Ga. food stamp/ drug test fight looms

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ATLANTA -- During its journey through the General Assembly, a bill that would require drug testing for some applicants for food stamps and welfare generated controversy and drew fierce opposition from Democrats.

Ultimately, though, House Bill 772 was approved on the final day of the legislative session last week, and has been sent to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

It would require people applying for this government assistance to be tested if they raise “reasonable suspicion’’ of illegal drug use.

A recent email from a federal official, however, shows that at least the food stamp portion of the bill may run into problems.

The email from Robert Caskey of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the food stamp program) to Georgia officials on March 7, citing federal law, said that “no state agency shall impose any other standards of eligibility” beyond the provisions of the federal Food and Nutrition Act, which does not require drug testing.

“The addition of a drug testing provision of any type is prohibited in the SNAP program,’’ the email said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), when contacted by GHN on Monday, said he had heard about the federal opinion during debate on the issue. Morris said he still believes the bill will pass legal muster.

“We can’t legislate by speculation,’’ Morris said. “We have to do what we believe is right.”

Morris added that he believes Georgia has “too many people’’ on the food stamp program.

The food stamp program in Georgia is already under federal scrutiny.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Georgia Department of Human Services over a backlog in food stamp applications. Gov. Deal has vowed to eliminate the backlog.

WABE-FM, a public broadcasting radio station in Atlanta, reported earlier this month that Georgia could lose federal funding if it does not fix its problem with food stamp applications. About 30,000 applications for food stamps — some new, some renewals — were behind schedule.

Almost 2 million Georgians receive food stamps.

‘We were surprised’

Shelley Senterfitt, an Atlanta attorney who testified against HB 772, told GHN this week that she is satisfied that the food stamp act has not been updated on the drug testing issue.

“We gave legislators copies of that [Caskey] email,’’ said Senterfitt, who represents the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “That was one of the reasons we were surprised they moved forward.”

TANF (welfare) and food stamp recipients “don’t use drugs any more than’’ people in general, she said. “We’re going after a problem that I don’t think really exists. It seems like election-year politics.’’

One provision of the newly passed bill requires that a photo of one or more members of a household getting food stamps be shown on the household’s electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card.

A photo on the card is allowed under federal law, said the Caskey email. If a state requires such a photo, though, the email said it “must also establish procedures to ensure that any other appropriate member of the household or any authorized representative of the household may utilize the card,’’ and not just the persons pictured.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, confirmed the contents of the Caskey email but declined further comment on it.

Rules too vague?

Morris told lawmakers recently that he proposed his legislation after a federal court ruled against a Florida law to drug-test welfare applicants. Georgia had modeled its own law after Florida’s. The law that was overturned had a blanket provision for testing, while Morris’ proposal is more narrowly drawn, calling for testing only under certain criteria.

These criteria would include an applicant’s demeanor, missed appointments and a history of arrests or other issues with law enforcement, according to the bill.

Morris said the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in its opinion on welfare drug testing, found that using “reasonable suspicion’’ to justify a test is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

He acknowledged that the court ruling referred specifically to TANF benefits, but added that “it’s reasonable to assume that it would apply to SNAP [food stamps] as well.’’

Morris said his goal is to prevent the spending of taxpayer dollars to subsidize illegal drug use.

In a House hearing while the bill was being considered, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) questioned Morris on the “reasonable suspicion” standard. “How is a caseworker going to define demeanor?’’ she asked.

Oliver predicted that if passed, HB 772 would spark a lawsuit. “I am very, very troubled [about] the way Georgia spends its money on litigation.’’

Under the legislation, applicants for these benefits would be required to pay for the drug test, and are not reimbursed if they test negative for illegal drugs. If they tested positive, they would be given a list of substance abuse treatment providers, but the state would not pay for that care.

Morris told GHN this week that he believes the law is necessary and that the General Assembly should look at the issue of food stamp eligibility when it convenes early next year.

Senterfitt pointed out that the backlog that sparked a lawsuit involved an outdated computer system and phone lines that couldn’t handle the load of clients.

“This makes HB 772 even more wrongheaded,” she said. “How will DFCS be able to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists if they never meet an applicant in person?”

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deestafford 03/26/14 - 09:19 am
So, let me get this straight:

So let me get this straight. If I want to get a job, it's okay for the employer to drug test me? Yet, if I want to ride on the gravy train for free, I can't be tested?

I've can be tested to pay for the gravy train but I can't be tested to ride on it? Is this a great country or what? And folks wonder about why we are going broke.

lovingthesouth72 03/26/14 - 09:53 am
Fair is fair

If you need to pass a drug test to get a job then you need to pass a drug test to get a welfare check. Period. Dems fear this because they know that half the people on welfare would fail, and when people are no longer on welfare then dems can't buy their votes. For dems it's all about controlling the votes and keeping people enslaved to the government.

