News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

August 8, 2012

Drug tests for welfare heads back to House

Co-author working to re-introduce legislation

INDIANAPOLIS —

The co-author of an Indiana General Assembly bill that would have deprived money from welfare recipients who failed drug tests is trying to revive the measure that died in the last legislative session.

Rep. Jud McMillin, a Brookville Republican, said he wants to re-introduce legislation that would require the state’s Family and Social Services Agency to develop a drug-screening program for adults receiving cash payments through a program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The bill, which passed the House but was blocked in the Senate in the last session, was opposed by FSSA officials who questioned whether it was cost-effective or constitutional. But McMillin, an attorney, believes there may be growing support for the proposal, and he’s convinced that a bill can be drafted in a way that will stand up to a court

“The legislation is not punitive,” McMillin said. “We’re not looking to harm anybody who fails a drug test. This is about creating incentives for people to make good decisions.”

The legislation wouldn’t automatically cut off cash-assistance to TANF recipients who failed the drug test, but it would compel them to seek treatment to continue on the program.

McMillin and other supporters of the bill came under fire during the last session for proposing legislation tying drug-testing to welfare assistance. At one point during the session, opponents of the bill attached an amendment that would have required drug-testing for legislators.

But the bill earned some bipartisan support while it was alive. One of the earlier “yes” votes on the bill came from Rep. Scott Pelath, a Democrat from Michigan City. Pelath 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,” he said at the time.

State welfare agency administrators opposed the bill. During a hearing on it in the last session, an FSSA official said costs for a two-year pilot project in a handful of Indiana counties would exceed $500,000 to implement. FSSA officials also warned legal costs would increase if the drug-testing program was challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

State Sen. Tim Lanane, an Anderson Democrat and attorney, said the constitutional and cost challenges would be big hurdles to overcome. He noted that states that have implemented similar drug-testing programs — including Florida, Michigan and Missouri — have found themselves tangled in legal arguments and lawsuits.

Civil rights advocates have argued that mandatory drug-testing for welfare recipients violates the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

“On its face, it seems simple: Why shouldn’t TANF recipients be drug-tested?” Lanane said. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

Cost of the drug-testing will likely continue to be an issue. In April, as part of the continuing court battle involving Florida’s mandatory drug-testing program, Florida officials revealed they spent in excess of $118,000 on drug testing more than 4,000 TANF recipients and found less than 3 percent who failed.

But McMillin said those numbers don’t tell a larger story. “It doesn’t account for the law’s deterrent effect,” McMillin said. “That study can’t take into account the number of people who made a different decision because of the law.”

In Indiana, about 17,000 recipients receive cash payments each month through the TANF program. They must either be working, looking for work, or be in school or some kind of job-training.

A family of four making about $36,000 a year would be eligible to receive up to $346 in cash benefits a month.

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