TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ New applicants for temporary welfare assistance would have to dig into their own pockets to pay for drug tests that can cost $35 or more under bills advancing in the Florida House and Senate and backed by Gov. Rick Scott.
The Senate version (SB 556), won approval from a budget subcommittee while the House bill (HB 353) cleared that chamber's Health and Human Services Committee, both on party-line votes Wednesday.
All Republicans voted for the legislation saying it would be only fair to require drug testing for welfare recipients because many taxpayers also are screened at work. They also argued it would encourage drug abusers to get treatment.
Democrats and a Florida Catholic Conference lobbyist, though, said it would be unfair to make poor people pay for it themselves and that the testing requirement probably would be unconstitutional.
“It may seem a little onerous telling folks they need to get drug tested,'' conceded Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. “But at the end of the day, I want to help people who want to help themselves.''
Sen. Steve Oelrich, an Alachua Republican who's sponsoring the bill, said it would be a “an offer of help and a wake-up call'' for drug users.
“We're heading into a court challenge with this,'' predicted Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.
Courts have upheld testing for special purposes such as public safety and when there's a suspicion of drug use. A federal appeal court in 2002, though, struck down a Michigan law that required screening for all welfare applicants. Opponents say universal testing violates privacy rights and protection against unwarranted searches.
Florida's not alone, though, in considering such a requirement. Similar legislation has been filed in at least 16 states, but the South Dakota House in February rejected its bill after opponents said it would be impractical and do little to help children in poor families.
Drug testing welfare recipients had been rejected four times by Louisiana lawmakers but is up for consideration again this year. Bills in Missouri and Virginia are more narrowly drawn, requiring testing only when drug use is suspected.
In Idaho, a state study concluded testing would cost more than any savings from denying benefits to drug users. That wouldn't be a problem in Florida where applicants would pay for the tests.
“We believe it is not quite reasonable to expect folks who are applying for temporary assistance to undergo drug testing that they must pay for,'' said Michael Sheedy of the Florida Catholic Conference.
Sheedy said the conference's research also shows the screening is likely to cost more than the $10 for an initial test and $25 for a confirmation test cited in a Senate staff analysis.
Florida is spending $211 million on temporary assistance during the current budget year on aid for more than 113,000 people. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program has a lifetime cap of 48 months per family.
Oelrich noted his bill would still allow the children of rejected applicants to get benefits if they can find another adult who can pass the drug test to receive that cash on their behalf. Applicants who fail the drug test would be barred from receiving assistance for a year. If they fail again they'd be banned for three years.
“If you go back in history, we actually tried this and it was advised at that time it was not successful and the program was stopped,'' said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston.
Of 8,797 applicants screened in a $2.7 million experimental program between January 1999 and May 2001 only 335 tested positive for a controlled substance. The pilot was conducted in the Jacksonville area and parts of Putnam County.
A researcher recommended against continuing the testing after finding little difference in employment and earnings between applicants testing positive and negative.
Rich also cited a national study that similarly found only a slight difference in drug use between welfare recipients and other people.
The Republicans' intent of encouraging drug users to get help is flawed, Rich said, because the state budget they've proposed cuts spending for substance abuse treatment.
Besides calling for screening welfare applicants, Scott has ordered state agencies to begin drug testing employees. That's raised questions about whether Scott's health care company, Solantic, might benefit by providing testing services. Scott says he's trying to sell his interest in the company.
The House bill now is in line for a floor vote. The Senate bill next goes to the full Budget Committee, its last stop before a floor vote.