By John Finnerty
CNHI Capitol Correspondent
The Democratic state senator who is the prime sponsor of legislation that would require all adult applicants for welfare assistance in Pennsylvania to submit to random drug-testing defended the bill on Thursday, saying many employers require such tests, so people collecting payments from the state should be willing to pass drug tests too.
And while state data suggests that drug-testing catches few violators – in all of 2012, only two people failed drug tests given to convicted drug felons seeking welfare assistance – Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria County, said that such findings do not necessarily suggest that drug tests have no purpose.
“There is another reality, that everyone talks about how everyone is a slimy welfare recipient and, in most cases, they are just people who need some help,” Wozniak said.
Drug-testing would demonstrate that those who are receiving assistance are not flouting the rules, Wozniak said.
“You want to help people out, but you don’t want people taking advantage of the system,” he said.
In testimony before a legislative committee earlier this spring, Department of Public Welfare Acting Secretary Beverly Mackereth said that the results may also indicate that the testing is deterring drug users from applying for benefits because they know they’d fail.
Last year, Pennsylvania started testing convicted felony drug offenders when they applied for welfare. The effort was piloted in Schuylkill County, then expanded to 18 other counties in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, said Anne Bale, a DPW spokeswoman. The department drug-tested 40 people last year through the program and only two failed – a failure rate of 5 percent.
Bale said that the state has been paying the $30-per-drug-test cost, using one lab selected after the state put out a request for proposals.
It is unclear whether that one lab would be capable of handling the increased work required if the drug-testing program is greatly expanded, she said.
“We are operating this as a pilot program and that’s one of the things we need to figure out,” Bale said.
What is clearer is that if the state began to drug-test applicants seeking welfare assistance, costs would skyrocket. The Department of Welfare gets more than 100,000 applications for Temporary Aid for Needy Families assistance every year.
Pennsylvania is one of 29 states where there is a proposal to increase drug-screening for welfare applicants. A similar bill has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. In most states, and in Congress, the legislation has been authored by Republican lawmakers.
The rapid spread of the concept has prompted some media observers to suggest that the drug-screening welfare recipients bills are originating with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative-leaning think tank.
An ALEC spokesman on Friday said that while the group has created dozens of model bills — mostly focusing on taxes and attacking labor — the council has taken no position on drug-testing welfare recipients. The closest proposal that ALEC has come up with is a piece of legislation that would require drug testing for convicted felons who are seeking subsidized housing, said Wilhelm Meierling, senior director of public affairs for ALEC.
Meierling declined to say if the staff at ALEC endorsed the idea of drug-testing welfare recipients.
A version of the legislation introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives was authored by Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland County.
Wozniak’s Senate bill is co-sponsored by 13 Republican senators and two other Democrats.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least seven states have passed legislation regarding drug testing or screening for public assistance applicants or recipients. (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.) Some apply to all applicants; others include specific language that there is a reason to believe the person is engaging in illegal drug activity or has a substance-use disorder; and others require a specific screening process.
Florida’s drug-testing program has been stopped by a court challenge. But state data there found that the cost of the drug tests was $45,000 more than any savings realized by ferreting out offenders.
Critics of drug-testing programs cite other problems.
“Such proposals are wasteful, ineffective, divert attention from real problems and are unconstitutional. They also hurt victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. There are much better ways to address addictions,” said Amy Hirsh, managing attorney for North Philadelphia Law Center, Community Legal Services.
People on parole for drug crimes may already be subjected to drug testing, so the welfare test is duplicative. An individual with a known drug problem can be kicked off public assistance if he or she refuses to take part in drug treatment. Those submitting to drug tests may have to provide a sample in front of an observer, an invasive experience that could be particularly upsetting to a victim of rape or domestic violence, Hirsh said.