An effort is once more under way in the Georgia Legislature to require drug tests for poor people who get government assistance, and to have them pay for the tests.
The state two years ago passed such a law for all welfare recipients, but it ran into legal trouble. Now a Vidalia legislator facing a tough Republican primary has taken up the cause and would add a much bigger population for scrutiny: the state’s 1 million-plus food stamp recipients.
Rep. Greg Morris hopes his revamped proposal will solve the legal problems of the 2012 welfare law, which was put on hold when a similar law in Florida was struck down over blanket searches. Under his bill, House Bill 772, the Department of Human Services couldn’t demand a drug test of just any benefits applicant. Department workers would have to have a reason to suspect drug use by an individual: for example, if the applicant had previously applied for a job that also required drug testing; or his or her “demeanor.”
Legislators who support the bill, which the House has already passed 107-66, said they saw no harm in drug-testing recipients of assistance when so many people have to be drug-tested for a job.
A parade of charities, legal groups and other opponents of the bill, however, lined up at a Senate committee hearing Monday to call it cruel, ineffective, expensive and unconstitutional. Some complained about the vagueness of the demeanor provision and that DHS would not necessarily train workers to apply it.
Only Morris testified in the bill’s favor, but it passed, on a party-line vote with the Republican chairwoman, Sen. Renee Unterman of Buford, intervening to break a tie.
Morris said he understood why no one else spoke for his bill.
“What lobbyists are there for just the average worker who’s a taxpayer?” Morris said. “They’re economizing and buying inexpensive cuts of meat, when with (food stamps) you can buy lobster.”
Many food stamp users are workers. The less they make, the more food stamps they may receive, up to a maximum of $347 per month for a family of two with no income, according to DHS.
In an interview, Morris called food stamps “an out-of-control government program.” He said its membership had exploded — not because of the recession, but because of lax eligibility standards — and should be reduced, perhaps by more than half. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, nine states, mostly in conservative areas, have passed drug-testing benefits legislation.
Morris said during the hearing that he had worked to make sure the bill was “not draconian.” Anyone whose benefits are revoked can get them restored with a clean drug test after a certain period: one month on the first failed test, up to one year on the third failed test. Some people are exempt from testing, including people in nursing homes or people who DHS deems too handicapped to test.
According to DHS, about 1.7 million Georgians receive food stamps (a program actually called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), and 16,000 receive welfare (called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF). Many of those are children, who would not be drug-tested under the bill.
A drug-testing program in Florida cost more to administer than it saved the state. But in Georgia, test-takers would pay the testing fee.
“I would submit to you that the vast amount of food stamp recipients can afford $17 to pay for the privilege of using the taxpayer-funded benefits,” Morris said.
Pass or fail, the recipient would pay the full cost of the test, unless that person qualified for Medicaid. Medicaid recipients would pay $17, or less if less was charged.
Paradoxically, for the very poorest Georgians, the cost would probably be higher. In Georgia, because of a political standoff over Obamacare, people making less than the federal poverty level do not receive Medicaid. So they would pay full price.
No child would have benefits revoked, Morris said. If a child’s parents tested positive and lost their own benefits, they could designate a third person to spend their child’s food stamps — under the assumption that the food purchased would all be given to the child.
The bill still might cost the state. It contains a requirement that food stamp cards add a photo identifying the recipient, which opponents say could cost millions of dollars to add and was not funded in the bill. Morris said recipients might be required to pay the cost of the photo ID, too.
Those potential costs, and the government intrusion into people’s lives, concerned Brett Bittner, the director of the Libertarian Party of Georgia.
“While we appreciate the idea of lessening the burden on the taxpayer,” Bittner said, “when you look at corporate subsidies and tax breaks and other takers of public money that aren’t going to be subject to this, it just seems like a way to punish those who are truly in need rather than actually trying to have a workable system.”
A similar program in Florida did find drug use among food stamp recipients. But the rate was lower than the rate among the population at large.
That’s one piece of research cited in a 2013 federal court ruling that has halted drug-testing laws in Florida as well as Georgia.
It’s unclear whether that ruling, in the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, would also stop HB 772.
The current laws are illegal because they don’t meet the high standard for blanket searches without “individualized suspicion,” the ruling says. While HB 772 does take a crack at individualizing suspicion, the court’s ruling also says that in most cases, the standard is met only with a judge’s warrant. This bill doesn’t call for that. In addition, it would conflict with federal law, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture documents.
Some opponents questioned why Georgia would join them when it might cost more than it saves and will certainly draw a court battle.
Lee Burton has his own idea why.
He’s biased. Burton, a Republican and a retired Navy SEAL, is challenging Morris for his seat. He claims Morris only championed the drug-testing idea after Burton opened his campaign in October, talking about making changes in welfare and social programs. And, Burton says, on the heavyweight issue where Morris was put in charge of — banking — he whiffed.
Morris is chairman of the House Banks and Banking Committee, which oversees the state’s financial regulations and its bank regulators. In a state with the worst record of bank failures in the country since 2008, the committee has considered few bills that would stem the state’s rate of failing financial institutions.
Morris says Burton is the one playing politics.
“If I was playing politics,” Morris said, “I’d jump out and say, ‘I’m going to save the world as banking chairman. We’ve heard legislation and we’re going to consider them in a businesslike way.”
Morris also indicated he wasn’t worried about the primary.
“I’ve been up here legislating,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going on politically.”
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