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Plans to drug test welfare recipients get momentum

By Ivan Moreno

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 8:50 p.m. MST

In this Feb. 15, 2012 photo, Speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives Ed Buchanan listens to debate during 61st Wyoming Legislature in Cheyenne, Wy. A bill to require drug testing for some state welfare recipients has received preliminary approval in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

The Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Michael Smith, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Conservatives who say welfare recipients should have to pass a drug test to receive government assistance have momentum on their side.

The issue has come up in the Republican presidential campaign, with front-runner Mitt Romney saying it's an "excellent idea."

Nearly two dozen states are considering plans this session that would make drug testing mandatory for welfare recipients, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And Wyoming lawmakers advanced such a proposal this week.

Driving the measures is a perception that people on public assistance are misusing the funds and that cutting off their benefits would save money for tight state budgets — even as statistics have largely proved both notions untrue.

"The idea, from Joe Taxpayer is, 'I don't mind helping you out, but you need to show that you're looking for work, or better yet that you're employed, and that you're drug and alcohol free,'" said Wyoming Republican House Speaker Ed Buchanan on Friday.

Supporters are pushing the measures despite warnings from opponents that courts have struck down similar programs, ruling that the plans amount to an unconstitutional to search of people who have done nothing more than seek help.

"This legislation assumes suspicion on this group of people. It assumes that they're drug abusers," said Wyoming Democratic Rep. Patrick Goggles during a heated debate on the measure late Thursday.

The proposals aren't new, according to the NCSL. About three dozen states have taken up such measures over the years.

But as lawmakers seek new ways to fight off the effect of the recession on state budgets and Republican politics dominate the national discussion as the party seeks a presidential nominee, the idea has sparked political debates across the nation.

This year conservative lawmakers in 23 states from Wyoming to Mississippi — where lawmakers want random screening to include nicotine tests — are moving forward with proposals of their own.

Romney, in an interview this month in Georgia, supported the idea. "People who are receiving welfare benefits, government benefits, we should make sure they're not using those benefits to pay for drugs," Romney said to WXIA-TV in Atlanta.

Newt Gingrich addressed the topic with Yahoo News in November, saying he considered testing as a way to curb drug use and lower related costs to public programs.

"It could be through testing before you get any kind of federal aid — unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it," he said.

In Idaho, budget analysts last year concluded that such a program would cost more money than it would save, prompting lawmakers to ditch the idea.

Also, recent federal statistics indicate that welfare recipients are no more likely to abuse drugs than the general population.

Data show that about 8 percent of the population uses drugs. And before a random drug testing program in Michigan was put on hold by a court challenge, about 8 percent of its public assistance applicants tested positive.

In years past such legal challenges had a chilling effect on state legislatures, but that seems to have thawed.

Michigan's program was halted after five weeks in 1999, eventually ending with an appeals court ruling that it was unconstitutional.

For more than a decade, no other state moved to implement such a law.

"The biggest piece that has held up action now and in the past are the constitutional questions," said Rochelle Finzel, the Children and Families Program manager at the NCSL.

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