TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers across the nation pass laws every day to address some perceived problem or another. After all, that’s why we elected them, right?
Sometimes, emotions take over and result in acts that satisfy some deep-felt need for “justice” but in practice set up another layer of government intervention that is unnecessary and illegal.
That may be the case with a new law that now requires applicants for temporary cash assistance to pass drug tests before receiving benefits.
The motives behind the law are simple enough. Taxpayer money shouldn’t go to funding someone’s drug habit.
To accomplish that goal, Florida lawmakers earlier this year passed a law requiring new applicants for the federal money to pay for drug tests, which cost about $30 depending on which lab is used. If they test clean, applicants get their money back. If they don’t, they are suspended from receiving benefits for a year.
Since the money is only available to applicants with children, there are some safeguards in place to allow benefits to be paid in the event a parent tests positive. Applicants who successfully complete rehab can reapply in six months.
If initial results are any indication of what is to come, the tests appear to be unwarranted. Since the program kicked in, applicants as a group appear to use illegal drugs less than the population at large.
The Department of Children and Families, which is tasked with overseeing the programs, has found initial failure rates fall between 2 percent and 3 percent. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 8.7 percent of Americans age 12 and older reported using illicit drugs.
Meanwhile, the testing program has required the cash-strapped agency to quickly ramp up a system to monitor and administer the program.
Backers including Gov. Rick Scott argue the program and its expense are justified. A survey released last week by the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association, a trade group for testing companies, found 57 percent of employers conduct drug tests on all job candidates.
“It’s important we make sure taxpayer money isn’t going to help pay for someone’s drug habit, but that the money is going to help the children for whom it was intended,” Scott spokesman Lane Wright said last week. “That’s what this law does.”
Howard Simon, the executive director of ACLU Florida, said private industry and government-run programs are fundamentally different, with the former having more restrictions placed upon it by the U.S. Constitution.
“Things that may be appropriate in the private sector are impermissible when done by government,” Simon said.
Efficacy aside, the new law may also be illegal. Michigan tried a nearly identical program, only to have it thrown out by the federal courts, which said the public benefits did not outweigh the civil intrusion of testing everyone seeking aid.
We’ll likely find out soon enough. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in a federal court in Orlando to shut the program down. ACLU representatives, lawyers and a 35-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who refused to take the test said the new state requirement stigmatizes low-income recipients.
“The new law assumes that everyone who needs a little help has a drug problem,” said Luis Lebron, a University of Central Florida accounting undergraduate who is the lead plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. “It’s wrong and unfair. It judges a whole group of people on their temporary economic situation.”
Email Michael Peltier at email@example.com.