By John Finnerty
The state senator sponsoring legislation to require welfare assistance applicants to undergo random drug testing defended the bill Thursday on the ground it is common practice in the business world.
Democratic Sen. John Wozniak of Cambria County said many private employers require drug tests as part of the hiring process and so should the state for people applying for public assistance.
Pennsylvania now requires testing only of convicted drug felons applying for welfare. Last year, two such applicants failed drug tests, but Wozniak said the low rate doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t expand the requirement to all applicants.
Wozniak said drug testing would help dispel misperceptions about recipients’ backgrounds while at the same time weeding out anyone trying to take advantage of the system.
“Everyone talks about how everyone is a slimy welfare recipient and, in most cases, they are just people who need some help,” he said.
Acting Welfare Secretary Beverly Mackereth testified before a legislative committee earlier this spring that testing also deters drug users from applying for benefits because they know they’d fail.
Pennsylvania began testing convicted drug felons last year, with a pilot program in Schuylkill County that was expanded to 18 other counties in central and northeastern Pennsylvania.
Anne Bale, Welfare Department spokeswoman, said 40 former felons were tested in 2012 and that the two who did not pass meant a failure rate of 5 percent. She said the state paid the $30 per test cost under an agreement with a drug testing laboratory.
Bale did not know if the lab could handle an increased volume should the state expand drug testing to all welfare applicants, adding “that’s one of the things we need to figure out.”
What’s certain is the state cost of testing would rise substantially. The Welfare Department gets more than 100,000 applications for public assistance every year.
Pennsylvania is one of 29 states considering proposals to drug-screen welfare applicants. A bill has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. In most instances, the legislation is authored by Republican lawmakers. The rapid spread of the concept has prompted some media observers to suggest that the drug-screening welfare recipients bills are originating with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative-leaning think tank.
An ALEC spokesman on Friday said that while the group has created dozens of model bills — mostly focusing on taxes and attacking labor — the council has taken no position on drug-testing welfare recipients. The closest proposal that ALEC has come up with is a piece of legislation that would require drug testing for convicted felons who are seeking subsidized housing, said Wilhelm Meierling, senior director of public affairs for ALEC.
Meierling declined to say if the staff at ALEC endorsed the idea of drug-testing welfare recipients.
State Rep. Tim Krieger, R-Westmoreland County, sponsored the drug testing bill in the Pennsylvania House. Wozniak’s Senate bill is co-sponsored by 13 Republican senators and two other Democrats.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least seven states have passed various drug screening or testing laws for public assistance applicants or recipients. They are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah.
A court challenge halted Florida’s drug-testing program. State data there found that the cost of the drug tests amounted to $45,000 more than the savings from detecting offenders.
Critics of drug-testing programs also cite other problems, including that people on parole for drug felonies may already be subject to drug testing, making further screening for welfare benefits duplicative.
“Such proposals are wasteful, ineffective, divert attention from real problems and are unconstitutional,” said Amy Hirsh, managing attorney for the North Philadelphia Law Center. “They also hurt victims of domestic violence and sexual assault” who may feel the tests are invasive if they have to give a urine sample in front of an observer.
Finnerty reports from Harrisburg for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.