Florida is joining other states moving to start drug-testing people who seek cash assistance from the government, an effort supporters say will discourage drug use among the poor.
A decade ago, when Florida last tried to drug-test welfare recipients, a pilot program found it wasn’t worth the money. The newest proposal would solve that problem by requiring those who apply for benefits to pay for the tests themselves.
“The idea of this is not to cost the taxpayers any money,” said Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, who is sponsoring the measure. Supporters say the goal is to prevent public funds from supporting people’s drug habits.
An analysis by legislative staff suggests initial tests cost around $10, plus $25 for a confirmatory test, but the exact costs won’t be certain until the Department of Children and Families actually implements the program. Ron Bilbao of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida said the costs could be as high as $30 or $70, depending on which drugs the tests are designed to detect.
“They’re people that are having difficulty making ends meet right now, and we’re going to put expensive tests on all of them,” said Mike McCarron of the Florida Catholic Conference.
Two studies, one in Michigan and one nationwide, have have found that roughly 10 percent of welfare recipients test positive for drugs, so if the bills pass, 90 percent of people seeking benefits would be non-drug users, but would still have their benefits reduced to pay for the tests.
For that reason, Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, proposed two amendments to the measure on Friday: one to make the tests random, and one that would reimburse applicants who test positive. Random tests would accomplish the same goal as the overall bill, she said, but would be more cost-effective.
“This $10 is very meaningful to them,” she said, and finding money in the budget to reimburse people who pass the test would be “very possible.”
Both amendments failed on voice votes in the Senate Budget Committee on Friday. Budget chair J.D. Alexander said that while Lynn’s amendments failed, he would be interested in looking for money in the budget to reimburse people who pay for tests that turn out negative, a “reasonable” thing to do.
The goal of the measure, he added, was to change people’s behavior, to discourage them from using drugs in the first place.
Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it was “good public policy” to test for drugs. Many private companies test their employees. If they test positive, the companies don’t pay for their drug treatment.
Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said that job seekers often have some means to provide for themselves. On the other hand, “We’re talking about people who are coming to to say, ‘I have nothing, and I need funds so I can feed my children.’”
“A society is judged on the basis of how it treats it weakest members: the lost, the lonely, the least, the left-out, the elderly, the children,” she said, adding: “It’s easy for us to sit here in our ivory tower and dictate to what we call the little people and how they should live.”
“I believe in the golden rule,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. “He who has the gold makes the rules, and the rule should be: If you’re taking public assistance, you will not use drugs.”
The measure, which has the support of Gov. Rick Scott, is now headed to the floor. The House version has to clear one more committee.