ATLANTA — Out-of-work Georgians will soon see their benefit periods slashed nearly in half and those seeking food stamps will have to pass a drug test under new laws that start Sunday.
Other new laws include the beginning of sweeping changes to Georgia’s criminal justice system and a rule that would revoke bonuses for teachers who cheat on standardized tests.
This session, Republicans argued that the state needed to find a solution to begin repaying more than $760 million borrowed from the federal government in recent years to cover Georgia’s unemployment benefit payments when the state’s trust fund was drained during the prolonged recession. The answer was to reduce unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of between 14 and 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate.
Brian Robinson, the spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said now is the responsible time to act with the unemployment rate declining.
“The best way to help the unemployed is to create jobs in Georgia, and that’s where Gov. Deal’s focus is,” Robinson said. “It’s important to note the safety net is still there, but we had to reform the system or it would have collapsed – that’s the worst outcome for Georgians in need.”
The state’s unemployment rate has remained above the national average for months.
The new law requiring some people applying for welfare to pass a drug test is likely to face a court challenge. Opponents say they will likely pursue a lawsuit, but not until the measure is put into practice. Courts have struck down similar laws in other states.
Under the law, the state Department of Human Services must create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by welfare applicants.
Those able to prove they are receiving Medicaid would pay a maximum of $17 and those without Medicaid would be responsible for the full cost of the test.
Applicants who test negative would be eligible for reimbursement. Those who test positive would not be eligible for benefits for a month. A second positive result would ban applicants from participating for three months, and a third violation would make an applicant ineligible for a year.
Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta said the pair of bills, among others, amount to a bad deal for the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“This is my 16th year in the Legislature and I’ll be very honest … The Republican majority has engineered the worst attack on working families that I’ve ever seen,” said Fort, the Senate Democratic whip.
A more compassionate approach to sentencing for criminals with drug or mental health issues was also approved by the governor, who used to be a judge. He championed the legislation as a priority, seeking alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders while reducing soaring prison costs. The Judicial Council of Georgia will spend the next several months establishing standards for state drug and mental health courts.