PolitiFact: Weighing the cost of drug testing vs. benefits

Florida shelled out more money for drug testing than it saved by denying welfare benefits to people who tested positive for drugs.

State Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, in a Jan. 22 television interview

Partisan sparring by state lawmakers in an election year — who could imagine such a thing?

But the gloves came off when state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, and state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, appeared on a television newscast to debate Morris’ proposal to require drug testing of applicants for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the federal food stamp program.

Georgia currently has a law on the books that mandates drug testing of applicants for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or what most people think of as welfare. But it’s been on hold because of legal battles over the constitutionality of a similar Florida law.

Morris said his bill, much like the TANF drug-testing laws, is designed to ensure that the tax dollars of working Georgians aren’t subsidizing drug use.

Orrock said the bill, if enacted, would violate the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against warrantless and suspicionless searches. She also said it would not be a money-saver.

The Atlanta lawmaker said Florida spent more money for drug tests once its TANF law was implemented than it saved denying benefits to people who tested positive for drugs.

We decided that claim was worth putting to a test of its own — a truth test, especially given that, as of October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that 1,883,966 Georgians were receiving food stamps.

Orrock said she based her statement on a story in The Miami Herald about Florida’s program, which operated for four months before it was halted due to legal challenges. The newspaper reported that 4,086 welfare applicants were subject to drug testing, and 108 people, or 2.6 percent, failed. An additional 40 people scheduled but canceled their tests.

State law required Florida to reimburse applicants who tested negative an average of $35 for the screening — or a total of $118,140. The result was a net loss of $45,780, the newspaper reported.

Those same statistics, which support Orrock’s statement, were repeated in The New York Times and other publications.

We also reached out to the Florida Department of Children & Families, the agency that headed the four months of drug testing of TANF applicants.

Michelle Glady, the agency’s press secretary, said the department spent $115,364.95 on drug-test reimbursements, a slightly lower number than others reported

Glady said she did not provide the news media with the numbers that were reported on a net loss. But the department also didn’t deny any benefits and so saw no savings.

“Benefits were restored” because of the lawsuit, Glady said.

PolitiFact has done extensive research and reviewed several studies on the topic of drug testing of recipients of government assistance, including claims that these initiatives can save taxpayers’ money. The ones we found showed that the costs to the state exceed any savings.

In Florida, the American Civil Liberties Union sued over the law requiring drug testing of TANF recipients, saying it constituted an “unreasonable search” by the government, a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Mary S. Scriven issued a temporary injunction in October 2011, saying the law “appears likely to be deemed a constitutional infringement.” And this past December, she ruled that the 2011 law requiring Florida welfare applicants to undergo drug tests was unconstitutional.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had made the drug testing a campaign issue, has filed an appeal.

In a harshly worded, 30-page opinion, Scriven concluded that “there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied.” Scott has insisted that the urine tests are needed to make sure poor children don’t grow up in drug-riddled households.

Maria Kayanan, associate legal director for the ACLU in Florida, said the full costs of the drug-testing law in Florida are unknown. The state hired outside attorneys, and their bills are not yet fully tallied, Kayanan said.

She said she would expect Morris’ legislation, if passed, to face the same legal challenges and outcomes as Florida’s law to drug-test TANF applicants.

Melissa Johnson, a policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, predicted that there would be legal obstacles to Morris’ bill.

Federal law prohibits states from adding requirements for participants in the food stamp program, Kayanan and Johnson said.

“It’s like a hammer looking for a nail,” Johnson said. “There is no evidence that a problem exists.”

So where does this leave us?

Orrock based her statement on news accounts about the Florida experience. Previous studies also suggest that similar measures elsewhere would not save taxpayers money.

We rate her statement True.