Minnesota Legislators Challenge State Welfare Drug Tests
By Chris Serres
A controversial law mandating drug tests for welfare recipients could be scrapped -- just months after thousands of Minnesotans discovered they might have to submit urine samples to keep their government benefits.
A coalition of DFL legislators, county officials and anti-poverty advocates are pushing back against the 2012 law -- passed when the Legislature was under Republican control -- which requires counties to conduct random drug tests of welfare recipients who have been convicted of a drug felony in the past 10 years.
The idea was touted as a way to save taxpayer dollars and encourage personal responsibility. But county officials across the state say the cost of identifying drug felons and collecting urine samples likely would exceed any savings generated by kicking drug abusers off state cash assistance programs.
Since September, nearly 2,800 people with felony drug convictions statewide have received written notices saying they could be subject to the random tests.
At a Wednesday hearing at the Capitol, Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, proposed legislation that would effectively overturn the drug-testing mandate by giving counties discretion over whether to administer the tests.
"We are concerned that we may not be getting the bang for the buck that we want," said Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, president of the Association of Minnesota Counties and who testified in support of Moran's bill. "Evidence suggests that drug testing [of welfare recipients] is fear-based, not future-based."
A Popular Move
In recent years, more than two dozen states have considered drug testing for people receiving government benefits such as welfare, unemployment insurance and food stamps. Such measures have passed in at least nine states: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
Though a number now face court challenges, the measures are highly popular with voters. A 2011 survey by Rasmussen Reports, for example, found that 70 percent of likely voters said welfare recipients found to be using illegal drugs should have their benefits cut off.
"It resonates with people's stereotype of welfare recipients taking advantage of the system," said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in Washington.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who authored the 2012 legislation, said he was merely giving teeth to a law already on the books. Since 1997, enrollees in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, the state's main cash welfare program, and General Assistance have been required to participate in drug testing to receive benefits. But the statute was not enforced because the state, counties and courts have not shared drug conviction information.
The 2012 law required agencies to share criminal information so the drug-testing statute could actually be enforced.
"Every truck driver in Minnesota has to be drug-tested to keep their [commercial driver's] license," Drazkowski said. "This is about holding people accountable and enforcing the law."
But some county officials insist the drug-testing mandate applies to such a tiny sliver of the welfare population that it's not worth the cost to administer.
Statewide, about 2,800 people receiving welfare and other forms of state cash assistance had drug felony convictions within the past 10 years and would be subject to the random tests. That represents just 1.6 percent of the 167,047 people participating in these programs as of August, according to the state Department of Human Services.
In some rural parts of the state, counties must figure out how to administer tests for fewer than a dozen people. Many counties consider it an unfunded mandate, because the law gave them no additional money to conduct the tests.
In Chisago County, officials recently cross-checked a list of welfare recipients with drug felon data and found just one person subject to the rule. Yet the county has spent about $1,500 in staff time developing the proper protocol to test this lone individual. "It definitely suggests that this wasn't as large a problem as we were initially led to believe," said Liz Dodge, social services director for Chisago County.
Hennepin County officials estimate it will cost $36,416 -- or $32 for each drug test -- for the estimated 1,138 convicted drug felons on public programs in the county. It will cost another $12,500 to send letters notifying people of the tests and responding to questions and appeals, the county estimates.
Carter, the Ramsey County commissioner, said the drug-testing mandate disproportionately affects people of color. Of the 517 people subject to the tests in Ramsey County, 61 percent are black or African-American, she said.
Moran's bill would give county governments the option of whether to impose drug tests, quashing the state mandate. The legislation is co-sponsored by eight DFL members of the House.
A 1996 study by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that the share of welfare recipients using, abusing or dependent on illegal drugs was similar to the share among adults not receiving welfare.
"There is this false perception that there is a large number of welfare recipients that use illegal drugs," Moran said. "No research or data supports this perception."
(c)2014 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)