News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 5, 2011

MAUREEN HAYDEN: Possible controversial conditions on government assistance raising questions

Maureen Hayden

---- — Should Indiana require welfare recipients to take a drug test?

That’s a question that will be asked, debated, and wrestled over when the General Assembly returns to the Statehouse in January.

A group of Republican legislators, led by Rep. Heath VanNatter of Kokomo and Sen. Jean Leising of Oldenburg, are working on legislation inspired by the actions of other states that have imposed controversial conditions on recipients of government assistance.

What’s behind the move? Too many years of a bad economy that’s driven up the demand for government help.

Earlier this year, both Florida and Missouri passed laws that tie welfare to drug screens.

Florida required welfare applicants to pay for, and pass, a drug test.

Missouri followed an Arizona law that authorized drug testing for welfare recipients suspected of drug use.

The Florida law is on hold, after a federal judge (appointed by a Republican president) put a temporary lock-hold on its enforcement while a court battle ensues over its constitutionality. (It raises a Fourth Amendment issue about unreasonable search and seizure.)

Meanwhile, at least 30 other states have introduced similar drug-testing measures for a range of government assistance programs, from unemployment aid to subsidized housing.

Defenders of such actions see it as a good thing.

They argue it keeps taxpayer dollars from drug users and creates a mechanism to push those drug users into treatment programs.

Opponents include civil-liberties advocates who cite a decade-old federal court ruling that struck down a Michigan law requiring drug screens for welfare applicants, ruling it as too invasive.

But another argument against it has also emerged: If the point of such a law is to keep taxpayer dollars from people who don’t deserve it or are sure to abuse it, why not have drug testing for everybody who gets government dollars?

Think of all the “too big to fail” bankers who were bailed out with $700 billion taxpayer dollars back in 2008; surely some of those people were on drugs when they concocted the crazy financial schemes that crashed the economy.

I heard that “test everybody” argument from a couple of lawyers in the Statehouse, who put it forth with their tongues only halfway in their cheeks.

It has some appeal when it’s targeted toward fat-cat financiers on Wall Street. It has less appeal when you include farm subsidies, preferential tax breaks like the mortgage-interest deduction, or government-subsidized student loans — the kind of government help many of us or our family members enjoy.

VanNatter and Leising — the two Indiana legislators who are crafting the Indiana bill — are two of the more thoughtful lawmakers who do a good job of representing the constituents in their districts and watching over the taxpayer dollars in their care.

They favor a bill like the one passed in Missouri that gives limited power to state welfare administrators to seek drug screens for suspected drug users receiving cash assistance. They also want to build in safeguards, including access to substance-treatment for users and protection for the children of drug users so they don’t end up paying the price for the bad behavior of the adults in their lives.

It’s not the radical fix that some of their colleagues may favor and it’s a step too far for others, which means the rhetoric on the issue will ramp up soon.

Maureen Hayden is Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI Indiana newspapers. Reach her at