legislators and Deal were fully aware before they enacted HB 772 that they were violating federal law. It’s not as if the language of the law was unclear: “… no state agency shall impose any other standards of eligibility as a condition for participating in the program.”

In a letter to Deal on Friday, Attorney General Sam Olens confirmed what everyone, including Deal, already knew: “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).”

Please, stop the foolishness before it gets worse.