A state House panel advanced legislation Tuesday that would require the annual drug testing of 20 percent of Louisiana’s adult welfare recipients.
The House Health and Welfare Committee voted 11-5 to send the measure by state Rep. Sherman Mack to the full House for further debate.
“This bill is not about hurting people. It’s not about punishing people. It’s about identifying people with problems” so they can get help, said Mack, R-Albany.
Opponents said the state already has a drug screening program that’s working and that the drug testing would violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution dealing with illegal search and seizure.
House Bill 380 would require those applying for cash assistance through the Family Independence Temporary Assistance Program, called FITAP, to sign a consent form agreeing to random testing in order to be eligible for the benefit.
FITAP provides temporary cash assistance to families with children when the financial resources of the family are insufficient to meet subsistence needs. Able-bodied adult recipients must be involved in job training or education.
If found to be an abuser, the individual would have to complete an education and rehabilitation program, if one is available, within 90 days, in order to continue to get benefits, according to HB380. A participant who fails to complete the required program in the allotted time would have his or her benefits suspended for one year from the date of the positive drug screen or until the satisfactory completion of the program.
On a second positive test for illegal drugs, benefits would be halted for a year.
There are 3,035 adults who would be subject to the random testing today, said Sammy Guillory, deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Children and Family Services. Guillory said the average cash benefit for a family is $192 a month.
The issue is not an unfamiliar one to veteran legislators.
Prior efforts by former state Rep. John LaBruzzo, R-Metairie, have failed. LaBruzzo, who lost re-election in 2011, traveled to the State Capitol Tuesday to support Mack’s effort, saying it was a way to save families.
Mack said the legislation would put everybody on the same page. Many jobs in the private sector require drug testing for employment and positive testing can lead to firing, he said.
“This is not about benefits being taken away from people. It’s about identifying problems,” said Mack. “All you have to do is go to treatment.” The individual would be responsible for getting treatment. No state funds would be used, he said.
State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, said Mack’s legislation provides “an opportunity to promote self-help.”
But an executive of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops said the legislation “demonizes” those who are temporarily on welfare, many of whom are already struggling with self-esteem.
“This bill implicitly infers that a greater or larger number of FITAP recipients are drug users,” said Rob Tasman, conference associate director.
Carmen Weisner, executive director of the Louisiana Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the legislation duplicates a program already in state law that requires interview and screening of all adults applying for FITAP.
She said that program, which does not involve urine testing, has identified 4.2 percent of applicants in need of treatment who then get it.
State Rep. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said a federal court has already overturned as unconstitutional a new Florida law similar to what Mack proposed. Barrow said Mack had targeted one group for the drug testing because taxpayers pay for welfare.
Barrow offered an amendment to Mack’s bill that would have imposed random drug testing on government employees, legislators, government contractors, recipients of tax credits and anyone else receiving any kind of government money.
“This amendment gets to the heart, the intent of the bill to make sure that individuals are drug free and not misusing taxpayer dollars,” Barrow said.
The panel voted Barrow’s amendment down, with 6 for it and 10 against.