By Greg Bluestein and Craig Schneider
With just weeks to go, federal officials told Georgia Tuesday not to begin drug testing people who use food stamps.
Implementing the law on July 1 would violate federal rules, the regional administrator of the federal Food and Nutrition Service warned in a letter to Georgia's chief of human services.
But the author of the drug testing bill enacted by the Legislature in March said he thinks it's legal and vowed that the state will push back.
"We're moving forward," said Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia. "If they don't agree, we will see them in court."
Georgia is alone among states in passing a law to drug test food stamp recipients.
Several states, including Georgia, previously attempted to mandate drug tests for people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare.
Under the bill passed by legislators in March, participants in either program would be required to take -- and pay for -- a drug test if a state worker determined there was a "reasonable suspicion" that they were using illegal drugs. Among the factors workers could cite in ordering a drug test are an individual's "demeanor."
According to Morris, limiting testing to those deemed suspicious -- rather than testing everyone who applies -- overcomes legal objections that have doomed previous laws in court. Georgia passed such a blanket mandate for welfare recipients in 2012, but shelved it after a court found a similar Florida law unconstitutional.
As for this year's law, Georgia lawmakers knew in advance that it would meet with resistance from the federal government, which provides all the money for food stamp benefits. In March, the Food and Nutrition Service warned state officials in an email that the agency's rules ban states from imposing conditions beyond those set forth by the federal government.
But the measure passed easily on the last day of the legislative session, with overwhelming support from Republicans and opposition from most Democrats.
In a letter dated Tuesday, the federal agency formally warned Georgia not to enforce it. "Requiring (food stamp) applicants and recipients to pass a drug test in order to receive benefits would constitute an additional condition of eligibility, and therefore, is not allowable under the law," wrote Robin Bailey Jr., regional administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service.
Gov. Nathan Deal, who signed the measure into law, said the federal concerns have been forwarded to the state Attorney General's Office for further review.
It's unclear what penalty or sanctions the state might face. Georgia has about 1.8 million people receiving food stamps and 15,000 welfare recipients.
Morris said the requirement is a reasonable way to make sure public money isn't wasted. "It will protect the taxpayers' dollars from being misused by people who are using food stamps and using drugs," he said.
On the opposite side of the issue, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, called the law political grandstanding.
"If the Republicans were more concerned with the constitutionality and viability of what they did, rather than scoring political points, we wouldn't be here," Fort said Tuesday.
"I wish the Republicans were more concerned about the administration of the food stamp program, which is a fiasco," he said.
Fort was referring to a federal warning that the state would lose up to $76 million in administrative funding unless it cleared a huge backlog of food stamp applications.
On that score, however, the state received good news Tuesday: The Food and Nutrition Service lifted its threat to fine the state. A combination of under-staffing, antiquated technology and a deeply flawed call-in center caused thousands of Georgians to lose their food stamp benefits or be blocked from applying.
To fix the problems, the state has spent millions of dollars to bring in extra workers. It has also moved to replace its call-in system, which left many people on hold for hours or simply unable to get through.
"The state has made strides in providing service to those households that experienced delays in receiving their (food stamp) benefits," Bailey wrote in a separate letter to Human Services Commissioner Keith Horton.
He made clear, however, that further improvement is needed regarding the call-in center. He ordered the state to provide weekly progress reports for the next three months.
Deal said the state has made repairing the food stamp program a priority.
"Because of those efforts, Georgians who qualify for these benefits will receive them in a more timely manner," he said.
However, emails obtained Tuesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in response to an open records request showed that problems persist.
In an early May email to the governor's office, Jeffrey Bicht of Macon said his benefits were wrongly terminated. He called to correct the error but told the AJC he couldn't get through.
"I don't understand why they have a phone number if a person can never get in touch with anyone," Bicht said in his email to the governor. "I only have enough food for a few more days and need to have this problem taken care of ASAP. PLEASE HELP ASAP."
Colleen O'Brien of Baxley wrote that she was forced to sell her clothes in a yard sale to buy food for her family of three. She said a back injury forced her to quit her job in February, and she had been waiting for weeks for the state to adjust her monthly food stamp award.
"I am a good shopper but if we don't get some more food stamps soon, we will be hungry in two weeks," she wrote. "I will need to start skipping meals in a few days so that my son will have enough to eat for a while."
(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution