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Legislation Would Cut Off Benefits To Welfare Recipents Who Fail Drug Test

Last updated on Thursday, January 26, 2012

(INDIANAPOLIS) - Indiana lawmakers are pushing forward on legislation that would cut off cash assistance to welfare recipients who fail drug tests.

In a 15-5 vote that crossed party lines, the House Committee on Ways and Means approved a bill that would require the state's Family and Social Services Agency to test out a drug-screening program on a small scale before it was launched statewide.

It now goes to full House for a vote.

The focus is narrow: The FSSA would implement the drug-screening program in three "test" counties for a two-year period, then report back to the legislature. The drug-screening would only apply to adults who are receiving cash payments through a program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The proposed legislation would allow the state to temporarily cut off the cash assistance to those adults who failed the test if they refused to seek help through a drug-treatment program.

"This bill isn't designed to be punitive," said Rep. Jud McMillin, a Republican from Brookville and co-sponsor the bill. "It's designed to create incentives for people to make better decisions."

Among the yes votes was one from Rep. Scott Pelath, a Democrat from Michigan City. Pelath said his experience working for a mental-health center influenced his vote. He said drug addicts have difficulty making good decisions. "To get people into treatment, some coercion may be needed."

State welfare agency administrators oppose the bill. During Tuesday's hearing, an FSSA official said costs for the two-year pilot project would exceed $500,000 to implement.

Adrienne Shields, FSSA's deputy director of the Division of Family Resources, said that figure doesn't include legal costs the state might incur if the drug-testing program is challenged in court on constitutional grounds.

After the hearing, McMillin said FSSA administrators may prove to be the biggest obstacle to getting the bill passed and the law implemented.

"I expected there'd be disagreements over the fiscal impact of the legislation," McMillan said. "What I didn't expect was to get into a philosophical debate with them over it."

A similar bill that would require FSSA to implement the drug-screening program statewide for all TANF recipients appears to be dead in the Senate. Republican Sen. Jean Leising, the bill's author, said she couldn't get a hearing on the legislation.

She said she may support the House version. "I think a lot of people want this," she said. "They don't want their tax dollars going to support somebody's drug habit."

Only a few states have tried to implement mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients.

A Florida law passed in 2010 that requires mandatory testing is on hold, following a lawsuit that alleges it violates the Constitution's Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

A Missouri law passed last year that gives the state the option of drug-testing TANF recipients suspected of illegal drug use has yet to be implemented, blocked that state's welfare agency.

In Indiana, about 17,000 people receive cash payments each month through the TANF program. TANF recipients must either be working, looking for work, or be in school or some kind of job-training. A family of four making about $36,000 a year would be eligible to receive up to $346 in cash benefits a month.

The TANF program was created 15 years ago by federal legislation signed by Democrat President Bill Clinton. Known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act, it was meant to create a temporary bridge to encourage needy families to become economically self-sustaining.

The federal law allowed states to create drug-screening programs for TANF recipients, but few states have put it into effect.

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