Bill tying food stamps, some drug-testing goes to governor

Applicants for food stamps and welfare may now have to get drug-tested and pay for it, if Gov. Nathan Deal signs a bill passed Thursday by the Georgia General Assembly.

The applicants would only be tested if a Department of Human Services worker suspected their “demeanor” merited testing, if they had previously applied for a job that also required testing, or in other circumstances.

The bill does not require DHS to train the workers to detect drug abuse, and does not specify who would pay for that training should DHS decide to do it.

Deal has not said he would sign the bill, House Bill 772, but he signed a similar measure in 2012.

The bill's sponsor, Greg Morris of Vidalia, is facing a tough Republican primary, but has said the bill is not about politics. He said he's protecting the Georgia taxpayer from those who would abuse public money.

He and the Senate sponsor, Don Balfour, R-Snellville, said it was a reasonable request to make of those who receive state money, when so many job applicants have to take drug tests, too.

Opponents said the bill is unconstitutional, mean, ill-reasoned, and will actually cost the state millions of dollars, through a side requirement that the state issue new identity cards with photographs to the recipients.

Those opponents were spurred to heated debate Thursday on the measure. As HB 772 approached a vote in the Senate, Democrats one after another questioned Balfour in fury. Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, called the bill "unduly vague, and a recipe for profiling" while others assailed its fiscal responsibility and usefulness.

Though the bill passed each house handily, vocal supporters were few and far between. Where bills usually have a handful of sponsors in each chamber, HB 772 had only one in each chamber. No one but Morris spoke for the bill in its Senate committee hearing. Morris has passionately defended the effort from the House, but in the Senate on Thursday, Balfour in defending the bill several times agreed with opponents that it was flawed.

However, Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, noted that he had to be drug-tested so he could get a license to drive commercial trucks for his pine straw business.

Research from Florida, which tried to implement a related bill, found drug use among benefits recipients, but less than in the population at large.

The financial question for the state is unanswered, as no “fiscal note” analysis was done, a gap decried by its opponents.

The new photo requirement is not funded in the bill. Morris said it would be up to the administration to figure that funding out, but it could cost the state nothing if recipients were required to pay for that, too.

The 2012 law was written to drug-test all welfare recipients. But the state put it on hold after a federal court struck down such blanket searches while ruling on the Florida law.

It’s unclear whether the court ruling would still pose an obstacle to the new Georgia legislation. States have tried different methods of singling out recipients for testing, and some have managed to enact theirs.

Pass or fail, the applicants would pay for the test. They would pay full price, unless they qualify for Medicaid, in which case they would pay $17 or less if less were charged. Some people would be exempt from testing, such as children and people in nursing homes.

Georgia has 1.7 million food stamp recipients and 16,000 welfare recipients.