Fight over food stamp drug tests may be just starting

During its journey through the General Assembly, a bill that would require drug testing for some applicants for food stamps and welfare generated controversy and drew fierce opposition from Democrats.


Ultimately, though, House Bill 772 was approved on the final day of the legislative session last week, and has been sent to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

It would require people applying for this government assistance to be tested if they raise “reasonable suspicion’’ of illegal drug use.

A recent email from a federal official, however, shows that at least the food stamp portion of the bill may run into problems.

The email from Robert Caskey of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the food stamp program) to Georgia officials on March 7, citing federal law, said that “no state agency shall impose any other standards of eligibility” beyond the provisions of the federal Food and Nutrition Act, which does not require drug testing.

“The addition of a drug testing provision of any type is prohibited in the SNAP program,’’ the email said.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), when contacted by GHN on Monday, said he had heard about the federal opinion during debate on the issue. Morris said he still believes the bill will pass legal muster.

Rep. Greg Morris
Rep. Greg Morris

“We can’t legislate by speculation,’’ Morris said. “We have to do what we believe is right.”

Morris added that he believes Georgia has “too many people’’ on the food stamp program.

The food stamp program in Georgia is already under federal scrutiny.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the Georgia Department of Human Services over a backlog in food stamp applications. Gov. Deal has vowed to eliminate the backlog.

WABE, a public broadcasting radio station in Atlanta, reported earlier this month that Georgia could lose federal funding if it does not fix its problem with food stamp applications. About 30,000 applications for food stamps — some new, some renewals — were behind schedule.

Almost 2 million Georgians receive food stamps.

‘We were surprised’

Shelley Senterfitt, an Atlanta attorney who testified against HB 772, told GHN this week that she is satisfied that the food stamp act has not been updated on the drug testing issue.

“We gave legislators copies of that [Caskey] email,’’ said Senterfitt, who represents the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “That was one of the reasons we were surprised they moved forward.”

TANF (welfare) and food stamp recipients “don’t use drugs any more than’’ people in general, she said. “We’re going after a problem that I don’t think really exists. It seems like election-year politics.’’

One provision of the newly passed bill requires that a photo of one or more members of a household getting food stamps be shown on the household’s electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card.

A photo on the card is allowed under federal law, said the Caskey email. If a state requires such a photo, though, the email said it “must also establish procedures to ensure that any other appropriate member of the household or any authorized representative of the household may utilize the card,’’ and not just the persons pictured.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, confirmed the contents of the Caskey email but declined further comment on it.

Rules too vague?

Morris told lawmakers recently that he proposed his legislation after a federal court ruled against a Florida law to drug-test welfare applicants. Georgia had modeled its own law after Florida’s. The law that was overturned had a blanket provision for testing, while Morris’ proposal is more narrowly drawn, calling for testing only under certain criteria.

These criteria would include an applicant’s demeanor, missed appointments and a history of arrests or other issues with law enforcement, according to the bill.

Morris said the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in its opinion on welfare drug testing, found that using “reasonable suspicion’’ to justify a test is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

He acknowledged that the court ruling referred specifically to TANF benefits, but added that “it’s reasonable to assume that it would apply to SNAP [food stamps] as well.’’

Morris said his goal is to prevent the spending of taxpayer dollars to subsidize illegal drug use.

In a House hearing while the bill was being considered, state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) questioned Morris on the “reasonable suspicion” standard. “How is a caseworker going to define demeanor?’’ she asked.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver

Oliver predicted that if passed, HB 772 would spark a lawsuit. “I am very, very troubled [about] the way Georgia spends its money on litigation.’’

Under the legislation, applicants for these benefits would be required to pay for the drug test, and are not reimbursed if they test negative for illegal drugs. If they tested positive, they would be given a list of substance abuse treatment providers, but the state would not pay for that care.

Morris told GHN this week that he believes the law is necessary and that the General Assembly should look at the issue of food stamp eligibility when it convenes early next year.

Senterfitt pointed out that the backlog that sparked a lawsuit involved an outdated computer system and phone lines that couldn’t handle the load of clients.

“This makes HB 772 even more wrongheaded,” she said. “How will DFCS be able to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists if they never meet an applicant in person?”