The U.S. Department of Agriculture has officially warned the state that drug testing of applicants for food stamps would violate federal law.
House Bill 772, approved on the final day of the 2014 Georgia legislative session, and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, requires drug testing of some applicants for food stamps and welfare. It would require people applying for this government assistance to be tested if they raise “reasonable suspicion’’ of illegal drug use.
In a letter dated Tuesday, a USDA official told Georgia Department of Human Services Commissioner Keith Horton that Food and Nutrition Service policy “prohibits states from mandating drug testing of [food stamp] applicants and recipients.”
In a second letter, also dated Tuesday, Food and Nutrition Service regional administrator Robin Bailey informed Horton that the problem of Georgia’s food stamp backlog has been resolved.
Last month, the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services said it had cleared its backlog of thousands of food stamp cases and was waiting to find out whether it would lose millions in federal funding. DFCS had until May 14 to finish processing more than 30,000 backlogged cases, WABE reported.
Almost 2 million Georgians receive food stamps.
Drug debate rekindled
Tuesday was not the first time the feds have disputed the legality of the Georgia drug-testing effort.
Earlier this year, shortly after the measure passed, GHN reported on an email from Robert Caskey of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the food stamp program) to Georgia officials.
Caskey’s email, citing federal law, said “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,’’ it added.
The drug-testing measure triggered fiery opposition from Democrats and consumer advocates while it was being debated. Its sponsor, Rep. Greg Morris (R-Vidalia), told GHN in March that he had heard during the session that the feds doubted the legality of the bill, but that he strongly believed otherwise.
When contacted Tuesday about the federal letter, Morris reaffirmed his stand that the drug-testing rule is good public policy. “It’s a good bill for the taxpayers of Georgia and we should fight for it,” he told GHN. “We are not willing to subsidize drug use with our taxpayer dollars.”
Morris added, “The USDA [officials] are not elected by the people. The Legislature is. The governor is. . . . We believe [the law] will stand.”
Whether there will be a legal showdown over the law is unclear. The Department of Human Services said Tuesday that it had just received the USDA letter on the drug-testing issue and is “taking it under advisement.”
Gov. Deal, in a statement issued through spokesman Brian Robinson, said, “We’ve forwarded those [federal] concerns to the attorney general for further review.”
Shelley Senterfitt, an Atlanta attorney who testified against HB 772, praised the USDA on Tuesday for its formal position against the new law.
Drug testing of SNAP applicants “would create an additional barrier to accessing food stamps,’’ Senterfitt told GHN. “The applicant would have to pay for a drug test,’’ she said. “And if you test negative, you don’t get your money back.’’
The testing of food stamp and welfare applicants, she said, uses “the faulty assumption that there is a higher rate of illegal drug use among low-income people. We’re targeting poor people using what I think are unfounded stereotypes.”
Morris told lawmakers earlier this year that he proposed his legislation after a federal court ruled against a Florida law to drug-test welfare applicants. Georgia had modeled its own welfare law after Florida’s. The law that was overturned had a blanket provision for testing, so Morris drew his proposal more narrowly, 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 Tuesday that the bill allows the Department of Human Services sufficient leeway in determining “reasonable suspicion” of illegal drug use. Critics have said that standard is too vague and subjective.
Breaking the backlog
Georgia’s food stamp backlog resulted from staffing shortages and glitches with a call center already inundated with hundreds of calls daily, WABE reported. Food stamp recipients complained of hours-long call waiting periods to renew their claims, calls that sometimes went unanswered.
In March, the USDA ordered the state to clear its backlog and implement a corrective action plan by month’s end or risk losing $75 million, the public broadcast station reported.
The letter from Bailey said the state “has made strides in providing service to those households that experienced delays in receiving their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.”
Federal officials will continue to monitor compliance with processing requirements, Bailey said. More work needs to be done on improving the state’s call center, the letter added.
Horton, the Human Services commissioner, issued a statement saying that “the USDA’s decision today to release Georgia from an official warning is a testament to the work of our staff, who were agile in implementing new strategies that significantly improved the food stamp application and renewal processes. DHS staff have worked overtime, sacrificing time with their own families, to eliminate the previous backlog so that Georgians could receive the benefits that they need in a timely manner.”
Gov. Deal, in his statement, said, “Since the food stamp backlog developed, I’ve said these problems are unacceptable. I prioritized this issue, I worked with the department to find a solution, and I’m committed to delivering reliable customer service to all Georgians who interact with state agencies.
“I think the lifting of the department’s probationary status reflects the focus, determination and hard work that state workers have put into clearing out the backlog,’’ Deal said.