Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) is standing by his state’s new policy of drug testing welfare recipients even after the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the scheme in a lawsuit and just 2.5 percent of beneficiaries flunked the first round of tests in July, triggering additional calls for the policy’s repeal.
The governor highlighted the issue during a speech at a recent Conservative Political Action conference in Orlando, and added that he would like to see testing for public employees as well, a policy he previously enacted but later rescinded.
Scott’s drug testing initiative is popular with Sunshine State voters and with lawmakers outside of Florida. State senators in Ohio and Oklahoma have said they will introduce welfare drug testing laws modeled on Scott’s plan. The Ohio proposal would subject unemployment insurance beneficiaries to the screenings as well. A spokesperson for Ohio Republican State Sen. Tim Grendell did not respond when HuffPost asked why Grendell saw need for the tests.
And in South Carolina, Republican Gov. Nikki Haley said she still wants the unemployed to pass a drug test even after admitting her claim that hundreds of job applicants had recently failed tests turned out to be bogus.
Drug tests may not be a great way to save government dollars. According to a back-of-the-envelope analysis of the first round of drug tests by the Tampa Tribune, “the money saved on all rejected applicants would add up to $40,800-$98,400 for the cash assistance program that state analysts have predicted will cost $178 million this fiscal year.” That five-figure savings could be wiped out, however, by the as-yet unknown cost of administering the program and defending it in court.
A report by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank in Florida, found that Scott’s drug testing plan could save the state $9 million next year. The report noted that more than 500 applications were denied in August because the applicant did not complete a drug test. Applicants are required to pay for their own tests, which cost roughly $30. If they pass, they are reimbursed.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a policy analyst with the progressive Center for Law and Social Policy, said applicants who didn’t take a drug test may not have had the money to pay the upfront cost. “People typically don’t apply for cash assistance until they’re down to their last resources,” Lower-Basch said. “They may, even if drug free, choose to keep the power on for a month, or to put gas in their car, rather than paying for the test.”
The analysis extrapolated an annual savings rate based on the number of denied applications, but the average beneficiary receives benefits for just four and a half months, according to Joe Follick, communications director for the Florida Department of Children and Families. Folic said nearly 92,000 Floridians receive benefits and that the average household gets $240 a month. Only 20 percent of applicants wind up receiving benefits. Follic said he did not expect the 2.5 percent rate of flunked tests to change much as the drug screening program matures.
It’s not all about saving money, though.
“The a cost benefit is of secondary importance to ensuring the cash assistance is going to the children,” said Wright, the Scott spokesman. “That’s what the money is intended for. It’s also important to make sure we’re not funding someone’s drug habit with taxpayer dollars.”
A SET-BACK FOR GOVERNOR SCOTT.
Never mine he is the most unpopular governor in all fifty states, but he is racking up the miles. A federal judge temporarily blocked Florida’s new law that requires welfare applicants to pass a drug test before receiving benefits on Monday, saying it may violate the Constitution’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Judge Mary Scriven ruled in response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a 35-year-old Navy veteran and single father who sought the benefits while finishing his college degree, but refused to take the test. The judge said there was a good chance plaintiff Luis Lebron would succeed in his challenge to the law based on the Fourth Amendment, which protects individuals from being unfairly searched.
The drug test can reveal a host of private medical facts about the individual, Scriven wrote, adding that she found it “troubling” that the drug tests are not kept confidential like medical records. The results can also be shared with law enforcement officers and a drug abuse hotline.
“This potential interception of positive drug tests by law enforcement implicates a `far more substantial’ invasion of privacy than in ordinary civil drug testing cases,” said Scriven, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.
The judge also said Florida didn’t show that the drug testing program meets criteria for exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.
The injunction will stay in place until the judge can hold a full hearing on the matter. She didn’t say when that hearing will be scheduled.
More than two-dozen states have also proposed drug-testing recipients of welfare or other government assistance, but Florida was the first state to enact such a law in more than a decade. Should any of those states pass a law and face a court challenge, Scriven’s ultimate ruling would likely serve as a legal precedent.
The law’s proponents include Gov. Rick Scott, who said during his campaign the measure would save $77 million. It’s unclear how he arrived at those figures. A spokesman for the Florida Department of Children and Families deferred all comments to the governor’s office.
