Florida Governor Rick Scott this week signed legislation requiring welfare recipients in Florida to get tested for drugs.
Under the measure, applicants seeking to benefit from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program will have to pass a drug screen before receiving aid. After signing the bill into law, Scott, a Republican, said it was “the right thing for citizens of this state that need public assistance. We don’t want to waste tax dollars. And also, we want to give people an incentive to not use drugs.”
Funds for the program are granted to states by the federal government.
Under the Florida law, which goes into effect July 1, the recipients for the aid would be responsible for fronting the cost of the drug screening. If they pass the drug test and are accepted into the program, they can apply for a refund.
Applicants who fail would be able to ask another relative to receive the funds on behalf of their children.
The new law is controversial in Florida. Many, including the bill sponsor, Sen. Steve Oelrich, praise the measure as responsible governing.
Oelrich, a Republican from Gainesville, said earlier that he drafted the measure because Florida law was sending the wrong message. “What we are telling them is that you can go on welfare and take drugs,” he told the Florida Times Union during the legislative session. Drug testing, he argued, makes it clear that taxpayers will not support a drug habit.
Many others, however, see the measure as equivalent to a strip search.
“Governor Scott’s new drug testing law is not only an affront to families in need and detrimental to our nation’s ongoing economic recovery, it is downright unconstitutional,” U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, said in a joint statement released by five Democratic representatives. “If Governor Scott wants to drug test recipients of TANF benefits, where does he draw the line? Are families receiving Medicaid, state emergency relief, or educational grants and loans next?”
U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said the tests “represent an extreme and illegal invasion of personal privacy.”
Democrats contend the measure represents a conflict of interest for the governor. Scott is co-founder of a company that operates walk-in urgent care clinics in Florida and counts drug screening among the services it provides.
Critics have argued that the program presupposes low income people on welfare are more likely to be on drugs. There is no similar law requiring drug tests of students, small-business owners or many others who get government subsidies.
At one point during the legislative session, a small bipartisan group of senators offered that approach — testing college students on state scholarships and testing employees of any private company getting state dollars — as an amendment to the bill. They did so, however, in an attempt to render the measure unacceptable on the Senate floor.
“All we are trying to do is follow the lead of Senator Oelrich,” said Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat. “Anyone being on the public trough should be drug tested. It should also apply to those on Bright Futures” scholarships.
Though their strategy provided some entertainment in the Senate chamber, their amendment quickly died from lack of support.