ATLANTA — Georgia won’t immediately enforce a new law that would make applicants for welfare pass a drug test before they can receive benefits.
Brian Robinson, the spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said Tuesday that the governor still supports the law but wants to hold off on implementation pending the outcome of legal action against similar legislation in Florida.
Florida’s law took effect in July 2011 but was blocked by a federal judge in October. The ruling has been appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Robinson said the state is trying to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars.
“The governor feels confident that the law in Florida, and therefore in Georgia, will be upheld,” Robinson said. “We plan to move forward on this as soon as we can, but we’re willing to wait a little bit longer on the federal courts. There’s just no need in us hopping in.”
Supporters of the law argued that Georgia should aim to ensure that welfare benefits are used for their intended purpose, not to subsidize drug use and associated criminal activity. They also said the legislation would protect poor children and help addicted adults rebuild their lives.
Democrats blasted the law as an unfair burden on the poor, and opponents vowed early to challenge the law in court after it is put into practice.
Under the law, the state Department of Human Services must create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by welfare applicants unless they receive Medicaid. Applicants who test negative for drugs would be eligible for reimbursement.
Those who fail would be ineligible to receive benefits for a month. A second positive result would result in a three-month ineligibility period, and a third violation would ban someone from applying for a year. Any applicant who fails would not be eligible until they can pass a drug test.
The state would have to provide those who test positive with a list of substance-abuse treatment providers in their area, but it does not have to provide or pay for treatment. Test results cannot be used to prosecute people and must be destroyed in five years.
Deal did not sign an executive order halting the law. Robinson said the governor has discretion on such matters. There is no specific date attached for when the state must create guidelines for the drug testing program.
Courts have struck down similar laws in other states. Random drug testing is banned for constitutional reasons, but the U.S. Supreme Court has defined special exceptions to that rule, such as when a serious public need outweighs a person’s right to privacy. What qualifies as such an exception can be murky.
Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said the issue is not one of policy but of whether the measure is legal.
“During the debate, we talked about the viability of the law based on the Florida case,” said Fort, who opposed the measure and was among the parties vowing legal action against the law. “It would’ve been appropriate for (Deal) at that time to have injected that point, but he’s waiting until after he signed it, until it’s about to be implemented. He chose not to say anything about it.”
Fort said that if the law is enacted, it will still be a waste.
“The question is, if you’re poor and need assistance, do you forfeit your constitutional rights or not?” he said. “I think that’s dangerous. If it’s poor people today, it could be other people tomorrow.”