AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers this session once again will debate whether recipients of state and local welfare benefits should be subject to drug testing. And this time, a Democrat is bringing forward the proposal, which is more likely to prove popular with Republicans.
Rep. Paulette Beaudoin, D-Biddeford, is sponsoring a measure that would allow the state to conduct random drug tests on Maine residents receiving benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or health insurance through Medicaid. Under the measure, the state would cut off benefits to anyone who tests positive.
Beaudoin’s bill, LD 678, also would let municipalities drug-test recipients of aid through local General Assistance programs and cut off support for those who test positive.
Nine Republican lawmakers and one Democrat, Rep. Matthew Peterson of Rumford, have signed on as co-sponsors.
Beaudoin’s bill is one of a handful that lawmakers will consider this session dealing with drug use and eligibility for state assistance. Rep. Wayne Parry, R-Arundel — a co-sponsor of Beaudoin’s bill — also is proposing to require drug testing for food stamp recipients.
In addition, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is preparing a measure that would make drug felons ineligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.
Beaudoin, who’s serving her fourth term in the House, said she sees her measure as a logical step for Maine’s welfare programs. Drug testing is already widespread, she said.
“It’s not because I’m picking on [welfare recipients]. I’m not,” she said. “They just need to be drug-tested, just like everybody else is.”
The state shouldn’t be awarding public funds to people who use their assistance to purchase illegal drugs, Beaudoin said.
“We give them public funds because they need it to survive. We give it for the children. We give it to them to have a better life, but not to be using it in that fashion,” Beaudoin said. “It’s to be used for food, for heat, for everything it has to be used for. Not for drugs.”
Lawmakers two years ago debated drug testing for TANF recipients and included in the two-year state budget a measure that allowed the state to cut off TANF benefits to drug felons convicted within the past 20 years who failed a series of drug tests. The budget provision allowed some of those felons to avoid losing benefits if they enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs.
The state, however, hasn’t implemented that provision of the budget because of the cost and concerns about its legality, John Martins, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, said in January. Martins said Wednesday in an email that the department hasn’t yet taken a position on Beaudoin’s bill.
Advocates for low-income Mainers plan to oppose the measure.
It’s unclear why a law allowing drug testing of welfare recipients is needed, said Sara Gagne-Holmes, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, an advocacy group for low-income Maine residents. No data point to a major substance abuse problem among recipients of welfare benefits, she said.
“We need to base public policy on facts, not rhetoric,” Gagne-Holmes said. “I don’t understand where this issue is coming from and why we need such a draconian measure, never mind that it’s unconstitutional.”
Drug testing for welfare recipients has been debated in a number of states in recent years, and Florida began to require drug tests for all people seeking welfare benefits in 2011. The state implemented the drug-testing requirement for four months before a federal judge issued an injunction that put the law on hold. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on Tuesday upheld that temporary ban on drug testing, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott has vowed to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the four months the law was in effect, Florida saved no money from the policy and saw little change in the number of applications for welfare benefits, according to data the state released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from civil liberties groups.