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Drug-testing for dollars


A flurry of legislative proposals requires drug screening for public assistance.

Clifton Adcock February 29th, 2012

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering a number of bills this session to require drug-testing for applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

According to the state Department of Human Services, 3,922 adults and 17,233 children received TANF funds in January. Most of those households are single-parent homes with low or no earned income, and the maximum time a person can receive TANF is five years over an adult’s lifetime.

While only two such measures were introduced in the Legislature last year, eight drug-testing bills have emerged this session, six of them originating in the Senate.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services on Feb. 20 passed one of the proposals, House Bill 2388, authored by Rep. Guy Liebmann, R-Oklahoma City. It would require drug testing for adult TANF applicants who, in turn, would have to cover costs of the test. If the test came back positive, that applicant’s dependent child would still be able to receive benefits, with TANF funds going to an eligible relative to care for the minor.

right Rep. Todd Russ

Individuals who test positive for drugs would be ineligible for benefits for one year, unless they successfully complete a substance-abuse program within six months.

Liebmann estimated his proposal would save the state around $2 million per year.

‘Ridiculous proposition’
However, making people submit to drug tests because they are applying for low-income assistance could violate the U.S.

Constitution’s Fourth and 14th amendments, according to American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel.

“The ACLU of Oklahoma strongly opposes this legislation because it would set up a regime of suspicionless searches that we believe to be both unconstitutional and an ineffective use of state resources,” he said.

Similar legislation in Florida, Kiesel said, ended up identifying around 2 percent of screened welfare applicants as testing positive for drugs, a lower level than the general population. Moreover, he said it cost Florida $200,000 before it was shut down by a federal injunction on the grounds that it amounted to an unconstitutional search.

“What this legislation says is, simply by being poor — simply by finding yourself in a situation where you have to apply for temporary assistance to take care of your family, to feed your children — that that in and of itself creates suspicion of criminal activity. I think that’s a ridiculous proposition.”

In addition, refusing to take the drug test would yield the same results as if one had tested positive, Kiesel said, also noting that requiring applicants to pay for the tests would be a burden on already cash-strapped people.

But Liebmann said the test is comparable to a job applicant having to submit to a drug test.

“For you or I to get a job in a lot of places, we would have to take a drug test. Why should it be any different?”

Selective testing
When asked why only TANF applicants should be tested as opposed to any individual receiving public funds, such as a business owner receiving state incentives to expand business, Liebmann questioned whether someone creating jobs should be subject to such a test.

“If he hired somebody or brought in five more jobs, should we drug test him? He’s done the state a favor, putting them on the payroll and they’re going to pay taxes and use the local shops and eat out and so forth,” Liebmann said.

Rep. Todd Russ said he authored a similar bill, HB 2508, because the state should not subsidize drug use, and that by doing so, it creates a vicious cycle. The Cordell Republican’s legislation, which would exclude those older than 60 and younger than 18, also would charge applicants for the costs of the test.

“There was a significant amount of criticism about having the state paying to have that test administered,” Russ said. “I know [with] the Florida bill, they picked up the tab, but in my bill they’re able to save up some of their cigarette money and pay for the test.”

Photo by Mark Hancock

 
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