By Lesley Weidenbener
The House passed a controversial measure to require drug tests for some welfare recipients, despite concerns about whether affordable treatment exists to help those who are addicted.
House Bill 1483 - approved 78-18, largely along party lines - now moves to the Senate.
"This is not meant to be punitive," said the bill's author, Rep. Jud McMillin, R-Brookville. "This is not meant to kick anybody off" assistance.
The legislation would require all recipients of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Family recipients to take a written test to determine if they have a tendency to do drugs. Half of those identified as likely to do drugs would then be randomly tested. Those that test positive would be forced either go to treatment or lose their benefits. And if a person in treatment failed two monthly tests in a row, that person would be ineligible for benefits for three months.
McMillin said the goal is to ensure that, "if I need to my neighbor's help to keep my lights on, then I'm using my neighbor's dollars to keep the lights on" and not using the money to buy drugs.
But Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said it's inappropriate for the state to require drug test of welfare recipients but not of lawmakers or fire fighters or others. He called the bill "offensive."
"It gives the appearance we are selectively penalizing the least of our citizens," Brown said. "We should also put ourselves in that category so we do not make it appear we are elitist." A similar bill failed last year after lawmakers added an amendment that would have also required drug tests for lawmakers. Critics also said the legislation doesn't fund drug treatment - it requires welfare recipients to pay for it - and doesn't ensure that existing treatment programs take those who fail tests. "We need to focus on treating individuals rather than punishing individuals," said Rep. Cherish Pryor, D-Indianapolis.
McMillin said that TANF recipients will continue to receive assistance even after a positive drug test, as long as they are seeking help through a drug treatment program. "There needs to be a modicum of personal responsibility," he said.
Drug testing of welfare recipients is fairly rare in the United States.
Florida imposed a program two years ago that required all TANF applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing, although a federal court struck it down. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the Florida program did not use random selection or reasonable suspicion as a means of testing TANF recipients.
Over a four-month period, Florida tested 4,086 TANF residents and 108 - or 2.64 percent - had a positive result. An additional 40 individuals were scheduled to take drug tests but failed to make their appointment.
A Southern Indiana township has also started requiring drug tests of those who apply for poor relief. Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon, said that in the first six weeks or so of the program's implementation, calls for assistance dropped by about half. Of those who did make a request, 9 percent had a positive drug test, McNamara said. Those who test positive are referred to a local organization that has agreed to provide help.
"The goal of the township is to get those people free from addiction, get them the help and assistance they need," McNamara said.
The bill would not apply to food stamps, Medicaid or other public assistance programs. TANF is cash assistance program that is paid for in part by the federal government and administered by the state.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.