Drug testing for welfare put on hold

Georgia has delayed implementation of its new law requiring drug testing of welfare applicants, citing a pending lawsuit in Florida on a similar program.

A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal confirmed the delay on Tuesday. “We’ve agreed to await guidance from the ruling in the Florida case,’’ said Brian Robinson, the spokesman.

Georgia’s Department of Human Resources told GHN on Tuesday that the agency is currently writing the administrative rules on the law, and that testing will not begin until formal administrative rules are adopted.

The 2012 General Assembly, after a fierce debate, approved the bill that said Georgians applying for welfare will have to pass a drug test to receive benefits.

Opponents warned that the bill would lead to a lawsuit, and pointed to the Florida law, which has been halted by a federal judge, who questioned whether it violates the Fourth Amendment for unreasonable searches. The case is before the federal appeals court in Atlanta.

State Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), who helped spearhead the drug testing effort, said Tuesday that the delay “is a prudent step for Georgia.  We are confident it will be upheld and the law will move forward in both states. “

The Deseret News reported earlier this year that 25 states were looking at making drug testing part of the application process for the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

During the Georgia General Assembly session, Albers told Georgia Health News that supporters anticipated a legal challenge and had crafted legislation that he believed would be upheld.

Albers said he and others consulted officials in Florida, the Georgia attorney general’s office, and the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank in Washington, in formulating the legislation. He said the federal welfare reform law of the 1990s allows such drug testing.

But opponents have said the bill was on shaky constitutional ground, noting that ‘‘suspicionless’’ drug testing had been found to be unconstitutional.

Albers has defended the bill as ‘‘leveling the playing field,’’ because applicants for private-sector jobs often have to be drug-tested. He said he has taken several drug tests himself in the course of his working life.

“This is a good government bill,’’ he said earlier this year. “True compassion is doing what’s best for people, not what’s easiest for people.’’

Proponents have said the law will save the government money on welfare payments, because many applicants will fail the drug test, while others will decline to apply because of the drug-testing requirement.

But Neil Kaltenecker of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, who testified against the bill before state lawmakers earlier this year, said Tuesday that the cost to implement the law in Florida exceeded the amount that was gained by denying benefits to people who tested positive.

Kaltenecker said no empirical evidence was ever presented that showed that drug use among welfare recipients is any greater than the general population or even that it is a problem at all.

“This delay is a good thing, and I believe that this law will be found unconstitutional,’’ she added.  Kaltenecker has said the legislation would stigmatize addicts, and noted that it does not provide treatment options for anyone who tests positive for drug use.

Shelley Senterfitt, representing the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told legislators earlier this year that when a person fails a drug test, “it’s the kids who are going to suffer’’ when the person’s family is denied welfare benefits.

WXIA, in an article Monday, quoted Cherisma Dixon, who is applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and said she isn’t worried about passing a drug test. Still, she said, she believes the test is a bad idea.

“Because it’s going to be a lot of families out of benefits because of what their parents are doing, it’s not the children’s fault, what the parents do,” Dixon told WXIA.

The ACLU and the Southern Center for Human Rights have said they will challenge the program in Georgia’s courts if and when it takes effect.