News From Terre Haute, Indiana

January 26, 2012

Lawmakers move ahead with welfare drug-testing

Maureen Hayden

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers are pushing forward on legislation that would cut off cash assistance to welfare recipients who fail drug tests.

In a 15-5 vote that crossed party lines, the House Committee on Ways and Means on Tuesday approved a bill that would require the state’s Family and Social Services Agency to test a drug-screening program on a small scale before it was launched statewide.

It now goes to full House for a vote.

The focus is narrow: The FSSA would implement the drug-screening program in three “test” counties for a two-year period, then report back to the legislature. The drug-screening would apply only to adults who are receiving cash payments through a program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF for short.

The proposed legislation would allow the state to temporarily cut off cash assistance to adults who failed the test if they refused to seek help through a drug-treatment program.

“This bill isn’t designed to be punitive,” said Rep. Jud McMillin, a Republican from Brookville and co-sponsor the bill. “It’s designed to create incentives for people to make better decisions.”

Among the yes votes was one from Rep. Scott Pelath, a Democrat from Michigan City who said his experience working for a mental-health center influenced his vote. He said drug addicts have difficulty making good decisions. “To get people into treatment, some coercion may be needed.”

State welfare agency administrators oppose the bill. During Tuesday’s hearing, an FSSA official said costs for the two-year pilot project would exceed $500,000 to implement.

Adrienne Shields, FSSA’s deputy director of the Division of Family Resources, said that figure doesn’t include legal costs the state might incur if the drug-testing program is challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

After the hearing, McMillin said FSSA administrators may prove to be the biggest obstacle to getting the bill passed and the law implemented.

“I expected there’d be disagreements over the fiscal impact of the legislation,” McMillan said. “What I didn’t expect was to get into a philosophical debate with them [FSSA] over it.”

A similar bill that would require FSSA to implement the drug-screening program statewide for all TANF recipients appears to be dead in the Senate. Republican Sen. Jean Leising, the bill’s author, said she couldn’t get a hearing on the legislation.

She said she may support the House version. “I think a lot of people want this,” she said. “They don’t want their tax dollars going to support somebody’s drug habit.”

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at