ATLANTA — Georgians would have to chose between illegal drugs and welfare under legislation filed Tuesday for early introduction to the next session of the General Assembly.
The bill, sponsored by a pair of freshmen lawmakers, would require applicants for welfare to take drug tests at their own expense. Critics, though, say that cost will be as big of a barrier as the test itself.
One of the authors, Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, said a similar law in Florida reduced welfare applications by 48 percent. That state saved $2 million in five months, even after reimbursing the roughly one-in-four applicants who passed the test.
Under Spencer’s measure, House Bill 668, Georgia taxpayers would reimburse the cost of a drug test, about $27, to applicants who pass. Those who fail would be barred from getting cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for one month. Flunking a second time results in a three-month ban, and three or more failure makes an applicant ineligible for a year.
“Georgia taxpayers have a vested interest in making sure their hard-earned tax dollars are not being used to subsidize drug addiction,” he said.
Social workers would direct failing applicants to state-approved drug-treatment programs. The government would not be on the hook for the cost of treatment, and Spencer suggested churches and charities pick up the tab.
Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the author of the Senate version, which also includes applicants for Medicaid, said the aim is to turn around the lives of drug users.
“Our goal is to get these folks back into society healthy and not addicted to drugs any more so we can make them productive members of society,” he said.
Last month, a federal judge blocked Florida from using its law until a full trial. At issue is whether it violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure by requiring a test of applicants when there is no reason to suspect them of illegal activity.
Spencer said he was aware of that injunction and has worked with the author of the Florida law to avoid a challenge here. For example, the names of anyone tested positive for drug use in Georgia could not be shared with law enforcement officials, he said.
However, opponents say the bill could have unintended consequences.
Larry Pellegrini, the executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Rural Urban Summit, said applications will certainly drop off if the bill passes because the expense of the drug test will be prohibitive to candidates for welfare.
“You see how people avoid necessary health care because they don’t have the co-pay, so you see how close to the edge some people are. Just a couple of bucks is the difference between eating or not eating,” he said.
Having the testing requirement cover Medicaid, too, could make any hopes of taxpayer savings backfire, he said. People who miss preventive care or relatively low-cost treatments because they don’t have enough money to pay up front for the drug test are likely to stick the government with more costly treatments in emergency rooms where they can’t be turned away, he said.