Critics blast bill requiring drug tests of Ga. welfare applicants

ATLANTA — Representatives of social-service agencies and advocacy groups took turns Wednesday telling a Georgia House subcommittee why they oppose legislation that would require welfare applicants to be tested for illegal drugs.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, said he was open to some of their recommendations but refused to withdraw it. He said his experience as a physician’s assistant where he often treats welfare patients who use drugs convinced him it was necessary to safeguard taxpayers and steer the users toward treatment.

“I can tell you: I’m in the trenches, and I see this,” he said. “It’s time for the taxpayers of Georgia to be protected.”

Six lobbyists also testified before the subcommittee of the Judiciary Non-Civil Committee chaired by Rep. Roger Lane, R-Darien.

“Anything that gets in the way of people getting benefits adds to the stigma of mental health,” said Ellyn Jager, of Mental Health America’s Georgia chapter.

Neil Kaltenecker, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, agreed.

“If I thought that was working, I’d stand up on this table and tell you to support this bill,” she said.

Nearly half a million Georgians need treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, and half of all addicts also suffer from mental illness, she said.

“Use doesn’t mean addiction, necessarily,” she said.

Others warned that denying benefit payments will increase the demands of the state’s charities to take care of the families. There are about 4,300 adults getting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families with a payment of $250 per month for about four months.

In Florida, a similar law resulted in a 19 percent drop in applications for TANF, and a similar drop here could save taxpayers $1,125 each, according to Tarren Bragdon, the president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Government Accountability and a former Florida legislator. However, an Orlando judge ordered enforcement of the law halted temporarily until questions are answered in court over whether the tests are an unconstitutional invasion of applicants’ privacy.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1990 Georgia law that had required all teachers, state employees and political candidates to take drug tests because it was an invasion of privacy.

The subcommittee only heard testimony but didn’t vote. Lane said he would wait until Spencer came back with changes he wanted to incorporate from the advocates’ testimony.

Under Spencer’s measure, House Bill 668, all applicants for welfare or unemployment benefits would have to pay for their own drug tests before receiving a government check. Georgia taxpayers would reimburse the roughly $27 cost of a drug test 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 would result in a three-month ban, and three or more failures would make an applicant ineligible for a year.

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