By Rachel La Corte Associated Press
OLYMPIA — A measure modeled on a new Utah law would add a potential drug testing requirement to those seeking family welfare benefits in Washington state, but would allow them to continue receiving money while seeking treatment as long as they stay drug-free.
The bill will have its first public hearing before a Senate committee Thursday. It would require applicants whom case workers have determined have a drug problem to undergo a drug test and 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.
“I think taxpayers want to make darn sure the money is going for groceries for the kids and not for dope,” said Sen. Don Benton, a Republican from Vancouver who is sponsoring the Senate bill. “I think the taxpayers have a right to confirm that.”
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.
Florida passed a welfare drug-testing program in 2011, but it’s on hold after a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing the case. The implementation of a law passed by Georgia last year also is on hold, with officials there saying they’re awaiting the outcome of the Florida case.
In 1999, a drug-testing program in Michigan was halted after five weeks and eventually ended with an appeals court ruling it was unconstitutional.
Additional states require individuals with felony drug convictions to comply with drug-testing requirements to be eligible for assistance. Others, including Washington state, have an interview screening process that does not include a drug test, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republican Rep. Jan Angel of Port Orchard has introduced a companion bill to the Senate measure in the House. She said that because of the constitutional issues raised in other states, she modeled her bill on the measure approved last year in Utah, which requires only those shown through a questionnaire to have a “reasonable likelihood” that they’re using drugs to take a drug test.
As in the Washington state measure, applicants in Utah who fail the drug test can continue receiving benefits while seeking treatment. Utah’s law took effect in August.
“I look at this as two sides of a coin,” Angel said. “Help the family be able to meet their needs and feed their children, and get help to the person who needs it because of the drug addiction.”
Currently, the state Department of Social and Health Services determines during a face-to-face interview whether an applicant has a drug problem. If so, the applicant is given a referral they must attend where a determination on treatment is decided, said Babs Roberts, director of the DSHS community services division.
If the applicant fails to follow up with the referral or treatment plan, they receive reduced benefits for up to four months, during which time case managers continue to work with them. If they still don’t comply after four months, their benefits are terminated.
Roberts said some clients are drug-tested if they’re in a treatment program where testing is part of that plan.
Angel said that because there’s no state requirement for an initial drug test, “people can fall through the cracks.”
Under her measure, the Department of Social and Health Services must create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by the state.
If the applicant is assessed as having a drug problem and refuses to take the test, they are put on a probationary status and receive only a portion of their benefit for four months. After that, if they still refuse to take the drug test and receive treatment, benefits are ended and they can’t reapply for 28 days.
Applicants who agree to take the initial test and treatment would be subject to subsequent drug tests and face the same probationary period and possible termination of benefits if they fail or refuse to take the test.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee opposes the measure, as does the state ACLU.
Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington, said the bill is unclear on exactly what triggers the drug testing requirement, which she says raises questions about adequate due process.
Rep. Ruth Kagi, a Democrat from Shoreline who is chairwoman of the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee, wrote in a House Democratic blog post that the measure was a “solution looking for a problem.”
“Our state can and does cut people off assistance if they have a substance abuse problem and do not get treatment,” she wrote. “Adding an actual drug test would only add cost and bureaucracy — neither of which is in the taxpayers’ best interests.”
Because Angel said her bill would not receive a hearing in the Democratic-controlled House, Benton said he offered to introduce it in the Senate, which is controlled by a Republican-leaning majority coalition that includes two Democrats.
The drug testing measures are Senate Bill 5585 and House Bill 1190.