TALLAHASSEE — Floridians applying for welfare benefits would be required to take, and pay for, a drug test if a bill passed by the Florida House of Representatives on Tuesday night is signed into law.
The bill passed 78 to 38, largely along party lines. Republican supporters said HB 353 is necessary to ensure that Temporary Assistance to Needy Families money is used properly to care for Florida’s poor children.
Gov. Rick Scott campaigned on the issue last year.
However, some professionals on the front lines with Southwest Florida’s needy and homeless residents said that while they appreciate the stated goals of the legislation – not enabling drug addicts – they believe cutting off assistance will ultimately create more problems than it solves.
“I’m more adamantly opposed to drug addiction than anyone in the state Legislature,” said Vann Ellison, president and CEO of the St. Matthew's House homeless shelter in East Naples. “This is just legislation that’s designed to impress voters. It’s not designed to fix any problems.”
A similar bill is making its way to the Florida Senate floor.
“Quite frankly, I think if my tax dollars are going to be able to give someone a helping hand up, rather than a hand out, then you know what, I expect them to be doing the right things,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples.
Statewide, more than 100,000 residents receive more than $13 million in TANF benefits every month, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families.
In March, 755 Collier residents received $107,462 in temporary assistance benefits, up from 693 residents who received $97,328 a year earlier.
In Lee County, 2,090 residents took home $290,357 in temporary assistance benefits in March, up from 1,972 residents who received $278,887 a year earlier, according to the DCF.
The bill would require all applicants to be drug screened as a condition of eligibility for TANF cash assistance benefits.
“We are doing no favor to any recipient of TANF funds if we allow them to continue a drug habit and expect them at some point to be able to experience the dignity of work and the dignity of earning a living,” said Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, who called it a “jobs bill.”
Anyone who tests positive for a controlled substance would be disqualified from receiving cash benefits for a year. However, they would have a one-time option to reapply within six months if they seek substance abuse treatment.
Applicants would be required to pay for the drug test, which the DCF estimates would cost about $10, but critics have said could cost significantly more. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jim Smith, R-Clearwater, passed an amendment that would increase the initial cash benefit installment by the amount the individual paid for a negative drug test.
To prevent children from losing out on benefits, if a parent tests positive for a controlled substance, the DCF would be able to designate a “protective payee” to receive cash assistance benefits on the child’s behalf, according to the bill. The designate would also have to pass a drug test.
“It would not eliminate the ability of needy families and children to be able to receive some help in their greatest time of need,” Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres said. “And I think, honestly, you see it in the work place and so many other facets of life, when you implement a drug test standard, then you get the results of less people getting on drugs. … We think it will turn out best for the recipients.”
At the St. Matthew’s House and the Immokalee Friendship House shelters, there is a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol. Prospective clients are drug screened and take an alcohol breath test every day, Ellison said.
But Ellison said people who test positive aren’t simply turned away. Instead, he said staff tries find a program appropriate for them.
“We don’t want to throw people away,” Ellison said. “We still want to accomplish our mission in a way that transforms lives. We don’t want to just leave broken people on the streets.”
Ellison questions whether the state bureaucracy has a fall-back plan to aid people who don’t pass their drug test.
“The problem is here, without that next step that we offer to get people into detox, what happens is desperate people do desperate things,” Ellison said. “Some of these desperate things could be criminal.”
Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition, also doesn’t support the legislation. She said she believes it would shift the TANF program from getting assistance to needy people to processing drug test paperwork.
Bartos said she believes the bill, if signed into law, could lead to more Floridians living on the street.
“Instead of focusing on this, and doing drug screens here, we need to focus more on substance abuse treatment funding,” Bartos said. “Lets put the money there and not put restrains on this program. … We’ve worked so hard to get where we are with homelessness, now is not the time to be putting barriers to programs that are helping those that need it the most.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, along with several Democrats, called the bill an invasion of privacy, and questioned its constitutionality.
“To target one specific group, people who are applying for TANF benefits … and no other specific group, we think is prejudiced in its intent,” said Ron Bilbao, legislative associate for the ACLU, who warned of a slippery slope of suspicionless drug testing.
Members of Southwest Florida’s Republican delegation all voted in favor of the bill.
_Connect with Ryan Mills at www.naplesnews.com/staff/ryan-mills/