BamaMan 03/26/14 - 10:12 am
No shocker here

Democrat newsflash. High five to previous ranters.

nocnoc 03/26/14 - 11:35 am
My thoughts

On application Yes,
Random after that yes,
Periodic yes,
on any arrest yes,

DFACS should also be beefed up and and be required to do home/child welfare inspections on the initial application, and randomly there after.

The test should a HAIR Sample which is good for months.

corgimom 03/26/14 - 03:25 pm
Deestafford, nobody is under

Deestafford, nobody is under any obligation to apply for a job. It is totally voluntary. And for most jobs, drug testing is purely for the employer to get lower insurance premiums. Which is not the case for people applying for food stamps.

As for "riding the gravy train for free", how nice that you categorize poor, elderly, and disabled people in that way.

And many military people qualify for them too, along with other employed people.

So tell me, what are those people doing wrong?

corgimom 03/26/14 - 03:29 pm
I think it is so interesting

I think it is so interesting that the people on here, that are so against government intrusion into people's lives, are so for this.

And they supposedly support the Constitution, except for this blatant violation of the Constitution.

There is no law against people using illegal drugs, it's just illegal to possess them.

Young Fred
Young Fred 03/26/14 - 04:58 pm

nobody is under any obligation to suck off the government teat either.

The "elderly, disabled, and poor" have nothing to worry about if they're truly needy. Why would you oppose the truly needy getting help? Do you think the truly needy, a 70 year-old disabled person, cares if 29 year-old Cid the crack-head or Hank the heroin addict can't get food stamps?

I know truly needy people on food stamps, and I can assure you they care nothing about someone "gaming" the system, because they know it hurts the system as a whole.

Too bad you can't see things as the truly needy see's them.

Truth Matters
Truth Matters 03/26/14 - 08:42 pm
Fair is fair... If the goal

Fair is fair...

If the goal is to stop persons who benefit from any public monies from using drugs then let's require drug test of ALL state contractors, ALL college/university students who receive the Hope Scholarship or Grant.

Fair is fair. If I have to take a drug test to get a job, why shouldn't those getting the benefit of my tax dollars prove themselves worthy.

Truth Matters
Truth Matters 03/26/14 - 08:51 pm
Better still, if the poor,

Better still, if the poor, who basically carry the Georgia Lottery program, would keep their lottery dollars and buy groceries with the money, we can eliminate some of the need for food stamps and those parents who buy a new boat while Johnny goes to college on Hope Scholarship can begin playing the lottery to support HOPE Scholarship.

iaaffg 03/27/14 - 06:05 am
let's go back to the old food

let's go back to the old food stamp system, the one where you actually got a booklet and you could tear out a stamp for a loaf of bread or a hunk of cheese or a gallon of milk, none of this blase ladidadada 'here's a credit card, go get what you want!' thing that's going on nowadays. since the first lady is on her high horse about eating healthy foods, perhaps she could lead the way, hand out a stamp for a head of lettuce, a stamp for a three pack of tomatoes. no more going to the store with a plastic card courtesy of the taxpayer to get those lobster tails and filet mignons! besides, they are baaaaaaaaaaad for you, the first lady sez so! since it seems most people these days prefer to be led by their noses, this takes out one more bothersome worry, since the choices will already be made! shouldn't be a problem, since they seem to like the herd mentality and having their lives directed by a government body.

Junior Dawg
Junior Dawg 03/27/14 - 07:19 am
Corgi is completely off base

It's not un-constitutional to require drug testing when you are asking other tax payers to support you. With nearly one in four Georgians on food stamps, something has to be done. If the folks were responsible and supported themselves, then drug testing would not pass the sniff test.

Now the debate over legalizing drugs is a completely different topic....but as long as drugs are illegal, then those getting the free ride have to play the game like the rest of us.

Junior Dawg
Junior Dawg 03/27/14 - 07:22 am
And to add to that

I can't believe there is even one person speaking out against this law....the only opposition should be to change the statute about testing only upon suspicion. Testing should be 100% mandatory if your asking someone to support your lifestyle

Duckie131321 04/10/14 - 03:06 pm
As someone who receives Food

As someone who receives Food Stamps benefits and is disabled, I have no issue with submitting a urine sample, blood work, hair sample etc. I do not feel that it is intrusive or a violation of any rights. As some one before me commented that when a person takes a drug test for a job, they are choosing that job by that they agree to whatever is required to be hired. I see the welfare program the same way. I am choosing to get benefits from the government, my benefits are being paid for by the tax payers, if I have to prove I am not using their money for the wrong things then I will. If you have nothing to hide, then what is to worry about? Maybe cut the benefits by $20 each time someone test positive so that way they aren't cut off completely and can maybe choose to get sober or learn the consequences. Those that test negative wont lose anything the govt will just have to eat that cost.

*To add since most benefits are around $200 or less, 10 positives are a little much so maybe $20 the first time, and $40 the second by the 3rd time if they cant pass the test then cut them off.*

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