By Jason Stein
With federal approval in doubt, Gov. Scott Walker is moving ahead with his campaign pledge to ensure that drug users aren't getting public health care, food stamp or jobless benefits.
As Walker explores a 2016 presidential bid, the proposal being included in the governor's Feb. 3 budget bill will help him sell himself to GOP primary voters as a leader committed to overhauling the core programs of government.
For the first time Thursday, Walker committed to drug testing recipients of BadgerCare Plus health coverage and also pledged free treatment and job training for those testing positive for drugs.
But the governor offered no details on how the state would cover the costs of that or the testing or whether he expected it to cost the state money overall, as a similar program did in Florida, or save tax dollars. The budget, he said in a statement, would also drop to four years from five the limit on how long a recipient could be in the Wisconsin Works, or W-2, program, the replacement in this state for traditional welfare.
"We know employers in Wisconsin have jobs available, but they don't have enough qualified employees to fill those positions," Walker said. "With this budget, we are addressing some of the barriers keeping people from achieving true freedom and prosperity and the independence that comes with having a good job and doing it well."
The governor said the drug-testing proposal would apply only to able-bodied adults, not the elderly or children, and would include transitional jobs initiatives. Walker wants to test all FoodShare and BadgerCare applicants but limit the drug testing for unemployment benefits to certain applicants.
The idea expands on another requirement passed by Walker and Republicans in 2013 to make able-bodied FoodShare recipients receive job training.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) dismissed the proposal Thursday as more of a political play than a substantive plan.
"This proposal is more about making headlines than finding real solutions. Rather than getting distracted by presidential posturing, we need to work together and find real solutions that will create jobs," Shilling said.
Opponents like Shilling say that no state tests for drugs in the successor to the food stamps program known in Wisconsin as FoodShare. They say if implemented over potential federal objections, the proposal could cost Wisconsin employers a credit on their federal taxes as well as cause a loss in federal money for FoodShare.
But Walker on Thursday backed off earlier statements suggesting he might defy the federal government on the proposal. Instead, spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said that if the proposal is approved by state lawmakers, Walker would ask President Barack Obama's administration to waive federal rules prohibiting such testing.
Stephanie Magill, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, had no comment beyond confirming that her agency would have to approve the plan.
Jon Peacock, research director for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said he was unaware of any other state that conducts drug tests on recipients in Medicaid programs such as BadgerCare. He said the Obama administration would likely reject the proposal and that it would likely cost the state more than it saved.
A dozen other states have passed similar drug-testing proposals. Many have met with legal challenges and been blocked from implementation because of federal rules:
--Georgia approved drug testing for recipients flagged as suspicious in that state's version of FoodShare. But the state didn't implement the program after the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned Georgia that federal rules prohibit such testing, leaving no state that has actually done what Walker proposes.
--Michigan and Florida put into place testing of all welfare applicants.
The Florida policy, however, was struck down in December by a unanimous federal appeals court that said it represented an unreasonable search of citizens by the government. The appeals court said Florida officials had failed to show a "substantial need" to test all welfare applicants.
The cost of blanket testing in the Florida program amounted to more money than would have been paid to the 2.6% of applicants who tested positive for drugs such as marijuana, The New York Times has reported.
--States such as Utah, Mississippi and Tennessee have put into place targeted testing of welfare applicants who are found to be suspicious. The states use a questionnaire employed by substance abuse counselors to identify potential drug users for testing.
In general, jobless benefits must be based on new applicants' work history and the reason they lost their job and so drug testing isn't allowed. There can be limited exceptions under federal rules, such as cases in which an individual lost his or her job because of substance abuse or in which individuals are only qualified to do jobs with routine drug testing, such as a pilot or train engineer.
Patrick, Walker's spokeswoman, said Thursday that the governor would limit drug testing of those applying for jobless benefits to those kinds of exceptions but that he wanted the state to decide for itself the specific professions where drug testing would apply.
To ensure enough skilled workers for state employers, Walker's 2015-'17 budget plan also calls for $6.1 million in new spending of state and federal money. The proposal would:
--Freeze tuition for technical college students who go into high-demand fields, a pledge the governor made previously on the campaign trail.
--Make all state funding for technical colleges dependent on their performance in meeting workforce training targets. No further details were provided.
--Increase state scholarships by an undisclosed amount for students going into technical education classes.
--Put $5 million a year into the Transform Milwaukee jobs program and $3 million over two years for other areas of the state, including Kenosha and Racine counties. The proposal appeared to call for new state spending in this area, but a spokeswoman for Walker did not respond to a request for confirmation of that.
--Allow candidates with "real-life experience" to take competency tests to gain teaching licenses. This provision drew immediate objections from the head of the state teachers union.
"Wisconsin already offers different paths to become a teacher that still meet the requirements of the licensure law, because every child should have a...teacher with a solid background in how to teach, along with what to teach," said Betsy Kippers, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
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