News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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January 11, 2014

‘Entitlement Bill’ now includes drug testing for welfare recipients

INDIANAPOLIS — Welfare recipients may face drug testing in an effort being revived by Republican lawmakers.

A bill would require adults receiving cash welfare payments, under a program known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, to be tested for drugs if they fail a written screening exam. Those who test positive would have to enter treatment or risk losing benefits.

A similar proposal has failed at least twice — in one instance after it was amended to require legislators to submit blood or urine samples for drug testing.

The bill’s author, Republican State Rep. Jud McMillin of Brookville, fears the proposal could be hijacked again. He said he's hoping it instead will create “thoughtful discussion.”

“As much as people don’t want to talk about this, the real purpose was to try to get people into treatment who are having drug problems,” said McMillin, a former prosecutor who's been an advocate of community-based correction programs that serve as alternatives to prison.

McMillin's proposal is part of a larger “entitlement reform” plan still in the making. Republican leaders said the effort, intended to reduce fraud, will also limit what can be bought with food stamps and require food stamp beneficiaries to show a photo ID when making a purchase.

Those plans may be problematic. Officials who oversee the federal food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), have turned back similar efforts, citing rules that require grocery stores to treat food-stamp users no differently than other customers. For example, a new ID requirement in Massachusetts is meeting resistance from SNAP officials who say the state failed to adequately protect those using food stamps.

Drug tests for those receiving welfare benefits are proving controversial, as well.

At least 10 states have passed such laws since 2011. Another 29 debated measures last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, despite questions about the tests’ constitutionality and effectiveness.

In Florida, a law that required welfare applicants to undergo mandatory drug screening produced few results. Only 108 out of 4,086 people tested — 2.6 percent — were found to have used narcotics. State officials said the requirement cost more money to carry out than it saved.

And, in late December, a federal judge struck down the law, setting the stage for similar legal challenges elsewhere. The judge ruled Florida’s drug testing program violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.

Proponents of Indiana’s drug-testing bill say they’ve devised a way to get around that issue by testing only welfare recipients who - through a written, 64-question test - show a likelihood of addiction. Those testing positive may still receive benefits if they show they are in treatment. Only those who refuse treatment or repeatedly fail drug tests would lose benefits.

Ken Falk, legal director for the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says the measure still fails the constitutional litmus test. The Florida ruling was a message to politicians that they can’t exempt poor people from their constitutional rights, he said.

“If the Fourth Amendment is going to mean anything, the exceptions to it have to be extremely narrow,” Falk said.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MaureenHayden.

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