“Drug testing welfare recipients is just a common-sense way to ensure that welfare dollars are used to help children and get parents back to work,” said Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott. “The governor obviously disagrees with the decision and he will evaluate his options regarding when to appeal.”
Earlier this year, Scott also ordered drug testing of new state workers and spot checks of existing state employees under him. But testing was suspended after the American Civil Liberties Union also challenged that policy in a separate lawsuit.
Nearly 1,600 applicants have refused to take the test since testing began in mid-July, but they aren’t required to say why. Thirty-two applicants failed the test and more than 7,000 have passed, according to the Department of Children and Families. The majority of positives were for marijuana.
State officials said Monday that applicants previously denied benefits for testing positive or refusing the test could reapply immediately. The Department of Children and Families will also approve all pending applications that await drug test results.
Supporters had argued applicants skipped the test because they knew they would have tested positive for drugs. Applicants must pay $25 to $35 for the test and are reimbursed by the state if they pass. It’s unclear if the state has saved money.
Under the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program, the state gives $180 a month for one person or $364 for a family of four.
Those who test positive for drugs are ineligible for the cash assistance for one year, though passing a drug course can cut that period in half. If they fail a second time, they are ineligible for three years.
Lebron, who is the sole caretaker of his 4-year-old son, said he’s “happy that the judge stood up for me and my rights and said the state can’t act without a reason or suspicion.”
The ACLU says Florida was the first to enact such a law since Michigan tried more than a decade ago. Michigan’s random drug testing program for welfare recipients lasted five weeks in 1999 before it was halted by a judge, kicking off a four-year legal battle that ended with an appeals court ruling it unconstitutional.
The St. Petersburg Times gave Governor Scott excellent advice in their editorial column. But Scott is not the most unpopular Governor by accident. He wants to be. WHEN GOV. RICK SCOTT and the Florida Legislature decided against good sense and legal reasoning that the state’s welfare recipients would have to submit to a drug test to receive benefits, they must have known Florida would end up in court. Now that a federal judge has issued a scathing ruling temporarily blocking the drug tests, their folly is even more apparent. How much more will Florida spend to defend a law that is clearly unconstitutional?
Putting up hurdles for people receiving public assistance may be popular in some conservative circles. But as the ruling Monday by the Orlando-based U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven makes clear, requiring a drug test when there is no basis to suspect that an individual is engaging in illicit drug use violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Poor people have privacy rights like everyone else.
Scriven’s ruling makes mincemeat of the state’s case. She found baseless Florida’s claims that a drug test is not a “search” under the U.S. Constitution.
The collection of an individual’s urine, Scriven wrote, is an intrusion “into a highly personal and private bodily function.” And, she continued, the subsequent urinalysis “can reveal a host of private medical facts.”
The judge also was not swayed by the state’s claims that a “special need” exists that justifies drug testing all state welfare applicants. These special need cases, because they carve out exceptions to the general rule that the government cannot intrude into a person’s private sphere without good cause, require extraordinary circumstances. For instance, suspicion-less drug tests have been permitted after a railroad accident.
Scriven looked at the evidence to determine that Florida’s claims of special needs to protect children from drug abusers in the home and to keep Florida taxpayers from subsidizing drug use had no validity. She found no evidence of rampant drug use among welfare applicants.
An empirical study of Florida’s welfare applicants between 1999 and 2001 found that only 5.1 percent of the total tested positive for illicit drug use. And since the current drug test was implemented, only 32 of more than 7,000 applicants have failed the screening. Welfare recipients are apparently less likely to be abusing drugs than other Floridians.
It is true that about 1,600 applicants have chosen not to take the drug test. But as Scriven pointed out, there are many factors that could dissuade an applicant. The cost of the test, from $25 to $45, may be out of reach for this population even if the fee is reimbursed if they pass. They might not be near a place to take the test or willing to so easily give up their constitutional rights.
Scriven’s order temporarily suspends the law, but she has made it clear that the state is very likely going to lose going forward. This unconstitutional statute cannot stand judicial scrutiny. The state might as well admit it now and save taxpayers the money that would be wasted pursuing appeals.