Bill to require welfare drug tests poorly received in Senate

Sen. Benton introduced Senate version, Rep. Angel the House version

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

Updated: February 14, 2013, 6:23 PM

 

A bill that would require certain family welfare recipients to take drug tests was rebuked during a Senate hearing Thursday morning.

The proposal was introduced in that chamber by state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and in the House by Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard.

“This bill proposes a solution that is in search of a problem,” Kate Baber of the Statewide Poverty Action Network said while testifying against the bill. “In addition to being redundant, this bill would add useless cost” to the state budget, and it could delay drug treatment for welfare recipients who need it, Baber added.

The proposal would cost the state an estimated $24,000 during the 2013-2015 budget cycle, according to legislative staff. That’s based on the estimate that 111 people a month would qualify for the drug test.

The bill would require applicants to undergo a drug test if their case workers believe there’s a “reasonable likelihood” that the applicant has a drug problem. Those applicants would then participate in a treatment program to receive the monthly cash grant that is part of the state’s temporary assistance for needy families program, known as TANF.

Under state law, social workers interview TANF recipients to determine whether they have a drug problem, but they don’t drug test them. The TANF recipients who are thought to have a drug problem are tested later as part of their chemical dependency treatment.

Senate Bill 5585 would require any TANF recipient suspected of drug abuse be tested right away. This will prevent some drug users from falling through the cracks, Angel said.

Angel testified before the Senate Human Services and Corrections Committee on Thursday by telling a story about a woman she met while campaigning whose husband became hooked on prescription painkillers after suffering a back injury. The woman had to ask her husband to leave her home, putting the family in financial jeopardy.

“I’m quite confused by your example, I have to say,” Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said. “I’m really not understanding the purpose of your bill.”

Although TANF cards allow welfare recipients to get some cash from an ATM, there are many restrictions on what TANF cards can be used for, Darneille said.

“You can’t (use the card to) go out to a drug dealer on the street and purchase Oxycontin,” she said. “You can’t go to a store and purchase alcohol.”

Angel said the point of her bill is to get people working and healthy again. Benton said the bill would help drug addicts get help and also protect taxpayers.

“I think taxpayers want to make darn sure the money is going for groceries for the kids and not for dope,” he told the Associated Press. “I think the taxpayers have a right to confirm that.”

Angel was the only person to testify in favor of her bill while several testified against it. To succeed, the bill needs to pass out of its committee, through the mostly conservative Senate and also through the House, which has a Democratic majority.

Though the numbers vary year by year, as of June, between 121,000 and 134,000 people received an average monthly payment of $373 through TANF. To be eligible, applicants must either have a child or be pregnant and meet certain income requirements. For example, a family of three that has earnings of less than $955 each month would be eligible for cash assistance from TANF.

Washington is among nearly two dozen states that have introduced bills this year to require some form of drug testing for public assistance recipients, according to Rochelle Finzel with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Seven states have such laws on the books, but some that have passed blanket welfare drug-testing laws have faced legal challenges amid constitutional concerns.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.